A law originally created to criminalise destitute soldiers returning from the Napoleonic Wars is today doing the same to modern rough sleepers – and it must be scrapped, a charity says
By Northern Housing Staff
CRISIS is leading the call for the repeal of the Vagrancy Act 1824; a pre-Victorian era relic that is widely regarded as draconian but also increasingly obsolete. In a new report published today, the charity argues that the law needlessly pushes vulnerable people further away from help.
“The continued practice of criminalising homeless people under the Vagrancy Act is a disgrace. There are real solutions to resolving people’s homelessness – arrest and prosecution are not among them,” said Jon Sparkes, chief executive of Crisis.
“Of course, police and councils must be able to respond to the concerns of local residents in cases of genuine anti-social activity, but we need to see an approach that allows vulnerable people access to the vital services they need to move away from the streets for good.
“The Government has pledged to review the Vagrancy Act as part of its rough sleeping strategy, but it must go further. The Act may have been fit for purpose 200 years ago, but it now represents everything that’s wrong with how homeless and vulnerable people are treated. It must be scrapped.”
Behind Crisis – and its report, Scrap the Act: A case for repealing the Vagrancy Act (1824) – is a coalition of charities that back the call for the legislation to be repealed.
“The Vagrancy Act is outdated and worse than that, it is hugely damaging,” said Rick Henderson, chief executive of Homeless Link. “Threat of punishment drives people further away from the services and support that is there to help, and criminalising people for sleeping rough has an adverse effect on the efforts being made by many to end rough sleeping. We stand alongside our members – homelessness organisations up and down the country – in fully supporting this campaign to repeal the Vagrancy Act.”
Meanwhile, leading figures from across the political spectrum, the police – including former Met Commissioner, Lord Hogan-Howe – have also backed the appeal, branding the law out of date, inhumane and unfit to deal with the modern challenges of addressing rough sleeping and begging.
“The Vagrancy Act implies that it is the responsibility of the police alone to respond to these issues [rough sleeping and begging], but that is a view firmly rooted in 1824,” said Lord Hogan-Howe. “Nowadays, we know that multi-agency support and the employment of frontline outreach services can make a huge difference in helping people overcome the barriers that would otherwise keep them homeless.”
The Vagrancy Act 1824 was originally brought in to make it easier for the police of the time to clear the streets of destitute soldiers returning from the Napoleonic Wars. It makes it a criminal offence to ‘wander abroad’ or to be ‘in any public place, street, highway, court, or passage, to beg or gather alms’ in England and Wales.
Nearly two hundred years later, it is still being employed, despite criticism from within the police force that it needlessly criminalises vulnerable people.
The chief inspector of one English police force, quoted anonymously by Crisis, said: “It is extremely rare for people to make an informed decision to be homeless, and many people living without shelter have complex needs: they may be fleeing abuse at home, may struggle with addiction, and/or suffer from poor health. To criminalise this seems, well… criminal.”
Another chief inspector, also speaking on condition of anonymity, told Crisis: “We joined the job to help people who are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, and the homeless community are more likely to be victimised owing to their housing status than other members of our communities. We have a duty to protect them as vulnerable adults in our community. We are asked to consider how we prioritise our scant resources according to threat, risk and harm. But with begging, where’s the threat? Where’s the risk? Where’s the harm?”
While some police forces are reluctant to employ the Act, Crisis found that it remains very much in use. According to figures from the Ministry of Justice, obtained through Freedom of Information requests, there were 1,320 recorded prosecutions under the Vagrancy Act in 2018. This was an increase of 6% on the previous year, but less than half the number made five years ago.
Rough sleeping in England has increased significantly between 2014 and 2018, rising by 70% in England, in the same period, which Crisis said suggests the Act is not the most effective tool for dealing with rough sleeping.
Begging is the most prosecuted offence under the Act, according to the report, with around 1,000 prosecutions in 2017. While this represents a low in more recent terms, it has fluctuated over time. In the late 1980s and early 1990s the figures were around 1,500. The current level of begging prosecutions is on a par with the early 1970s and the early 1980s, but it is much higher than earlier decades, such as the 1950s and 1960s.
Prosecutions for ‘sleeping out’ are low, with only 11 in 2018, but there was a peak in 2010, when there were 50 prosecutions. They were last at this approximate level during the mid to late 1980s (there were nine prosecutions in 1986, 14 in 1987 and 13 in 1988, and 24 in 1989). Use of the Act continued to be uneven, however. In 1989 specifically, for example, half of sleeping out prosecutions were in London and there were no recorded prosecutions in Wales.
Prosecutions for ‘being found in enclosed premises for an unlawful purpose’ were at 207 in 2017, but also peaked most recently around 2011 at just over 1,000.
Prosecution numbers may show fluctuations, but Crisis said that previous evidence has shown that rough sleeps are far more frequently likely to face informal use of the Vagrancy Act (and other powers) to move them on, or challenge behaviour without formal caution or arrest.
This kind of approach is counterproductive, Crisis suggests. For one thing, it causes frustration among the people affected. That includes support and outreach workers, and some police themselves, since these approaches don’t address the root causes of the situation.
For another, the approach is rarely accompanied by signposting to services, and simply serves to push people into more dangerous places, riskier activities, or into a criminal justice system that is not well designed to address their needs.
What’s more, as well as attracting criticism from law enforcement agencies and those affected by it, Crisis said its research for its report has also found the Act has little practical use. A review of existing legislation found the Act to be ‘obsolete’ given the alternatives available to police.
Laws including the anti-social behaviour act of 2014 are cited as being a more appropriate way of addressing activity like aggressive begging, while senior figures from the police agree the solutions to rough sleeping lie in helping people away from the streets, something they are not best placed to do.
Responding to the campaign to scrap the Vagrancy Act, the Local Government Association (LGA) said that local authorities use enforcement action only as the last resort.
“Councils want to help people living on the streets and take a balanced approach to tackle anti-social behaviour raised by local communities, which includes persistent, aggressive begging and intimidating behaviour, which can ruin people’s quality of life, harm businesses or mean people are scared to visit public places,” said Councillor Simon Blackburn, chair of the LGA’s safer and stronger communities board.
“Before using their powers, councils will consider how they might affect vulnerable people, often working with community partners to help resolve any ongoing problems, in order to find a long-term solution. Enforcement action is always a last resort.
“With rough sleeping, councils are determined to prevent homelessness and rough sleeping from happening in the first place and support families affected, but this is becoming increasingly difficult with homelessness services facing a £421 million funding gap by 2024/25. This has severely limited the ability of councils’ outreach services to support rough sleepers.
“Government needs to use the Spending Review to fund councils sustainably to prevent homelessness in the first place, and to help them resume their historic role as major housebuilders of good-quality, affordable homes. This will help make homelessness a thing of the past and remove housing insecurities for current and future generations.
“Critical to this goal will be allowing councils to keep 100% of their Right to Buy receipts and to set discounts locally.”