Six months ago, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Robert Jenrick MP, told politicians that the Vagrancy Act, the law from 1824 that makes it a crime to sleep rough or beg in England and Wales, should be consigned to history.
It was great that the Secretary of State acknowledged that it was time to scrap the act, and abolishing the Vagrancy Act would have been a huge step towards making sure people facing homelessness weren’t driven even further from support.
However, six months on, people are still waiting, and are still being affected by the Vagrancy Act.
This is an out-of-date law and should be abolished because this 19th-century law criminalises people for rough sleeping or begging, and anyone prosecuted faces a fine of up to £1,000 and a criminal record.
Critics have said that this cruel law forces defenceless people further away from support, and people shouldn’t be penalised for being homeless.
According to the latest Ministry of Justice data, last year there were 573 Vagrancy Act prosecutions in England and Wales, the equivalent of just over 10 people a week.
The majority were for begging, with the remainder for being in an enclosed space without permission.
Crisis chief executive Jon Sparkes said the homelessness charity was encouraged by Mr Jenrick’s comments but were now disappointed that the offensive and counterproductive law remains in place, and he said that they all agree that the cruel, futile Vagrancy Act should be discarded but that it’s still being used week in, week out with devastating consequences.
He said that penalising people who already have next to nothing is pointless and just pushes people further away from support, often keeping them on the streets for longer.
Crisis campaigner Dayne Dougan was repeatedly told to move on when he was homeless as a teenager up to the age of 24.
He said that the Vagrancy Act made the police the enemy, rather than a source of help or protection and that telling people to leave town centres doesn’t make the problem go away, it just makes it more serious, and that we need to get rid of this antiquated law now so that it will make the lives of homeless people just a little bit better.
Nickie Aiken, Conservative MP for the Cities of London and Westminster, said a far better option to the Vagrancy Act is to address why people are on the street in the first place.
However, campaigners expressed disappointment after the government eliminated the withdrawal of the 19th century Vagrancy Act from the Queen’s Speech, despite saying it should be consigned to history, and Boris Johnson’s wide-ranging legislative agenda for the new parliament made no mention to the Vagrancy Act, leading to accusations his government was failing the homeless.
It comes amid concerns the act, introduced to target destitute soldiers sleeping on the streets and which includes references to carts and wagons, has been used by police officers to criminalise homeless people during the COVID 19 pandemic.
And a newspaper outlet reported how forces in England and Wales made 361 charges that led to court hearings between April and September last year using two sections of the Act that relate to begging and rough sleeping, and a letter was signed by over 60 parliamentarians, including the Bishop of Manchester, and MPs and peers from five parties, urging Robert Jenrick to include abolishing the law, saying that a failure to ensure the scrapping of the act would deal a blow to cross-party efforts to address the homelessness crisis.