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Government finally set to repeal ‘obscene’ Vagrancy Act that criminalises homelessness

It is believed ministers will table an amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill to consign 200-year-old law to history.

The government will table an amendment next week to repeal the Vagrancy Act as part of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, The Big Issue has learned.

The controversial bill has faced criticism for cracking down on protest rights but it could yet be the mechanism to finally banish the 200-year-old act to history.

A source in Westminster told The Big Issue the government is expected to announce an amendment to the bill that would repeal the act alongside a consultation on how to replace it.

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It has been a year since former housing secretary Robert Jenrick told MPs the act, which criminalises rough sleeping and begging, should be repealed and consigned to history”. It has already been repealed in Scotland.

Jenrick has continued to call for the act to be scrapped since being ousted from his cabinet role in September and he told The Big Issue that he has been lobbying his successor Michael Gove and home secretary Priti Patel in recent weeks.

“The idea that just finding yourself sleeping rough should be a criminal offence doesn’t make any sense to me at all,” Jenrick told The Big Issue.

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“I’m in conversation with Michael Gove and Priti Patel trying to convince them to do so. And I hope that they’ll do the right thing.

“If we don’t seize the moment it’s not at all clear to me when the opportunity will arise in the future.

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“There’s always arguments for delay in government. Let’s do a review. Let’s do a consultation. Let’s take this slowly. But as you say, this has been taken pretty slowly already. It’s been knocking around for decades, so let’s just do it now.” 

The Vagrancy Act was introduced almost 200 years ago in 1824, initially meant to deal with destitute injured soldiers returning from the Napoleonic Wars.

In recent years campaigners have argued that the act is now redundant as it is no longer widely used by police forces. The act is also at odds with the compassionate approach that is needed to help people off the streets for good, campaigners argue.

Balbir Chatrik, director of policy at charity Centrepoint, said: “If the government is serious about ending rough sleeping by 2024, decriminalising homelessness and repealing the Vagrancy Act is an important first step. 

“Rough sleeping is a social problem that needs a joined-up response. The police of course have a role to play in keeping those forced to sleep rough safe – but their interactions should be based on providing support in partnership with other agencies, rather than punishing those who need support for circumstances that are often beyond their control.”

Since Jenrick’s announcement a year ago, ministers have pledged to scrap it “at a pace”.

But it was only in January when there was a significant move towards scrapping it for good.

Peers voted to amend Priti Patel’s Police, Crime Sentencing and Courts Bill with a majority of 43 votes, meaning that MPs must now decide whether to scrap the Vagrancy Act and a final decision will most likely hinge on government support.

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Crisis chief executive Matt Downie told The Big Issue: “Providing rapid access to housing and the support needed to retain that housing, that’s the answer, not pushing people further away from support because they might be arrested. It is completely obscene that the Vagrancy Act still exists today.

“The government has a perfect opportunity now to move on for nearly 200 years of exactly the wrong approach to homelessness to finally abolish the vagrancy act and move into a much much more productive way of seeing homelessness.

“There is an ever expanding group of members of parliament who think the same thing and people from all parties and it’s now absolutely a top priority for a very large number of Conservative MPs. Let’s move on from this and consign this disastrous law to history.”

Crisis has led the Scrap the Act campaign in recent years while Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran has also been campaigning to get the act of the statute book since 2018.

She told The Big Issue: “After years of campaigning I am delighted to see that we may be on the cusp of repealing this archaic and cruel law. No one should be criminalised for sleeping rough, especially by a piece of legislation passed in the Georgian era.”

The Home Office has been approached for comment.

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