The Vagrancy Act has made sleeping rough and begging on the streets of England and Wales a crime for almost 200 years. Image: Dan Burton / Unsplash
The Vagrancy Act will be repealed in the government’s new policing bill, spelling the end for the controversial 200-year-old law that makes rough sleeping and begging a criminal offence in England and Wales.
MPs had been set to vote on an amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill to scrap the act when it returns to the House of Commons next week.
Rough sleeping minister Eddie Hughes MP said: “The Vagrancy Act is outdated and needs replacing, and so I’m delighted to announce today the government will repeal it in full.
“This is the next step of our action, which has already driven a 37 per cent drop in rough sleeping since 2019 and we will build on this with a strategy setting out how we will end rough sleeping for good, support vulnerable people off the streets and continue to protect communities from crime and antisocial behaviour.”
The Vagrancy Act came into force in 1824 initially to deal with injured soldiers who returned from the Napoleonic Wars.
The government had previously said it would repeal the act – and a year ago then-housing secretary Robert Jenrick told the Commons the act should be “consigned to history”.
Jenrick told The Big Issue he has recently been lobbying Michael Gove and Priti Patel to urge the cabinet ministers to scrap the Vagrancy Act as part of the controversial policing bill.
Jenrick said: “The repeal of the Vagrancy Act builds on the success of the Everyone In programme I established during the pandemic and is another important milestone on the road to ending rough sleeping.
“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.
“The Vagrancy Act is an archaic piece of legislation which creates a wholly unnecessary obstacle that homeless people must overcome in order to rebuild their lives. I welcome the action that is now being taken to put repeal into law and I urge the government to continue to work with charities, including Crisis, on the detail of its implementation.”
Campaigners have been calling for the act to be scrapped for years with homelessness charity Crisis leading the Scrap the Act campaign.
Matt Downie, chief executive of Crisis, said: “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.
“We thank the UK government for using the policing bill to finally consign this appalling act to history, where it belongs. We look forward to working with them to finish the job without delay and ensure the criminalisation of destitution is over.”
The Scrap the Act campaign has had widespread support from across the political spectrum, including from Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran who began calling for the act to be axed in 2018.
“After years of campaigning I am elated that we have consigned this archaic and cruel law to history. No one should be criminalised for sleeping rough, especially by a piece of legislation passed in the Georgian era,” said Moran.
“This is testament to the hard work of so many people: the students who first brought the issue to my attention, and to our campaign partners Crisis.
“This can transform the way we talk about rough sleeping and homelessness in this country, from criminalisation to compassion. While we can celebrate today, tomorrow we return to the hard work of holding the government to account on their manifesto commitment to ending rough sleeping by the end of this Parliament.”
Big Issue founder Lord John Bird also welcomed the government’s announcement.
He said: “The repeal of this outdated piece of legislation, that targeted some of the most vulnerable people in our society, will be heralded as a big win by many. But we still have much further to go and must look to ensuring preventative measures are in place to support people before they end up homeless and on the street.”