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.