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The Vagrancy Act should be repealed and replaced with legislation that puts protection not criminality at its heart

The Vagrancy Act should be repealed and replaced with legislation that puts protection not criminality at its heart

Rather than help those on the street the Vagrancy Act criminalises them, writes Nickie Aiken MP. | PA Images

3 min read

The Vagrancy Act is simply not fit for purpose. New legislation must recognise there needs to be a combined health and housing approach to tackle rough sleeping.

Dramatic and timely words from Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick last week: “It is my opinion that the Vagrancy Act should be repealed. It is an antiquated piece of legislation whose time has been and gone… The act itself she be consigned to the history”. He was responding to my question asking for his support to repeal this outdated law.

His commitment came during the ministerial statement on the annual rough sleeping numbers.

Much has been spoken about repealing this archaic legislation. Charities, police, and politicians from across the political spectrum all agree that it’s time for action and I’m delighted that the government clearly agrees.

The Vagrancy Act established in 1824 is simply not fit for purpose. It fails to address the acute 21st century problems that local authorities and charities are working tirelessly to deal with amongst the street population.

Rather than help those on the street the Vagrancy Act criminalises them. Similarly, powers under the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act (2014), including Public Space Protection Orders and Criminal Behaviour Orders, are increasingly used to specifically target people sleeping rough, particularly those involved in anti-social behaviour.

Yes, we must challenge such behaviour, but rather than criminalise those involved surely the better outcome for them and for society as a whole is to address the reasons why they are on the street in the first place and acting as they are?

A bed is one thing, but without the support services attached it won’t change much for those in desperate need

I would like to replace the Vagrancy Act with legislation that allows for assertive outreach and puts protection not criminality at its heart.

The causes of rough sleeping can range from people experiencing mental health issues and substance abuse to being victims of human trafficking. We know that so many on the street present with complex needs and do not have the mental health capacity to make the decision for their own well-being to accept the help on offer.

For those that are suffering from mental health and addiction issues I feel the answer is clear: we need to offer greater social care and specialist medical support alongside a bed. I am therefore delighted that this government clearly understands the importance of tackling mental health and addiction.

I am proud that Westminster Council has over 400 beds for rough sleepers on any given night. However, after speaking in depth with the Council and charities it is clear that what is now needed is sustainable and long-term support attached to that bed.

That means providing the addiction councillor, the psychiatric help, the medical care for those who have suffered after years of sleeping rough. 

It was reassuring to hear the Secretary of State make clear that the government accepts there must be a combined health and housing approach to tackling rough sleeping.

The current pandemic has shown that when central and local government works together much can be achieved. During the first lockdown, the ‘Everyone In’ strategy saw 90% of those on the street brought in and with integrated services available many accepted the mental health and addiction help provided as part of the Covid-19 support.

A bed is one thing, but without the support services attached it won’t change much for those in desperate need. Tackling the causes of rough sleeping requires long term, sustainable funding – but also a new approach.

Repealing the Vagrancy Act and replacing it with legislation that puts assertive outreach with health and support at its heart rather than criminalisation will go a long way to ending rough sleeping for good.

 

Nickie Aiken is the Conservative MP for Cities of London and Westminster.

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