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Politicians, police and charities urge Government to scrap draconian Vagrancy Act

19.06.2019 528 XX

The centuries-old Vagrancy Act, which makes rough sleeping and begging illegal in England and Wales, should be scrapped because it is needlessly pushing vulnerable people further from help, according to a new report from homelessness charity Crisis. The calls come as the Government today announces its review of the Act as part of its rough sleeping strategy.

Leading figures from across the political spectrum and the police, including former Met Commissioner Lord Hogan-Howe, have joined Crisis and a coalition of charities to call for the repeal of the Act, branding it out of date, inhumane and unfit to deal with the modern challenges of addressing rough sleeping and begging

The Vagrancy Act (1824) was originally brought in to make it easier for police to clear the streets of destitute soldiers returning from the Napoleonic Wars. It makes it a criminal offence to ‘wander abroad’ or to be ‘in any public place, street, highway, court, or passage, to beg or gather alms’ in England and Wales. Nearly two hundred years later, it is still being employed, despite criticism from within the police force that it needlessly criminalises vulnerable people.

“It is extremely rare for people to make an informed decision to be homeless, and many people living without shelter have complex needs: they may be fleeing abuse at home, may struggle with addiction, and/or suffer from poor health. To criminalise this seems, well... criminal! – An anonymous Chief Inspector of an English police force

While some police forces are reluctant to employ it, new figures obtained under a Freedom of Information request from the Ministry of Justice reveal it is still very much in use. There were 1,320 recorded prosecutions under the Vagrancy Act in 2018, an increase of 6% on the previous year, but less than half the number made five years ago.  Rough sleeping in England has increased significantly between 2014 and 2018, rising by 70% in England, in the same period, suggesting the Act is not the most effective tool for dealing with rough sleeping.

While prosecution numbers have fluctuated, previous evidence has shown that rough sleepers are far more frequently victims of informal use of the Vagrancy Act (and other powers) to move them on or challenge behaviour without formal caution or arrest. This kind of approach causes frustration among the people affected, including support and outreach workers and some police themselves, given that these approaches do not address the root causes of the situation. It is rarely accompanied by signposting to services and simply serves to push people into more dangerous places, riskier activities, or into a criminal justice system that is not well designed to address their needs.

“Since coming to Blackpool I’ve now had thirteen charges under the Vagrancy Act, and I’ve also been taken to court twice for it. Five of those warnings I was even asleep when they gave them to me, so how could that have been for begging? I just woke up to find it on my sleeping bag.

“Half the homeless in town have been given Vagrancy Act papers now, and most of them have been fined about £100 and then given a banning order from the town centre. If they get caught coming back, they get done again and could go to jail, but that means all those people can’t get into town to use the few local services there are for rough sleepers. When the SWEP [severe weather emergency protocol] came into place during the winter those people couldn’t get into town to use the emergency shelters because of those banning orders.” Pudsey left care at 15 and ended up on the streets because he had nowhere else to go. He came to Blackpool in April 2018 to make a new start

As well as attracting criticism from law enforcement agencies and those affected by it, the Act has also been found to have little practical use. A review of existing legislation conducted as part of Crisis’ report found the Act to be ‘obsolete’ given the alternatives available to police. Laws including the anti-social behaviour act of 2014 are cited as being a more appropriate way of addressing activity like aggressive begging, while senior figures from the police agree the solutions to rough sleeping lie in helping people away from the streets, something they are not best placed to do.

“The Vagrancy Act implies that it is the responsibility of the police alone to respond to these issues [rough sleeping and begging], but that is a view firmly rooted in 1824. Nowadays, we know that multi-agency support and the employment of frontline outreach services can make a huge difference in helping people overcome the barriers that would otherwise keep them homeless.” - The Lord Hogan-Howe QPM, former Metropolitan Police Commissioner

Crisis is calling for the Vagrancy Act to be repealed immediately. England and Wales are among the few countries left to continue to uphold vagrancy laws and can learn from countries that have repealed them - the Vagrancy Act was abolished in Scotland in 1982, where additional legislation was created to deal with anti-social and criminal behaviour.

Regarding the approach to homeless, vulnerable and destitute people, the report makes clear that rough sleepers need help from dedicated outreach teams that’s allied to offers of stable accommodation and meaningful, long-term support.

Jon Sparkes, Chief Executive of Crisis, said: “The continued practice of criminalising homeless people under the Vagrancy Act is a disgrace. There are real solutions to resolving people’s homelessness – arrest and prosecution are not among them.

“Of course, police and councils must be able to respond to the concerns of local residents in cases of genuine anti-social activity, but we need to see an approach that allows vulnerable people access to the vital services they need to move away from the streets for good. 

“The Government has pledged to review the Vagrancy Act as part of its rough sleeping strategy, but it must go further. The Act may have been fit for purpose 200 years ago, but it now represents everything that’s wrong with how homeless and vulnerable people are treated. It must be scrapped.”