Politicians, police and charties have teamed up to call on the UK Government to scrap the “centuries old” Vagrancy Act, which they say is used to punish rough sleepers.
The calls come as the Government announced its review of the Act as part of its rough sleeping strategy.
The 1824 Vagrancy Act was introduced to make it easier for police to clear the streets of destitute soldiers returning from the Napoleonic Wars. It 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.
Campaigners say that while the use of the Vagrancy Act to prosecute rough sleepers has fluctuated over the years, evidence obtianed through a Freedom of Information requesst shows that the cruel policy is still very much in use.
There were 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 five years ago.
It comes at a time when rough sleeping is on the increase, rising by 70% in England since 2014.
Pudsey left care at 15 and ended up living on the streets. “Since coming to Blackpool I’ve now had thirteen charges under the Vagrancy Act, and I’ve also been taken to court twice for it”, he said.
“Five of those warnings I was even asleep when they gave them to me, so how could that have been for begging? I just woke up to find it on my sleeping bag.
“Half the homeless in town have been given Vagrancy Act papers now, and most of them have been fined about £100 and then given a banning order from the town centre.
“If they get caught coming back, they get done again and could go to jail, but that means all those people can’t get into town to use the few local services there are for rough sleepers.
“When the SWEP [severe weather emergency protocol] came into place during the winter those people couldn’t get into town to use the emergency shelters because of those banning orders.”
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 Government has pledged to review the Vagrancy Act as part of its rough sleeping strategy, but it must go further.
“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.”
The Lord Hogan-Howe QPM, the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, said: “The Vagrancy Act implies that it is the responsibility of the police alone to respond to these issues [rough sleeping and begging], 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.”