A step closer to scrapping the Vagrancy Act
The Vagrancy Act 1824 makes homelessness a crime. Since it was passed almost two centuries ago people on the street who were sleeping rough and/or begging have been challenged and, in some cases, arrested and fined by courts.
This looks set to change, however, as the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Robert Jenrick MP, told the House of Commons yesterday (25 February) that the law should be “consigned to history”.
This is very welcome news. During the coronavirus pandemic we’ve seen the importance of having a home and just how much we all rely on having a safe and stable place in our lives. It’s not right that people should be penalised by the law simply for having nowhere safe to stay.
And we know that the Vagrancy Act does nothing to resolve the root causes of homelessness. Threatening people on the street - who are already under many pressures - with this legislation is dehumanising and degrading. It also pushes them further away from the support they need.
The archaic, ‘out of sight and out of mind’ approach set out in the law was designed in a very different time. That’s why the Government in Westminster has been reviewing the Act, which applies across England and Wales, as part of the Rough Sleeping Strategy for England. The strategy said that:
“Those who find themselves sleeping rough are some of the most vulnerable in society and we are clear that people who sleep rough should not be discriminated against.”
We launched our campaign to repeal the law with partners at Centrepoint, Cymorth Cymru, Homeless Link, Liberty, Shelter Cymru, St Mungo’s and The Wallich. Our Scrap the Act campaign report found that this law does nothing to resolve the root causes of homelessness and, worse still, pushes people further away from the support they need to leave the street. We spoke to Pudsey, Sam, Karl, Shaun and Peter – all of whom had been homelessness on the street and had their own stories of how the Act simply added to the pressures they faced and made it more difficult to leave the street. Karl told us:
“It would be brilliant if the Vagrancy Act could be repealed. That would help turn public opinion back to helping homeless people instead of punishing them. At the end of the day the police only do as they’re told. People always says it’s complex to end homelessness. But it’s not. It’s only complex for homeless people living on the streets. The solutions to solve it are already there.”
Charity support workers in our own services and in partner organisations described the indignities of people on the street forced to hide, further away from support and in some cases more at risk of exploitation. And individual police officers and lawyers told us about their frustrations of seeing the same people going through courts and police cells with no help to break this cycle and end their homelessness.
We launched the Scrap the Act campaign and report at a cross-party parliamentary event, where Karl spoke about his experiences in the presence of the then Homelessness Minister, and other Crisis members (service users) showcased pieces of music and poetry they had written on the theme of the Vagrancy Act.
More than 50 organisations and thousands of Crisis supporters showed their support for the campaign: by signing our petition, writing to their local MP, writing to the Homelessness Minister and the Home Secretary, and writing to their local Police and Crime Commissioner, making the case for the Act to be scrapped. The Westminster Government said it was considering what to do with the Vagrancy Act, but had not given a clearer sign of whether it would be repealed.
This changed yesterday with the Secretary of State's indication that we could be a step forward to scrapping the Act. There are still important details to work out. One thing is for sure though: having worked closely with MPs, police and people with lived experience of rough sleeping, we know it’s time to right this historic wrong. We’re looking forward to working with the Government on the legislation to repeal the Act and consign it to history once and for all.
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