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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.

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.

This anachronistic legislation has been repealed in Scotland and Northern Ireland, the revocation of the relevant sections of the act were put forward in the 1979 Labour manifesto, and a 1990 early day motion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.

Thomas Zagoria interned at the New Statesman as a Danson Scholar and campaigns against homelessness in Oxford.

Photo: Getty
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People are not prepared to see innovation at any price - we need to take care of our digital health

Correcting the course of technology in Britain does not need to mean taking backwards steps and becoming an anti-innovation zone.

As individuals, we have never been better connected. As a society, we are being driven further apart.

Doteveryone’s People Power and Technology report, released this week, found that half of the 2,500 British people we surveyed said the internet had made life a lot better for people like them - but only 12 per cent saw a very positive impact on society.

These findings won’t be news to most people living in Brexit Britain - or to anyone who’s been involved in a spat on Twitter. The fact that we’re constantly connected to our smartphones has not necessarily improved our communities or our understanding of one other, and the trails of data we’re leaving behind are not turning into closer social bonds.

Many of the positives we experience are for ourselves as individuals.

Lots of consumer tech puts simple self-sufficiency first - one-click to buy, swipe right to date - giving us a feeling of cosy isolation and making one little phone an everywhere. This powerful individualism is a feature of all of the big platforms - and even social networks like Facebook and Twitter, that are meant bring us together, do so in the context of personalised recommendations and algorithmically ordered timelines.

We are all the centre of our own digital worlds. So it is no surprise that when we do look up from our phones, we feel concerned about the impact on society. Our research findings articulate the dilemma we face: do we do the thing that is easiest for us, or the one that is better for society?

For instance, 78 per cent of people see the Internet as helping us to communicate better, but 68 per cent also feel it makes us less likely to speak to each other face-to-face. 69per cent think the internet helps businesses to sell their products and services, while 53 per cent think it forces local shops to compete against larger companies online.

It’s often hard to see the causality in these trade-offs. At what point does my online shopping tip my high street into decline? When do I notice that I’ve joined another WhatsApp group but haven’t said hello to my neighbour?

When given clear choices, the public was clear in its response.  

We asked how they would feel if an online retailer offered free one-day delivery for lower income families, but this resulted in local shops closing down - 69 per cent found this unacceptable. Or if their bank invested more in combating fraud and cyber crime, but closed their local branch - 61 per cent said it was unacceptable. Or if their council made savings by putting services online and cut council tax as a result, but some people would find it hard to access these services - 56 per cent found it unacceptable.

It seems people are not prepared to see innovation at any price - and not at the expense of their local communities. The poorest find these trade offs least acceptable.

Correcting the course of technology in Britain does not need to mean taking backwards steps and becoming an anti-innovation zone.

A clearer regulatory environment would support positive, responsible change that supports our society, not just the ambition of a few corporations.

Some clarity about our relationship with web services would be a good start. 60 per cent of people Doteveryone spoke to believed there should be an independent body they can turn to when things go wrong online; 89 per cent would like terms and conditions to be clearer, and 47% feel they have no choice but to sign up to services, even when they have concerns.

Technology regulation is complicated and fragmentary. Ofcom and the under-resourced Information Commissioner’s Office, provide some answers,but they are not sufficient to regulate the myriad effects of social media, let alone the changes that new technologies like self-driving cars will bring. There needs to be a revolution in government, but at present as consumers and citizens we can’t advocate for that. We need a body that represents us, listens to our concern and gives us a voice.

And the British public also needs to feel empowered, so we can all make better choices - adults and children alike need different kinds of understanding and capability to navigate the digital world. It is not about being able to code: it is about being able to cope.

Public Health England exists to protect and improve the nation’s health and well-being, and reduce health inequalities. Perhaps we need a digital equivalent, to protect and improve our digital health and well-being, and reduce digital inequalities.

As a society, we should not have to continually respond and adapt to the demands of the big corporations: we should also make demands of them - and we need confidence, a voice, and representation to begin to do that.

Rachel Coldicutt is chief executive of Doteveryone.