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Replacing the Vagrancy Act will not make our streets safer – it will only criminalise people experiencing the worst forms of homelessness

Saskia Neibig, Senior Policy and Parliamentary Affairs Officer

In February, this Parliament voted to repeal the Vagrancy Act in a landmark rejection of the outdated laws that made it a criminal offence to be sleeping rough, but today, the Government published legislation showing their intention to effectively recriminalise rough sleeping, “disregarding the repeal of that Act”. In the Queen’s Speech on Monday, the Government said that they wanted to “give the police powers to make our streets safer”, but this does nothing of the sort. Although the Government may intend to amend the wording of the legislation, anything resembling this approach would bypass parliament to let the Government punish people who are homeless or begging, without safeguards or scrutiny.

The Government consulted on proposals which refer to multi-agency outreach, which Crisis strongly welcomes as an approach, and is shown to work well in practice. However, there is a risk that replacement legislation would once again criminalise people who are begging, and go beyond existing legislation that tackles aggressive begging and anti-social behaviour.

This risks criminalising people for their homelessness, with research into people sleeping rough finding that 1 in 3 had begged at some point during the last 12 months. To criminalise begging is to criminalise homelessness by the back door.

That’s why we’re calling for the Government to stop plans for new legislation to replace the Vagrancy Act, and you can support us by signing this petition.

It’s wrong to punish people just because they’re struggling, but the proposals suggest that people can face prosecution and fines for begging to survive. The main reason given for needing to beg is needing to buy food (78 per cent). 

In Crisis’ long campaign to scrap the Vagrancy Act, there was plenty of evidence that punishing people for being street homeless can push them further away from support, as they move to other areas, or resort to more dangerous behaviours to make money. That can include street prostitution and crime, showing that criminalising begging doesn’t do anything to make our streets safer. When people are sleeping rough, they’re 17 times more likely to be a victim of violence or abuse than the wider population. The Government should focus on how their proposals for multi-agency working can ensure that police protect and support people experiencing homelessness, rather than punishing them for begging.

When I researched the proposals that the Government has consulted on, I interviewed several people about their experiences of homelessness. One of them was John, who summarised his feelings on the proposals:

“People don’t need punishment – it doesn’t help. It sets them back. People need rebuilding in an emotional and in a physical sense.”

Police can already tackle harrassment, anti-social behaviour and modern slavery, using exisiting laws. There’s no need for further legislation. Instead, Government should consider how they can update police guidance or strengthen existing laws and make sure there’s better support available to genuinely end people’s homelessness. I interviewed Anthony, who has experience of street homelessness, but has also been a Homelessness Outreach Worker in Westminster:

“I never saw anyone benefit from the Vagrancy Act or that type of enforcement. I’ve seen people benefit from Housing First. That’s what we need: support and choice.”

That’s the direction that parliamentarians want us to be headed in. There’s plenty of evidence for housing-led, supportive approaches like Housing First, and there’s support from both sides of the house, building on the success of the Government’s own pilots. But it would be a setback on the road to meeting the Government’s promise to end rough sleeping, if the parliament that repealed the Vagrancy Act would replace it with something just as cruel.

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