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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
The Vagrancy Act criminalises rough sleeping and begging. The Government has said the act should be repealed. Image credit: "https://www.flickr.com/photos/50999011@N08/4976772304">Blodeuwedd/Flickr

Politicians will debate whether the almost 200-year-old Vagrancy Act should be scrapped on April 13 as the campaign to end the criminalisation of rough sleeping hits new heights.

Nickie Aiken MP will lead a debate in Westminster Hall on the long-standing law on April 13 when politicians will discuss what should happen to the law and how it should be replaced.

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.

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. 

“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 is hoping to move those plans further along with her debate in Parliament on April 13.

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.

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 cent of 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 Vagrant 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.”