The importance of scrapping the Vagrancy Act 1824
On Tuesday 22nd February 2022, the UK government bowed to cross-party pressure and tabled an amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill that would repeal the Vagrancy Act 1824 (“the Act”) in its entirety.
The Act garnered attention in 2018 when the Leader of the Royal Borough of Windsor & Maidenhead wrote to the Police and Crime Commissioner for the Thames Valley calling for the Act to be used to clear the homeless and their belongings from the streets of Windsor before the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.
Under Section 3 of the Act, begging was deemed a criminal offence and under Section 4, rough sleeping was a criminal offence. Section 4 made specific reference to anyone "lodging in any barn or outhouse, or in any deserted or unoccupied building, or in the open air, or under a tent, or in any cart or wagon".
According to the government’s own research briefing published on 9 April 2021, in 2019 alone, there were 926 prosecutions and 742 convictions for begging under Section 3 of the Act. Under Section 4, there were 183 prosecution and 140 convictions, although only 4 convictions were specific offences of ‘sleeping out’.
In 2018, there were 1,320 prosecutions in total under the Act. It was also used during the pandemic, even when the Everyone In scheme was in place to provide the necessary protection and support to those homeless and rough sleeping. A Freedom of Information request revealed that 361 charges were made that lead to court hearings between April and September 2020, during the first lockdown.
Although the number of prosecutions under the Act had declined in the last decade, the existence of the Act still enabled the criminalisation of those that were homeless, rough sleeping, or begging. There are several reasons that this amendment to repeal the Act is a significant development concerning homelessness and begging and should be celebrated as a huge success.
Reasons for Reform
Firstly, the Act is nearly 200 years old. It was first introduced as a way for the police to target destitute soldiers returning from the Napoleonic Wars who ended up rough sleeping, and clear them from the streets. It is clear the purpose of the Act and its Georgian-era agenda have significantly changed since they were originally introduced. The current use of the Act sees criminalisation of homelessness and/or begging, particularly for those finding themselves in a position of severe poverty - a substantial departure from its original use. If anything, it only further entrenches the problem in society by driving people from support and putting in place unnecessary obstacles. It is therefore perfectly reasonable to consider legislation as old as the Act to be archaic, cruel and no longer fit for purpose.
Related to this is the fact that modern society now has a much greater appreciation for the complexities of homelessness and how it is a multi-faceted problem, whereby issuing a fine to someone who is homeless is self-defeating. There is a far deeper understanding and recognition of the importance of human rights than when the Act was first introduced.
Secondly, the Act in its current form does nothing to tackle the root causes of homelessness or make any contribution to providing a constructive or sustainable long-term solution to homelessness and rough sleeping.
The decision to repeal the Act is a positive step forward in the law in that it highlights the importance of our laws developing with the times so that legislation remains fit for purpose. It also signifies an acknowledgment that criminalising those that are homeless and rough sleeping serves no beneficial purpose and is contrary to human rights. Instead, time and effort should be focused on addressing the causes of homelessness and rough sleeping, as well as treating those that find themselves in such a position with a greater degree of respect and humanity that has been lacking whilst the Vagrancy Act has been enforced.
The decision to repeal the Vagrancy Act may seem like an almost obvious legal development, yet it has been hotly disputed for several years. It is a critical moment in removing a law that has enabled the criminalisation of homelessness, rough sleeping and begging for almost two centuries. Repealing the Act is just one small step towards ending homelessness, but nevertheless a promising one and an important one in supporting the vulnerable in society.