Housing

'Shocking': Nearly 3,000 homeless people arrested under 200-year-old Vagrancy Act since 2021

The 200-year-old law remains in operation and criminalising rough sleepers despite a Tory promise to scrap it

Vagrancy Act continues to punish rough sleepers

The Vagrancy Act has been criminalising rough sleeping for 200 years, harking back to the Napoleonic Wars. Image: Mario Scheibl / Unsplash

Almost 3,000 people experiencing homelessness have been punished under the Vagrancy Act since 2021 – despite a Tory promise to scrap the 200-year-old law that criminalises rough sleeping.

A total of 2,947 people have been charged with an offence under the Vagrancy Act which reached a first hearing at a magistrates court in England and Wales since 2021, according to a freedom of information request by the Liberal Democrats.

That was the year when the Tories vowed to axe the law, which harks back to dealing with soldiers returning to the UK from the Napoleonic Wars. Then-housing secretary Robert Jenrick told parliament in February 2021 the Vagrancy Act was an “antiquated piece of legislation whose time has been and gone”. 

It remains in operation three years later and was due to be replaced by the controversial Criminal Justice Bill until Rishi Sunak ended its progress through parliament when he called the general election.

That was after the failed bill caused uproar for being more draconian than the legislation it was due to replace with the threat of action over ‘smells’ and £2,500 fines or prison sentences.

Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate for Oxford West and Abingdon Layla Moran, who has been campaigning to scrap the bill since 2018, said: “It is shocking that police continue to have the powers to charge rough sleepers with a criminal offence due to the government’s failure to repeal the Vagrancy Act and to use those powers to such great effect.

“No one should be criminalised for sleeping rough, especially by a piece of legislation passed in the Georgian era.

“It is highly unsurprising that the government has backed away from their promise to repeal the Vagrancy Act 1824. The government has shown they do not care about vulnerable people who have no home; they are intent on treating rough sleepers with cruelty and criminalisation.”

The Lib Dem figures show the police force which charged the most people under the Vagrancy Act was West Yorkshire Police where 837 rough sleepers had cases heard at a magistrates court.

Elsewhere, the Metropolitan Police charged 228 people since 2021 while Thames Valley Police took action against 128 people.

A total of 267 people in Nottinghamshire faced punishment as 223 people were charged across Greater Manchester and a further 167 in Merseyside.

But not all police forces relied heavily on the act – just four uses were recorded each in Surrey and Sussex over the three years.

Overall, the use of the powers has declined with 1,350 offences in 2021, down to 885 in 2022 and 712 in 2023.

Frontline homelessness organisations have long argued that authorities have sufficient powers to tackle anti-social behaviour and there is no need to replace the Vagrancy Act.

Campaigners originally thought that they had removed it from law when the government accepted an amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act in 2022.

But ministers delayed the repeal, stating the Vagrancy Act would not be axed until it was replaced by new legislation.

That replacement, the Criminal Justice Bill, proved controversial and even faced opposition from Conservative MPs over its plans to criminalise ‘nuisance rough sleeping’.

Before the bill fell thanks to the general election, the Home Office was forced to backtrack on measures which could see rough sleepers face action over smells.

The government department removed the clause from the act and said that it related to “rubbish dumped or human waste” rather than people.

It also said rough sleepers would be directed to support before facing police action. 

Home secretary James Cleverly said: “This government listens, and we have worked hard to ensure these proposals prioritise helping vulnerable individuals, whilst ensuring communities are safer and better protected.”

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It remains to be seen whether the next government will repeal the Vagrancy Act or choose to replace it with new legislation.

But a string of high-profile cases in recent months have kept the issue of how people experiencing homelessness are treated on the agenda.

Former home secretary Suella Braverman triggered a furious reaction when she described street homelessness as a “lifestyle choice”.

Just days later, footage of rough sleepers’ tents being destroyed in Camden went viral with the Met Police later apologising for unlawfully arresting one man.

Footage of a man appearing to have his belongings doused in bleach outside a McDonald’s restaurant in central London also sparked outrage.

And just last week, grassroots group Streets Kitchen accused Camden Council of “forcibly moving” people sleeping rough outside their headquarters.

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

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