Parliament has apologised to a group of rough sleepers who bed down close to the palace of Westminster after taking individual photos of them without their permission while they slept.
About 20 people sleep rough in and around the tunnels connecting parliament to Westminster tube station. They woke last Friday to find a cleaning contractor employed by the parliamentary estate taking photographs of them.
One man, a 45-year-old from Latvia who works on a building site, said he was astonished to be woken up by someone taking photographs.
“A manager deliberately came and took photos of us while we were sleeping. There were about six of us sleeping upstairs and 12 of us downstairs,” he said. “We were so shocked about this. Downstairs in the tunnel leading to parliament is the best place in London for rough sleepers to sleep. It’s warm and it’s safe because there are lots of cameras around here. I don’t understand why pictures of us were being made. This was a proper mistake. We know they want to move us out and maybe that’s why they were taking our photos.”
A House of Commons spokesperson said: “We apologise for any distress caused; this should not have happened and has been immediately stopped.”
The homeless people previously all slept in one tunnel but the parliamentary estate effectively evicted them last month by installing shutters to mark parliament’s new boundary following a transfer of land from Transport for London. The new shutters prevented the group from sleeping there, so they are now spread out in various areas nearby.
The House of Commons spokesperson did not explain why its contractors had taken photos of individual rough sleepers.
“It’s a human rights breach to take photos of us while we’re sleeping,” said another member of the group of rough sleepers. “By moving us from the part of the tunnel we were sleeping in before, they’ve actually made the problem worse. Previously we were in one place; now people are sleeping in different places close to parliament. They want to get rid of us but I don’t know where they expect us to go. Parliament is empty at the moment because it has been suspended. Maybe we can all move in there for a few weeks!”
It is understood that the parliamentary estate has instructed its contractor to stop the practice of taking photos of individual rough sleepers immediately and that all images of rough sleepers have been deleted after the Guardian raised the issue.
There is concern among the rough sleepers about possible police and immigration enforcement activity. Previously the homeless charity St Mungo’s has worked with Home Office immigration enforcement teams to identify non-British rough sleepers, who in some cases were subsequently deported.
A spokesperson for the Public Interest Law Centre, which brought a successful legal challenge against the Home Office policy to round up migrant rough sleepers, said: “There is a long history of criminalisation and enforcement against homeless people in and around Westminster. This incident further shows how authorities treat homeless people with contempt, dehumanising their very existence in the process. This government has promoted austere and hostile policies which have caused an exponential rise in homelessness and an increase in enforcement measures.”
A spokesperson for the Labour Homelessness Campaign said: “Working closely with the Westminster rough sleepers, I know this is just the latest step in a trend of parliament refusing to treat rough sleepers with the most basic respect as human beings. If even parliament, with the eyes of the country on it, won’t guarantee any fundamental rights of homeless members of our community, that’s a sign of how unequal our society is in every respect.”
Rough sleeping in the London borough of Westminster increased by 16% between April 2018 and March 2019. During that period, outreach workers recorded 2,512 people sleeping rough, compared with 2,165 the previous year. Last year two rough sleepers were found dead in underpasses near parliament.