Vagrancy Act repeal: Update

House of commons - the vagrancy act
The Criminal Justice Bill was debated in Parliament yesterday, and the Government have published their long-awaited response to the consultation on the Vagrancy Act and what should replace it.

We were really pleased with the Government’s commitment to repeal the Vagrancy Act, an antiquated piece of legislation from 1824 that made it a crime to sleep rough or beg in England and Wales.

We are encouraged too that the Government is investing into prevention and rough sleeping services.

The Criminal Justice Bill will replace the Vagrancy Act and includes provisions for the police to deal with ‘nuisance begging’ and ‘nuisance rough sleeping’.

This will include criminal offences for begging where it is considered to cause a nuisance; creation of a move-on power for begging where it is considered to cause a nuisance; creation of a Begging Prevention Notice and Begging Prevention Order.

The Bill will also create a move-on power and prevention notice for rough sleeping where it causes damage, disruption, distress or harassment as well as health and safety or security risks. The Government claims that this will ensure that people who are genuinely homeless will be directed to appropriate support.

We are concerned that the Bill differentiates between: i) those who will engage with support straight away, and ii) those who have more complex needs and may not do so.

In our experience it is not this clear cut.

The path to support is often not straightforward, especially for people who are experiencing trauma and have not had their needs met by services in the past. Their likelihood to accept offers of help when they don’t have confidence in that offer is low.

People who are begging or rough sleeping can be extremely vulnerable and have many support needs. It can take time to engage with these individuals and build trust.

Introducing state-based enforcement measures, however well intentioned, further alienate people and undermine their confidence in the support being offered. People access support most readily when they feel safe and ready to do so. Enforcement and penalties do not provide that safety.

Areas where we invite further dialogue and discussion between the Government and the homelessness sector are as follows:

  • The term ‘nuisance’ is likely to require further definition and we look forward to seeing more detail and clarity on this;
  • We are also interested in the proposed process for making consistent and fair judgements about whether individual cases constitute a nuisance;
  • We would like to know more about the expected additional resources required for social care, such as housing and treatment as well as criminal justice responses such as court time, fines and custody. The Bill will have an impact on both areas.

In order to provide meaningful, long-term support, we would like to see:

  • Urgent investment in affordable and suitable social housing for people with complex needs
  • Flexible mental health and addiction services for people with complex needs
  • Gender-specific support for women experiencing homelessness