Established 2005 Registered Charity No. 1110656

Scottish Charity Register No. SC043760

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Misuse of the Vagrancy Act

June 04 2005
The number of times this outmoded legislation has been used has trebled in recent times If you believe we live in a society that has moved away from a Napoleonic mode of thinking, then think again. The Vagrancy Act is alive and well, almost 200 years after it was enshrined in our law, and it's being used today to penalise some of the most socially excluded groups in our society.

You'd think issues as complex as homelessness and street crime would need one of the most up-to-date pieces of legislation in our legal system, but, it turns out, thousands of people are being charged and convicted with the 200-year-old law every year. More frightening still, the number of times the vagrancy act has been used has tripled in recent times.

In 1990, 1,478 people in England and Wales were found guilty under the act, and 90 per cent of those were charged. That figure fell off towards the mid-1990s, and stood at just over 1,000 in 1995. But, since then, the number of times the act has been used against people in England and Wales has shot up. In 1996, the figure was above 1,500. In 1999, more than 2,000 people were found guilty under the 200- year-old law. By 2000 that had reached 2,776. By 2003, more than 3,200 people were found guilty under the vagrancy act - almost three times as many as a decade before. This government has clearly grown fond of the legislation since it came to power. Its heart, perhaps, is in the right place.

Some argue that the law is used to target those in need of help and get them into rehabilitation programmes. For example, the link between begging and specified class-A drug misuse is very strong. One study estimated that between 75 per cent and 90 per cent of beggars use Class A drugs - primarily heroin. The government is desperate to untangle the relationship between drugs and street crime, and those charged under the Vagrancy Act can sometimes find themselves fast-tracked into rehabilitation centres and drug counselling. In Brighton, two years ago, the deaths of 49 beggars from overdoses led to a huge anti-begging campaign. If those who beg because of their drug misuse are helped to access effective treatment, it will help them and the communities affected by their antisocial behaviour.

But rather than criminalising these vulnerable groups with a piece of ancient legislation - one designed for another society than ours - the government must pass new legislation and set its stall out clearly on the subject of homelessness, and the subcategories of street crime and drug use. Support must be immediate and directly accessible based on an individual need, rather than criminal status.

There is already existing legislation to deal with aggressive or threatening behaviour in public spaces, under the Public Order Act 1995, so why use this Dickensian law?