There are many strands linking homelessness and the criminal justice system. Ex-offenders leaving prison struggle to access accommodation on release. They often lose their homes while in custody.
The Prison Reform Trust reports that six in ten female prisoners have no homes to go to upon release. Fifteen per cent of newly sentenced prisoners report being homeless before entering custody and the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) reported in 2010 that reconviction rates for that cohort are significantly higher than for others.
It is shocking therefore that rough sleeping and begging alone can lead to a criminal record, to fines and ultimately to imprisonment. The Vagrancy Act 1824, intended partly at least to deal with the fall-out from the Napoleonic Wars, makes it a criminal offence to ‘wander abroad’ or to be ‘in any public place, street, highway, court, or passage, to beg or gather alms’ in England and Wales.
The origins of the Vagrancy Act pre-date 1824. It was part of a move to simplify existing vagrancy law into one Act. At the time, criminal justice was the main way to tackle ‘vagrancy’ but even by 1906, its suitability was being questioned. A commons committee noted that the Act in most part was a ‘measure simply of repression’ that increased the number of people imprisoned.
Reform and repeal
There have been attempts at reform and repeal over the years, including legal changes in the 1930s, recommendations for major reform in the 1970s, partial relaxation of the penalties and removing some of the offences. The Act was abolished in Scotland in 1982. The previous Westminster government was committed to reviewing it. Nevertheless, in England and Wales, the key sections remain on the statute book.
Use of the Act varies from one police area to another. While some forces are reluctant to employ it, new figures obtained under a Freedom of Information request from the MoJ revealed 1,320 recorded prosecutions under the Vagrancy Act in 2018, up 6 per cent on the previous year, but less than half the number in 2014. Rough sleeping in England increased by 70 per cent in England, in the same period.
While prosecutions have fluctuated, rough sleepers are more frequently victims of informal use of the Vagrancy Act (and other powers) to move them on, or challenge behaviour without formal caution or arrest. This causes frustration among the people affected, including support and outreach workers and some police themselves, as it does nothing to address the root causes of the situation. It is rarely accompanied by signposting to services and simply serves to push people into more dangerous places, riskier activities, or into the criminal justice system.
The introduction of alternative measures
The decline in use since 2014 partly reflects use of alternative measures under the Anti-Social Behaviour Crime and Policing Act 2014. This set out to consolidate and reform existing anti-social behaviour legislation, and brought in some new measures such as Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs), Criminal Behaviour Orders and Injunctions to prevent nuisance and annoyance.
PSPOs, expressly prohibiting rough sleeping, popped up across the country and many remain. Under pressure from homelessness and civil liberties groups, the Home Office revised the Statutory Guidance in 2017 to make it clear that PSPOs should not be used to target people based solely on the fact that they are homeless or rough sleeping. Nevertheless, some local authorities continue to prohibit activities such as ‘causing an obstruction in a doorway’ which seem to be aimed at rough sleepers. The legality of this approach may well be tested in the courts soon. Other measures continue to be used against people who are begging, as well as wider anti-social behaviour.
Crisis and our campaign partners are calling for immediate repeal of the Vagrancy Act by the next government. Repeal of the Act would remove the legal route to criminalising people just for sleeping rough or begging. It would make clear that addressing these activities is not primarily a police matter, but rather an issue for wider social support services.
Steve Lee is Senior Campaigns Officer at Crisis
You can support the campaign to repeal the Vagrancy Act at www.crisis.org.uk/scraptheact