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Government urged to scrap ‘outdated’ Vagrancy Act

Senior police and charities have called for the repeal of the 1824 Vagrancy Act, saying it is outdated, inhumane and should be scrapped.

The act, which makes rough sleeping and begging illegal in England and Wales, only criminalises vulnerable homeless people and pushes them further from help, the homelessness charity Crisis has found in a new report.

Crisis’ call for the repeal of the act comes as the government said it would review it as part of its rough sleeping strategy.

Jon Sparkes, chief executive of Crisis, said: ‘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.

‘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 Vagrancy Act 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. In 1982 the Act was abolished in Scotland, which uses additional legislation to tackle anti-social behaviour.

Figures obtained from a Freedom of Information request from the Ministry of Justice revealed 1,320 recorded prosecutions under the Vagrancy Act in 2018, an increase of 6% on the previous year but less than half the number made in 2014.

Despite this, rough sleeping in England has risen by 70% in England between 2014 and 2018, suggesting that the Act does not deal with rough sleeping effectively.

Critics of the Vagrancy Act say that its informal use to move rough sleepers on does not address the root causes of homelessness, and only serves to push homeless people towards more dangerous situations or into the criminal justice system.

A legislative review contained in Crisis’ report also found that the Act’s use is largely obsolete, with new laws like the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 more appropriate at tackling behaviour like aggressive begging.

Senior police officers have admitted that the Act’s punitive focus is not the best approach to tackling rough sleeping or begging, saying that a greater emphasis should be made on support and outreach.

Lord Hogan-Howe QPM, former Metropolitan Police commissioner, said: ‘The Vagrancy Act implies that it is the responsibility of the police alone to respond to these issues, but that is a view firmly rooted in 1824.

‘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.’

Crisis’ report concluded that dedicated outreach teams, offers of stable accommodation and meaningful long-term support are all better approaches for addressing rough sleeping.

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