Is it scrapped yet? An update on our campaign to repeal the Vagrancy Act
Despite the ‘repeal’ of the Vagrancy Act, the Act is still live on a technicality. Why is this, and what will it take to finally end it?
In February 2022, we celebrated our successful campaign to force the Government to finally repeal the archaic law that criminalised rough sleeping: the Vagrancy Act.
Since 1824, the Vagrancy Act has made it a crime to sleep rough or beg in England and Wales. People sleeping rough could face police action and a fine of up to £1,000.
But while repeal is now matter of law, the Act is still on the statute books. And the Government could replace it with new legislation that would criminalise homelessness by the back door.
Here’s why we still haven’t see the back of the Vagrancy Act, and what may lie ahead for the campaign.
How it started...
When Crisis first started campaigning for the Vagrancy Act to be scrapped in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Government was firmly against repeal.
A letter in our archive from the then Home Secretary David Waddington MP in 1990, states outright, "The Government believes that the protection the Vagrancy Act 1824 continues to offer to society is necessary."
We launched our ‘Scrap the Act’ campaign in 2018, to coincide with an announcement from the Government that a review would take place into the Vagrancy Act. Unfortunately, the results of this review have never been published.
Finally, in 2021, then Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared: "No-one should be criminalised simply for having nowhere to live and I think the time has come to reconsider the Vagrancy Act.” Shortly after this, Michael Gove also stated that the Vagrancy Act “has to go”.
This opened the political space for us to act.
How it's going...
So, how did we do it? In late 2021, an amendment tabled in the Lords by crossbench Peer Lord Best put repeal of the Act into the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.
When the Government failed to back it, Crisis campaigners swung into action. Together, we encouraged Peers from all parties to use this huge opportunity to scrap the Act.
MPs from all parties expressed support for repeal, including many Conservatives. Facing a rebellion, Government was left with little choice but to add their own amendment to end the Vagrancy Act once and for all.
The sting in the tail
The Government’s amendment made repeal a permanent part of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act. This Act passed into law in April 2022. This means that, by law, the Vagrancy Act is repealed… right? Not quite.
All legislation has a section on ‘commencement’, which sets out when parts of an Act come into force. The clause containing repeal of the Vagrancy Act was excluded. This means that, while repeal is a matter of law, there is currently no date for repeal to come into effect.
The Government claimed that this was to allow time for further consultation, and promised to enact repeal within 18 months. The consultation was carried out in May 2022. But like the review from 2018 before it, the findings of this work have yet to see the light of day.
Levelling up or levelling down
There’s a further twist in this tale. Over the summer, we noticed that, tucked away in the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, there was a clause which would effectively reinstate the Vagrancy Act.
The Government were quick to reassure that the text was a mere ‘placeholder’ for powers related to begging that would be inserted later – a highly unusual tactic.
Once again, Crisis campaigners were unequivocal in their opposition to this unnecessary and harmful attempt to resurrect the Vagrancy Act, calling on the Government not to criminalise homelessness by the back door.
Facing a coalition of opposition from all parties, the Government has now removed the vagrancy clause in the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill.
However, without a commencement date for repeal of the Vagrancy Act, the danger remains that the Government could try to replace the Act with something just as harmful.
More than 8,000 people have already signed our petition to call on the government to drop plans to criminalise homelessness by the back door. Will you join them?
With only nine months left on that 18-month timer, we need to remain diligent and continue to make the case for repeal to finally commence.
People who are sleeping rough are almost 17 times more likely to have been victims of violence than the general public. While the Vagrancy Act remains in force, there is a huge disincentive for them to seek help from the police - putting people experiencing homelessness at tremendous risk of harm.
In 2024, the Vagrancy Act will be 200 years old. That’s one milestone that we cannot allow it to reach.
That’s why Crisis continues to campaign on the issue and will do so for as long as it takes to finally repeal the Vagrancy Act.
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