Join the campaign for the repeal of the Vagrancy Act

Monday, 18 March 2019 - 9:42am

In November 2017, Kevin Bigg, who was rough sleeping in Carlisle was arrested after a child threw £2 into his sleeping bag. He was fined £100 for begging, even though he hadn’t asked for the money.

Kevin is just one of many people who’ve been criminalised for sleeping rough under the Vagrancy Act. The Vagrancy Act dates back to 1824, and makes it a crime to sleep rough or beg in England and Wales. It’s still used to this day, with latest figures from Crisis suggesting 34% of local areas are still using the Act to prosecute rough sleeping and begging.

The Vagrancy Act dates back to the years following the Napoleonic wars, when the military was scaled back leaving many veterans destitute. Parliament was concerned at the time that parish constables were ineffective in controlling these ‘vagrants’. The Act has had various reforms over the years: even as long ago as 1906, a Departmental Committee report found:

“We are convinced that the present system neither deters the vagrant nor affords any means of reclaiming him, and we are unanimously of opinion that a thorough reform is necessary.”

In the 1980s, the punishment of imprisonment for vagrancy was removed, but today, the Vagrancy Act can still carry fines of up to £1,000 and leave those convicted under it with a two year criminal record.

The Vagrancy Act 1824 is the only piece of legislation that criminalises the act of rough sleeping itself. But it does nothing to help resolve and tackle the causes of homelessness. In fact, it’s far more likely to prevent someone from accessing vital services that support them to move away from the streets.

“When I found out about them … arresting people for sort of like vagrancy or whatever I learnt to sleep as far out of the city centre as possible.… Some of the places I’ve slept in were terrible, you know what I mean. But at least I knew the police wouldn’t come and you wouldn’t get arrested.… I slept under bridges and all sorts.” Person sleeping rough in Leeds, 2007[1]

Crisis, along with others including Homeless Link, Centrepoint, St Mungo’s and Shelter Cymru, are calling for the Vagrancy Act to be repealed. While using police powers – for example, those under the Anti-Social Behaviour, Policing and Crime Act 2014 - may sometimes be necessary to tackle genuinely anti-social behaviour, this should always be a last resort and accompanied by a meaningful offer of support. Repealing the Vagrancy Act would have a significant impact in helping to shift attitudes towards providing support to help someone end their homelessness, rather than criminalising someone for their circumstances.

In August 2018, the UK Government published its rough sleeping strategy, which commits to reviewing homelessness and rough sleeping legislation, including the Vagrancy Act. We expect this review to take place in 2020. So now is the time to make the case for repeal and show why the Vagrancy Act is at odds with the stated aim of the strategy – to support and rehouse all rough sleepers.

At Crisis, we’re speaking to as many people as possible about their views on the Vagrancy Act to help shape our campaign for its repeal. In February, we were pleased to be able to join the Homeless Link Policy Forum for London based homelessness services, to hear about the impact of the Vagrancy Act on people experiencing homelessness and discuss how to build support for the campaign. We heard how the threat of the Vagrancy Act can push people out of town centres and make them harder to support, and the impact of this on the most vulnerable groups, including women, young people and LGBTQI+ people experiencing homelessness. We talked about why the Vagrancy Act is being used in some areas and not others, and ideas for making the case for repeal even stronger. We also heard about great work that’s already underway to challenge use of the Vagrancy Act, including by students in Oxford.

It’s great to see so much support for the repeal of the Act, and we’re looking forward to continuing to work with Homeless Link members and others on the campaign as it develops. At the moment Crisis are particularly keen to hear about the experiences of people who have been moved on, arrested or even charged under the Vagrancy Act, and what impact this has had on them. If you’ve had personal experience of enforcement action under the Vagrancy Act, or worked with people who have had this experience, we’d love to hear from you – please complete our short form or get in touch by emailing campaigns@crisis.org.uk.

 

[1] https://www.jrf.org.uk/sites/default/files/jrf/migrated/files/2034-enforcement-street-users.pdf [Johnsen, S. and Fitzpatrick, S. (2007) The impact of enforcement on street users in England, York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation, p.38]