As you will probably know, following years of campaigning by Crisis and many other Homeless Link members, the Government has agreed to scrap the Vagrancy Act. They committed to repealing the Act in full through the Police Crime Sentencing and Courts Act that finally went through Parliament in April. However, whilst the Government have rightly acknowledged that no-one should be criminalised for rough sleeping, they have also committed to bringing in a replacement to the Act to cover perceived gaps in legislation.
The replacement legislation is likely to focus on the begging elements of the Vagrancy Act and concerns that police wouldn’t have the tools needed to tackle certain forms of anti-social behaviour. The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) launched a consultation to understand views on this and what should happen with the replacement law. Homeless Link, supported by the views and insights of our members, submitted a response.
The key messages from our members were:-
We don’t need a replacement. The proposals focus mainly on the need for the police to have powers to deal with aggressive begging. There are already ten different pieces of legislation covering this area (From the Anti-Social Behaviour Act to the Highways Act). Whilst not all people who beg are homeless, we know that there is considerable overlap, and that the scope of the proposed bill would continue to target people sleeping rough.
Tackling begging deals with a symptom, not a cause. People turn to begging for many different reasons and without understanding and talking about those reasons, we are penalising people for things that require support. People sometimes have to turn to begging when they are in significant destitution. This can be caused by having benefits sanctioned, or perhaps because they have no recourse to public funds. In these cases it is the benefit and immigration systems that need of reform. Some people turn to begging to feed an addiction, so it is most important to ensure sufficient drug and alcohol, and mental health services to support people. Some are forced to beg through exploitation, coercion and modern slavery. We would welcome stronger action against the perpetrators in these circumstances and not risk legislation that could criminalise victims.
If begging were to be stamped out, without the changes in welfare and service provision there is a danger that some people will be driven to more dangerous situations such as sex work or more substantive criminal activity.
Overall it was felt that criminal enforcement is not the right approach, and that it only seeks to push people further away from support. Instead our members want to see greater collaboration and partnership working between police, local authorities and other services to create the right environment to engage with vulnerable people. For example, we would encourage the police to adopt a trauma informed approach to people who are begging or rough sleeping, and we need them to be equipped with information about appropriate services for referral.
Several members pointed to the Greater Manchester Street Engagement Hub as a really positive example of this kind of partnership working and encouraged the government and other areas to learn from this experience.
As a general note we stated that more, skilled outreach workers are needed for successful relationship building and referrals into services. If this is combined with more resource for the whole homelessness sector, including initiatives such as Housing First, and the ability to access necessary mental health and substance misuse support, we will deliver real, long term solutions.
Thank you to everyone who contributed to the consultation. You can read our full submission here
In short, a more systematic approach to tackling homelessness is far more useful than any new legislation which risks penalising people who instead need support. The government are reading all the submissions they received now, but they have indicated that there will be replacement legislation included in the Levelling Up Bill due to be published in the next few months. Once we see the draft of that legislation, Homeless Link will once again represent the views of our members in our representations to government.