News: Review of the Vagrancy Act: The Connection’s response

The Vagrancy Act is a piece of legislation dating back to 1824 that makes it an offence to sleep rough or beg in England and Wales. The Government has acknowledged that this Act is no longer fit for purpose, and has committed to repeal it once they have decided what will replace it. This follows a concerted campaign, #ScraptheAct led by Crisis, which The Connection has supported.

The Government has just completed a consultation, seeking views on what could replace the Vagrancy Act that would help vulnerable individuals forced into begging or rough sleeping while also protecting our communities.

The following summarises our response to this consultation.

The Connection’s response

We are encouraged by the Government’s commitment to repeal this legislation that risks penalising people for their extremely challenging circumstances.

We question the need for further legislation. There already exists legislation for behaviour that is anti-social or criminal, but begging and rough sleeping are not anti-social or criminal, as acknowledged by the Government.

People who are begging or rough sleeping can be extremely vulnerable and experience multiple and complex needs. It can take time to engage with these individuals and build trust. Enforcement and penalties can make people feel victimised. Our clients have told us about how they can feel labelled as bad people, and often don’t feel that authorities are there to protect them.

People need to be able to access support when they are ready, rather than be forced into it. They may be processing very difficult issues and experiences, and it may be to challenging to address this straight away. This is why penalties do not act as an incentive for people to seek help, but instead can have the opposite impact and erode trust.

Research has found links between begging and funding drug and alcohol addiction, but drug and alcohol misuse are often used as a coping mechanism in a response to trauma and adverse life experiences. They have often been victims of crimes themselves that pushed them into this activity, crimes such as exploitation, abuse, violence and discrimination. Legislation that focuses on begging does nothing to address these root causes.

We have seen how the clients we support are experiencing increasingly complex needs. We are concerned that in the current economic climate more people are going to be pushed into homelessness and precarious situations. This is why we urgently need to focus on addressing the root causes and responses that support these people.

Rough sleeping, including sleeping in tents is not a solution for anyone, but many people feel they have no other option. There is a pressing need for more appropriate housing, including for people with complex needs.

People cannot simply stop begging or rough sleeping, but often need appropriate support to be in place. We feel it would be more effective and better for these individuals and our communities to instead focus on providing this effective support.

Drug and alcohol addiction and mental ill-health are illnesses and should be treated from a health perspective, not criminalised. We are encouraged that the Government has shown that it understands the complexities of begging and rough sleeping, and their response needs to reflect this understanding.

Instead of further legislation, we have the potential to invest in the community groups and support services that already exist, to provide the wraparound care that people need. Sadly, these services are very under-funded and stretched, and there are lots of barriers for people to use them, but it doesn’t have to be this way.

People who are rough sleeping or begging are often treated as though they are doing something wrong, rather than as victims themselves. With this in mind, we would stress that legislation and enforcement are not effective measures to help people out of these extremely challenging circumstances and instead carry high risk of causing serious harm to already vulnerable individuals.