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.

Vagrancy Act

Ministers have committed to axing the Vagrancy Act and have opened a consultation on what should replace it, running until May 5. Image: Brett Sayles / Pexels

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.

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.

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.

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

Article continues below

Current vacancies...

Search jobs

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Unlike the outdated Vagrancy Act these are powers are still widely used, often pitting the police and authorities against those begging or rough sleeping and creating a level of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

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
So little has changed since the Manchester Arena bombing. I worry terrorists have the upper hand
Cath Hill

So little has changed since the Manchester Arena bombing. I worry terrorists have the upper hand

This government failed to end rough sleeping – so now they're trying to police it out of existence
The Criminal Justice Bill criminalises rough sleeping
Tom Kerridge

This government failed to end rough sleeping – so now they're trying to police it out of existence

Homelessness has exploded since I slept on the streets. Here's how to end it once and for all
people experiencing homelessness also face stigma
Matthew Torbitt

Homelessness has exploded since I slept on the streets. Here's how to end it once and for all

BBC Breakfast's Naga Munchetty: This is how we stamp out teenage misogyny and sexism
Naga Munchetty

BBC Breakfast's Naga Munchetty: This is how we stamp out teenage misogyny and sexism

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know