Vagrancy Act repeal not necessarily a cause for celebration

02 Mar 2022

The Wallich response to repeal of Vagrancy Act

The UK Government has confirmed that it will repeal The Vagrancy Act, which allows police to arrest people for sleeping rough or begging in England and Wales.

Whilst this is a positive step, we remain concerned that new measures in the Police, Courts, Sentencing and Crime Bill will continue to see people punished for experiencing homelessness.

What is The Vagrancy Act?

The Vagrancy Act of 1824 is still used to criminalise people just for rough sleeping and begging across England and Wales. It has been repealed in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Currently anyone convicted under the outdated and archaic law, which uses discriminatory language, faces a fine of up to £1,000 and a two-year criminal record.

We support its abolition because the Act does nothing to tackle the causes of homelessness and the criminalisation of people seeping rough perpetuates and often worsens their situation.

We joined Crisis, Cymorth Cymru, Centrepoint, Homeless Link, Shelter Cymru, St Mungo’s, and Liberty in 2020 to be part of the #ScraptheAct campaign.

The Government has now accepted an amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill from the House of Lords, which will repeal The Vagrancy Act in England and Wales.

We are delighted to have been a small part of the campaign’s success.

What will scrapping the Act do?

The news of the long overdue repeal of The Vagrancy Act has, of course, been widely celebrated.

It is a symbolic recognition that homelessness is not a crime and people experiencing it should not be treated as criminals.

The Act itself also uses some derogatory and discriminatory language which has no place in the 20th century, let alone the 21st.

Police would no longer be able to arrest people for begging, or simply having nowhere else to go under this Act.

Arrests and convictions under The Vagrancy Act have been declining for some time, but it will no longer be an option for police seeking to move people on.

Why are The Wallich still concerned?

We remain deeply concerned about the future criminalisation of people without a home, because of other provisions in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is a wide-ranging and complex piece of legislation, consisting of 13 different parts over 307 pages, and has been the subject of a number of controversies, including limits to the right to protest, and tougher sentences for people who damage statues or memorials.

The part which concerns us most, along with other homelessness and housing charities, is Part 4, on ‘unauthorised encampments’.

We believe ‘Part 4’ would continue to criminalise people who are rough sleeping or sleeping in a car or van.

The lack of clarity about what constitutes ‘residing’ and the possibility of clauses being interpreted by police as applying to those with nowhere to go, means it is likely this new legislation will simply replicate the current terms of the Vagrancy Act.

The Government is also very clear that the purpose of Part 4 is to crack down on unauthorised encampments by members of the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) communities.

It is our view that this is badly-written law, which is discriminatory against GRT ethnicities, particularly in light of the shortage of approved Traveller camping sites designated by local authorities, across Wales and the wider UK.

A symbolic amendment to repeal The Vagrancy Act cannot be allowed to distract from the other problems with this legislation, and we will not support the latter simply because of the former.

Chief Executive of The Wallich, Lindsay Cordery Bruce says;

“Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, the ‘Everyone In’ approach showed us that the will and capacity to radically change policy exists.

“It is extremely disappointing that a positive repeal is now being tagged onto a law which will be damaging in new ways.

“Homelessness must never be treated as a crime. We will continue to advocate for the people we support to be treated as human beings, deserving of support, care, and dignity.

“The only way to truly end homelessness is to provide person-centred, psychologically informed support, to find new homes and rebuild lives.”

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