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Opinion

The government already has the perfect replacement for the Vagrancy Act – nothing at all

The Napoleonic Wars-era Vagrancy Act is set to be scrapped with an ongoing consultation on what should replace it. But Centrepoint’s Balbir Kaur Chatrik says rough sleepers should be supported rather than punished.

For nearly 200 years, the Vagrancy Act has criminalised those who beg or are forced to live on the streets. Designed in the era of workhouses and poor laws, the act should have been retired long ago to the same historical dustbin.

However, after years of campaigning for the act’s abolition, the government has recently committed to its repeal.

This is great news – but in choosing to focus on how to replace the powers of the act, rather than scrapping them all together, the government’s current consultation on the repeal of the act misses the point.

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The campaign to abolish the Vagrancy Act was never about updating the language around policing powers to suit 21st Century sensibilities. It was about recognising that street homelessness and begging are symptoms of structural problems that can only be addressed by tackling the root causes – not by punishing individuals.

To its credit, it seems the government largely agrees.

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In recent years we have seen significant reinvestment in the sort of services that tackle entrenched rough sleeping and support vulnerable people off the streets and into accommodation. It is this approach that will help ministers keep their commitment to end rough sleeping by 2024, rather than finding new ways to punish those with little choice but to break draconian laws.

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It is not as if there are not enough ways to punish some of society’s most vulnerable people.

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In fact, even if the act was abolished tomorrow, police, councils and others could still rely on the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014. Using this legislation, public bodies can enforce a range of powers to tackle various forms of anti-social behaviour that could be associated with begging. These include Criminal Behaviour Orders, Community Protection Notices and Public Spaces Protection Orders.

Unlike the outdated Vagrancy Act these are powers are still widely used, often pitting the police and authorities against those begging or rough sleeping and creating a level of distrust which makes accessing support services difficult.

It does not have to be this way.

In Durham the police’s Checkpoint scheme takes a support-led approach, working with partner organisations and deferring prosecutions to give ‘offenders’ a chance to connect with local services. It works.

This sort of approach, where the police work with local agencies and those they would normally be charging with a criminal offence, in order to help, rather than prosecute, them should be the norm.

It makes sense, particularly as those found begging and rough sleeping are often victims of crime themselves. In fact, at Centrepoint we often find the young people we support are extremely vulnerable to gangs looking to exploit them and get them to carry out criminal activity, such as dealing drugs or low-level fraud.

With the government’s consultation on the act’s abolition closing next week we will be hoping they will be reassured by the responses that simply removing a law from the statute book is not only possible but desirable.

Criminalising those with few options but to commit these so-called crimes did not work 200 years ago and does not work today. We know now, as perhaps some then did not, that the only effective approach to ending homelessness and begging is one that tackles the root causes of each.

Balbir Kaur Chatrik is director of policy at youth homelessness charity Centrepoint

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