When, in February 2022, Parliament voted to repeal the antiquated Vagrancy Act, we in the homelessness sector rightly celebrated a big campaign win. The legislation, which had been in place since 1824, gave police the power to criminalise people just for sleeping rough.
The Government then launched a consultation on what should replace the Vagrancy Act. Its stated aim of replacing the legislation was ‘to continue to protect communities from crime and anti-social behaviour’, with a particular focus on begging. Our submission to the consultation argued that police already have sufficient powers to tackle anti-social behaviour, meaning there was no need to replace the legislation with specific reference to rough sleeping or related activity.
When launching the consultation to replace the Vagrancy Act, the then Homelessness Minister Eddie Hughes said that “no one should be criminalised for simply having nowhere to live.” However, the Criminal Justice Bill, which is currently making its way through Parliament, contains wide-ranging new powers for police and local councils to deal with what they call ‘nuisance rough sleeping.’ These include moving people on, fines and potential imprisonment.
As Jasmine Basran, Head of Policy and Campaigns at Crisis, explained in her recent blog on this issue:
"The wide definition of nuisance should alarm us all. The Bill states that someone can fall under this definition if they have slept rough, 'appear to have slept rough' or are 'intending to sleep rough', and are ‘are likely’ to cause a nuisance. This means that someone doesn’t need to have even slept rough or have done anything a reasonable person would consider a ‘nuisance’ to fall foul of the legislation. This is extremely worrying when we know people sleeping rough are already often stigmatised."
At Homeless Link, we firmly believe that punitive approaches to rough sleeping only serve to ostracise people even further, making them less likely to access the support that will help them end their homelessness for good. Rather than further criminalise people sleeping rough, the Government should focus on measures that increase the range of support options to help people find safe, secure accommodation whilst also addressing wider issues in their lives.
It was good to see MPs from across the political spectrum speak out against the new measures in the recent second reading of the Criminal Justice Bill, with Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran labelling the Bill as “Vagrancy Act 2.0 on steroids.” However, we must keep the pressure on to remove these elements of the Bill before it passes into law.
Therefore, we urge you to write to your local MP(s) on this issue, asking them to speak out against the measures in the Bill. Crisis have published a really useful briefing which you can send to MPs for context and they have also launched a public petition, so please encourage your staff and supporters to sign it.
The Vagrancy Act and the approach it embeds belongs in the past, let's make sure it doesn’t live on in the future.