The 1824 Vagrancy Act attracted significant negative attention last year when Simon Dudley, the head of the Windsor council, suggested on Twitter that the law be used to clear the streets of “an epidemic of rough sleeping and vagrancy in Windsor” ahead of the royal wedding in May.
And yet, despite the stream of condemnatory tweets that followed—which primarily deplored Dudley’s practice of “demonising” of homeless people—none of what Dudley suggested was technically unlawful. So, does the 19th-century Vagrancy Act need a review? And what might be the problems with repealing it altogether?
What is the Vagrancy Act?
Recently, an Airbnb user posted an image of a bench in Shoreditch, describing the “property” as “spot in the heart of London” and located in “an open-air environment” close to shops, trains and local nightlife. He continued: “[It’s] an entire flat—one guest, one bedroom, one bed, toilet with sink [...] All this can be yours for £1,000 a night”.
But this user’s tongue-in-cheek post wasn’t a gratuitous jab at Airbnb, or even a genuine offer; it was a denunciation of the 1824 Vagrancy Act. The Act—which has been repealed in Scotland and Northern Ireland but not in England or Wales—makes rough sleeping and begging illegal, with anyone caught liable to a £1,000 fine and arrest. Additionally, anyone convicted under it is left with a two-year criminal record.
Dating back to the period following the Napoleonic wars, the Act was originally intended to combat the rise in homeless veterans after the military was scaled back. Even after several amendments through the decades, much of the Georgian solemnity of the text remains. Section 4 of the Act reads: “Every person wandering abroad and lodging in any barn or outhouse, or in any deserted or unoccupied building, or in the open air, or under a tent, or in any cart or waggon, and not giving a good account of himself or herself [...] shall be deemed a rogue and vagabond, within the true intent and meaning of this Act [...].”
Despite its grandiose flair and anachronistic references, the Vagrancy Act is a law that can be implemented on the streets of modern London. In 2018, there were 1,320 prosecutions under the Act in England and Wales. That being said, recent research by the homelessness charity Crisis has found that the Vagrancy Act is only enforced in 34% of local areas, with many local police forces choosing not to implement it. With so many local forces avoiding the use of the Act, many have begun to question why it isn’t repealed altogether, and it has become a rather controversial piece of legislation.
What are the controversies surrounding the Act?
For decades, campaigners and politicians alike have been calling for the Vagrancy Act to be repealed. Some of their main arguments against this piece of legislation are that takes a moral view on homelessness—stigmatising homeless individuals and pushing them away from help—and that, in ignoring the underlying causes of homelessness, it effectively does little to help fix the issue.
In its criminalisation of rough sleeping and begging, many have argued that the Vagrancy Act effectively defines homelessness as a personal or moral flaw, as opposed to a broader social problem. In addition, the act defines homeless people not as people committing a crime, but as criminals (or in the words of the Act, as “rogues”, “vagabonds”, and even “incorrigible rogues”), constructing them outside of the general population. With rough sleepers facing rates of violence 17 times higher than those of the average person, this can have dangerous consequences.
A recent survey of people sleeping rough found that enforcement experiences, including those carried out under the Vagrancy Act, made 56% of respondents feel ashamed of being homeless, while 33% claimed that it made them feel like they didn’t deserve help. Another 50% claimed that enforcement made them feel more invisible on the streets.
One outreach manager at St. Mungo’s, a homeless charity in the UK, said: “The Vagrancy Act takes a moral view of street activity, giving no consideration to the complex reasons behind begging and rough sleeping. It is widely agreed that criminalising addicts and homeless people serves no purpose apart from to further push them to the fringes of society, towards further impoverishment and stigmatisation.”
Critics of the Vagrancy Act have also argued that it does very little in practice to reduce homelessness. Among the many situations that are frequently cited as causes of homelessness are both personal circumstances (such as escaping an abusive relationship) and social circumstances, such as a lack of affordable housing and unemployment. Many have argued that the Vagrancy Act does little to either prevent or solve these problems. In fact, it can obscure the conditions that create homelessness in the first place, implementing heavy-handed solutions with little consideration for the complexity of the problem. Amid a rise in homeless deaths since 2013, these arguments have gained increasing urgency.
Pudsey, who was charged multiple times under the Vagrancy Act and eventually jailed, said that the police gave him little more than advice on which soup kitchens to go to. “They just come up and tell you to move, but I don’t know where they expect you to go,” he told Crisis. “People need help and housing, not to be called a criminal.”
Why hasn’t it been repealed?
There is extensive legislation in place alongside the Vagrancy Act that attempts to prevent and reduce homelessness, as well as multiple kinds of enforcement interventions to tackle antisocial behaviour and street crime, such as Criminal Behaviour Orders (CBOs). The only activity that is targeted by the Vagrancy Act exclusively is rough sleeping. So, given the amount of controversy surrounding the criminalisation of homelessness, why is this law still in place?
Speaking in a House of Commons debate in January, Jake Berry, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of Housing, Communities and Local Government at the time, argued that the numerous laws in place to deal with antisocial behaviour “have a higher burden of proof and harsher penalties are often—although not always—attached to them than to the Vagrancy Act”, making it preferable to use the 1824 law.
Berry also stated that while “the Government does not believe that anyone should be criminalised for simply sleeping rough, [...] we should not rush to a wholesale repeal of the 1824 Act without proper consideration of the consequences”. He reminded the House of Commons that, while many would prefer more immediate action, a review of the Vagrancy Act is underway, the findings of which will be reported by March 2020.
Other legislation to reduce homelessness
Most homelessness charities and campaigners have argued that, rather than using enforcement measures (such as the Vagrancy Act) to force homeless people off the streets, the aim of laws to reduce homelessness should be to prevent it and to provide better support to those who find themselves on the streets—a lot of which hinges on being able to provide sufficient affordable housing for those with low or unstable incomes. Whether legislation like this will successfully be implemented, however, will largely depend on whether spiralling rents and council funding cuts can be controlled.
In April 2018, the Homelessness Reduction Act came into force in England, with a similar law—the Housing Act—introduced in Wales in 2014. Hailed as a positive step forward, the Homelessness Reduction Act’s main provisions are aimed at ensuring that councils will intervene earlier on to prevent people from becoming homeless (which includes extending the period that a household is threatened with homelessness from 28 to 56 days), that anyone who becomes homeless is able to access help from their council, and that families and children will still be housed by councils if it’s deemed the best way to help them.
Before these two laws were introduced in England and Wales, only homeless people who were deemed a “priority” (generally families with children) were able to access help from their local councils, and many were turned away. With these new laws, the “priority” status has been done away with so that anyone can get support. In Wales, where this law has been in place for several years now, some charities have reported early signs that it’s working, including fewer families in emergency accommodation and a much more involved approach from councils and homelessness services.
While many welcome the increased efforts to tackle homelessness, concerns about funding have begun to surface. Stephanie Cryan, deputy leader of Southwark—where the Homelessness Reduction Act was piloted—has stated: “The good news is we are preventing more homelessness. But how do we fund it? That’s the worry.” She added that, given broader issues of high rent and housing shortages, the Act might turn out to be “the sticking plaster on the severed artery”.
Lord Porter, Chairman of the Local Government Association, summed up concerns about homelessness legislation: "It is clear that legislative change alone will not resolve homelessness. If we are all to succeed, then all new duties proposed in the bill will need to be fully funded. Councils need powers to resume our role as a major builder of affordable homes."
To many homelessness charities and other stakeholders, focusing on legislation to prevent and support homeless individuals is likelier to help curb homelessness than enforcing measures such as the 1824 Vagrancy Act—which many worry only serves to stigmatise and push rough sleepers further away from help. In that sense, measures such as the Homelessness Reduction Act are a positive step forward. But many fear legislation on its own will not succeed if overall government policy does not work alongside it.