FINALLY, an issue that is uniting Tories on the left and the right. A divided party coming together with a common aim.

How unfortunate for Rishi Sunak that the aim is to block his government’s own legislation.

The Times did not mince its words with its online headline: “Sunak faces Tory revolt over plan to criminalise homelessness”. The right-leaning newspaper is not just reporting the opinions of those MPs who plan to rebel over the Criminal Justice Bill; it’s accepting them as fact, on the grounds that the new powers it contains are so broad that anyone sleeping rough in England or Wales could be declared a “nuisance” and face the threat of prison simply for having nowhere else to go.

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Sunak will surely now be regretting some of the bargains he made with his former home secretary Suella Braverman (below) – who, let’s not forget, he re-appointed to that role when he became Prime Minister in October 2022, just six days after she had resigned from it for breaching the Ministerial Code. It took him until last November to finally sack her, following the publication of an inflammatory Times column in which she referred to “a perception that senior police officers play favourites when it comes to protesters”.

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Many were appalled that she was still in post by then, as in the month before she had pushed for draconian action against homeless people.

“We cannot allow our streets to be taken over by rows of tents occupied by people, many of them from abroad, living on the streets as a lifestyle choice,” she tweeted, before announcing plans to stop rough-sleepers getting hold of tents from charities.

This particular idea provoked outrage and was quickly dropped, but a raft of other measures relating to “nuisance rough sleeping” remain in the Criminal Justice Bill, which is designed to replace the 200-year-old Vagrancy Act.

“Nobody should be criminalised for simply having nowhere to live”, the UK Government declared in a policy paper that promised “a suite of modern replacement powers” to tackle begging and rough-sleeping that causes a nuisance to the public.

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Was that phrasing deliberately provocative? A suite being one thing, among many, that those sleeping on the streets are lacking, and the supposedly “modern” new approach not seeming vastly different to the laws passed in 1824.

It was expected that the chunky Criminal Justice Bill would be debated last month – opening up, among many other issues, the debates around abortion law that I wrote about on these pages in anticipation – but it was “paused” to allow ministers to negotiate with a group of more than 40 Conservative MPs who have said they will vote against it unless the measures relating to rough sleeping are significantly amended.

The National: EMBARGOED TO 0001 MONDAY NOVEMBER 21 File photo dated 16/01/20 of homeless people sleeping in London. Black people who experience discrimination, harassment or abuse because of their race have a significantly greater risk of homelessness, research has

At the forefront of these efforts is Bob Blackman, chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Ending Homelessness and the MP behind the 2017 Homelessness Reduction Act, which began as his Private Member’s Bill. He has declared the new bill “completely unacceptable” and tabled amendments designed to steer the focus back towards helping homeless people rather than criminalising them.

Blackman wants guidance issued to councils and police forces to state that begging or sleeping rough “does not in itself amount to action causing harassment, alarm or distress (in the absence of other factors)”; “does not in itself amount to unreasonable conduct (in the absence of other factors)”, and that the new powers relating to anti-social behaviour “should not in general be used in relation to people sleeping rough, and should be used in relation to people begging only where no other approach is reasonably available”.

He has support from “One Nation” Tories including Damian Green and Caroline Nokes, as well as more right-wing colleagues such as Iain Duncan Smith (below).

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This leaves Sunak stuck between a rock and a hard place. When trying to pass a “tough on crime” bill, it looks weak to be forced to water down your proposals. But opponents of Blackman’s amendments expose themselves to the accusation that the bill is indeed designed to criminalise rough sleeping itself – in contrast to the UK Government’s stated aim.

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It’s difficult to imagine who – other than Braverman and her extremist acolytes – would consider the fining or imprisoning of homeless people the solution to anything. What is clearly needed is action from the government to reduce homelessness by tackling its causes, which unavoidably means building a lot more homes, but also providing support, rather than penalty notices, to those on the streets who are at risk of being deemed a “nuisance”.

Keir Starmer will doubtless be delighting in headlines about revolting Conservatives, but it won’t be enough for him to sit back and chuckle at them falling out over this.

Will he have the guts to put forward credible plans to tackle the causes of rough sleeping, or will he shrug and claim – as he has with almost every other policy area – that his Labour government won’t be able to afford to do anything about it?