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Scrapping the Act: repealing the outdated Vagrancy Act once and for all 

Rosie Downes, Campaigns Manager

At a recent Westminster Hall debate on the Vagrancy Act, not a single MP made the case against repealing this cruel and outdated legislation. The Vagrancy Act makes it a crime to sleep rough or beg in England and Wales. It’s still used to this day, with figures indicating that the Act is used by the vast majority of police forces across England and Wales. 

Scrapping the act

Together with Centrepoint, St Mungo’s, Liberty, Homeless Link, Shelter Cymru, Cymorth Cymru and the Wallich, we’ve been calling for the Vagrancy Act to be scrapped. We’ve been getting the message out that the Vagrancy Act does nothing to resolve the root causes of homelessness – in fact, it’s more likely to push someone further away from the vital services that help them to move away from the streets.

We were pleased to hear that message echoed back during the Westminster Hall debate from all parties. Conservative MP Nickie Aiken, who secured the debate, said that rather than criminalising people forced to sleep rough, she believed the better outcome is “to address the reasons they are on the street in the first place.” DUP MP Jim Shannon acknowledged our Scrap the Act campaign and the 50 housing and homelessness organisations calling for repeal of the Act. Labour MP Mick Whitley made the point that fines issued under the Vagrancy Act can be sometimes as high as £1,000 – an amount that will “only plunge people further into dire poverty”, and traps people in a vicious circle of criminalisation and being pushed further from sources of support. Co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Ending Homelessness Bob Blackman MP made the case that “we should say to the people of this country that people who are homeless should not be arrested but assisted.” And Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran MP, who has been calling for repeal of the Vagrancy Act for several years, put forward that we need a “more holistic and more compassionate” response to homelessness, which must start by repealing this cruel and needless law.

Dealing with the root causes of homelessness

So: what next? Robert Jenrick MP, the Secretary of State for Housing, recently told the House of Commons that the Act should be “consigned to history”. At the Westminster Hall debate Homelessness Minister Eddie Hughes MP echoed this message, saying that the Act is “antiquated” and its “time has been and gone”. “We are currently finalising the conclusions of the review and will announce our position shortly”, Mr Hughes told MPs. But what happens next matters. Repeal of the Act is important and welcome - but must not be accompanied by any draconian measures that would mean vulnerable people continue to be pushed further from support. As we explain in Scrap the Act: The case for repealing the Vagrancy Act (1824), evidence shows that a criminal justice and police response is highly unlikely in most cases to effectively address the root causes of why people sleep rough in the first place, leading to a lack of long term impact and potentially repeated contacts between the individual and authorities.

Our Vagrancy Act Repeal Bill

We know that during the Government’s review of the Vagrancy Act, concerns have been raised by some that repealing the Act could leave police without the powers to deal with aggressive begging. It’s a thorny issue, as the definition of ‘aggressive begging’ varies between areas across England and Wales. It makes sense that the police should be able to tackle genuinely antisocial behaviour when it happens. But it’s important that enforcement isn’t the default response, and that we don’t criminalise people just for sleeping rough or begging. That’s why at Crisis, we’ve worked with legal teams to produce a draft Vagrancy Act Repeal Bill. The draft Bill provides for a referral to support to be the standard response to begging and rough sleeping. It also provides for enforcement action to be used in exceptional circumstances of antisocial behaviour, using existing legal powers and guided by clear principles, to ensure the police do have powers to tackle genuinely aggressive begging if they need to.

We’ve shared our proposal with the Government and we’re now waiting to hear more about the next steps. We’re optimistic that this outdated legislation can be scrapped and a more supportive approach taken, without any further draconian measures being needlessly and damagingly brought forward. At the end of the day, scrapping the Vagrancy Act won’t end homelessness by itself – but it could be a great step forward, and send a clear signal that, as a society, we want to take a more compassionate and holistic approach in how we respond to homelessness. Let’s make sure we don’t lose sight of that.

Sign up to hear more about the campaign, email your MP and more: www.crisis.org.uk/ScrapTheAct

 

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