Police forces in England and Wales are using Victorian laws to “criminalise” vulnerable rough sleepers during the Covid-19 pandemic, HuffPost UK can reveal.
A Freedom of Information request reveals officers made 361 charges that led to court hearings between April and September last year using two sections of the Vagrancy Act that relate to begging and rough sleeping.
The legislation was introduced in 1824 targeting destitute soldiers who were returning from the Napoleonic Wars and ending up on the streets. In 2018, the UK government announced it would review the law – rather than abolish it – but has yet to make any changes.
The homelessness charity Crisis has labelled the use of the “archaic” act by police forces as “inhumane” and “unconscionable” during a public health crisis.
Last month, HuffPost UK reported how campaigners feared homeless people were being treated harshly under legislation allowing officers to “move people on” and ask why they are away from home to prevent breaches of Covid-19 laws.
A “community message” posted by an officer from West Midland Police highlighted how its so-called Covid Breach Patrols in a Birmingham were telling “beggars” to leave the area.
Now the FOI data, released by the Crown Prosecution Service, reveals how often police forces deployed sections 3 and 4 of the 19th century law.
“Begging” is an offence under section 3 and the maximum sentence is a fine of around £1,000. Under section 4, acts prohibited include “wandering abroad and lodging in any barn or outhouse, or in any deserted or unoccupied building, or in the open air, or under a tent, or in any cart or wagon, and not giving a good account of himself or herself”.
Section 3 was used by West Yorkshire Police 69 times, by Merseyside on 26 occasions, and London police (the Metropolitan Police and the City of London Police combined) made 17 charges. In total, there were 251 court cases in England and Wales under section 3. Section 4 was used on fewer occasions –110 times in total – with 40 of the charges being brought by the two forces in the capital.
Infographics supplied by Statista.
The government has been praised for its initial efforts to ensure rough sleepers were off the streets during the deadly pandemic. A study suggested the “Everyone In” policy in the first wave enabled local authorities to place 90% of rough sleepers in hotels and empty flats, and prevented as many as 266 deaths while saving tens of thousands of some of the most vulnerable people across England from catching coronavirus. A further £10m was pledged to fund the current plans to get all rough sleepers into safe housing. The targeted policy suggests those who remained on the streets were the most troubled.
Jon Sparkes, chief executive at Crisis, told HuffPost UK: “No one should be criminalised because they are sleeping on the streets.
“Not only is it inhumane for people to face criminal proceedings simply because they don’t have a safe place to call home, but this also pushes people further away from support to help leave homelessness behind for good.
“It’s unconscionable that the middle of a pandemic, with thousands being pushed into poverty, people are being so harshly punished for being homeless.”
He added: “For years, people sleeping on our streets have faced being criminalised under the archaic Vagrancy Act and these figures show that this endures even during this public health crisis.
“The government must scrap the Vagrancy Act and remove fines for people sleeping rough.
“Instead, the focus must be on preventing people from becoming homeless in the first place, and ensuring support and housing is available for people sleeping rough so they can escape the streets and rebuild their life.”
Assistant chief constable Andrew Prophet, the spokesperson for homelessness for the National Police Chiefs’ Council, said: “The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the vulnerability of various groups in our communities, including homeless people.
“We will continue to work with partners to get the right balance between providing support and enforcement action where necessary.”
West Yorkshire Police was the force that used section 3 of the act – which forbids “begging” – the most times.
Superintendent Alisa Newman of West Yorkshire Police told us she “fully appreciate[d]” that the subject was “highly emotive”.
“People who beg or sleep rough on the streets often have complex and challenging needs that only specialist support from a range of agencies can begin to address,” she said.
“Police work is only one part of this support package and we work closely with our partner agencies and support organisations to make sure that collectively we are addressing the issues around rough sleeping, vagrancy, begging and anti-social behaviour.
“As police our main concern is to help those at risk and we do a lot of work to support genuinely homeless people who, by virtue of this, are vulnerable. We seek to encourage and support them to the get them the help they need from partners. Outreach teams have been working across West Yorkshire during the pandemic to support those in need and make them aware of available local authority services.
“The main thing for us is to make sure people who are vulnerable get the help they need. What we have found – and are still finding – is that some vulnerable people do have accommodation and receive benefits but have other issues that see them on the streets.
“Whilst our priority is to support and engage, this is not always successful. Where individuals repeatedly refuse to engage with us and/or partners to get the help and support they need, we do have a range of legislative powers available to us where we have no option but to take enforcement action. This can include arrest under the Vagrancy Act where necessary and proportionate, and for persistent offenders we may consider an application for a Criminal Behaviour Order, if appropriate. Dependent on the circumstances, we also have other measures we can use such as dispersal orders and Public Spaces Protection Order Zones.
“The police and our partner agencies are committed to working together to protect vulnerable people and will continue to use all available measures to help people on the streets to turn their lives around.”
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said: “The government is clear that no one should be criminalised simply for having nowhere to live which is why we have reviewed the Vagrancy Act.
“The review drew on experiences of rough sleepers affected by the legislation, the homelessness sector, police, councils and community groups.
“We will announce the outcome of the review in due course.”