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The Vagrancy Act: What is it and why is it being scrapped?

The government has finally announced it will repeal the almost 200-year-old law that makes it a criminal offence to sleep rough in England and Wales

The 200-year-old Vagrancy Act that criminalises rough sleeping is set to be scrapped, the government has announced.

The controversial law, which has already been appealed in Scotland, makes rough sleeping and begging a criminal offence in England and Wales.

Since early 2021, the Westminster government has pledged to scrap the act. Ministers made good on their promise in February 2022, confirming that the Vagrancy Act will be repealed as part of a government amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.

Rough sleeping minister Eddie Hughes MP said: “The Vagrancy Act is outdated and needs replacing, and so I’m delighted to announce today the government will repeal it in full.

But what is the Vagrancy Act and why is now the right time to scrap it? Let The Big Issue explain.

What is the Vagrancy Act 1824? 

The Vagrancy Act makes it a criminal offence to beg or be homeless on the street in England and Wales.

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The law was passed in the summer of 1824 – 197 years ago – and was originally intended to deal with a situation far from the reality of street homelessness in present-day UK.

The Vagrancy Act was initially intended to deal with injured ex-serviceman who had become homeless after the Napoleonic Wars. Their crime after serving their country? “Endeavouring by the exposure of wounds or deformities to obtain or gather alms.. or procure charitable contributions of any nature or kind, under any false or fraudulent pretence” according to the act. This essentially means ex-soldiers were begging and the act was brought in to stop it.

The Vagrancy Act also aimed to punish “every person wandering abroad and lodging in any barn or outhouse, or in any deserted or unoccupied building, or in the open air, or under a tent, or in any cart or waggon”. Namely transient people, typically from Scotland or Ireland, who were considered undesirable. The act still represents a threat to Gypsy, Traveller and Roma communities.

The rules that applied back in 1824 still apply today.

Why are there calls for the Vagrancy Act to be scrapped?

The Vagrancy Act does not deal with homelessness in a compassionate fashion, say its opponents.

It is largely recognised that locking up homeless people does little to solve the root causes of why they are on the street in the first place. Punishments under the act can include a £1,000 fine and the possibility of a criminal record – neither of which do anything to help the person out of homelessness.

Conservative MP for the Cities of London and Westminster Nickie Aiken said the app is “simply no longer fit for purpose” ahead of a Westminster Hall debate on the act in April 2021. 

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“It fails to address the acute 21st-century problems that public sector agencies and charities work tirelessly to deal with among the street population,” she said.

It’s a view shared across the political spectrum and in the homelessness sector.

“The idea that just finding yourself sleeping rough should be a criminal offence doesn’t make any sense to me at all,” said former housing secretary Robert Jenrick, who first said the act should be repealed in the House of Commons back in February 2021.

Crisis chief executive Matt Downie told The Big Issue: “Providing rapid access to housing and the support needed to retain that housing, that’s the answer, not pushing people further away from support because they might be arrested. It is completely obscene that the Vagrancy Act still exists today.”

What has the government said about the Vagrancy Act?

The Westminster government repeatedly said that the Vagrancy Act should be scrapped before announcing that it would be removed from the statute book as part of the new policing bill.

Robert Jenrick was the first cabinet minister to reveal the government’s plans in the House of Commons.

The former housing secretary said in February 2021: “It is my opinion that the Vagrancy Act should be repealed. It is an antiquated piece of legislation whose time has been and gone. 

“We should consider carefully whether better, more modern legislation could be introduced to preserve some aspects of it, but the Act itself, I think, should be consigned to history.”

Following Jenrick’s announcement, rough sleeping minister Eddie Hughes said the government was committed to taking prompt action to scrap the act.

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

There has also been commitment from the top of government to remove the act.

Conservative backbencher Bob Blackman asked Boris Johnson to reaffirm his commitment to scrapping the act at Prime Minister’s Questions on October 20 following the completion of the government’s review.

Johnson recognised the need to “reconsider” the archaic Vagrancy Act and said “no one should be criminalised for having nowhere to live”.

However, despite the government’s stance against the act, an amendment hoping to scrap the act was knocked back in the House of Lords on November 25.

The amendment, which was intended to amend the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, was blocked by the government with Baroness Susan Williams telling peers: “There are some complex things in the Vagrancy Act that need to be unpicked and understood, with consideration of the legislation on the back of that.”

The move was criticised by Blackman, who urged peers to table the amendment again at a later stage in the draft legislation passage through the Lords and into law.

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He said: “By enacting this long overdue repeal through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, there is no additional cost to the government in time or public money.

“There has never been a better opportunity before the house to put an end to this divisive and outdated piece of legislation once and for all, whilst also ensuring that the police have the tools they need to tackle antisocial behaviour and aggressive begging.”

There has been more progress in 2022.

Peers voted to scrap the Vagrancy Act in the early hours of January 18 with a majority of 43 votes supporting Lord Best’s amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.

The amendment was scheduled to face an MP vote in the Commons in late February but the government tabled its own amendment to the bill on February 22 to axe the act for good.

The news was celebrated by campaigners. Jenrick, who had been lobbying Priti Patel and Michael Gove to table the amendment, said: “This long overdue reform will reframe the issue of homelessness away from it being a question of criminality, and towards our modern understanding of homelessness as a complex health, housing and social challenge.”

Crisis chief executive Matt Downie added: “For almost two hundred years, the criminalisation of homelessness has shamed our society. But now, at long last, the Vagrancy Act’s days are numbered and not a moment too soon.  

“This offensive law does nothing to tackle rough sleeping, only entrenching it further in our society by driving people further from support. We know there are better, more effective ways to help people overcome their homelessness.”

Who opposes the Vagrancy Act?

The campaign standing against the Vagrancy Act has been a long one and homelessness charities, politicians and human rights campaigners have all opposed it in recent years.

Then-Crisis chief executive Jon Sparkes said Jenrick was “absolutely right” to call for the bill to be repealed when the Conservative cabinet minister proposed it in February.

“This archaic piece of law does nothing to tackle the root causes of rough sleeping and instead drives people further away from support,” Sparkes said.

There have been dissenting voices in Westminster too, where the Liberal Democrats’ Layla Moran has been leading the charge.

The Oxfordshire MP has been campaigning against the act since 2018 and introduced a private member’s bill to the House of Commons for a second time in January to repeal the act. 

However, despite backing from MPs across the Commons  — including Green MP Caroline Lucas and former Culture and Sport Secretary Tracey Crouch — private member’s bills have not been heard in the House during the Covid-19 lockdown.

Moran has branded the act “archaic” and “Dickensian” during her campaigning to scrap it.

There have been grassroots efforts to scrap the act too, including from human rights lawyers at Liberty who have joined forces with charities Centrepoint, Cymorth Cymru, Homeless Link, Shelter Cymru, St Mungo’s and The Wallich to battle it.

How widely is the Vagrancy Act used?

There are no official annual national statistics on the Vagrancy Act but figures put together through Freedom of Information requests in recent years have shown use of the almost 200-year-old act is declining.

Just 28 per centof 305 local authorities told homelessness charity Crisis in 2017 they had used arrests under the Vagrancy Act 1824 to tackle begging and rough sleeping while just seven per cent said they planned to use the act for future enforcement.

Meanwhile, Crisis also reported there were 1,320 people prosecuted under the Vagrancy Act in 2018 – a figure that had halved since 2014.

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Perhaps the most high profile debate over the use of the Vagrancy Act in recent years came in 2018 when then Windsor and Maidenhead Borough Council leader Simon Dudley called on the act to be used to clear rough sleepers from Windsor ahead of a royal wedding.

Dudley cited “an epidemic of rough sleeping and vagrancy in Windsor” when he wrote to Thames Valley Police ahead of Prince Harry’s wedding to Meghan Markle at Windsor Castle.

With fewer people on the streets throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, it is likely the act will have been less widely used in recent months.

What should replace the Vagrancy Act?

That is the question that the Westminster government is currently trying to answer.

Ministers have launched a four-week consultation on what should replace the act, with anyone able to add their thoughts on the issue up until May 5.

Rough sleeping minister Eddie Hughes said: “We must balance our role in providing essential support for vulnerable people with ensuring that we do not weaken the ability of police to protect communities.”

Homelessness charity St Mungo’s welcomed the consultation and called on ministers to listen to people who have lived experience of homelessness when designing replacement measures.

St Mungo’s executive director of strategy and development Rebecca Sycamore said: “St Mungo’s will be responding to the consultation. We believe that the act should be replaced with persistent and trauma informed outreach, which was a key recommendation in the Kerslake Commission on Homelessness and Rough Sleeping.”

However, fellow charity Crisis has questioned initial proposals that would replace the act with new penalties for begging. 

Matt Downie, Crisis chief executive, said: “We cannot replace one punitive legislation with another targeting people on the streets. Our core concern is that the proposals are far too wide, could be open to abuse, and lead to people on the streets being punished instead of given the vital help they need. Through our frontline work, we know that an approach based on punishment will drive people away from trying to get support.

 “Instead of focussing on measures that may further penalise people on the streets, the government must instead look at how it can encourage a multi-agency approach. This includes ensuring the police can more effectively work with people in this situation, are given training to enable them to do this, and also looking at what wider support from local authorities and other organisations is needed.”

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