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The Vagrancy Act: What is it and why is it facing calls to be scrapped?

MPs and charities are urging the Government to repeal the almost 200-year-old law. The Big Issue explains how the Vagrancy Act continues to threaten rough sleepers

Politicians will examine whether the almost 200-year-old Vagrancy Act should be scrapped as the campaign to end the criminalisation of rough sleeping gathers momentum.

The government has promised to axe the act and said it will work “at a pace” to do so but the campaign to consign it to the history books is ongoing. In the meantime, people sleeping rough on the streets in England and Wales still face the possibility of police action simply for the position they find themselves in.

Why is now the right time to scrap the Vagrancy Act? Let The Big Issue explain.

What is the Vagrancy Act 1824? 

The Vagrancy Act makes it a criminal offence to beg or be homeless on the street in England and Wales.

The law was passed in the summer of 1824 – 197 years ago – and was originally intended to deal with a situation far from the reality of street homelessness in present-day UK.

The Vagrancy Act was initially intended to deal with injured ex-serviceman who had become homeless after the Napoleonic Wars. Their crime after serving their country? “Endeavouring by the exposure of wounds or deformities to obtain or gather alms.. or procure charitable contributions of any nature or kind, under any false or fraudulent pretence” according to the act. This essentially means ex-soldiers were begging and the act was brought in to stop it.

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The Vagrancy Act also aimed to punish “every person wandering abroad and lodging in any barn or outhouse, or in any deserted or unoccupied building, or in the open air, or under a tent, or in any cart or waggon”. Namely transient people, typically from Scotland or Ireland, who were considered undesirable. The act still represents a threat to Gypsy, Traveller and Roma communities.

The rules that applied back in 1824 still apply today.

Why are there calls for the Vagrancy Act to be scrapped?

The Vagrancy Act does not deal with homelessness in a compassionate fashion, say its opponents.

It is largely recognised that locking up homeless people does little to solve the root causes of why they are on the street in the first place. Punishments under the act can include a £1,000 fine and the possibility of a criminal record – neither of which do anything to help the person out of homelessness.

Conservative MP for the Cities of London and Westminster Aiken said she is bringing the debate to parliament because it is “simply no longer fit for purpose”. 

“It fails to address the acute 21st-century problems that public sector agencies and charities work tirelessly to deal with among the street population,” she said ahead of the April 13 debate.

What has the government said about the Vagrancy Act?

The government is set to announce plans to replace the act with more modern legislation.

Responding to a question in Parliament from Aiken in February as the Commons discussed the latest official rough sleeping figures, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick insisted the act should be left in the past.

“We have reviewed the Vagrancy Act and will be saying more in the weeks ahead,” Jenrick said. 

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“It is my opinion that the Vagrancy Act should be repealed. It is an antiquated piece of legislation whose time has been and gone. 

“We should consider carefully whether better, more modern legislation could be introduced to preserve some aspects of it, but the Act itself, I think, should be consigned to history.”

Aiken moved those plans further along with her debate in Parliament on April 13 2021.

Rough Sleeping Minister Eddie Hughes said the government was committed to taking prompt action to scrap the act.

“I am now determined to take this work forward at pace,” said Hughes at the debate. “It has been crucial to understand the full picture of why the Vagrancy Act is used and what impact any changes to the act will have.

“We are currently finalising the conclusions of the review and will be announcing our position shortly.”

However, six months later, the act is still in place.

Conservative backbencher Bob Blackman asked Boris Johnson to reaffirm his commitment to scrapping the act at Prime Minister’s Questions on October 20 following the completion of the government’s review.

Johnson recognised the need to “reconsider” the archaic Vagrancy Act and said “no one should be criminalised for having nowhere to live”.

However, despite the government’s stance against the act, an amendment hoping to scrap the act was knocked back in the House of Lords on November 25. The amendment, which was intended to amend the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, was blocked by the government with Baroness Susan Williams telling peers: “There are some complex things in the Vagrancy Act that need to be unpicked and understood, with consideration of the legislation on the back of that.”

The move was criticised by Blackman, who urged peers to table the amendment again at a later stage in the draft legislation passage through the Lords and into law.

He said: “By enacting this long overdue repeal through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, there is no additional cost to the government in time or public money.

“There has never been a better opportunity before the house to put an end to this divisive and outdated piece of legislation once and for all, whilst also ensuring that the police have the tools they need to tackle antisocial behaviour and aggressive begging.”

Who opposes the Vagrancy Act?

The campaign standing against the Vagrancy Act has been a long one and homelessness charities, politicians and human rights campaigners have all opposed it in recent years.

Crisis chief executive Jon Sparkes said Jenrick was “absolutely right” to call for the bill to be repealed when the Conservative cabinet minister proposed it in February.

“This archaic piece of law does nothing to tackle the root causes of rough sleeping and instead drives people further away from support,” Sparkes said.

There have been dissenting voices in Westminster too, where the Liberal Democrats’ Layla Moran has been leading the charge.

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The Oxfordshire MP has been campaigning against the act since 2018 and introduced a private member’s bill to the House of Commons for a second time in January to repeal the act. 

However, despite backing from MPs across the Commons  — including Green MP Caroline Lucas and former Culture and Sport Secretary Tracey Crouch — private member’s bills have not been heard in the House during the Covid-19 lockdown.

Moran has branded the act “archaic” and “Dickensian” during her campaigning to scrap it.

There have been grassroots efforts to scrap the act too, including from human rights lawyers at Liberty who have joined forces with charities Centrepoint, Cymorth Cymru, Homeless Link, Shelter Cymru, St Mungo’s and The Wallich to battle it.

How widely is the Vagrancy Act used?

There are no official annual national statistics on the Vagrancy Act but figures put together through Freedom of Information requests in recent years have shown use of the almost 200-year-old act is declining.

Just 28 per centof 305 local authorities told homelessness charity Crisis in 2017 they had used arrests under the Vagrancy Act 1824 to tackle begging and rough sleeping while just seven per cent said they planned to use the act for future enforcement.

Meanwhile, Crisis also reported there were 1,320 people prosecuted under the Vagrancy Act in 2018 – a figure that had halved since 2014.

Perhaps the most high profile debate over the use of the Vagrancy Act in recent years came in 2018 when then Windsor and Maidenhead Borough Council leader Simon Dudley called on the act to be used to clear rough sleepers from Windsor ahead of a royal wedding.

Dudley cited “an epidemic of rough sleeping and vagrancy in Windsor” when he wrote to Thames Valley Police ahead of Prince Harry’s wedding to Meghan Markle at Windsor Castle.

With fewer people on the streets throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, it is likely the act will have been less widely used in recent months.

What should replace the Vagrancy Act?

Robert Jenrick has called for more modern legislation to take the Vagrancy Act’s place while the April 13 debate on the act is likely to centre on new legal routes to tackle rough sleeping.

Aiken said: “I would like to see legislation that focuses on assertive outreach, not criminality, at its heart. I want rough sleepers to have access to greater social care and specialist medical support on top of the safety of a bed, including access to councillors and psychiatric help.”

A replacement for the Vagrancy Act is currently being considered as part of the controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. 

Jon Sparkes, chief executive of Crisis, said: “There is no place for this law if the Prime Minister wants to redouble the UK Government’s efforts to tackle homelessness.

“There may soon be a golden opportunity to take the bold action we need, as amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which would repeal the Vagrancy Act, are currently being considered in the House of Lords. We look forward to working with the government to ensure this outdated legislation is scrapped.”

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