Bob Blackman: We have a golden opportunity to repeal the Vagrancy Act – so why the delay?

7 Dec

Bob Blackman is the MP for Harrow East.

In 1935, Winston Churchill co-sponsored a bill to amend Section 4 of the Vagrancy Act, placing new restrictions on the enforcement of the offence of rough sleeping in an effort to prevent it from being used to arrest destitute people with no access to accommodation of any kind and no choice but to sleep rough.

In doing so, Churchill joined a long line of Parliamentarians, notably including William Wilberforce, who have been critical of this loosely drafted piece of legislation first enacted in 1824, which has been used for everything from arresting Spiritualists in the 1940s, to closing down adult art exhibitionsin the 1960s, to allowing police to stop and search young BAME men in the 1970s and 1980s, to arresting streakers at sporting games in the 1990s.

What Churchill recognised in the 1930s remains an issue today; the Vagrancy Act is still being actively used to arrest rough sleepers and people suspected of begging, with 926 prosecutions and 742 convictions for begging in 2019, alongside 183 prosecutions and 140 convictions for general offenses under the Vagrancy Act, including ‘sleeping out’, as highlighted by the House of Commons Library.

In order to be clear, these are not cases involving aggressive begging or anti-social behaviour, both of which are amply covered by measures within the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act of 2014, or indeed cases of fraudulent begging, which can be considered a form of false representation under the Fraud Act (2006).

These are instances where destitute and desperate people were criminalised instead of being connected to support workers, who could have helped them to access the right support to get back on their feet.

In October, when I asked the Prime Minister about repeal of the Vagrancy Act in PMQs, I was glad to receive assurances that he agreed that the time was right to “reconsider the Vagrancy Act”.

Last week, Michael Gove also added his voice to the calls for repeal, when he responded to a question from Nickie Aiken in DLUHC OPQs, with, “ I think the Vagrancy Act has to go”.

It seems everyone agrees that the time is right to finally get rid of this legislation, and as Chairman of the APPG for Ending Homelessness, I agree. I have seen the damage it does, both to community relations and to individuals who can be fined up to £1,000 or given a criminal sentence simply for being homeless and desperate, and I believe there is no reasonable justification for further delay.

A golden opportunity for repeal has arrived this week, provided by my friend and colleague, Lord Best, who previously supported my Homeless Reduction Act through the House of Lords in 2017, helping me to bring about the biggest change to homelessness legislation for 40 years.

He has tabled simple amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill to enact this long sought-after repeal, with the cross-party support of Lord Sandhurst QC and Lord Young from the Conservative benches, Baroness Thornhill, the leader of the Liberal Democrats in the Lords, Lord Falconer from the Labour benches and Baroness Bennett representing the Greens.

In order to be clear, the amendments do not attach any unreasonable extra conditions, or seek to expand beyond their remit. They also come with the distinct advantage of costing no extra Government time or public money to enact.

However, so far the responsible Minister in the House of Lords, Baroness Williams, has stated that the Government are minded to block the amendments this week at Report Stage and thus prevent the Vagrancy Act from being repealed.

Naturally it is important to ensure that the police and other enforcement agencies continue to have the powers they need to tackle anti-social behaviour and aggressive begging. That is why the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is a logical place to enact repeal, as part of the overall package of measures to strengthen and clarify the powers available to our police agencies.

It’s also why the Best amendments provide for updates to the guidance related to the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act of 2014, if clarification is needed in relation to best practice responses to rough sleeping and begging specifically.

Frontline police are often under pressure to act, especially when it comes to begging in public spaces. However, the reality is that the Vagrancy Act 1824 only perpetuates the cycle of poverty that leads to begging. It has also been superseded by more modern legislation across the board.

I have already written about the need for the Government to take bold policy actions to meet its commitment to end rough sleeping by 2024. This is one such measure to make an impact, by ending the criminalisation of rough sleeping and non-aggressive begging as a first response, with all the police resources involved and firmly moving towards a system of multi-agency support to actually help people overcome issues like family or relationship breakdown, domestic violence and addictions, all of which can contribute to people becominghomeless.

The time has come to right this historic wrong, and I very much hope that, as the bill enters its Report Stage in the House of Lords this week, the Government will finally back these important amendments, which in turn will allow MPs in the Commons to finally finish the job that Churchill and many others began and repeal the Vagrancy Act once and for all.

Albie Amankona: It’s time for a Conservative approach to anti-racism

30 Oct

Albie Amankona is co-founder of Conservatives Against Racism For Equality (CARFE).

As we mark the end of Black History Month in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matter protests, it has become clear that the wrong types of arguments for racial equality in the UK have been getting too much attention.

As a black Conservative activist, I was proud to hear so many of our MPs passionately share their commitment to racial equality in the historic Parliamentary debate on education and BAME history.

Notably, Steve Baker, who announced his position as Chairman of Conservatives Against Racism For Equality (CARFE), co-founded by myself and Siobhan Aarons. Together, we are building a Conservative approach to anti-racism; so far over 20 MPs and dozens of activists from all wings of the party and across the country have pledged their support, including Jeremy Hunt, Tim Loughton, and Robert Halfon.

Most fair-minded people agree with the statement that black lives matter, but disagree with the ideology of the organisation Black Lives Matter. They will agree that racism is not an issue of left and right, but an issue of right and wrong.

So why has it become so divisive? Few who garner media attention are making pragmatic, fact-based and effective arguments for racial equality. It’s time to build a Conservative approach to anti-racism which acknowledges injustices, but is based on the principles of patriotism, liberty, individual responsibility, the rule of law, equality of opportunity and growth-based prosperity. 

What many commentators miss is that the “all white people are racist”, Critical Race Theory inspired, anti-free speech, anti-police, anti-British type of anti-racism is never going to win the hearts and minds of the British people.

It is in no-one’s interest for 87 per cent of the population to feel guilty simply for being alive and for 13 per cent of the population to feel that the other 87 per cent unconsciously hate them simply because of the colour of their skin. But it is a fact that for many people, racism is a sad reality of life.

Proof of this includes the fact that 50 per cent of young offenders incarcerated are BAME, 40 per cent of the UK’s poorest households are black households, the risk of death in childbirth for black mothers is five times that of white mums and black people of working age are twice as likely to be unemployed than their white counterparts. 

Now is the time to redress the balance, redraw the boundaries of the debate and articulate a new approach. Conservatives have always been champions of justice and we must double-down on fighting inequality through classical liberal principles. The alternative is a diluted version of Labour’s “white-apologist” approach which serves no-one but the metropolitan liberal elite debating at dinner parties, posting black squares on Instagram and denouncing Churchill.

As the only serious party which supports the principle of free speech, ours has the most power to lead a rational debate on race; Labour has made its mind up. In its eyes, Britain is a bigoted country, which has done more harm than good in the world. The party fights against American food imports, but accepts without question the wholesale adoption of American theories on race. It perceives BAME voters to have no personal responsibility and of needing infinite government hand-outs and safe-spaces.

None of this is true and frankly, the findings from the Equality and Human Rights Commission report into the Labour Party proves that its approach to anti-racism is far from perfect.

As Conservatives we must seize the opportunity to lead this debate, to ask those uncomfortable questions, find those difficult answers and implement effective solutions which will have a meaningful impact on Britain’s minority citizens.

We are the party for all and were elected to serve all, so this endeavour could not be more Conservative. We are calling on all Conservative activists and parliamentarians to join ussign our pledge and support our campaign.

Together, we can build our own common-sense approach to anti-racism and a country that all of our children, whatever their hue, will be proud to call home.