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The Vagrancy Act criminalises homeless people, but sadly its harm goes even deeper than that

Matt Downie MBE, Director of Policy and External Affairs

When you give yourself permission to talk about people as groups, you give yourself permission to dehumanise people and make decisions that are not based on looking people in the eye. (Professor Brené Brown) 

The Government is shortly to consult on whether the Vagrancy Act of 1824 is fit for purpose. The Act makes it a crime in England and Wales to beg or to be street homeless. And so we, alongside other charities and a cross-party group of MPs have launched a campaign to scrap it.

The Vagrancy Act was passed in the summer of 1824. Its 195th birthday is upon us. The purpose of the Act was to deal with two issues of the day. First, that the Napoleonic wars left thousands of ex-servicemen injured and homeless. Men who had once fought for their King were now deemed ‘rogues and vagabonds’ whose new crime was to ‘endeavour by the exposure of wounds or deformities to obtain or gather alms’.  

The second group to be punished were those in towns and cities who were homeless in that place but from elsewhere. There was a particular focus on Scots or Irish people deemed unwanted in England, but also anyone who was ‘wandering abroad and lodging in any barn or outhouse…or in the open air, or under a tent, or in any cart or waggon and not giving a good account of himself or herself’.

In England and Wales these offences have survived the 195 years since the Act was passed, and the basic premise that people street homeless and/or begging can be seen as criminals is alive and well in 2019. The Act was repealed for Scotland and Northern Ireland in 1982.

There were 1,320 prosecuted under the Vagrancy Act in 2018 (the latest figures available). Whilst prosecution rates have more than halved since 2014, when new anti-social behaviour legislation was introduced, history shows we cannot simply wait for the Act to fizzle out. Numbers have fallen dramatically in the past, only to bounce back again.

Over the years the Act has been used to cloak out-dated social attitudes in legal cover, prosecuting gay people, prostitution, palmistry, women living in sin, and throughout the decades has continued the state sanctioned criminalisation of people homeless or begging.

In 1824, as the soon to be Vagrancy Act was debated in parliament, William Wilberforce spoke out against it. He was opposed to the indiscriminate nature of the proposed law, stating that it did nothing to understand or respond the circumstances that led to homelessness and destitution. He knew then what we still know today; that these are circumstances to be changed, not life-choices to be punished.

‘It [being prosecuted under the Vagrancy Act] didn’t deter me from begging. I was straight back out again. The same place I was just trying to survive without being a criminal. It’s either that (begging) or go and rob because you’re deserate. I nearly died on the streets six months after that’ (Shaun, Blackpool)

‘There’s no need for the Vagrancy Act. It’s not the dark ages, and anyway, it’s not working. If they move me on again, I’ll just be back like a rubber ball. Even if it did stop people begging, they might just start committing real crimes just to survive, and it’s the public who will suffer even more. They should be helping people before they get to the street rather than criminalising them once they get here’ (Peter, London)

Half the homeless in town have been given Vagrancy Act papers now, and most of them have been fined £100 and then given a banning order from the town centre…but that means all those people can’t get into town to use the few local services there are for rough sleepers.’ (Pudsey, Blackpool)

The formal prosecution people in England and Wales under the Act can be devastating for people, and fining people for begging and homelessness is surely madness in anyone’s eyes. However, the harm done by the continued use of the Act goes deeper than it’s formal use. 

Research in 2017 showed that informal use of the Act involves people being regularly moved on, or banned from certain locations, often with the threat of arrest. The vast majority of homeless people in this situation report that they were not offered help or support. Perhaps more damaging however is the dehumanising and degrading experience of being treated in this way. 

This is the human impact not shown by the official statistics, and this pointless spiral of vulnerable people being pushed further from the help they need should give us all pause for thought about the realities of life on the streets.

‘You felt like a criminal, so you end up shutting down and just relying on the homeless community instead. I tried my best to stay out of sight…little places to hide away like garages, air vents and parks.’ (Karl, Liverpool) 

We’ve spoken at length to police forces and to criminal justice professionals about why the Vagrancy Act is used formally and informally. Time and again we heard that the police do not seek to criminalise homeless and vulnerable individuals, in fact some forces now state that they actively don’t deploy the Act.

Something more concerning than simply antiquated law has emerged. When frustrations run high amongst concerned businesses or commuters about rough sleeping and begging, without the support services that are really needed, police enforcement under the Vagrancy Act is the only response available.  In many ways the use of the Act is a damning indictment on the lack of services that are actually needed. 

The evidence of what works is clear. Access to mainstream housing, provision of specialist and intensive support to deal with mental ill health and addictions, and a trauma informed approach to outreach on the streets, these are the essential elements to addressing homelessness and destitution. It is when they are not available that police forces are most likely to be called upon to deal with the symptoms of what is in front of them. At its worst we see a febrile desperation where criminalisation and dehumanising of people is all the state has to offer.

As stated in a 1990 House of Lords debate on the Vagrancy Act: 

‘Historians as a profession do not agree about much, but looking at previous occasions in other centuries they seem to agree that those peaks in vagrancy prosecutions do not mark peaks in original sin. They mark periods of exceptionally poor social conditions. The variable relates to the degree of poverty and unemployment and the adequacy of relief’ 

And as an anonymous whistle-blower in the Metropolitan Police put it recently 

‘Our duties are being stretched beyond our capabilities to include non-criminal matters regarding mental health and social services, because cuts have debilitated those sectors too.’ 

It is time to repeal the Vagrancy Act, yes. But if the answer was ever about whether to criminalise people, then we have been asking the wrong question. If we can see our way past labelling, grouping, dismissing, damning, pointlessly prosecuting and fining people, perhaps we can start answering the right question. What help and support do people need to realise their potential, and how quickly can we get it to everyone that needs it?

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