You might not know it, but in the year 2019 people experiencing homelessness in the UK can still be prosecuted under a law against “vagrancy” and begging that’s almost 200 years old.
A leading homelessness charity has now called for the law to be finally scrapped — and the campaign has the support of police representatives and politicians too.
The 1824 Vagrancy Act was originally designed to make it easier for police to clear the streets of soldiers who were begging after returning penniless from the Napoleonic wars.
As antiquated and harsh as that sounds, a similar call was made ahead of Meghan and Harry’s royal wedding last year — when the head of Windsor council controversially suggested that police use the Vagrancy Act to clear the town of people sleeping rough ahead of the big day.
The #ScrapTheAct campaign was launched on Wednesday by homelessness charity Crisis. The argument is that the act does nothing to solve the root causes of homelessness and is more “likely to push someone further from vital services that help them."
Jon Sparkes, the chief executive of Crisis, told the Guardian: “There are real solutions to resolving people’s homelessness — arrest and prosecution are not among them."
“The government has pledged to review the Vagrancy Act as part of its rough sleeping strategy, but it must go further," he continued. "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.”
Alarmingly, hundreds of people are still reportedly prosecuted under the law. Numbers have dipped after a spike between 2013 and 2015, but 2018 still saw 1,320 prosecutions, according to figures from the Ministry of Justice cited in the Guardian. Councils use the act, along with a variety of other legal threats, to tear down and remove homeless camps from towns, the newspaper said.
People who are experiencing homeless can even be fined — up to a maximum of £1,000 — for begging or sleeping rough in the street or in deserted buildings with no “visible means of sustenance” according to the law. The language of the act is old-fashioned too, in that it refers to people “deemed to be vagabonds and rogues."
Some senior leaders in the police force have also spoken out against the Vagrancy Act for being so out of date and for making dealing with homelessness the sole responsibility of the police when support is out there from other agencies.
David Jamieson, the West Midlands police and crime commissioner, said: “The Vagrancy Act is just so inappropriate. It’s not an offence to be down on your luck and lying in the doorway.”
Crisis is calling for the law in England and Wales to catch up with Scotland — which got rid of it in 1982 and implemented updated legislation to deal with anti-social behaviour.
Nothing is set in stone yet but politicians have suggested the law could be changed. The Conservative MP and minister for housing and homelessness, Heather Wheeler, said: “No one in this day and age should be criminalised for having nowhere to live… We’re carrying out a wider review of rough sleeping and homelessness legislation, including the Vagrancy Act, and will set out further steps in due course.”
Meanwhile, the Labour Party has said it would repeal the act.
At the end of 2018, figures from the charity, Shelter, estimated that 320,000 people in Britain are homeless, including people in temporary accommodation, hostels, and rough sleeping. The number of people sleeping rough in 2018 was 4,677 according to the government's latest estimates, but charities say it’s likely to be higher.