Rishi Sunak has refused to criticise the Home Secretary’s claim that rough sleeping is sometimes a “lifestyle choice” but stopped short of repeating her comments.
The Prime Minister, who visited the Bacton Gas Terminal in Norfolk on Monday, was pressed on whether such language was “offensive” after another senior Cabinet minister distanced herself from Suella Braverman’s remarks.
Mrs Braverman has been criticised by opposition politicians and the charity sector after suggesting she wants to place restrictions on the use of tents on public streets.
“I don’t want anyone to sleep rough on our streets,” Mr Sunak said.
“That’s why the Government is investing £2 billion over the next few years to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping. I’m pleased that the number of people sleeping rough is down by a third since the peak, but of course there is more to do.
“Our Homelessness Reduction Act, which is a landmark law that we passed, has already ensured that over 600,000 people have had their homelessness prevented or relieved. So I’m proud of that record.
“But of course there is more to do and we’ll keep going so that nobody has to sleep rough on our streets.”
It was reported over the weekend that Mrs Braverman has proposed establishing a civil offence to deter charities from giving tents to homeless people.
Organisations could be fined for doing so if it is deemed to have caused a nuisance under the plans being pitched for inclusion in the King’s Speech, which will set out the UK Government’s legislative agenda on Tuesday.
The potential law would also seek to prevent the obstruction of shop doorways by rough sleepers who are using tents, the FT said.
In a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, the Home Secretary said the UK should not become San Francisco or Los Angeles and warned against rough sleeping becoming a “lifestyle choice”.
“We will always support those who are genuinely homeless,” Mrs Braverman said.
One former homeless man, who spent six months sleeping rough and described his tent as a “lifeline”, challenged Ms Braverman to walk the streets with him to see the realities some people face.
Chris Royston said her comments had left him feeling “hurt”, “misunderstood” and “stigmatised”, as he accused the Government of seeking a “political score” and lacking the “want” to tackle the underlying causes of homelessness.
Energy Secretary Claire Coutinho moved on Monday to distance herself from Ms Braverman’s comments.
Stopping people having tents won’t stop people needing them. Record homelessness is a failure of government policy, but the government can do something that would help – unfreeze housing benefit in the #AutumnStatement
— Shelter (@Shelter) November 6, 2023
The minister said she “wouldn’t necessarily use” the language the Home Secretary used to talk about homelessness.
Ms Coutinho told Times Radio: “Before I came to Parliament I did a lot of work in social justice. I actually worked with people who were homeless, and I think the reasons that people get into that position are complex and very varied, so I wouldn’t necessarily use the language of ‘lifestyle choice’.
“I think, actually, in her tweet and thread, she distinguished that a lot of people who end up in that position are struggling, for example with addiction issues – she wasn’t talking about those people.
“I think the most important thing is that, for all of those people, what we want is for them to have a warm home, a roof over their heads, support and help for the challenges that they face.”
Tory MP Natalie Elphicke also appeared to join in criticism of Ms Braverman. In a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, she said that in all her years helping homeless people “at no time, ever, has anyone said the answer lies in the removal of tents”.
Housing charity Shelter was among those who condemned the remarks. In a statement, it said: “Living on the streets is not a ‘lifestyle choice’ – it is a sign of failed government policy.”
The Home Office has said it cannot comment on what might feature in the King’s Speech but a spokesman said it wants to “ensure our communities feel safe and secure”.