Opinion

Vagrancy Act 2.0? The Criminal Justice Bill must not be allowed to make rough sleeping illegal

MPs will debate the Criminal Justice Bill this week and it includes measures that could see homeless people sentenced to up to a month in prison for 'nuisance rough sleeping'. Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran says the governemnt must not criminalise people just for being homeless

Layla Moran on Criminal Justice Bill, Vagrancy Act and rough sleeping

Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran said the Criminal Justice Bill has her worried that Suella Braverman's "callous" attitude towards rough sleepers has had an impact on government policies. Image: Keith Edkins / Wikimedia Commons

As the winter months grow colder and the festive season draws near, my thoughts often turn to those sleeping rough on the streets of the UK.

For so many people this time of year isn’t about joy and festivities, but loneliness and hardship.

The government’s latest rough sleeper snapshot estimated 3,069 people were sleeping rough on a single night in autumn 2022. That figure rose for the first time in four years. And Crisis now estimates that rough sleeping has increased in England by 26% over the last year.

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The cost of living crisis, which has seen food prices, energy bills and rent costs soar, is putting constant pressure on people’s finances. More families than ever are skipping meals, not turning on the heating, and at risk of eviction and homelessness.

Those people are not sleeping rough as a lifestyle choice, as suggested by the former home secretary, but are experiencing homelessness because of a complex range of factors. The chronic lack of affordable and social housing is making a bad situation worse.

I was absolutely appalled by Suella Braverman’s comments about rough sleepers, and her plan to restrict the use of tents. Someone with that kind of callous attitude towards the most vulnerable should have been nowhere near high office.

While I am glad that she is no longer in post, I am really worried that her attitudes have had a lasting impact on the government’s policies.

Experts across the sector have long advocated for a compassionate approach to homelessness. But instead, this government is intent on treating rough sleepers with cruelty and criminalisation.

The Vagrancy Act is an archaic piece of legislation introduced in 1824 following the Battle of Waterloo. It gave the police powers to arrest, prosecute, and otherwise harass any homeless person found begging in public. Shockingly, nearly 200 years on, the police still have those powers.

Campaigners secured a huge win last year when the government bowed to cross-party pressure and laid an amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which repealed the Vagrancy Act 1824 in full.

However, the government stated the repeal wouldn’t come into force until “appropriate replacement legislation” was introduced. They argued that the police still needed powers to deal with anti-social behaviour like aggressive begging.

It has taken nearly two years of delays, but the government has finally introduced legislation that brings in those replacement measures.

On Tuesday (28 November) MPs will debate the Criminal Justice Bill. Parts of this legislation will bring in new powers for police to deal with “nuisance begging” and “nuisance rough sleeping”.

While I understand the need for the police to have all the powers they need to tackle anti-social behaviour, I am really worried that this legislation goes significantly further than the government said it would. Labelling rough sleepers as a “nuisance” is not the kind and compassionate approach that we need.

This bill makes it a criminal offence to sleep rough where someone is causing or, could potentially cause, damage, distress, or even a health and safety risk. In a letter to MPs the home secretary said that would include blocking a doorway or pavement. Failure to comply with a nuisance rough sleeping prevention notice could mean being sentenced to up to one month in prison.

But with the Vagrancy Act, the issue was never just about sending people to prison. It was the threat that loomed over rough sleepers and the powers of the police to move people on.

In a survey of people sleeping rough carried out by Crisis, 56% said that enforcement measures like the Vagrancy Act contributed to their feeling ashamed of being homeless. These new measures will do nothing to address that, and continue to stigmatise and criminalise rough sleepers.

Shelter is one of the basic human needs. The Liberal Democrats believe that everyone has the right to a safe, secure and adequate home, and that to end homelessness the government should take forward the Housing First principle by providing both housing and other support services to individuals in need.

We are calling for an increase in funding from central government so that local authorities can meet their homelessness duties and continue to hold the government to account on the promise they made back in 2019 to end Section 21 ‘no-fault evictions’.

We would also build 150,000 homes for social rent per year and replace any social housing sold in future and continue to invest in repairs and maintenance, so that social housing stock is maintained as a national asset.

I will fight the punitive measures in the Criminal Justice Bill as it makes its way through parliament and continue to advocate for a compassionate approach to homelessness.

People cannot be punished out of poverty, and no-one should be sent to prison simply for being homeless.

Layla Moran is the Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon.

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