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Peers vote to scrap the Vagrancy Act in controversial government bill

The almost-200 year old legislation which criminalises rough sleeping could soon be axed after peers voted to amend the Police, Crime Sentencing and Courts Bill by a majority of 43 votes.

vagrancy act rough sleeping

The Vagrancy Act has made sleeping rough and begging on the streets of England and Wales a crime for almost 200 years. Image: Dan Burton / Unsplash

The House of Lords has voted to scrap the 198-year-old Vagrancy Act which criminalises rough sleeping as part of the government’s controversial anti-protest bill.

Peers voted to amend Priti Patel’s Police, Crime Sentencing and Courts Bill with a majority of 43 votes, meaning that MPs will now decide whether to scrap the act as part of the bill before it becomes law.

The government has previously said it will replace the Vagrancy Act but campaigners have reacted with joy following the vote which took place in the early hours of Tuesday morning.

When this bill returns to the House of Commons, MPs will have an historic chance to decriminalise homelessness once and for all. The Vagrancy Act is an appalling and outdated law which does nothing to tackle homelessness, only forcing people further away from support,” said Matt Downie, the chief executive of Crisis.   

“We applaud every peer who backed its repeal and thank every Crisis campaigner who has supported our Scrap the Act campaign. As the Prime Minister himself told MPs, no one should be criminalised for having nowhere to live. We now urge his government to finish the job and stand ready to support them in consigning this obscene law to history.”  

The homelessness charity has been leading calls for the act to be replaced in recent years through its Scrap the Act campaign.

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The outdated legislation makes it a criminal offence to sleep rough or beg on the streets in England and Wales and was initially intended to tackle vagrancy among injured ex-soldiers who had returned for the Napoleonic Wars.

Critics of the act have said that a more compassionate approach to tackling street homelessness is needed with support on offer rather than criminal action.

Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran has also been campaigning to axe the Vagrancy Act since 2018. Following the vote, she said: “Now we will fight to ensure the government doesn’t overturn this amendment in the Commons.”

It has been almost a year since the government said it would replace the Vagrancy Act.

Former communities secretary Robert Jenrick told the Commons in February 2021 that the act’s “time has been and gone” and “should be consigned to history”.

The Tory MP also hailed the result of the vote on Tuesday morning. He said: “Excellent news that the House of Lords has voted to repeal the Vagrancy Act. 

“Sincerely hope Priti Patel and Michael Gove will now support in the House of Commons.”

He added: “A pity the government has yet to support, providing no convincing arguments to the contrary, but still time to do so!”

Other campaigners also shared their belief that MPs will keep the amendment, tabled by Lord Best in the Lords, in the bill when it returns to the Commons.

Generation Rent director Alicia Kennedy said on Twitter: “Surely the Commons will accept this now?!”

In total, the government suffered defeat in 14 amendments to the Police, Crime Sentencing and Courts Bill, including giving police powers to stop and search anyone at a protest “without reason” and the power for marches to be judged as too noisy.

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