Foreign rough sleepers face being deported from Britain under draconian immigration laws to be introduced when the Brexit transition period ends.
Under the immigration rules to be laid before parliament and due to come into force on 1 January, rough sleeping will become grounds for refusal of, or cancellation of, permission to be in the UK.
Charities described the move as a “huge step backwards”, which would prevent vulnerable people from asking for help.
Home Office officials are said to be aware of the “sensitivity” of making rough sleepers liable for deportation. However getting people off the streets is said to be a particular focus of Boris Johnson and his ministers.
More than a quarter of rough sleepers in the UK are thought to be foreign nationals. In 2019 officials figures showed that 22% were from the EU while 4% were non-EU nationals. Within London this rose to 42% and 7% respectively.
The Home Office said the rough sleeping rule would be used sparingly, as a last resort, and in circumstances where, for instance, people had been offered and refused support, such as accommodation, or help with welfare or a return to their country of origin.
But the policy is expected to be highly divisive. In 2017 a Home Office policy to deport rough sleepers from countries in the European Economic Area was ruled unlawful by the high court after a challenge brought on behalf of two Polish men and a Latvian.
Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter, said: “If true, this appears to be a huge step backwards from a government that says it wants to end rough sleeping. Seeking to deport people for the sole reason that they are homeless will undoubtedly mean fewer people coming forward for help.
“Rough sleepers, no matter where they are from, are a symptom of a home-grown housing emergency. This emergency has been caused by the failure of successive governments to build the social homes we need. Investment in social housing will solve this emergency – not punishing people for being homeless.”
Nick Thomas-Symonds, the shadow home secretary, said: “Deporting people for being homeless is immoral. These plans would be appalling at any moment, but what makes it even worse is putting this forward as we face the deepest recession in generations and in the middle of a global pandemic. It’s completely unacceptable and tells you all you need to know about this morally bankrupt Tory government.”
The change in rules falls under a wider border policy overhaul in which all foreign nationals, including EU citizens, will be subject to significantly stricter criteria for entry to the UK.
Under the changes, when freedom of movement with the EU comes to an end in the new year, all foreign offenders sentenced to more than a year in jail will be banned from entering the country.
But significant questions remain over how the rules will be effectively enforced if the UK loses access to a broad range of EU-run security databases – a critical issue raised by the former prime minister Theresa May, in the Commons this week.
Current rules mean that officials must, in order to prevent UK entry by EU criminals, demonstrate that such convicts present a “genuine, present and sufficiently serious threat” to society. And the decision cannot be based solely on criminal convictions, even if they were for murder or rape, the Home Office said.
The changes to the law, made in the form of a statutory instrument, will mean EU citizens will be subject to the same rules on entering the UK as those already applied to non-EU citizens.
Those who have been sentenced to less than a year in jail could still be banned because officials may review their criminal history and consider whether they have ties to the UK, such as relatives.
Offenders who have not gone to jail could also be barred if there is evidence that they are “persistent” criminals, that their crimes cause “serious harm”, or if it is decided that their “presence in UK is not conducive to the public good”.
Equally, anyone with a criminal conviction in the past 12 months who is looking to come to the UK for the first time could be denied entry.
Thomas-Symonds called the announcement “another act of incompetence and fantasy from the Tories”, adding: “Nobody wants to see dangerous criminals entering the UK. However, just this week we learned the government has not yet managed to agree a deal with the EU that would allow us to maintain access to the European arrest warrant, and vital information-sharing systems such as Europol.
“So, when it comes to those entering the UK, come January we will have no way of knowing who has a criminal record or which offences they may have committed.”
The Home Office has conceded that anyone banned from the UK will be able to challenge such a decision under the European convention on human rights (ECHR), raising the prospect of an increase in challenges in the courts.
The changes will not apply to EU citizens who have been granted immigration status under the EU settlement scheme, or any others protected by the terms of the withdrawal agreement. But their right to be in the UK could be revoked if they commit crimes after 1 January, the Home Office warned.
The immigration rules will also set out other changes previously announced by the government, including measures in the new points-based immigration system, such as salary thresholds, bans of visitors and visa rules, which the Home Office said was to “prevent the system being abused”.
The scheme allowing Afghan interpreters to relocate to the UK has also been expanded, facilitating applications from those interpreters who resigned after serving a minimum of 12 months.
The home secretary, Priti Patel, said: “For too long EU rules have forced us to allow dangerous foreign criminals, who abuse our values and threaten our way of life, on to our streets. The UK will be safer thanks to firmer and fairer border controls where foreign criminals regardless of nationality will be subject to the same criminality rules.”