Legislation introduced in the 19th century to target destitute soldiers sleeping on the streets should be “consigned to history”, housing secretary Robert Jenrick has said.
The secretary of state on Thursday said the Vagrancy Act, introduced in 1824 during the Napoleonic Wars, should be repealed amid concern the law is being used by police officers to “criminalise” homeless people during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Earlier this month, HuffPost UK reported how forces in England and Wales made 361 charges that led to court hearings between April and September last year using two sections of the Act that relate to begging and rough sleeping.
In January, HuffPost UK also revealed 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.
In 2018, the UK government announced it would review the law – rather than abolish it – but has yet to make any changes.
In a debate on rough sleeping in the Commons, Jenriick said: “We have reviewed the Vagrancy Act and will be saying more in the weeks ahead.
“It is my opinion that the Vagrancy Act should be repealed. It is an antiquated piece of legislation whose time has been and gone.
“We should consider carefully whether better, more modern legislation could be introduced to preserve some aspects of it, but the Act itself, I think, should be consigned to history.”
His comments were welcomed by campaigners and MPs.
Jon Sparkes, chief executive of the homelessness charity Crisis, said: “This archaic piece of law does nothing to tackle the root causes of rough sleeping and instead drives people further away from support.
“This ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach to homelessness benefits no one and denies people dignity and respect.
“We have worked closely with MPs, police and people with lived experience of rough sleeping to right this historic wrong, and look forward to working with the UK government on the legislation to repeal the act.”
Sam Grant, head of policy and campaigns at human rights group Liberty, said it agreed with Jenrick – but any reform should be “coupled with a change in approach, namely stopping the reliance on criminalisation to solve complex social issues”.
He said: “In recent years we’ve seen a rash of Public Spaces Protection Orders introduced by local councils to criminalise rough sleeping.
“If you’re sleeping rough or begging, that is a result of poverty and that’s a problem for society to solve not punish.
“Unfortunately, long term solutions to the systemic causes of homelessness are often overlooked for short-term ‘fixes’ which allow councils to try to push the problem elsewhere through fines and criminalisation.
Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran, who last year introduced a bill to repeal the law, said sleeping rough should not be a crime in 2021.
She added: “Scrapping this archaic law represents the first step in a journey to taking a more compassionate and holistic approach to homelessness.
“I’ve already introduced a cross-party bill that would repeal it in a heartbeat. It’s time for Jenrick to follow through on his word, pick it up and scrap the Act.”