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The Vagrancy Act reached the statute book in the same decade that Charles Darwin set off for the Galapagos Islands to research the origin of the species. The original rationale for the Act was in part to keep those discharged from the armed forces following the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, from sleeping rough. Despite having no work and therefore no means to secure accommodation, ex-service personnel were criminalised. Fast forward to the present day and, despite a number of reforms over the years, the Act can still leave those convicted under it with a two-year criminal record and the risk of a £1,000 fine.

At the same time there has been significant evolution in thinking about how homelessness can be effectively addressed. There is clear understanding that the issue of homelessness is not simply a matter or not having a roof over one’s head. Myriad pressures - including adverse childhood experiences, debt, mental health issues, substance dependency, family breakdown or simply the ending of an Assured Shorthold tenancy - can lead to homelessness. In turn, these issues are linked to others, including compromised provision of secure, adequately paid employment, insufficient social security and a lack of access to appropriate, timely healthcare. Following the principles that inform the Housing First model, we that a more compassionate, holistic, trauma-informed approach to addressing homelessness works.[1]

In contrast, criminalising and imposing a debt burden on those found sleeping rough will only distance them further still from secure accommodation and employment and may have a detrimental effect on health: having a criminal record can be a significant barrier to gaining employment,[2] whilst the damaging links between debt and mental health are well known.[3] Not only does being criminalised and debt imposition and associated health and social consequences impact negatively on prospects of securing and maintain accommodation and employment, they also have the effect of pushing people in such a position even further away from support they need to obtain those goals. And, as mentioned above, these personal factors are very often born of structural factors. For example, poverty has been shown to have a strong causal effect on both physical and mental health[4] and in a world of precarious employment and inadequate social security, poverty is unavoidable for far too many.

This is why Crisis established and has been leading the Scrap the Act coalition - which includes Homeless Link, Centrepoint, St Mungo’s and Shelter Cymru - for a number of years. Since then, the coalition has called for the Vagrancy Act to be repealed and it seems Government may be listening. Back in February Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, said, “…the Vagrancy Act should be repealed. It is an antiquated piece of legislation whose time has been and gone.” However, worryingly, Jenrick also said that elements of the Act could and should be “… considered carefully…” and may be incorporated into more modern legislation.

If Government is to deliver on its pledge to end rough sleeping by 2024, it must, as Robert Jenrick himself suggests, repeal the antiquated, and counter-productive Vagrancy Act.  And be true to its commitment to eliminate homelessness and rough sleeping it must commit to ensuring that having no home is not criminalised.

If you agree, please email, tweet or call your MP and ask them to speak out against the Vagrancy Act and call for its repeal at next Tuesday’s (13 April) Westminster Hall debate.

UPDATE: The debate took place on April 13 and it was very heartening to see support from the Government and all parties present to removing the Vagrancy Act. The Minister said he would take forward the discussions on how to replace it "at pace"  Homeless Link will continue to monitor the situation. 

[1] Assessing the impact of Housing First in Brighton and Westminster Summary Report Katy Jones, Andrea Gibbons and Philip Brown December 2019

[2] Unlock (October 2018) A question of fairness Research into employers asking about criminal records at application stage

[3] Fitch, C.Hamilton, S.Bassett, P. and Davey, R. (2011), "The relationship between personal debt and mental health: a systematic review", Mental Health Review Journal, Vol. 16 No. 4, pp. 153-166. https://doi.org/10.1108/13619321111202313

[4] Marmot M et al (2012) Consortium for the European Review of Social Determinants of Health and the Health Divide. WHO European review of social determinants of health and the health divide The Lancet