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Housing

Government faces rebellion after backtracking on plans to scrap Vagrancy Act laws

The controversial act criminalising rough sleeping was repealed in April but the government’s Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill could see its laws make a swift return.

The government is facing a fight over plans to replace the Vagrancy Act, which made rough sleeping a criminal offence for almost 200 years.

A long-running campaign to scrap the act saw it repealed in England and Wales in April as part of the Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, ending a run on the statute book running back to the Napoleonic Wars.

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But Michael Gove’s new Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill contains a clause that would allow the government to “disregard the repeal of the Act” and create “criminal offences or civil penalties” relating to begging or people deemed to be “rogues and vagabonds”.

The prospect of a U-turn has angered campaigners and the government now faces a battle to keep the clause as the bill moves through parliament. Nickie Aiken, the Conservative MP for the Cities of London and Westminster, has tabled an amendment to remove the clause with the backing of several members from her party as the issue risks causing a Tory rebellion.

“I was surprised and disappointed to see the clause included in the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill because I thought we’d won the argument quite convincingly,” Aiken told The Big Issue.

“Returning to the ethos under the Vagrancy Act is the last thing we should be doing. We should not be criminalising, we should be supporting and helping rough sleepers off the street and dealing with the reasons why people are begging in the first place.

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“I hope it is a genuine mistake and I hope they will withdraw it before the Bill Committee meet. I am confident that if it was taken to a vote I’m not sure the government would win.”

The government launched a consultation into what should replace the Vagrancy Act in April. Rough sleeping minister Eddie Hughes said: “We must balance our role in providing essential support for vulnerable people with ensuring that we do not weaken the ability of police to protect communities.”

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But campaigners have argued there is no need for any replacement at all.

Speaking to The Big Issue earlier in the year, former housing secretary Robert Jenrick said the example of Scotland, where the act has long since been repealed without replacement, showed police do not need additional powers.

Jenrick told the House of Commons the act “should be consigned to history” back in February 2021 when he was still in cabinet and continued to campaign for the act to be repealed after he was ousted from government last September.

He said: “I’ve come to the conclusion that the police have, elsewhere in legislation, a range of powers to take action, there’s no shortage of laws for tackling anti-social behaviour, criminal damage, trespass. There is a wide range of legislation that’s available to police forces.”

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Balbir Kaur Chatrik, the director of policy at youth homelessness charity Centrepoint, previously told The Big Issue police have measures under the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 to tackle forms of anti-social behaviour including aggressive begging. The measures, which can be controversial too, include Criminal Behaviour Orders, Community Protection Notices and Public Spaces Protection Orders.

Kiran Ramchandani, director of policy and external affairs at Crisis, also called on the government to remove the clause. The charity has led the Scrap The Act campaign in recent years to axe the Vagrancy Act.

“We campaigned to end the abhorrent Vagrancy Act which punished people for not having a home. It’s disappointing that the government are trying to bring legislation to make homelessness and begging a crime again and we welcome Nickie Aiken’s efforts to stop this,” said Ramchandani.

“No-one should be criminalised for being homeless. The Vagrancy Act cannot be replaced with legislation that continues to penalise people for being homeless or destitute.”

A government spokesperson said: “We are clear that no-one should be criminalised for having nowhere to live. That is why we are repealing the antiquated Vagrancy Act.

“In order to fully repeal the Act, we have committed to bring forward more modern, fit-for-purpose legislation to make sure vulnerable people are supported to access essential support, while also ensuring the police still have the tools they need to keep people safe.”

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