Rogues and Vagabonds - the vagrancy act must go

Posted by Sam Grant on 02 August 2019

Liberty has joined leading homelessness charities in a campaign to scrap the 1824 Vagrancy Act. It’s been around for 195 years. The country will be a better place if it doesn’t make it to its 200th birthday.

The Vagrancy Act dates back to the years following the Napoleonic wars and even pre-dates the establishment of the police who now enforce it. Its full title is ‘An Act for the punishment of idle and disorderly persons, rogues and vagabonds’.  The language of ‘rogues and vagabonds’ is without doubt archaic but beyond the old-fashioned language is the real and cruel effect of prosecuting people for the crime of rough-sleeping and begging.  

Twenty-thousand people have been prosecuted over the last decade.  

The Act can carry fines of £1,000 with the possibility of criminal records. It traps people in cycles of destitution and criminality. It is the very opposite of a modern and compassionate approach to supporting people out of complex situations.

This vague law has a long and inglorious history and has been used at different times to solve whatever ‘moral outrage’ was preoccupying Westminster. It’s been used to prosecute homosexuality and ‘living in sin’ as well as being the vehicle for discriminatory powers used to harass young black people in the 1970s. Scotland got it right when it abolished the Act entirely in the 1980s. England and Wales are still lagging behind.

The Vagrancy Act is the only piece of legislation that still criminalises the act of rough sleeping but it isn’t the only law that is being used to punish poverty.

Public Space Protection Orders have been around since 2014 and are broad powers allowing Councils to turn particular, non-criminal, activities taking place within a specified area into crimes.

PSPOs come with on-the-spot fines or prosecution and a potential £1,000 penalty if those fines go unpaid. Across the country, councils have used them to target rough sleeping and begging in an attempt to airbrush their streets.

Along with the Vagrancy Act, PSPOs make up a suite of laws that are at best counter-productive and at worst cruel and senseless. Rough sleeping is a social problem, not a criminal one, and these laws do little to help resolve or tackle the root causes of homelessness.

The Government is currently conducting a review of the Vagrancy Act, giving us an opportunity to see the back of this law once and for all. Almost two centuries after it was first criticised in Parliament by none other than William Wilberforce, we are still repeating the same arguments. This Government must listen to the homelessness charities, the street outreach services, MPs from all parties and – importantly – the voices of those who have been criminalised by the Act.

You can take action now and add your voice to the campaign by using our ‘email your MP’ tool. Together we can scrap the Vagrancy Act and end the criminalisation of homelessness.

Sam Grant, Liberty

Sam Grant

Liberty
Policy and Campaigns Manager