Established 2005 Registered Charity No. 1110656

Scottish Charity Register No. SC043760

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Should the Vagrancy Act be repealed?

June 06 2010
The new coalition government wants to repeal laws that infringe civil liberties, so here‘s an obvious choice
The new deputy prime minister Nick Clegg has said the new coalition government will consider repealing laws it sees as infringing civil liberties. Clearly, this is likely to be a long list, but perhaps one law under consideration, which affects many of our readers directly, should be the Vagrancy Act.

Passed in 1824, the Act makes it a criminal offence to sleep on the street and to beg.

Homeless organisations such as Shelter, Crisis and Homeless Link have long appealed for it to be scrapped, arguing that it penalises some of the most vulnerable people in society and effectively criminalises poverty.

Back in 2003, Crisis argued begging and rough sleeping "are primarily questions of social exclusion and are most effectively addressed by tackling their root causes". Shelter has also called for Sections 3 and 4 of the Act, which relate to begging and sleeping outdoors or in unused buildings respectively, to be removed. In a November 2007 report on government homelessness policy, Shelter said that there would be "no public support for wider use of criminal sanctions to address begging". In the same year, Homeless Link also appealed to the government to scrap the law. Its submission said: "Given that there is little public support for a punitive approach to rough sleeping and begging, that criminalising already vulnerable people is more likely to compound their problems and frustrate the work of support agencies, and that more creative welfare-based and employment solutions need to be found, we urge the government to repeal the Vagrancy Act 1824 entirely."

Soldiers Off The Street, which campaigns on behalf of homeless ex-servicemen, points out on its website that as late as 1990 there were 1,250 prosecutions in London alone. This showed that far from falling by the wayside, the Vagrancy Act was still being used to prosecute rough sleepers over 160 years after it was first brought in.

We have submitted a Freedom of Information (FOI) Act request to the Metropolitan Police to find out how many people have been arrested under the Vagrancy Act in their area in the last year. We have also submitted a request to the Ministry of Justice to find out how many people have been convicted under the Act in the same period.

As well as our FOI requests, we have also been in touch with human rights groups such as Liberty, the British Institute of Human Rights and Housing Justice, to gauge interest in restarting a broad-based campaign for the abolition of the Act.

• We encourage readers who have been charged under the Vagrancy Act to contact us and tell us about their experiences. You can also read about the history of the Act.