Housing

Government blocks bid to scrap 200-year-old law that criminalises rough sleeping

Repealing the Vagrancy Act looks set to be left out of Priti Patel's controversial policing bill after Lords amendment is refused.

vagrancy act

Homelessness charities and politicians argue that taking criminal action against rough sleepers drives them further from support. Image: Ethan Wlkinson / Unsplash

The UK government has refused to back a cross-party effort in the House of Lords to repeal the Vagrancy Act – the 200-year-old law that makes rough sleeping and begging a criminal offence.

Crossbench peer Lord Richard Best tabled an amendment to Priti Patel’s controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill calling for the act, which came into force in 1824, to be scrapped.

But Conservative peer Baroness Susan Williams refused the amendment on behalf of the government at Wednesday’s committee stage – forcing Lord Best to withdraw it.

She said: “The central point is that the government are committed to completing their review of the Vagrancy Act as soon as practicable. This helpful and timely debate will inform that process.

Williams added: “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 Vagrancy Act has faced sustained calls to be axed from politicians and homelessness charities with Crisis leading the ‘Scrap the Act’ campaign in order to consign the law to history books.

The government has repeatedly said the act will be replaced. Housing minister Eddie Hughes said the Vagrancy Act will be scrapped “at a pace” during a Westminster Hall debate in April.

The issue has also come up at Prime Minister’s Questions on several occasions, most recently in October when Conservative backbencher Bob Blackman asked Johnson to reaffirm his commitment to scrapping the act now the government’s review has been completed.

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

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“There has never been a better opportunity before the house to put an end to this divisive and outdated piece of legislation once and for all, whilst also ensuring that the police have the tools they need to tackle antisocial behaviour and aggressive begging.”

The Vagrancy Act was originally introduced to make rough sleeping and begging an offence to deal with soldiers returning from the Napoleonic wars. It has since been repealed in Scotland.

But while it is still in place in England and Wales, homelessness charities warn criminalising homelessness does not fix the root causes of why someone finds themselves on the street and also drives them further away from support.

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Meanwhile, the policing bill which peers were trying to amend has also faced criticism claiming will marginalise vulnerable people and force people deeper into homelessness as well as cracking down on the right to protest if it passes into law. 

Matt Downie, director of policy and external affairs at Crisis, said: “It is very disappointing that the UK government has missed this perfect opportunity to decriminalise homelessness and destitution. 

“As the prime minister himself has said, no one should be criminalised for being homeless. The policing bill represents the best possible chance to consign this appalling law to history. Outdated and counterproductive, the Vagrancy Act only drives people further away from support.”

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