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Housing

Rough sleepers are still being prosecuted under a law ministers want to scrap

MPs and homelessness charity Crisis are urging the government to repeal the 19th century Vagrancy Act that criminalises rough sleeping – six months after Robert Jenrick backed repeal.

Homeless people are still being prosecuted under the Vagrancy Act, a 19th century law that criminalises rough sleeping, six months after the government said it should be scrapped.

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick said on February 25 that the Vagrancy Act should be “consigned to history”. Then in April Eddie Hughes, minister for rough sleeping, insisted a review of the act had been “knocked off course” due to the 2019 general election, a new prime minister, and the global pandemic.

“I am now determined to take this work forward at pace,” said Hughes at the time. “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.”

But with no action yet taken, MP’s have joined leading homelessness charity Crisis to urge the government to scrap the law. It has already been repealed in Scotland but is regularly used across England and Wales to criminalise people for rough sleeping and begging. Anyone prosecuted faces a fine of up to £1000 and a criminal record and the latest statistics show some 11 people a week were prosecuted under the Victorian law last year, despite the pandemic.

Just last week the mayor of Bangor offered to pay the fine and court costs handed to a man who was convicted of begging in the city after asking for “spare change” outside Marks & Spencer.

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Repeal of the act was not included in the Queen’s Speech in May, despite cross-party support.

Crisis chief executive Jon Sparkes said he was disappointed with the lack of action.

He said: “We all agree that the cruel, unnecessary Vagrancy Act should be scrapped but it’s still being used week in, week out with devastating consequences.

“Fining people who already have next to nothing is pointless and just drives people further away from support, often keeping them on the streets for longer.

“It is time to consign this offensive and counterproductive law to history.”

Crisis campaigner Dayne Dougan was constantly threatened with the Vagrancy Act when he was homeless between the ages of 15 and 24.

He said: “Every day I would get moved on and told you need to leave this area, you need to go away. The Vagrancy Act made the police the enemy, rather than a source of help or protection. Telling people to leave town centres doesn’t make the problem go away, it just makes it worse. We can get rid of this outdated law now and make the lives of homeless people just a tiny bit better.”

Jess Turtle, co-founder of the Museum of Homelessness, told The Big Issue even though use of the act was in decline, its threat still hangs over people on the streets.

She added: “It shouldn’t take this long to repeal something that’s clearly an archaic law that has no place in contemporary society.”

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Nickie Aiken, MP for the Cities of London and Westminster, said the government needed to work towards a timeframe for its repeal and replacement focusing on outreach.

She said: “The Vagrancy Act is simply not fit for purpose. Criminalising rough sleepers only entrenches them further into an already dire situation, the far superior option is to address why they are on the street in the first place.

“We should replace our current approach with a new vision that places the preservation of life at its core through assertive outreach, alongside health care and specialist support services, particularly to address mental health and addiction issues, all attached to accommodation.”

Mike Amesbury, Shadow Minister for Housing and Weaver Vale MP said the Tories had failed on rough sleeping over the last decade and was “squandering” the opportunity to help people presented by the pandemic:

He said: “Stable and secure housing underpins opportunities, saving lives and livelihoods. It’s in everyone’s interests that ministers focus on ending homelessness through support, prevention and stronger legislation to protect renters.”

Layla Moran, Oxford West and Abingdon MP said: “Being homeless should not be a crime. We should be caring for people who end up on the streets, not fining them and locking them up.

“Now more than ever, we need a compassionate approach to homelessness, and that must include scrapping the Vagrancy Act. It is a cruel, Dickensian law that criminalises people just for sleeping rough.

“Robert Jenrick admitted six months ago that the act needs to go. Now he must finally match his words with action.”

The Big Issue’s Stop Mass Homelessness campaign, launched in July, lays out a nine-point plan to prevent “an avalanche” of homelessness hitting the UK later this year.

It follows the revelation that one household was made homeless every three and a half hours in the first 90 days of this year, as revealed by our analysis.

A Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government spokesperson said: “The government is clear no one should be criminalised simply for having nowhere to live and the time has come to reconsider the Vagrancy Act.

“Work is ongoing to look at this complex issue and it is important that we look carefully at all options. We will update on our findings in due course.”

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