To prevent or punish homelessness? The Vagrancy Act 1824

Posted on 17th November 2020

Homelessness: The Protect, Punish or Prevent series
Part 2

Our recent blog discussed the recent Law Commission review that makes the case for additional classes of persons to be protected by hate crime laws, as it relates to the homeless. Whilst we welcome and support this review as we consider that the homeless are in need of such protection by the criminal law, it remains the current legal position that being homeless in itself is a criminal offence and is capable of punishment by imprisonment under the Vagrancy Act 1824.

However, at long last the Vagrancy Act 1824 is set to be repealed through the Vagrancy (Repeal) Bill, which is due for its second reading this month. This is of course a very welcome development and one that is long overdue. The Act is a relic of the years following the Napoleonic wars, which criminalised begging and rough sleeping and does not reflect the societal position of today.

The Vagrancy Act 1824 is still used to prosecute some of the most vulnerable members of society, where being homeless in itself can lead to a criminal record. The most recent well publicised use of the Act was at the time of the Royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, where the police reportedly rounded up the homeless in Windsor and moved them away from the eyes of the world press.

Is the Vagrancy Act 1824 still fit for purpose?

The Act, passed 196 years ago is no longer fit for purpose and there are contemporary laws in place to actively tackle the issues the Act had sought to address.

  • Firstly, in regards to begging, the Act can be employed to punish by imposing a fine. In 2020 this is nonsensical as it perpetuates a poverty cycle. Begging in itself is indicative of poverty and by imposing a financial penalty upon a person without any means, the Act will accordingly never effectively prevent begging and will only ever serve to exacerbate poverty.
  • Secondly, there is anti-social behaviour legislation that the police can use instead where begging is particularly aggressive.

In regards to homelessness (and the often related link to begging), the law has made some strides in recent years to seek to place the emphasis to prevent and relieve homelessness, rather than punish homelessness. We consider that investment to support local authorities prevent and relieve homelessness is crucial.

The Homelessness Reduction 2017, which we will explore further in our next post, places an emphasis on local authorities to resolve the underlying issue that ought to provide support and access to housing. This requires continuous investment from Government.

It is understanding and responding to the issues that lead to homelessness that need to be addressed, this is not achieved by punishing the homeless. This was famously recognised in 1824 by William Wilberforce, who said of the Act, “You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know”. This rings true in 2020.

At Hodge Jones & Allen, we fully support and welcome the repeal of the antiquated and dehumanising Act and we will watch with bated breath as to how our Government now responds.

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