Rough sleeping is on the rise in the UK, up 15% from 2016 to 2017. Thousands of people are now living and dying on British streets, fuelled by factors like insecure income, universal credit, high rents, cuts to mental health services and cuts to social care.
Living on the streets is dangerous, frightening and isolating. Rough sleepers are 17 times more likely to be victims of violence and a quarter of female rough sleepers have been sexually assaulted whilst on the streets. The average life expectancy of a rough sleeper is 43, nearly half the UK average. And yet, instead of helping the most vulnerable people in our society, we have a law which criminalises their very existence and makes life even harder.
Under the Vagrancy Act (1824), it is illegal to sleep rough or to beg, the Act deeming them “rogues and vagabonds”. This law has already been repealed in Scotland and Northern Ireland but remains in force in England and Wales. Anyone found to be sleeping in a public place can be arrested and charges brought against them.
In 2017 alone, 1033 people were brought before the court for rough sleeping or begging, 874 of whom were convicted according to the Criminal Justice System quarterly statistics. Of these people, 509 received a fine averaging £62, but some were fined up to £500. And five people were sent to prison for a month. Hundreds more are moved on by the police under threat of arrest.
The Vagrancy Act has come under scrutiny recently in Parliament for its callous treatment of homeless people. Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran is championing a Private Members’ Bill to repeal the Vagrancy Act and led a debate in the House of Commons at the end of January.
She said in the Commons: “The Vagrancy Act is a cruel and outdated piece of legislation. It was an Act that aimed to tackle the rise in homeless veterans after the Napoleonic wars. And even then it was controversial, for even William Wilberforce, the great abolitionist, suggested that it was too catch-all because it did not consider people’s individual circumstances. Nearly 200 years later it is still used to criminalise people for rough sleeping or begging.”
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To anyone acquainted with this somewhat draconian law, it is clear it needs to be scrapped. The Government claims that “enforcement” is one of many strategies being used to end rough sleeping, but this works under the assumption that people are choosing to live on the streets, when usually it is the last place they want to be. There is no point outlawing something that people have very little choice in.
Efficacy aside, the Vagrancy Act is deplorable because it actively harms those in our country who have the least. Fining people with no money only makes their situation worse and creates a distrust in the authorities that makes them less likely to seek help through official channels. The experience of being moved on, arrested and fined makes people feel hunted and hounded by the police. Charities, who often fill the gap left by the closing of homeless shelters by local authorities, find it harder to engage with rough sleepers when their main relationship with authority is a hostile one.
Not only that, but a criminal record can impede someone’s ability to get a job, which is crucial to getting back on their feet. And it perpetuates the narrative that homeless people are not deserving, that they are criminal and dangerous.
The Vagrancy Act has been condemned by charities like Crisis, Centrepoint and St Mungo’s. Just before Christmas, even the Labour party announced that they would repeal the Vagrancy Act in Government. This support has helped the campaign gain momentum, although the sheer hypocrisy of Labour now swinging this way is worth noting. Not a single Labour MP co-sponsored Ms Moran’s Bill to repeal the Act last year and only five signed her Early Day Motion to do the same.
What’s more, Labour councils up and down the country have been fining homeless people under this very Act without rebuke from the leadership of the party. In fact, it was the heartless enforcement of the Act by Labour-run Oxford City Council that sparked this campaign to begin with. Oxford student group On Your Doorstep recognised that the council were frequently forcing rough sleepers to move, fining them and even stealing their belongings. The students started a petition on the Government’s official petition website to repeal the Act, which raked in over 20,000 signatures.
On Your Doorstep Chair Alex Kumar, said: “There is no justice to be found here. This Act serves no purpose but the punishment, persecution and stigmatisation of some of the most vulnerable in society.”
Despite the disgraceful treatment of homeless people under this act, the Vagrancy Act has not yet been repealed and we can only assume it is because it is convenient for councils to be able to keep these people ‘out of sight, out of mind’. This was perhaps epitomised by the council who called for rough sleepers to be cleared in Windsor ahead of the Royal Wedding. The Conservative council leader said beggars could present the town in a “sadly unfavourable light”. Councils have even been known to give rough sleepers a one-way bus ticket out of their jurisdiction.
But whilst it may not be convenient, the Vagrancy Act has to go. It is an archaic and barbaric law that criminalises those with nowhere to go. It does not consider that many people who are rough sleeping have little choice in the matter. It legitimises the actions of police and local authorities to brush the issue of homelessness under the carpet.
And now Labour officially back the Repeal Bill, perhaps Labour councils will stop using the Act to their advantage to the detriment of rough sleepers. Perhaps even the Government will be forced to reconsider its position on whether the homeless should be treated with dignity and respect.