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Opinion

The fight is on to ensure the Vagrancy Act stays dead

The Vagrancy Act was consigned to history earlier this year but Lib Dem MP Layla Moran warns the 200-year-old law could return to criminalise rough sleeping through the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill

The campaign to repeal the Vagrancy Act has been long and hard-fought.

It began in 2018 when a group of students in Oxford told me they had spoken to homeless people who were regularly threatened with arrest. They were outraged that in 2018, rough sleepers were criminalised with a piece of legislation from 1824. I agreed with them.

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Over the next four years I fought to repeal this archaic and Dickensian legislation. I raised it at Prime Minister’s Questions, led debates in parliament, and wrote cross-party letters. In January, Liberal Democrats joined a cross-party effort in the House of Lords which defeated the government in a bid to add a clause to the Police Bill repealing the Vagrancy Act. This was a fantastic moment of celebration.

But things are rarely simple in politics.

The government stated they were committed to de-criminalising homelessness, but claimed they needed “appropriate replacement legislation” so the police still had the powers needed to deal with aggressive begging. They refused to bring in the repeal in practice until this new legislation was in place. Experts in the sector and our campaign partners Crisis made it clear that the police already have the powers they need to deal with anti-social behaviour.

The government launched a public consultation into replacing the Vagrancy Act in April this year. It closed on May 5, and they are yet to publish the results. I have questioned the department twice on when they plan to release these results, but they are yet to give me an answer.

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So homeless people are still criminalised, and the government is dragging its feet.

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Then the government added insult to injury by going back on their word, introducing a clause to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill to bring back the Vagrancy Act. I was shocked at this duplicitous decision, which showed their commitments to repeal the act were hollow all along.

Thankfully, after cross-party efforts to gain support for an amendment to the bill, the government has now U-turned on their U-turn and agreed to remove the measures.

But as winter draws in and the cost of living crisis worsens, people who are sleeping rough can still be threatened and arrested by the police under the Vagrancy Act. We’ve returned to a situation where the legislation is yet to be repealed in practice.

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It is obscene that in 2022 we use measures dating back to the Battle of Waterloo to treat homeless people. Criminalisation does nothing to address the root causes of homelessness, and treats rough sleepers as a problem rather than a person.

Now more than ever, we need a compassionate approach to homelessness.

Rents have been rising at record rates according to Rightmove, rising by 11.2 per cent in the south-east in the last year. Housing benefit has also remained static in comparison to rents, leaving a huge shortfall for the most vulnerable. In my local area of Oxford, between September 2021 and 2022, only 1 per cent of two-bedroom and 2 per cent of three-bedroom homes were listed as affordable on local housing allowance rates, despite the fact that one in three private renters need housing benefit. This affordability problem is inevitably going to put more vulnerable people at risk of homelessness.

And homelessness rates are rising. In March 2022, before the current cost of living crisis took hold, the number of households facing homelessness had risen by 2.8 per cent on the previous year. Those numbers are only going to keep climbing.

That’s why I am campaigning for the government to not only hurry up and repeal the Vagrancy Act for good, but to step up and do more to end rough sleeping.

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The Liberal Democrats believe that to end rough sleeping and 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 the government to ensure councils have at least one provider of this model and for an increase in funding from central government so that local authorities can meet their homelessness duties.

We are also calling for a strengthening of the duties of local authorities to ensure early intervention to prevent homelessness, including extending the definition of someone threatened with homelessness from a 28-day period to a 56-day period.

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This Conservative government has broken Britain. They have trashed the economy and pushed public services to breaking point, and they are certainly not doing enough to meet their commitment to end rough sleeping.

Politics may be a frustrating profession sometimes, but I am not a quitter. I will continue to stand up for those who are left without a place to sleep at night, to end the criminalisation of homelessness, and to step up support for those who need it the most.

Layla Moran is a Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon and has campaigned for the Vagrancy Act to be scrapped since 2018

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