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Vagrancy Act to be scrapped ‘at a pace’, says minister

There is still no date to repeal the ‘antiquated’ 200-year-old legislation which criminalises rough sleeping  despite calls from campaigners for a timetable 

UK Government ministers are working to repeal the almost 200-year-old Vagrancy Act “at a pace” but declined to give campaigning MPs a timeline to scrap the law during a debate on the matter on Tuesday.

Westminster leaders opened a long-delayed review into the “antiquated” legislation in 2018 but have yet to publish their findings. The law allows authorities to fine people up to £1,000 for rough sleeping and begging. 

Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick raised the hopes of campaigners in February when he told the House of Commons the Vagrancy Act should be “consigned to history”.

But the Government declined to give a timetable for when the legislation will be repealed at a Westminster Hall debate on the act, despite pleas from MPs.

Layla Moran, Lib Dem MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, has been campaigning to scrap the act since 2017 and submitted a private member’s bill to repeal it last year.

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Speaking in Parliament, she said: “It has been a long time coming but it looks like the Vagrancy Act might finally be scrapped. The question I quite simply have for the minister is when?

“It was literally the word ‘hallelujah’ that I said when I heard – four years on – when the Communities Secretary said on the floor of the House that the act should be scrapped.

“We need a step change in our response to homelessness, it needs to be holistic and more compassionate and it has to start by repealing this cruel, needless law that punishes the homeless. It’s a disgrace.”

Moran asked the UK Government to confirm plans to repeal the act in the Queen’s Speech to start a new parliamentary session on May 11.

In response to Moran, Eddie Hughes, minister for rough sleeping, insisted the review 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. “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.”

The 80-minute debate, led by Westminster and City of London MP Nickie Aiken, drew support from across the house against the Vagrancy Act that mirrored calls outside parliament from homelessness charities and human rights lawyers for it to be scrapped.

Labour’s Shadow Housing Secretary Thangam Debbonaire read out sections of the Vagrancy Act, including references to sleeping in a “cart or wagon”, to underline how outdated the legislation has become since it was first introduced in 1824.

The legislation was initially a response to soldiers who had returned from the Napoleonic Wars and ended up on the street as they were too injured to work.

Debbonaire said: “I’m sure many of the people we serve would be surprised to hear such antiquated and mostly completely irrelevant language dealing with the problem in a 19th-century way when we’ve got 21st-century ways available to us.”

Conservative backbencher and architect of the Homelessness Reduction Act Bob Blackman also called for the government to lay out its timetable for repealing the Vagrancy Act.

The Harrow East MP said that rough sleepers should be “assisted not arrested” and repealing the act should act as a starting point to review other homelessness and housing legislation moving out of the pandemic.

But Blackman shared the view of Gravesham MP Adam Holloway – a former broadcast journalist who has slept out on the streets for multiple TV programmes – in stressing that the Vagrancy Act’s replacement must still deal with aggressive begging.

Holloway said: “The act obviously makes it an offence to beg and while I welcome changes and to get rid of it, we must preserve this ability in one way or another.”

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