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‘Unnecessary’ homelessness law must be overhauled, say Tories

·3-min read
Robert Jenrick said: 'Homelessness in and of itself should not be a criminal offence' - Wiktor Szymanowicz/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Robert Jenrick said: 'Homelessness in and of itself should not be a criminal offence' - Wiktor Szymanowicz/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Two former housing ministers are launching a bid to repeal Britain's 200-year-old Vagrancy Act in order to end the "criminalisation of the homeless".

Robert Jenrick, an ex-housing secretary, and Lord Young of Cookham, who served under Sir John Major, are backing an amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which would overturn the archaic legislation.

The amendment, tabled on Friday by a crossbench peer, is intended to force Boris Johnson's hand over the issue after he declared in October that "no-one should be criminalised simply for having nowhere to live"and said "the time has come to reconsider the Vagrancy Act".

The Act, passed in 1824, makes it a criminal offence to beg or sleep rough. It was originally introduced due to the number of ex-servicemen who had fought in the Napoleonic wars and later found themselves homeless and without a job.

One of the crimes set out in the legislation was "endeavouring by the exposure of wounds or deformities to obtain or gather alms ... or procure charitable contributions of any nature or kind, under any false or fraudulent pretence".

Legislation ‘deters homeless people from seeking help’

The 2019 Conservative manifesto pledged to end rough sleeping by the next election, but Mr Jenrick warned that the Vagrancy Act, which is still used to carry out prosecutions, pushes homeless people into the criminal justice system and creates a "wholly unnecessary additional obstacle that they must overcome to re-integrate themselves into society".

The legislation, also cited by police to move rough sleepers on from particular locations, also deters homeless people from seeking help from authorities for problems such as domestic abuse because they are treated like criminals, Mr Jenrick said.

Those behind the amendment believe it will be the only opportunity to scrap the Vagrancy Act in the current Parliament.

Mr Jenrick said: "Homelessness in and of itself should not be a criminal offence. It rightly makes us deeply uncomfortable, but that does not grant society the right to avert its eyes from the brutal reality of what homeless people endure."

Mr Jenrick and Lord Young both oversaw major schemes that treated homelessess as a social problem, with Lord Young overseeing the Rough Sleeping Initiative in the early 1990s and Mr Jenrick spearheading the Government's Everyone In programme to reduce rough sleeping during the Covid pandemic.

Lord Young said: "We must take the opportunity in the Police Bill to deal with this now, or this outdated Act will remain on the statute book."

‘Its time has been and gone’

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill reaches its final stages in the House of Lords this week. Mr Jenrick and Lord Young are backing an amendment by Lord Best, a crossbench peer and vice chair of the all-party group on ending homelessness.

The amendment would scrap the 1824 legislation and states that it would "require police officers to balance protection of the community with sensitivity to the problems that cause people to engage in begging or sleeping rough and ensure that general public order enforcement powers should not in general be used in relation to people sleeping rough".

It is supported by some 50 homelessness charities and campaign groups.

Those behind the amendment expect it to gather sufficient support to be approved in the Lords, at which point they expect the Government to accept the measure rather than seek to overturn it, given its past statements on the Act.

Before losing his job as housing secretary in the September reshuffle, Mr Jenrick had said it was "an antiquated piece of legislation whose time has been and gone".

Last week, Michael Gove, Mr Jenrick's successor, agreed that while "we do need appropriate legislation to deal with examples of aggressive begging", the Vagrancy Act "has to go".

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