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House of Commons Hansard
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29 January 2019
Volume 653

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Steve Brine.)

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I am grateful to the House for allowing me to raise the issue of the Vagrancy Act 1824 on this of all evenings, when others out there might be forgiven for thinking that we do nothing other than talk about Brexit.

I have been campaigning to repeal the Vagrancy Act for well over a year now. In fact, my campaign began in response to a petition by the Oxford University Student Union and Oxford-based homelessness campaign group On Your Doorstep. I want to give them full credit for starting this.

The Vagrancy Act is a cruel and outdated piece of legislation. It was aimed at tackling the rise in homeless veterans after the Napoleonic wars, and even then it was controversial, with the great abolitionist William Wilberforce suggesting that it was too catch-all because it did not consider people’s individual circumstances. Nearly 200 years later, it is still used to criminalise people for sleeping rough or begging.

Between 2014 and 2016, more than 3,000 homeless people were dragged before the courts in violation of the Vagrancy Act. That is only the tip of the iceberg, as many more individuals will have been arrested but had their cases dropped, or the Act will have been used as a threat to move them on.

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I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate. This issue affects us all. Just last week in my constituency I had to deal with a homeless person in great need. Does she agree that the use of this law to target people who are sleeping on the streets or begging should be stopped, and instead councils should work with compassion and care to help people who are desperate and find a way to make our social care system work for that individual, as opposed to simply moving them on, as helpless and hopeless as they were before? Compassion and care—that is what we need in society.

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The words “compassion and care” will repeat themselves in what I have to say tonight, and I could not more agree with the hon. Gentleman. The signal that this sends to others about who we are as a society is why I believe this Act needs to be repealed as a matter of urgency.

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The hon. Lady is quite right to refer to William Wilberforce. He acknowledged at the time that the Act did nothing to take into account personal situations and the reasons behind homelessness. As she said, his words ring true two centuries later. Does she agree with me, and I think with the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), that in a modern society it is far more effective and compassionate to use time and resources to help those who desperately need that support, rather than relying on this blunt piece of legislation on the statute book, which, as Wilberforce pointed out, does nothing to help those living on the streets and simply criminalises the vulnerable?

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I could not agree more with every word the hon. Lady said. Indeed, if we want an example of how badly the Vagrancy Act can be used, last year Windsor Council suggested, just before the royal wedding, that local police use the Act to “clean up the streets”. That was a disgraceful display, but, unfortunately, it is not uncommon. The Act is a common tool that is available to the police across the country.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing this very pressing issue to the House. Does she not agree that it is particularly cruel, given that a lot of homeless people are actually ex-military men who have devoted their lives and given their commitment to this country? They are on the streets for various reasons, but we should treat them in a very different way, rather than punishing them when they originally prepared to give their lives for this country.

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In fact, this comes back to why the Act was controversial 200 years ago, let alone now. The use of the Act is damaging and counterproductive in tackling rough sleeping. Rather than addressing the root causes of homelessness, which we all know are incredibly complex, the Act simply displaces people from one area to another, which is particularly problematic given that the funding of support is still to an extent based on local connection.

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rose

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I give way to my constituency neighbour.

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The hon. Lady is making an excellent case, and I am very pleased that it is one that my party supports as well. When I have had discussions with rough sleepers—at the new hub, O’Hanlon House, the Porch, the Gatehouse or, indeed, doing a St Mungo’s round—in every case those discussions showed that people really need the support she is talking about, rather than to be criminalised, which can of course set them back substantially. Does she agree?

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I completely agree. Indeed, we know very well from our city how much our local constituents care desperately, and care and compassion, as has been mentioned, is actually the driving force behind why people care so deeply about this matter. The legislation acts as a barrier to cultural change. It sends a message that the act of rough sleeping itself is morally wrong, and it treats people who are sleeping rough as a negative problem to solve, rather than individuals in need of positive support.

In 2018, I met the Leader of the House on this matter, and asked if she could help me to repeal the Act. She was sympathetic, but she told me that some homelessness stakeholders wanted to keep the Act in place. This was reaffirmed by the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mrs Wheeler), who is the Minister for homelessness, when we met last year. However, in my second meeting about this with Ministers, I got positive engagement. I am disappointed that the Minister for homelessness is not on the Front Bench today, because I am going to answer some of the questions she raised in the meeting. However, she made the point that the Act was used to encourage rough sleepers to get off the streets and into shelters.

I listened carefully to those arguments, and I continue to disagree with them. The thing is that threatening rough sleepers with the Vagrancy Act to coerce them into shelters is not the way to help them. It is paternalistic and it claims that it is for their own good, but it actually has the opposite effect. In a survey of people sleeping rough carried out by Crisis, 56% said that enforcement measures such as the Vagrancy Act contributed to their feeling ashamed of being homeless, and 25% said that following an enforcement intervention their alcohol consumption increased. What does that say about the effect of the Act on the human level?

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Does not the hon. Lady agree that many homeless people have nowhere else to go during the day, and they are therefore just moved on time and again? The only solution is to ensure that people have secure housing, and the Government target nine years from now is, quite frankly, far too late.

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The hon. Lady is exactly right. Using the Act just moves the problem on; often, it does not tackle the core issues behind what is happening.

This is my first question—of many, as the Minister will not be surprised to hear. Who are these stakeholders who wish to keep the Act in place? I would be genuinely grateful for a response, because they certainly do not include the homelessness charities with which I have been working, or the outreach managers whom St Mungo’s surveyed in 2018; 71% of them believed that the Act should be scrapped. One said:

“The Vagrancy Act takes a moral view on street activity giving no consideration to the complex reasons behind any such activity such as begging and rough sleeping. It is widely agreed that criminalizing addicts and homeless people serves no purpose apart from to further push them to the fringes of society, towards further impoverishment and stigmatization. I agree it should be scrapped”.

Surely we should listen to the views of professionals, who see at first hand the Act’s damaging impact on rough sleepers.

When we met last year, the Minister for homelessness argued that she does not want to criminalise homeless people—I believe her—but that she supports the use of the Vagrancy Act to combat “aggressive and persistent begging”. I went away and did my homework, just as I, like a good teacher, would have told my students to. Legal advice to Crisis concluded that the actions criminalised by the Vagrancy Act are covered by many other provisions in criminal law:

“Much of the language is archaic. The conduct it seeks to criminalise appears to belong to a different era. Legislation other than the Vagrancy Act, if correctly and carefully applied, provides a much better and modern framework than what remains of the Act”.

The Public Order Act 1986 and the Fraud Act 2006 are good examples of legislation that could and should combat aggressive begging. Indeed, in a debate in Westminster Hall, the Minister for homelessness acknowledged that

“Local authorities and police are equipped with a wide range of enforcement powers to combat issues arising from begging…Particularly flexible are the powers contained in the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014”—[Official Report, 17 January 2018; Vol. 634, c. 386WH.]

If there is other legislation in place, why is the Vagrancy Act needed at all?

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The hon. Lady is doing an excellent job. I ask this so that I can respond to the debate properly. She made the point that criminalising people who are homeless or begging damages the ability to help them. She went on to say that other Acts may also criminalise them, and that they should or could be used instead of the Vagrancy Act. Is there a contradiction in that statement? Would she like to clarify that, just to enable me to respond more fully?

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I will come to that later, when I will ask the Minister to extend the review that his Department is carrying out of this legislation to include all that other legislation, but I would point out that the Acts I mentioned are about aggressive begging, which is different, of course, from being genuinely homeless; we need to make sure that the two are not conflated.

In some parts of the country, the Vagrancy Act is not used at all. Chief constables can decide to use the Act at their discretion, and it is used in only 34% of the country. Why does it not have to be used in 66% of the country, and why is it used in 34% of it? Furthermore, use is planned to decrease to 7% of areas. Is the aim to shut this door? However, the Act is still there, though it has been repealed in Northern Ireland and Scotland. If it is barely being used, why not just repeal it?

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The Act was repealed in Scotland in 1982. Every night, when I go from a full House here to my flat, I pass six homeless people while crossing the bridge to St Thomas’ Hospital. A young girl—18 years old—arrived there last night. She was sitting on the bridge with a bag. I did not know how to approach her, or what to do. That is happening here, and there have already been two deaths outside this House. We have to look at the Vagrancy Act, and I applaud the hon. Lady for bringing the subject to the House.

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. His passion is palpable. This measure is receiving wide cross-party support in the House and I would like to take a moment to say thank you to all hon. Members for being here for the debate. It means so much to the community.

I was very pleased to hear that a review is on the cards. I speak to homelessness charities and they are a little frustrated that there has been no announcement on when it will take place. That is important, but I do ask why we need one at all when the situation is blindingly obvious. I encourage the Minister to widen the scope and ambition of the review. There should be a wider assessment of enforcement, for example on the use of public space protection orders and dispersal orders that give the police and local authorities the power to penalise the act of rough sleeping itself. We need a cool-headed assessment of whether that actually helps the people we seek to help. I believe that the Government want to help, but I wonder if the stick approach now needs to be changed.

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Does the hon. Lady agree that measures such as the Vagrancy Act not only criminalise homeless people, but put into the mind of the public that they are criminals and, as a result, they receive worse treatment? In Brighton, one homeless person was murdered last year and many others are regularly attacked. Removing the Act would show that it is not acceptable to treat people who have ended up in dire circumstances in that way.

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I agree entirely. The principle of no enforcement without support is vital. As funding for local authorities has decreased, there is often not enough money to tackle the root causes, and to give the support to those who are at risk of homelessness or who are homeless. Rather than spending money enforcing laws that punish people and move them on, in the long term it would be a far better use of taxpayers’ money to invest properly in the very welcome Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, which I have no doubt the Minister will mention, and to ensure support is in place to prevent homelessness from happening in the first place.

We all know that the causes of homelessness are complex. The Government need to do more to support local councils in providing services to combat those root causes. The Homelessness Reduction Act is a welcome start, but it cannot be the end. It is clear that the Vagrancy Act, among other Acts, is the lowest hanging fruit—it just makes problems worse. We need a more compassionate and preventive approach to tackling the national scandal of homelessness.

Repealing the Vagrancy Act would be an easy first step. It would not take any money, just a three-line Bill. The private Member’s Bill is waiting there and I am desperate for it to receive support. I think it would receive support from all corners of the House. I am sorry to say—this is the way with private Members’ Bills—that it was blocked on First Reading. However, we are seeking another First Reading soon. I am delighted that the Labour party is now supporting the Bill—that is brilliant—as are St Mungo’s, Centrepoint and Crisis. There is a real swell in the campaign from across the political spectrum and beyond.

The Vagrancy Act is a symbol: what sort of country do we want to be? Rather than being a cold-hearted mean-spirited country, I believe we should show compassion and care to those who need our help. I ask the Minister to push as hard as he possibly can at the open door to scrap the Vagrancy Act.

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This is the first time I have heard the hon. Lady talk on this subject in the House. I congratulate her on the tone of the debate, and on how heartfelt and passionate she is on this very, very important subject. I congratulate her, too, on securing tonight’s debate.

I want to live in a country—I think we all do—where no one should ever have to sleep rough. That is why the Government have committed to halve rough sleeping by 2022 and end it by 2027. When I first entered Parliament in 2010, before I did this job as a Minister, I worked for the then Housing Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps). We worked together then, as part of the coalition Government, on how we could come together across government, and I think also on a cross-party basis, to tackle the scourge of homelessness. That is why I am pleased that the Government published our rough sleeping strategy in August 2018, which set out, as I think has been acknowledged across the sector, an ambitious programme building on three core pillars. Before I answer the hon. Lady’s questions, I want to expand on them briefly to help us all understand the context of the debate.

First, we want to prevent rough sleeping before it happens. That is hugely important and is our key target. We then want to intervene at crisis point, again to try to prevent rough sleeping from ever occurring. For people who find themselves rough sleeping, we need flexible support that meets their needs and enables them to leave the streets. That is why we committed £1.2 billion of funding over the spending review period to tackle homelessness. We implemented the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017—the hon. Lady correctly said that I would mention it—to put prevention, which is key, absolutely at the heart of our approach to tackling homelessness.

We must ensure that people get early support to prevent them from ever becoming homeless, and we must provide support on a broader basis than ever before to help people off the streets. We have started to do that through the introduction of pilots such as Housing First, the rapid rehousing pathway, and the private rented sector access fund to help people leave the streets and find a sustainable stay in accommodation.

On the hon. Lady’s main point, the Government are clear that no one should be criminalised in this country for having nowhere to sleep. That is quite wrong, and we are determined to tackle it. We have made it clear in the guidance that public space protection orders should not be used to target people who are simply sleeping rough or are homeless. Rough sleeping on its own does not have, or is very unlikely to have, an unreasonable detrimental impact on a neighbourhood, and therefore those orders should not be used. On the point that the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) made about the real price of homelessness that we see every night in London, we all understand that we should not target or criminalise people who are simply homeless or sleeping rough.

People are convicted every year under sections 3 and 4 of the 1824 Act, to which the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon referred, but we have seen that they are used to target persistent begging and public order offences in public places. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady is shaking her head, but that is what our rough sleeping advisory panel’s research shows. She asked who is on the advisory panel. That information is publicly available. It includes Crisis, Shelter, St Mungo’s, Homeless Link, the Local Government Association and others.

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For clarification, I asked which stakeholders agree that the Vagrancy Act can be used. At least three of the charities that the Minister mentions have said to me that they do not, so who wants it to be used? As he can see, I am listening, and I want to understand who wants this and why so that I can get to the bottom of it. Who are they?

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If the hon. Lady would allow me to develop my argument, I will attempt to answer her question.

Of course, other legislation is used. The hon. Lady mentioned the Public Order Act 1986 and the Offences Against the Person Act 1861—another very old piece of legislation that makes persistent begging in public places an arrestable offence. She asked why laws other than the Vagrancy Act are not used. It is because they have a higher burden of proof and harsher penalties are often—although not always—attached to them than to the Vagrancy Act.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend on his tone. I have known him for nearly nine years, and I know that he cares passionately about homelessness and rough sleeping. On the panel, he mentioned various stakeholders, but one that he did not mention is the police. The hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) said that many police forces do not use the Vagrancy Act. A police officer who works in the town centres in Medway told me that he has never uses it; he always uses community protection notices. What input is the panel getting from those who actually apply the legislation—in other words, the police?

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I am coming to our review of the law, but it is heavily engaging the Home Office and thereby the police and law enforcement more generally.

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Will the Minister give way?

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I do not want to be timed out, so this will be the last time I give way.

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From the list the Minister is reading out, I get the strong feeling that local authorities have also been involved. Could he clarify with the LGA where it stands on this?

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I will happily go away and find out the LGA’s position, although, having been involved in such commissions myself, I can say there is often robust debate as they come to their conclusions, but many people with differing views happily come behind one report and one set of recommendations, so the LGA will not necessarily have had the ability to set out its view separately, but will have been bound as part of the panel.

As I have said on the record, the Government do not believe that anyone should be criminalised for simply sleeping rough, but equally we should not rush to a wholesale repeal of the 1824 Act without proper consideration of the consequences. The hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon said—I wrote it down—that we needed a cool-headed assessment of the law before acting. I agree, and I rather hope she accepts that that is the Government’s approach.

We developed our rough sleeping strategy in collaboration with many national charities, many of which I have named, and they form part of the rough sleeping advisory panel. Enforcement can form part of moving some people away from the streets, but it should come with an offer of meaningful support. Some charities working with rough sleepers are clear that the ability to secure income through begging can make it harder, not easier, for vulnerable people to leave their damaging lifestyles behind. The 1824 Act is sometimes the only option to get someone off the street when they have become dependent on begging income to support their drug or alcohol dependency and to find ways of moving towards the support they need.

The rough sleeping strategy made a commitment—partially based, I am sure, on the hon. Lady’s sterling work—to extend our review of the Homelessness Reduction Act to include a review of other relevant homelessness and rough-sleeping legislation, including, of course, the 1824 Act. She acknowledged that homelessness and rough sleeping was a complex issue, and we know from engagement with stakeholders that there are conflicting views about the necessity and importance of the 1824 Act, which is why the Government believe that a review, rather than immediate action, which I know she would prefer, is the appropriate course of action.

We recognise that there is a wide variety of views about the Act among stakeholders. We have engaged with homelessness charities, such as those referenced by the hon. Lady, and the panel held wide-ranging views, although many panel members thought the Act necessary. My Department will continue to work with the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice and the homelessness sector to understand why the Act is used as part of this wider review, and one thing we want to get to the bottom of is why it is used to varying extents in different areas. Before we rush to repeal it, we must understand why that is the case. We will report the review findings by March 2020.

There is obviously considerable interest in this debate, and I would like to make an open offer to all interested hon. Members. I know the hon. Lady met my hon. Friend the homelessness Minister, and she is more than welcome to do so again. As part of this review of the law, we want to seek as many views as possible in order to get it right, so the door to my Department remains open, and I know that my hon. Friend, too, will happily meet colleagues from across the House to make sure we get this right, because it is very, very important. We must act to help the most vulnerable in society.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.