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Opinion

Scrapping the Vagrancy Act is just the start – now we must end rough sleeping for good

The government was right to scrap the Vagrancy Act, says Lib Dem MP Layla Moran. But people forced to sleep rough should be at the heart of the strategy to end homelessness.

Today marks a huge victory for the campaign to repeal the Vagrancy Act.

The Government has bowed to cross-party pressure and tabled an amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill to repeal the Vagrancy Act 1824 in full. After years of campaigning, I am elated that we have finally consigned this archaic and cruel law to history. It has been a long time coming.

In 2018 a group of students from the Oxford University Student Union and Oxford-based homelessness group On Your Doorstep approached me with a petition to end the criminalisation of rough sleeping.

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I was shocked to learn that the police had powers to arrest, prosecute, and otherwise harass any homeless person found begging in public. Like the students who approached me, I was outraged that those in extremely vulnerable circumstances were treated in such a Dickensian manner. I raised the issue in Prime Minister’s Questions – the first time it had been mentioned in Parliament since 1991.

Over the last few years, I continued to put pressure on the Government whenever I could. I led a debate in parliament on the Vagrancy Act, led another on rough sleeping, and late last year I, along with Tracey Crouch MP, led a letter to the prime minister calling for the Vagrancy Act to be repealed. This helped elicit a commitment from him, announced at prime minister’s questions, that the government wanted to ‘look again’ at the legislation.

In January, Liberal Democrats joined a cross-party effort in the House of Lords which defeated the government to add a clause to the policing bill repealing the Vagrancy Act. And today the government have progressed the campaign further by laying their own amendment to the bill in the House of Commons.

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After 198 years, we are finally on the brink of repealing the legislation.

After 198 years, we will never again criminalise a person for not having a place to sleep.

My hope is that we can now transform the way we talk about rough sleeping and homelessness in this country from criminal to compassion. Everyone should have the right to have a roof over their heads and a place to call their own.

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Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, the Everyone In scheme demonstrated that the will and capacity to radically change policy is there, albeit in an emergency. We heard incredible stories of lives being turned around in a housing-first approach. But this scheme is not a sustainable response to a national rough sleeping crisis.

I believe that we should empower those forced to sleep rough, not dictate narrow pathways designed by others, as is often unfortunately the case. People going through tough times should be able to decide for themselves what support they want, and the state should then be ready to respond.

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The government has taken a first tentative step today in ending the criminalisation of rough sleepers. Now they must put the rough sleeper, an individual person, at the heart of a renewed strategy on ending homelessness. They should be part of the process, not have policies imposed on them.

While we do celebrate today, tomorrow the hard work continues. We will hold the government to account on their manifesto commitment to ending rough sleeping by the end of this parliament.

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