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23 January 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:27pm

The politicians resurrecting a Dickensian law to make homeless people into criminals

Why the 1824 Vagrancy Act is being used by councils to prosecute rough sleepers, and how to stop it.

By Thomas Zagoria

In 1824, the Earl of Liverpool was Prime Minister, Lord Byron was dying of fever on his way to fight the Ottomans, Australia was officially named “Australia”, and life expectancy in the UK was about 40.

1824 was also the year from which current government policy on rough sleeping gets its statutory backing.

According to the 1824 Vagrancy Act, police are given powers to arrest and detain for up to three months anyone found, “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 waggon, not having any visible means of subsistence”.

This in effect allows for the arrest of homeless people simply for sleeping rough.

Not only is this law still on the books despite the efforts of campaigners, it continues to be enforced even today.

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This anachronistic legislation has been repealed in Scotland and Northern Ireland, the revocation of the relevant sections of the act were put forward in the 1979 Labour manifesto, and a 1990 early day motion in Parliament calling for its urgent repeal received the support of such then-obscure backbenchers as Diane Abbott and Jeremy Corbyn.

The act then fell out of public attention for decades, but it continued to be used to prosecute rough sleepers in England and Wales. In 2016/17, a Freedom of Information request reported 1,810 prosecutions under the act, and as recently as 2015 the number was more than 3,000.

Yet those are only the prosecutions, and lying behind those statistics is the constant experience of harassment with threat of arrest. Speak to rough sleepers directly and you’ll likely hear countless stories of being moved on and threatened.

The Vagrancy Act doesn’t just cover rough sleeping, and includes specific provisions against such offences as indecent exposure. Yet while these other offences are covered by other legislation, the Vagrancy Act is the only one that specifically criminalises rough sleeping, and its repeal would severely restrict what rough sleepers could be harassed for.

A petition to repeal the Act by Alex Kumar, chair of Oxford-based homelessness campaign group On Your Doorstep, is currently at over 10,000 signatures, but needs 100,000 to secure a Commons debate. As Kumar points out, “homelessness in Britain in 2018 is not a criminal issue, but a humanitarian crisis”. He recognises that this fight may not be a short one, but says, “we cannot let this law reach its 200th birthday”.

Repealing it wouldn’t simply be a symbolic gesture – this month the Windsor Council leader Simon Dudley wanted to use the legislation to clear the streets of rough sleepers prior to the Royal Wedding. He denounced what he called “an epidemic of rough sleeping and vagrancy in Windsor”, claiming that “residents have had enough of this exploitation of residents and 6 million tourists pa”.

With the 134 per cent rise in rough sleeping since 2010, the plight of the homeless has become more visible. And with recent deaths on the streets, it has become more urgent. The sharp rise has directly correlated with austerity measures – it is our society that must take the blame for their position. To label their mere presence “exploitation” of those lucky enough to have a home, as Dudley does, is inexcusable. It is urgent that Dudley is denied the power to take from homeless people even the basic right to shelter outside where they can.

Repealing the Vagrancy Act on its own will not be enough. Rough sleepers suffer harassment every day from a criminal justice system that automatically treats them as suspects, despite the fact that they are far more likely to be victims than perpetrators of crime – being 15 times more likely to be victims of assault than the general public.

There needs to be urgent and wider reform to take steps to end homelessness, and also treat those who are homeless with dignity and compassion. We need to stop being a society that kicks people while they’re down. But the Vagrancy Act does not simply allow for prosecution of rough sleepers for what they do, but for who they are. It criminalises their very existence.

Sign the petition to repeal the Vagrancy Act here.

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