June 19, 2019
A leading homelessness charity, police and politicians are calling on the government to scrap a 195-year-old law that criminalises homeless people for rough sleeping and begging in England and Wales.
Calls for 195-year-old Vagrancy Act to be scrapped
A report by Crisis, backed by MPs and police representatives, outlines the case for repealing the 1824 Vagrancy Act, which critics warn makes poverty a crime and pushes rough sleepers away from help.
The act hit the headlines when the head of Windsor council suggested police use the law to clear “an epidemic of rough sleeping and vagrancy in Windsor” ahead of last year’s royal wedding.
Jon Sparkes, the chief executive of Crisis, said the law, originally introduced to make it easier for police to clear the streets of destitute soldiers returning from the Napoleonic wars, was a disgrace and that while “there are real solutions to resolving people’s homelessness – arrest and prosecution are not among them”.
He added: “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 report comes after the Guardian revealed councils are using a range of legal powers to clear hundreds of homeless encampments, a figure that has trebled in the last five years.

There were 1,320 prosecutions under the Vagrancy Act in England and Wales in 2018
Calls for 195-year-old Vagrancy Act to be scrapped
The government launched a review of homelessness and rough sleeping legislationlast year amid fears current laws are outdated, punitive and discourage people on the street from engaging with help. It is expected to outline its plans in due course.
Although prosecutions under the act have fallen in recent years after a spike between 2013 and 2015, hundreds of people are still prosecuted, according to the Ministry of Justice. There were 1,320 prosecutions in 2018, up 6% on the previous year. The law is most commonly used informally, with the threat of arrest used to move on rough sleepers and those begging, according to the report.
It says rough sleeping in England has increased significantly between 2014 and 2018, rising by 70%, and suggests the act is not the most effective tool for dealing with rough sleeping.
Offences people can be charged with under the Vagrancy Act include begging, which is subject to a maximum fine of £1,000, and it is a criminal offence to sleep “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”.
Crisis says the law in England and Wales should be repealed to mirror Scotland, which scrapped it in 1982 and implemented additional legislation to deal with antisocial and criminal behaviour.
Bernard Hogan-Howe, the former Metropolitan police commissioner who is backing Boris Johnson to be prime minister, is among a number of current and former officers who say the law is not fit for purpose.
“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,” Lord Hogan-Howe said.
David Jamieson, the West Midlands police and crime commissioner, said: “The Vagrancy Act is just so inappropriate. It’s not an offence to be down on your luck and lying in the doorway.”
Despite falling use of the act, many councils opt to use civil powers under the 2014 Antisocial Behaviour Act, such as a public space protection order (PSPOs) to ban begging, rough sleeping and related activities.
A Guardian analysis earlier this year found at least 60 councils were using PSPOs, allowing them to issue £100 fines which, if left unpaid, could result in a summary conviction and a £1,000 penalty. This was despite Home Office guidance not to target the homeless.
Labour has said it would repeal the Vagrancy Act.
The housing and homeless minister, Heather Wheeler, said: “No one in this day and age should be criminalised for having nowhere to live. I’m committed to ending rough sleeping for good and our rough sleeping initiative is providing an estimated 2,600 additional beds and 750 more support staff this year.
“We’re also carrying out a wider review of rough sleeping and homelessness legislation, including the Vagrancy Act, and will set out further steps in due course.”
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