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The Act

July 07 2010
We now know how much the Vagrancy Act is being used

More than 1,220 arrests were made in London under the Vagrancy Act last year, a Freedom of Information request made by The Pavement has revealed.

The law, which was passed in 1824, was used most against people found begging. A total of 745 arrests were made in 2009 for this offence, resulting in 210 cautions and 469 instances of people being charged and either detained or bailed for court. There were 465 arrests for trespassing or being within "enclosed premises" and 12 for theft.

The high number has surprised us at The Pavement, given the Act's age, what it covers and its unpopularity. In fact, it appears that rather than receding, the Act is still being used to prosecute rough sleepers more than 160 years after it was first brought in.

Alan Murdie, the director of McKenzie Friends and barrister for Zacchaeus 2000 Trust who last month wrote a piece on the history of the law for The Pavement, said: "It is a sad indictment of our progress that a pre-Victorian law is considered an appropriate response to the housing problems of British cities in the 21st century and that the authorities apparently have no more imagination or awareness of the issues than they did in 1824."

Section Four is the most pertinent to our readers, covering "every person going about as a gatherer or collector of alms, or endeavouring to procure charitable contributions of any nature or kind, under any false or fraudulent pretence". Although it has been updated to exclude charity collectors, or chuggers, individuals collecting money on their own behalf still come under the law. 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.

Three years ago, Homeless Link submitted an appeal to the government, saying: "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."

Despite being sent a series of questions about the number of arrests, the Met failed to respond to any point. Instead, we were issued with the following comment: "Police work with partners and third-sector organisations to impact upon rough sleeping in London. Amongst many powers used are the statutory provisions conferred by the Vagrancy Act."

• This is a story we'll be following for the foreseeable future, particularly as we predict the Vagrancy Act's increased use in the lead-up to 2012.

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