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Housing

The campaign to scrap the almost 200-year-old Vagrancy Act has launched

The ancient legislation is used to criminalise homelessness rough sleepers and is “everything wrong with homeless people are treated”, say Crisis

Homelessness charity Crisis have launched their bid to scrap the 194-year-old Vagrancy Act, warning that it is no longer “fit-for-purpose”.

The legislation was originally introduced to give police the powers to use criminal justice to dealing with rising vagrancy and poverty, including soldiers destitute after returning to the UK from the Napoleonic Wars.

But it is still in use today – almost 200 years on – and Crisis, alongside supporters St Mungo’s, The Wallich and more, argue that the time has come to scrap the act. Their report is in favour of new legislation that promotes are more compassionate response to rough sleeping centred on support and housing.

That has long been the case in Scotland, where it was scrapped in 1982 and replaced with anti-social behaviour legislation that aims to deal with criminal behaviour and not rough sleeping alone.

That step should be replicated in England and Wales, say Crisis, while University of Lincoln professor Dr Owen Clayton told The Big Issue that the act means “people are arrested for who they are, not what they’ve done”.

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Policy changes have seen the use of the act decline over the years with the homelessness charity arguing that actual criminality is covered more adequately by more modern legislation.

The use of the act to prosecute has also fluctuated as rough sleeping rates have grown in the last decade, which Crisis suggests shows that it does little to curb sleeping on the streets.

There was a total of 2,766 prosecutions in 2010 – the highest in the last 10 years – while that slumped to 1,240 prosecutions in 2017 despite skyrocketing rough sleeping figures. Last year there were 1,320 prosecutions with seven out of 10 local authorities using some form of enforcement activity against street homeless people.

And even the police “would be not be bothered” if the act was repealed, according to The National Police Chiefs Council’s lead on homelessness and anti-social behaviour, deputy assistant commissioner Laurence Taylor, so long as police retain “last resort” powers.

Crisis is calling for scaled-up support and outreach services to prevent and intervene with rough sleeping at the earliest opportunity as well as modern legislation to address anti-social behaviour and criminality rather than rough sleeping itself.

They are also asking supporters to write to MPs and police commissioners as part of their campaign.

The charity’s chief executive Jon Sparkes said: “The government has pledged to review the Vagrancy Act as part of its rough sleeping strategy, but it must go further. The act may have been fit for purpose 200 years ago, but it now represents everything that’s wrong with how homeless and vulnerable people are treated. It must be scrapped.”

Stephen Robertson, the CEO of The Big Issue Foundation, said it beggars belief that the state’s preferred solution is to enforce post-Napoleonic legislation upon society’s growing disenfranchised homeless community.

“Time and time again we have been shown no evidence that the criminalisation of people experiencing homelessness does nothing but increase the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. Calls upon the Government to repeal the Vagrancy Act have for far too long fallen upon deaf ears,” he said.

“The Act is more than an ineffective blunt instrument, it is punitive response to a humanitarian crisis. The Act seeks to criminalise people who need investment, support and time to escape their circumstances.  Everyone deserves the opportunity to take part and contribute to modern day democratic society. The Vagrancy Act should be assigned to history and be no longer a lawfully weaponised tool for discrimination.”

That review will come as part of Westminster’s rough sleeping strategy vow to look again at homelessness legislation while the Welsh government is also delivering an action plan to address rough sleeping.

“No one in this day and age should be criminalised for having nowhere to live,” said homeless minister Heather Wheeler.

“We’re also carrying out a wider review of rough sleeping and homelessness legislation, including the Vagrancy Act, and will set out further steps in due course.”

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