Homelessness should not be a crime
The Vagrancy Act is an archaic law that undermines the positive work being done by this government to help the homeless – it should be repealed immediately, says Bob Blackman
The early part of the 19th century was a time of enormous social upheaval in Britain. At a time when society was still adjusting amid the new age of mass industrialisation, the Napoleonic wars of 1803-1815 saw many young men returning from the frontline with severe injuries that prevented them from doing the sort of physical labour and factory work that was on offer. It’s no coincidence that the 1820s saw the first urban police forces created in our cities, and that in 1824 the Vagrancy Act was passed to tackle the issue of homeless veterans.
For context, in 1824, children aged nine could still work in factories, the right to vote had not yet been extended beyond the land-owning gentry, and there would be no limits on the number of hours people had to labour in a day for another two decades.
Yet this is the period from which British legislation on rough sleeping originates; the last piece of legislation left which criminalises the act itself and which remains in use today.
Offences under the Vagrancy Act include being on enclosed premises for “unlawful purposes”, begging, and sleeping rough. The official figures do not include the many people moved on or fined on the spot, who are never even picked up in the statistics, like those moved on from Westminster station’s underpass recently.
These are the people who will remember the fear of authority that was created, and who will be more likely to stay away from support services as a result, leading to more time on the streets and, let’s be honest, a high probability of return to the very same underpass.
Too many opportunities to prevent homelessness are being missed in the current system. That is why I authored the Homelessness Reduction Act, to encourage an approach that favours prevention over triage; helping people to avoid homelessness, rather than waiting until the crisis point has hit and then dumping them into costly and unsuitable temporary accommodation, sometimes for years.
The Vagrancy Act is, to me, an anachronism that undermines the positive work being done by this government to support people who have fallen through the net and become homeless. There is something deeply distasteful about criminalising rough sleeping in particular, given the context of vulnerability and high rates of mental health problems involved. It also flies in the face of the evidence of what actually works to help people out of these situations.
Of course, I understand that frontline police are often under pressure to act, especially when it comes to begging in public spaces. However, the reality is that for every other crime the Vagrancy Act 1824 has been used to arrest people across its two centuries of active use, modern legislation has superseded it.
The Public Order Act 1986, for example, covers what might be described as “aggressive” begging. The Fraud Act 2006 covers fraudulent begging. Trespassing is amply covered elsewhere, as is blocking of highways and public pathways, and antisocial behaviour in general.
Put simply, we don’t need to rely on 200-year-old legislation, with none of the modern safeguards, to deal with genuine criminality. It is also worth noting that it has been repealed in Northern Ireland and Scotland already without issue, leaving only England and Wales behind the curve.
I want to see our police service freed to deal with serious violent crime, including the horrendous knife crime epidemic in the capital which has claimed so many lives, including in Harrow. It is a waste of their time to be moving people around in a way that does nothing to end the homelessness of a single individual involved.
Beyond that, there is also an insidiousness to the Vagrancy Act that should set any socially minded person on edge. A product of its time, it is so broadly constructed that it can and has been used for everything from removing women from households for “living in sin”, to arresting homosexuals and palm readers, to silencing buskers, to breaking up groups of young black men in the 1970s (arguably a strong contributor to the Brixton riots), to tackling streaking at sporting events in the 1990s.
The government has promised to review the Vagrancy Act as part of the rough sleeping strategy, which is to be commended, but that may take some time. The people being arrested and sent around an unforgiving system, which wastes the time of our courts and the police, will only continue to go around in circles, instead of being helped into support services at first contact.
Given the fact that nearly 600 people died while homeless last year, there really is no time to delay. It should be the rule, not the exception, that the police are joined up with outreach services and able to make immediate referrals, with a network of support in place to deal more effectively with all of the underlying issues that cause homelessness.
That is why I’m calling on the government not to delay and to simply make a commitment to repeal the Vagrancy Act once and for all.
Bob Blackman is Conservative MP for Harrow East