[Sir Charles Walker in the Chair]
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There will also be suspensions between each debate. I remind Members participating physically and virtually that they must arrive for the start of debates in Westminster Hall. Members are expected to remain for the entire debate.
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I beg to move,
That this House has considered repealing and replacing the Vagrancy Act 1824.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I am delighted to have secured this extremely important debate on repealing and replacing the Vagrancy Act 1824, and I thank hon. Members present for putting in to speak. I know from my mailbag that constituents, businesses and visitors to the Cities of London and Westminster are concerned about rough sleepers and share my desire—and that of the Government—to end rough sleeping for good.
As the title suggests, this debate is not just about repealing the Vagrancy Act, but to consider what should replace it to respond to the 21st-century reasons people find themselves on the street. I believe that the Government share my wish to see the Act repealed following the response from my right hon. Friend the Communities Secretary to my recent question in the House, where he confirmed his belief that the Act,
“should be consigned to history.” [Official Report, 25 February 2021; Vol. 689, c. 1138.]
The Vagrancy Act 1824 is an antiquated piece of legislation originally introduced to deal with soldiers returning from the Napoleonic wars. With no public services available, many ended up on the streets begging and sleeping rough. It is now used by police and councils to tackle the small minority of rough sleepers involved in persistent antisocial behaviour.
Similarly, powers under the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, including public space protection orders and criminal behaviour orders, are increasingly used. Yes, we must challenge anyone involved in antisocial behaviour, but rather than criminalising a rough sleeper, I truly believe that the better outcome for both the individual and society is to address the reasons they are on the street in the first place, and provide the help and support they obviously need.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) on bringing this debate to Westminster Hall. Does the hon. Lady agree that, with over 50 housing and homelessness organisations supporting scrapping the Vagrancy Act 1824, the Minister and the Government must consider alternatives? They must acknowledge that many of these charities work with people experiencing homelessness directly, and that they see how it presently fails to end rough sleeping, instead pushing people into worse positions, and their circumstances must be respected and considered. The Government cannot ignore 50 housing and charitable organisations.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I do not know a charity involved in rough sleeping and homelessness that does not agree that the Vagrancy Act should be repealed.
If we get this right, it will end the revolving door that too many rough sleepers currently experience, whereby they accept outreach help and are placed in accommodation, but too often find themselves back on the street because their underlying mental health issues or addictions have not been tackled. Even on the coldest day of the year and during adverse weather conditions brought on by the likes of the “beast from the east”, a considerable number of people chose to ignore the no-questions-asked help of a hot meal and a roof over their head, whether from a local authority, a church, a community centre or a mosque. They are so fearful, mistrusting or mentally unwell that they prefer to remain outside in below-zero temperatures, where they feel safest.
There are more than 400 beds available on any given night in Westminster alone for rough sleepers. However, we must not just offer a bed. The accommodation available rarely comes with the vital health services required to help turn a person’s life around and address often years—sometimes decades—of abuse, poor mental health and addiction. But there is a clear solution: replace the Vagrancy Act with a new approach that places the preservation of life at its core through assertive outreach, alongside social care and specialist medical support, all attached to the safety of a bed. We need addiction counsellors, psychiatric help and medical support for those who have suffered years of sleeping rough.
The Government’s Everyone In strategy, in response to the covid-19 pandemic, saw an incredible 90% of rough sleepers accept accommodation, demonstrating that when central and local government work together, we can achieve impressive results, but what about the other 10%? Throughout the first lockdown, about 100 people in Westminster refused all help and remained on the street. I saw many of them myself. They were clearly very ill, with serious addiction and mental health problems.
Having witnessed what I have, and having spoken to former rough sleepers, outreach workers and other experts, I know that it is clear that if we are to end rough sleeping for good, a fundamental shake-up of mental health services is required. Charities including The Passage, Crisis and St Mungo’s have highlighted that outreach workers today find it near impossible to secure mental health assessments for rough sleepers. Even when one has been secured, often the vital missing piece of the jigsaw is a specialist bed for that person.
People on the street with the most complex needs often lack the mental health capacity to make decisions for their own wellbeing or accept help from others. At present, a rough sleeper’s mental state has to become so acute that he or she is self-harming or at risk of doing so for the police to take emergency action, and only then might they have a mental health assessment. By that stage, it is far too late, which is why we need an assertive outreach approach. We need outreach workers working in partnership with specialist homelessness mental health teams that can undertake mental health assessments under the Mental Health Act 1983, as well as other types of assessments on the street, with rapid access to specialist bed spaces. We then need the health services required attached to the bed that the rough sleeper is referred to. I would welcome it if the Minister can address that point and consider reintroducing street-based mental health services.
Of course, none of that can happen without the backing of long-term sustainable funding. I again ask the Government to give due consideration to extending the time period of funding allocations for such service to at least three years, preferably five, rather than the current annual basis.
As we slowly and carefully begin our journey out of the pandemic, much is in flux. However, we now have a golden opportunity to build upon Everyone In, to learn from that initiative and to reshape our response, so that we have the services we need to achieve our shared goal of ending rough sleeping. The Government, I believe, are willing and able to end rough sleeping. Repealing and replacing the Vagrancy Act, longer-term funding attached to mental health services and accommodation and re-establishing street-based mental health services will do just that. I look forward to the contributions of other Members and to the Minister’s response.
Sir Charles, it is a privilege and honour to serve under your chairmanship. Members will be aware that this is an issue of great interest to me, and I thank the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) for securing this important debate. Before the pandemic began, I volunteered each Sunday at Charles Thompson’s Mission in my constituency to help serve hot breakfasts to over 350 people who were then homeless across Merseyside. For me this was not a chore, it was a privilege.
The causes of homelessness are many and complex. Everyone I met at the mission had a different story to tell. Some were casualties of the housing crisis and a cruel and often incomprehensible welfare system, and some had fled domestic violence. Many struggled with substance abuse and mental ill health, and all were victims of a decade of brutal spending cuts that has left frontline services struggling to survive. The decade of austerity led to a staggering 165% increase in the number of rough sleepers in England. That is a shameful legacy and its victims deserve support, not punishment. No one deserves to be criminalised simply because they have nowhere to call home. Seven out of 10 local authorities continue to use some form of enforcement against homeless communities. In Merseyside alone, nearly 300 proceedings were brought under the Vagrancy Act 1824 in 2019.
For those who fall victim to this pernicious piece of legislation, the consequences can be devastating. Fines can sometimes be as high as £1,000—a whopping amount that will only plunge people further into dire poverty. It makes any chance of escaping the streets impossible. Just the threat of being fined or moved on by the police can drive many homeless people away from places of visibility. That puts them out of reach of frontline services and third sector organisations that could help them. It increases the likelihood that homeless people, who are already 17 times more likely to be victims of crime, will be subject to violence, abuse and criminal exploitation.
The Vagrancy Act traps homeless people in a vicious circle of criminalisation and marginalisation. I was therefore heartened to see the Communities Secretary tell the House that he thought the Act should be scrapped, at last adopting the position my party has held for many years. Nearly 200 years after the great abolitionist William Wilberforce first condemned this spiteful Act in the House, we now have the opportunity to right a wrong that has endured for too long.
However, we must go further. In place of the Vagrancy Act, we need a compassionate and holistic approach that tackles the root cause of homelessness, rather than simply giving homeless people a one-way ticket to the criminal justice system. That means restoring funding to frontline public services, which do vital work helping homeless people battling with mental ill health and substance abuse. It means giving local authorities the resources they need to tackle this issue with a public health-focused approach. We must write off all the debts incurred over the pandemic and restore funding after 10 years of austerity. Above all, it means tackling the housing crisis by ending the right to buy and launching a massive council house building scheme that creates homes fit for the 21st century and ends the blight of homelessness once and for all.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) for calling for this important debate. As the Secretary of State and the Minister often point out, street homelessness is primarily a health issue. The hon. Lady bangs that drum all the time, and it is extremely important that we are to understand this. We constantly hear that homelessness is all the fault of the evil Government and the bedroom tax or whatever else. I know there are big issues around housing and lots of people who are homeless but not on the streets. That must be addressed, but to conflate those groups does nothing to help the street homeless. If we are serious, it is time for all those organisations that use the street homeless almost like a showcase group to highlight those other areas, to bang the drum and to hit at the Government, to stop doing that or we will not get anywhere. Repealing the Act may be an opportunity for a wider effort by both the Government and the Opposition.
The Act makes it an offence to beg. While I would welcome any changes and getting rid of the Act, we must preserve that in one way or another. I have met a lot of rough sleepers who freely admit that they are begging in order to find the cash to buy drugs or alcohol. The fact that they have received this generosity from the public keeps people on the streets much longer than they would be otherwise. I have often cited the example of a guy at St Mungo’s—I did not meet him; St Mungo’s told me about him—who had been around Covent Garden for many years and who had ended up having his leg cut off because of the long-term impact of sticking needles in his arm. This guy apparently says that if the public had not been so generous, he would have been off the streets an awful lot earlier.
A few years ago, when I did my last programme, I remember sleeping around the back of the “goods in” entrance of the McDonald’s by Westminster Cathedral with all the people who had taken spice. It was awful. There was one guy who clearly was not on spice—he was a drinker—and I slept next to him. He was called Andy; we made friends. The reason Andy is on the street is because that is the only way he can get money to get beer. Many of the people that my hon. Friend spoke about are on the street, despite the extraordinary success of Everyone In, because they need money to buy drugs.
If someone needs £150 or £200 a day to buy heroin, and is ill because they have been heroin addict for a long time, it is going to be hard for them to find any other means of paying for the drugs than by begging. People can make a lot of money begging. Some 25 years ago there were groups begging in Regent Street—what we call walking begging—that were getting £200 in a day. It is the same for some people in towns such as Winchester, particularly at the height of the tourist season. My appeal is that if we do something about the Act, we should keep the provisions on begging.
At some point we have to think about what we do for these people who are addicted to heroin, for whom I have a huge amount of sympathy. They have got to buy the drug somehow or they have to get some sort of treatment. To go slightly against what I am saying, if people are not begging for the money, they may be stealing for it. We need to have an honest discussion, at some point, as to whether we should medicalise the problem for people who are firmly committed to taking drugs. I end there, but I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster for securing the debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, I believe for the first time in Westminster Hall, Sir Charles. I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) on securing the debate. I congratulate her on her question to the Secretary of State that elicited the excellent response that he was minded to repeal the Vagrancy Act 1824, especially given that there has been considerable opposition from the Government, over an extended period of time, to repealing that legislation.
I have lobbied many Ministers responsible for upholding this Act to sponsor its repeal and to encourage the Government to repeal it. The Minister is new and when he replies to the debate I am sure that we can look forward to the announcement of the timetable for introducing the legislation necessary to repeal the Vagrancy Act 1824. I declare my interest as co-chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for ending homelessness. It is in that capacity, and in my role as a member of the Select Committee on Housing, Communities and Local Government, that I have been investigating the causes of homelessness and trying to put this right over many years in this place.
We know that every person who is homeless is a unique case. We cannot put people in pigeonholes or say, “It is because of this or because of that.” There are some frequent reasons why people become homeless in the first place. The ending of a private sector tenancy is still the most common reason, but another is relationship breakdown, which very sadly leads to many people being forced to sleep rough in the first place. Before the passing of my Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, single people would not receive any help whatsoever from local authorities. I am glad we have put that right.
Another reason is people becoming unemployed through no fault of their own. They may be made redundant or lose their job because a company goes out of business. It could be that they have suffered an accident and are no longer able to work. Additional reasons, as others have mentioned, include addiction to drugs, alcohol and gambling, and substance abuse also must be taken into consideration. It is fair to say, therefore, that there is no one single cause for someone becoming homeless in the first place.
We also know that during this pandemic private sector rent arrears have increased dramatically. The National Landlords Association estimates that 7% of those with a private sector lease are in rent arrears. That may not sound like very much, but given that 3.5 million people are renting properties, that means that 245,000 people could be made homeless when the moratorium on evictions comes to an end. Indeed, they could be prevented from getting another lease if a county court judgement is made against them. Many of them may end up being street homeless if we are not too careful.
Clearly, we have come a long way with legislation over many years. Looking back, we can see that 1977 was the first time that local authorities had a duty to house those in priority need. It is easy to think now that of course local authorities should have that duty, but it was not that long ago that there was no such requirement. That reform was welcome.
In 2016, I had the opportunity and privilege to promote a private Member’s Bill, which subsequently became the Homelessness Reduction Act. I am very proud of that. It was done on a cross-party basis, with pre-legislative scrutiny carried out by the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, and supported by all parties in the House of Commons. That went on the statute book in April 2017, just before the general election, but it did not come into force until April 2018. Its most important duty is the duty to refer people who are threatened with being homeless to a local authority for assistance, but that did not come into force until October 2018. More than 30,000 people have been prevented from becoming homeless as a result.
The vast majority of people who become homeless in the first place say the same thing: “All we need is help and advice to get ourselves into an alternative property.” When being triaged by a local authority, however, they would frequently be greeted by the same response: “Sorry, we can’t help you. Go and sleep on a park bench or sleep in a shop doorway, and hopefully one of the housing charities will come along and help you.” People sleeping rough for the first time are extremely vulnerable, and sadly, those sleeping rough die at a very early age. The average age of men dying on the streets is 46. We have to combat that.
We should congratulate the Government on the Everyone In programme and celebrate its success. It is extremely welcome that it has taken more than 30,000 people off the streets and put them in safe accommodation. It is now time, however, to review not just the success of that policy but how we go forward. I congratulate the Government on providing money for move-on accommodation and on ensuring as far as possible that those people do not return to the streets, unless it is their absolute choice to do so. In addition to discussing the Vagrancy Act, we should also review all housing legislation and make sure that obstacles are not being placed in the way of assisting people into proper and decent accommodation.
I am a great advocate for Housing First, meaning that we take people off the streets, provide them with secure accommodation, and then build a network of support around them. The main reason for that is that it is no good just giving someone a property to live in when they have suffered from addictions or other problems. They actually need help and support to rebuild their lives, and it is only once they have a secure roof over their heads that we can do that. The trials and pilot schemes have been very successful and we should aim to roll them out so that this becomes a means of prevention, rather than cure, which is always the best approach.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster rightly pointed out, the Vagrancy Act was introduced in the wake of the Napoleonic wars, during which men in particular had been crippled. There were no jobs for them, no national health service and no welfare state. We are now in a much stronger position and should deal with people who are homeless on the basis of their health and enable them to rebuild their lives.
It is right, however, that we have legislation to deal with aggressive begging in particular. My advice to anyone who asks me has always been: “Don’t give money to someone who is homeless and unfortunately living on the streets—give them help and support. Direct them to a charity where they can get the help and support they need to rebuild their lives, rather than potentially fuel their addictions”.
Surely now is the time that, above all else, we should say to the people of this country that people who are homeless should not be arrested but assisted. By assisting them we can help them rebuild their lives and rebuild the dignity of people across the country. We do need to build more social housing and provide a rental basis that people can afford. That is not a debate for today, but let us hear from the Minister the actions that the Government are going to take to repeal this legislation. Although we will need legislation to deal with aggressive begging, we need to make sure that people who are homeless do not feel threatened by the police and those in authority but realise that they can be assisted to rebuild their lives. Thank you, Sir Charles, for allowing me to participate in this excellent debate.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) on securing this important debate.
The Vagrancy Act, which was introduced in 1824 after the Napoleonic wars, continues to this day to punish vulnerable people who are begging or sleeping on the street. Since 2009, Leicestershire police have brought proceedings under the Vagrancy Act against 126 of our residents. While that relatively low figure further underlines the pointlessness of this legislation, it means that 126 too many Leicester residents who have been punished for the crime of being poor. Rough sleeping is a searing indictment of societal failure. Every person we see forced to survive on our streets while avoiding dystopian anti-homeless spite demonstrates how basic human needs have been sacrificed on the altar of neoliberalism. Rough sleeping in England increased by 141% between 2010 and 2019, while deaths more than doubled in the recent five-year period. Sadly, that is not surprising but rather the inevitable consequence of cruel Government decisions.
Over the past decade, Conservative Governments have implemented an ideologically driven programme of austerity that has left our public services weakened, vulnerable and underfunded, which has escalated insecurity at work and brought about a long and continuing squeeze on living standards. Rising rough sleeping figures are an inevitable consequence of such rampant inequality. On top of this, the Government have introduced a new set of immigration rules that make rough sleeping grounds for refusal or cancellation of permission to stay in the UK. Seventy specialist organisations working in homelessness have expressed concern that that is as counterproductive as it is morally abhorrent, as the rules will push people further away from seeking support and leave them far more vulnerable to exploitation.
The new rules do not include protection for asylum seekers and refugees or for people who are illegally evicted from private properties. That is of particular concern, as a disproportionate number—26%—of people sleeping rough are non-UK nationals. It is especially callous for the Government to introduce these changes during a global pandemic. Following pressure, at the start of the covid-19 outbreak the Government introduced the Everyone In scheme, which helped temporarily house thousands of vulnerable people. While the scheme was commendable, it should not have taken a global pandemic for us to decide to take the issue of rough sleeping seriously. It is a matter of great concern that the support has already been scaled back.
The Government must recognise that rough sleeping is not a static problem, but rather a constant conveyor belt of misery. Throughout this pandemic, the injustice of the “no recourse to public funds” policy, the inadequacies of covid-19 support packages and universal credit, spikes in domestic abuse and the failure to cut rent and cancel arrears continue to leave more and more people vulnerable to homelessness. Between April and June 2020, almost two thirds of the 4,227 people recorded as sleeping rough in London were doing so for the first time, representing a 77% rise from the previous year. Shockingly, that includes an 81% increase in children and young people. This indicates that the economic fallout from the pandemic has pushed vulnerable people on to the same streets that the Everyone In scheme had temporarily vacated.
The pandemic has also led to concerns that the number of rough sleepers has been dramatically under-estimated in official figures, which are predominantly collated by a count-based estimate of the number of people seen sleeping rough in a local authority on a typical night. The National Audit Office has expressed alarm that between the end of March and November 2020, 33,139 people were given accommodation through the Everyone In scheme—a number almost eight times greater than the annual snapshot of rough sleepers. The Government must therefore urgently revise how they measure rough sleeping. Even more importantly, they must revoke the discriminatory new immigration rule and set in place a plan to permanently eradicate rough sleeping.
The Government have pledged to end rough sleeping by 2024, yet to achieve that they must invest much more than the £750 million earmarked for the next year. To put the issue in perspective, that is 3.4% of the £22 billion that the Government have spent on the failed, bloated Test and Trace system, which has had a negligible impact on covid-19 cases while lining the pockets of Tory party donors.
With the Vagrancy Act 1824 approaching its 200th birthday, there can be no better way to mark the occasion than to finally repeal this appalling, outdated legislation, along with the Government’s latest discriminatory immigration rules. We must stop punishing our most vulnerable members of society and instead focus on addressing the causes behind their misfortune.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) for securing this important debate. We want to talk openly and transparently about many of the issues relating to rough sleeping because, unfortunately, many of our constituents face these problems. Unless we talk openly and with honesty about these challenges, we risk not facing up to them.
The circumstances under which many find themselves rough sleeping can vary enormously. There are many individual factors, such as mental health problems, bereavement or experience of the criminal justice system. Individuals can face problems through no fault of their own, such as family breakdown, issues with friends or physical abuse from other members of their household. There can be a variety of causes, but none is any less important than another. That is why I welcome this debate.
In my constituency, like in most of the country, rough sleeping is a problem. It is also a problem in neighbouring Bradford and across the wider Bradford district. I therefore welcome the work being done to deal with these problems in my community. For example, Homeless Not Hopeless is a fantastic local organisation, which I have visited in Keighley, that does a lot of work in the Bradford district. It recognises that both mental and physical challenges can exist among those who are homeless. A team of compassionate volunteers provide support to those who most need it. Last Christmas, I was delighted to see groups across Keighley and Ilkley showing support for their work. The 5th Ilkley Brownies group collected items to donate to Homeless Not Hopeless, and staff at Airedale General Hospital donated over 200 gift-packaged shoe boxes to the charity.
There are also local charities that help those suffering from the symptoms of homelessness. For example, the charity Project 6 helps those in Keighley who are suffering from drug and alcohol addiction. People who sleep rough often fall foul of the misuse of those substances. The impacts can be life-crippling. Vicki Beere and her team at Project 6 provide vital support to people suffering from those problems. Preventing homelessness is vital, but help must also come to those who are sleeping rough. That makes the work of local charities like Project 6 so important.
I am pleased that the Government are providing support to help vulnerable people get off the street for good. The £212 million support package provided through the rough sleeping accommodation programme will help local authorities provide the funds to tackle rough sleeping. The Next Steps accommodation programme will support new tenancies for people who need them most.
Of course, more can be done to support those who are rough sleeping. The Vagrancy Act is almost 200 years old. Two centuries later, it stands unfit for purpose. The time has come for it to be replaced. That is why I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government has said that it should be repealed. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster on her work and on bringing forward this debate.
Of course, this a difficult issue to tackle. Unless we speak about it in places such as this, we are not doing all we can to bring it to the forefront, so I welcome this debate. It is also heartening to see all the work being done by local charities. The repealing and replacing of the Vagrancy Act is a step in the right direction. I support that move but long-term solutions are also required, including longer-term funding, street-based mental health services and a targeted approach that addresses the root causes of homelessness in their entirety. I look forward to supporting the Minister’s hopeful remarks on the Government’s aspiration to repeal and replace this Act.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) on securing this important debate, and I thank colleagues from across the House for taking part.
My goodness, it has been a long time coming, but it does look as though the Vagrancy Act might finally be scrapped. My simple question for the Minister is: when? How long do we need to wait for this review finally to be published? How long do we need to wait until this blight of a law is finally repealed?
As many have already said, the Vagrancy Act is an antiquated piece of legislation from 1824 and it has no place in modern society. It is 2021 and we are still criminalising people for rough sleeping. For years, the Liberal Democrats and colleagues from all parties have been urging action, and the price of inaction is high. Rough sleepers will continue to be arrested and prosecuted for being homeless.
I am told by those with lived experience that outside the official figures, there are many more people who may not be charged but who are threatened with the Act to get them to move on. From 2009 to 2019, 131 proceedings under the Act were brought by Thames Valley police alone. How much longer are we going to wait, and how much longer will the Government let this go on?
I started the campaign to scrap the Vagrancy Act in 2017, but the credit needs to go to the compassionate young people of Oxford. The genesis was a petition started by Oxford University students’ union and Oxford-based homelessness group On Your Doorstep. It arose in answer to the needless criminalisation under the Act of dozens of rough sleepers in Oxford. In February 2018, I introduced the Vagrancy (Repeal) Bill and raised it at Prime Minister’s questions.
Together with campaign lead charity Crisis and supported by Homeless Link, St Mungo’s, Centrepoint, Cymorth Cymru, The Wallich and Shelter Cymru, we officially launched the cross-party “Scrap the Act” campaign at an event in Parliament, with a 41-page report detailing the case against it. That included, critically, a lawyer-led review of the other Acts already in place to prosecute fraud and aggressive begging. MPs and peers from all parties heard stories from people who had lived experience of rough sleeping, and whose lives had been affected by the Act. It was heartbreaking, and we all resolved to do more to get the law repealed for good.
In August 2018, when the review was announced, we welcomed it as massive progress. Then we waited and waited. In January 2019 we debated it on the Floor of the House. It was again raised at Prime Minister’s questions with the then Prime Minister that February, and the Bill was introduced again in March 2020. When I heard the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government say on the Floor of the House in February this year—four years on from the introduction of the original Bill—that the Act should be scrapped, the word I said was “Hallelujah!”
Here we are in April 2021. The law is archaic and should be consigned to history, and I am delighted that the Secretary of State has said that he agrees. What now? The campaign has come a long way from its Oxford grassroots origin, and this debate is proof of that. I am saddened that the Secretary of State could not commit to a timetable in a letter to me last week. Will the Minister do that today? Will he guarantee that the repeal of the Vagrancy Act will be in the Queen’s Speech next month? This is the moment. I also agree with hon. Members who call for more, although I hope the Government will not use that as an excuse to delay the repeal.
The Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 was a step change, and I commend the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for leading that work. I have been so grateful for his support in this campaign.
I also congratulate the Government on the Everyone In programme. I can tell the Minister that it has had a transformative effect on those who finally, for the first time, have a stable abode. I was told by council officers in Oxfordshire that the programme meant that, for the first time, many people engaged with the wraparound services that are available, and because for the first time they had the peace of mind of knowing where they were going to sleep night after night, it was possible to engage with them. That is why I believe that the “housing first” approach is certainly the way to go. We have had months of a pilot, in effect, during this pandemic. As outlined in the Public Accounts Committee report on the issue—led by me and the hon. Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan)—that approach also saves money. It is not just the right thing to do; it is also the smart thing to do.
Above all, repealing the Vagrancy Act would indicate a step change in approach by the whole of society. I am sure that Members from all parties remember the death of Gyula Remes in Westminster underground station in 2018, one of the two deaths that year at the very feet of Parliament. How did Parliament react? By erecting a new gate, further down the entrance to the tube station, and pushing the homelessness out of our way—out of sight and out of mind. That will not do, but it continues. Just this morning, a member of my staff saw British Transport police moving on some rough sleepers from outside our tube entrance. When the staff member asked the police officer what had happened to the homeless people, the officer said, “We told them to get lost, in a nicer sort of way.”
We need a step change in our response to homelessness. Our response needs to be more holistic and more compassionate, and it has to start by repealing this cruel and needless law, which continues to be used to punish the homeless. It is a disgrace. We have produced the work detailing why the Government can move forward quickly. The Bill exists, so just pick it up. It sounds as though the review that the Government commissioned has come to the same conclusions as we did years ago. I ask the Minister to do the right thing. Let us act now together. Let us scrap the Vagrancy Act, and let us make up for the nearly 200 years of hurt that it has caused.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Sir Charles.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) on securing this absolutely vital debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) on her campaigning work with Crisis and other organisations. They are both absolutely right—indeed, all the hon. Members who are here today seem to have made the same case—that it is time the Vagrancy Act was scrapped. We have covered a lot today, including many of the reasons why that matters and many of the alternatives. I am grateful to colleagues for adopting a cross-party approach to address this topic constructively, and I am looking forward to hearing what the Minister has to say in response.
As others have done, I am going to quote the Secretary of State. When I searched in Hansard for his references to the Act, I landed on his response to a question from the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster during the ministerial statement on rough sleeping on 25 February. The Secretary of State said:
“We have reviewed the Vagrancy Act and will be saying more in the weeks ahead. I would be very happy to meet my hon. Friend. 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.”—[Official Report, 25 February 2021; Vol. 689, c. 1138.]
That statement contains a lot of what has been covered in the debate today. I would be interested to know whether the Secretary of State met the hon. Lady, but rather than put her on the spot I will ask the Minister if he has any further update for us all.
The Labour party’s position is clear. The next Labour Government will repeal the Vagrancy Act 1824, which criminalises begging and rough sleeping. That is because we believe our priority should be to support, not criminalise, those who are sleeping rough or begging, and to end rough sleeping for good. This Georgian-era legislation is unnecessary—I will explain why shortly—for dealing with genuinely antisocial behaviour, because a number of other civil measures exist in modern legislation, including civil injunctions and various orders.
Crisis, the homelessness charity, says that the Vagrancy Act
“gives the police in England and Wales the power to issue a formal arrest if someone has been offered shelter and continues to sleep on the street.”
The problem is that, as most of us who have spent time with people living on the streets know, there are often very real and genuine reasons why they cannot use any shelter that is available.
Rough sleeping is a criminal offence under section IV of the Act and is defined, in very quaint, 1824 language, as
“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 Waggon...and not giving a good Account of himself or herself”.
I am sure that is etched on the memories of everyone in this debate, but I am sure too that many people we serve would be surprised to hear such antiquated and mostly completely irrelevant language being used to deal with the problem in a 19th-century way—in fact, not even that—when we have 21st-century ways available to us.
The Vagrancy Act 1935 amended the 1824 Act to introduce the condition that an individual can be charged with rough sleeping only if alternative shelter is available. However, as I have said, that fails to account for the lack of knowledge on the part of many or the fears that some have about the alternatives, such as unsafe, overcrowded hostels. According to the homelessness charities, the offence of being in an enclosed premises for an unlawful purpose is also used to challenge rough sleepers.
Interestingly, the number of prosecutions and convictions under section IV of the 1824 Act has declined, to the extent that in 2019 there were 183 prosecutions and 140 convictions, only four of which were for the offence of sleeping out. Convictions for begging under section III have also fallen, although they are higher than those under section IV. In 2019, there were 926 prosecutions and 742 convictions. These are criminal offences whose use is clearly declining, but more importantly, are they solving the problems they were introduced to solve or those that cause them? Do convictions under the Act solve the underlying problems of destitution, rough sleeping, extreme poverty and the other contributory causes of rough sleeping?
Let us look at the underlying problems and take, for instance, the sharp end of poverty, destitution—when someone has literally nothing to live off. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation report published last year, which I am sure the Minister is aware of, presents data from 2019 that shows a worsening picture of 2.4 million people, including more than half a million children, destitute at some point in the year, an increase of around a half compared with 2017. Obviously most of them will not end up on the streets, but we do not want there to be destitution either, and if we are to tackle the root causes of rough sleeping, that must be part of it.
Over the last 10 years, wages have fallen in many sectors, jobs have become more insecure and the cost of housing in the private rented sector has increased, with very high rents across the country, particularly in parts of London, as the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster will know, and the south-east. This is a toxic combination that needs a totally new approach to secure work conditions and decent pay.
Meanwhile, what of the safety net that we all believe anyone who falls on hard times should be able to turn to? I am afraid that, again, in the last 10 years there has been bad news for some people who turn to the state for help. As many have found this year, although the safety net has been there for some, it has not covered everybody. Many people found that it was not there when they needed it, and certainly not to the extent of preventing homelessness and the risk of homelessness. People in the private rented sector in particular have found themselves on the brink of disaster, which is often due to the toxic combination of high rents and insecure wages.
As the chief executive of Crisis has said:
“We understand that councils and the police have to strike a balance between the concerns of local residents and the needs of rough sleepers, and where there’s genuine antisocial activity, it’s only right that they should intervene.”
Homelessness charities therefore understand that, but we know that there are alternatives, such as the range of powers that public bodies have under the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, which include civil injunctions to prevent nuisance and annoyance, criminal behaviour orders, community protection notices, dispersal powers and public spaces protection orders. I am sure that the concerns that the hon. Member for Gravesham (Adam Holloway) raised are covered by that Act. Unfortunately, however, the Government do not collate and publish statistics on the use of those powers, or not that I have been able to find. Will the Minister commit to publishing that data, which would be really useful, and any evidence about the impact of those powers? That might help to inform our debate about ending the 1824 Act.
Homeless people, as I think everyone in this debate has said, need help, not punishment—as the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) said, assistance not arrest. Rather than criminalising rough sleepers, Labour would support them, with a real emphasis on the housing-first approach that many have referred to. We agree with Crisis that enforcement measures are not an effective way to engage rough sleepers, and with the other homelessness charities that have been mentioned, which were well listed by the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran). I thank them for their sterling work. Does the Minister also agree with them that it is time we got rid and scrapped the Act?
If we are to prevent homelessness in the first place, even before coronavirus, poverty was rising, and that included in-work poverty, with poor pay and insecure work a primary cause, as well as expensive living costs. It cannot be right that so many people on low incomes are spending more than half their income on rent, particularly when that is so often in low-quality accommodation. A lot of those people are at risk of eviction under section 21 of the Housing Act 2004, which the Government committed to repealing. We had the renters’ reform Bill in the last Queen’s Speech; can the Minister tell us now whether it will be in the next one? Will it get parliamentary time so that we can debate constructively how we will reform the rights of people living in the insecure private rented sector?
The hon. Member for Harrow East said that now is not the time to talk about all the surrounding issues. He is right. We cannot go into them in detail, but it is worth mentioning that as we come out of this crisis getting people into good, secure jobs and secure housing will help prevent the sharp end of homelessness that we want to prevent when we talk about the Vagrancy Act and will also do so much good in the housing industry. If we invest—if we build the homes that we need, install the energy efficiency we need for net zero housing, and retrofit—that will create jobs. If we really want this, we should invest in council and housing association homes and, yes, homes to buy. Across all tenures, we need a mass house building programme that deals with the root causes and the 4.8 million shortfall in the amount of housing that the Minister knows that there is. Will the Minister update us on what work he is doing with his counterparts in other Departments to do that building back, and to ensure that we are building the future that we really need in this country?
Finally, the Act is unnecessary. Between us, we have made that case. The Act criminalises a form of homelessness, and I think that is immoral in this day and age when, as Members across the political spectrum have said, people need assistance, not arresting. The Act does not tackle the root causes—the lack of affordable housing, the shortfall in supply—and does not even deal with the symptoms. It is in fact a symptom of the broken housing system and it does not deal with the health needs mentioned by the hon. Member for Gravesham .
It is high time that the Government followed through on the commitment made by the Secretary of State—I know that he said it was his opinion, and did not commit to it as Government policy, and I hope the Minister will satisfy our curiosity on that. It is high time that we conducted a mass house building programme to create the truly affordable homes we need to buy and to rent, including council houses and housing association homes as well as those in the private sector. It is time that the Government prioritised the prevention of rough sleeping. It is time to bring in reforms to the private rental sector, to those sharp practices that hurt tenants, good landlords and the wider economy as people spend more of their money on poor-quality accommodation, even when they are in good jobs. I know of people who have spent a fortune on poor-quality accommodation in this crisis. It is time to focus on a housing-first approach with support for substance misuse, mental health and employment. It is high time that we got rid of this Act, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles, although I hope I will be forgiven for saying that it is not as much of pleasure as it was to hear your pint of milk speech, of which I am a huge fan.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) on securing the debate, and other Members on their contributions. We clearly have broad consensus across the political spectrum. The hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley) talked about his time serving homeless people. Immediately before I came to Parliament, I worked for YMCA Birmingham, a charity for young homeless people, and, like him, I feel that it is a privilege to serve them and work with them. Common cause indeed.
As has been made clear during the debate, the causes of rough sleeping are complex and multifaceted. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster said, it is critical that we not only provide a bed for individuals but provide support alongside accommodation for those individuals with complex and overlapping needs. Covid-19 has made that reality even more evident. It means that rough sleeping cannot be tackled by one agency alone. Effective multi-agency working has been critical to protect rough sleepers during the pandemic, and we have seen some truly creative and innovative solutions. For example, Bedford Borough Council quickly moved hostel residents into a hotel and provided a covid-safe environment that meant that people were not sharing communal sleeping facilities. It redeployed its rough sleeping team to work directly at the hotel, and staff were able to offer key services, including on substance misuse and health, to provide the holistic support that many Members have said is important. That has resulted in high-level engagement and has really turned around some rough sleepers’ lives in the past 12 months.
We know that this is not just about the initial intervention to bring people in. I again stress that it is critical to provide the right support and intervention that will successfully and sustainably move people away from life on the streets. That is why we have committed £433 million over the course of the Parliament to provide 6,000 vital homes for rough sleepers through the rough sleeping accommodation programme—the largest ever investment of its kind in this country. It is crucial to tackle the root causes of rough sleeping so that we prevent anyone from facing the damage and trauma that they have experienced from falling back into rough sleeping after having been given a helping hand. We are therefore also investing in high-quality support so that the vulnerable people helped through the programme can recover and maintain tenancies.
The data clearly demonstrates that our approach is working well. The rough sleeping statistics published this year showed a 37% fall in the number of people rough sleeping on a single day, compared with the previous year. This is the third year in a row that that number has fallen, which is a fantastic achievement. It is now incumbent on us to sustain the momentum and not just continue to reduce rough sleeping but end it for good.
It would be remiss of me not to briefly highlight the brilliant multi-agency work being pioneered by Westminster City Council and its partners to tackle rough sleeping. I know from conversations with my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster and Councillor Rachael Robathan, and simply from walking a few minutes from this building down Victoria Street, that Westminster faces significant and complex homelessness issues. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for her exceptional dedication, both as the Member for this constituency and as the previous leader of Westminster City Council, to tackling these issues.
The dedication of the teams in Westminster means not only that beds are provided for those my hon. Friend described as fearful and mistrusting, but that the right support is provided alongside the accommodation. For example, the rough sleeping initiative-funded assessment project at Holly House, run by St Mungo’s, which I had the honour of addressing a few weeks ago, offers rapid initial contact for rough sleepers and provides a quick triage assessment with an offer of accommodation followed by effective follow-up support, ensuring that needs are identified and met. That is a pioneering approach for others to follow.
We are here to talk particularly about repealing and replacing the Vagrancy Act. My hon. Friend and others across the House have been determined advocates of the need to look closely at that legislation. The Government wholeheartedly agree that the time has come to reconsider the Vagrancy Act. As many Members have said, no one should be criminalised simply for not having anywhere to live. As the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government said, and as others have quoted, the Act is “antiquated”, and its
“time has been and gone.”—[Official Report, 25 February 2021; Vol. 689, c. 1138.]
The Vagrancy Act is quite literally a relic of the 19th century and clearly needs to be replaced to reflect the civilised, compassionate society that this Government are committed to as we build back better. That is why we have committed to review the legislation. The review has, for understandable reasons, been delayed by the pandemic. I fully appreciate that, as the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) said, it was started some time ago, but we have unfortunately been knocked off course since then, partly by a general election, a change of Prime Minister and 12 months of a global pandemic. Clearly, it has not been smooth since then. However, with our world-leading vaccination programme forging ahead and our road map for cautiously easing lockdown restrictions in place, I am determined to take that work forward at pace.
At its heart, the review has been about the experiences of those on the frontline, including the police, local authorities and the homelessness sector, and, most importantly, those with experience of rough sleeping initiatives. It has been crucial to understand the full picture of why the Vagrancy Act is used and what impact any changes to it will have. It is vital that the legislation creates the right environment in which to deliver effective services, enables our police to operate effectively on our streets and engages constructively with vulnerable people. We are currently finalising the conclusions of the review and will announce our position shortly.
Of course, that is only part of the solution. Many of the individuals we have heard about face tremendous challenges, and we must ensure that their individual needs are front and centre in this national endeavour.
I will shortly speak about the support we have invested in making sure that the health needs of rough sleepers are adequately addressed, but I will first speak briefly to the points made so compellingly about what happens when an individual refuses critical care and treatment. Decision making in those situations is covered by the Mental Capacity Act 2005, which exists to protect those with a lack of mental capacity and facilitate the expression of their rights and freedoms. When a person who is sleeping rough refuses care and treatment that others, including medical and outreach professionals, see as vital to survival, that is not on its own enough to demonstrate a lack of mental capacity.
We recognise, however, that some people who are sleeping rough lack the relevant mental capacity to make decisions about their care and treatment. In those circumstances, the 2005 Act provides for a best-interest decision to be made by relevant professionals, including those supporting rough sleepers. That is never easy, but it is sometimes necessary. That is why we have previously written to local authorities to remind them of their powers during a period of severe cold weather, and of the need to ensure that outreach teams working alongside mental health services can pre-assess those who choose to remain on the streets and to alert police when mental health may be a factor.
Of course, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster rightly highlighted, the most important thing is to ensure that the root causes of the individual’s health needs are sufficiently supported before it gets to that stage. We know that the health needs of rough sleeping cohorts are significant. A survey published by my Department in December found that 82% of respondents who had slept rough in the last year had a mental health vulnerability, 83% had a physical health need, and 60% had a substance misuse need.
People sleeping rough often have complex and multifaceted needs, making the requirement for comprehensive wraparound support all the more crucial. That is why we are tackling this head-on, by delivering £52 million in this financial year to provide substance misuse treatment for people who are sleeping rough. That will provide the specialist support that so many of those individuals need to rebuild their lives and move into long-term housing. In addition, the Department of Health and Social Care is investing £30 million in the NHS long-term plan to support specialist mental health services for people sleeping rough.
In his brief contribution, the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned that 50 organisations are seeking to see the back of the Vagrancy Act. As I think we have heard this afternoon, there is also cross-party consensus on that. My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster suggested that three-year funding would be appropriate. Unfortunately, that decision is above my pay grade, but I am sure the Chancellor is listening to this debate and will have heard her comments.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Adam Holloway) said that we need to address begging, so it is a question not just of repealing the Act, but of considering what is necessary to replace it. Certainly, as he said, there are examples of people for whom begging is a way of earning money to spend on drugs and alcohol. During my time with the YMCA, we found it incredibly frustrating to have people begging outside our establishments. I would go out to them and say, “You’re giving us a bad reputation. We’re here to provide the sort of support that you are conveying that you need. We could find accommodation and support for you.” They would say, “No, I’m quite happy where I am, thank you.” Sometimes, the people we see on the streets are not necessarily there because there is no opportunity for provision and accommodation.
Several hon. Members mentioned the Housing First programme. Obviously, I am a very big fan of that programme in the west midlands, which Andy Street championed from the start of his time as Mayor—pilots are ongoing. Although many hon. Members have, I am sure, seen good work come from that, we need to allow the review to continue so that we can get a detailed summary of what has worked best and then determine how to move forward based on the commitment that the Government made in our manifesto.
The only point that I would mildly take issue with is the one that the hon. Member for Leicester East (Claudia Webbe) made about the new asylum legislation. I disagree with her point simply because that legislation is to tackle those who persistently engage in antisocial behaviour but refuse to engage with the support offered to them, so I do not think the Government are being particularly harsh or using legislation in an inappropriate way. I think there would be general consensus among the public that people who behave in that way and refuse to engage with support should be tackled, and should be subject to the law.
The renters reform Bill is clearly an important piece of legislation, but given that we are just coming out of the pandemic, the Government will have to decide which things they need to bring forward in legislation to get the country back on its feet. Again, that is a decision above my pay grade, but it is something that I personally will be pursuing in my ministerial role regardless of the legislative programme.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way; he is very courteous. He says that it is above his pay grade to decide whether that happens, but will he be making the case for the renters reform Bill to be in the Queen’s Speech? That is really what I am asking him to commit to.
My job as a junior Minister in the Department is to support the Secretary of State in identifying important legislation that needs to be considered. It is then the job of the Department and the Prime Minister to prioritise things appropriately, based on the collective need of the country.
The hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) called for a significant house building programme. Personally, I think the £12 billion that the Government have committed to house building is significant, and we are determined not only to hit the target of 300,000 houses a year, but more importantly to do that across a mix of tenures. Before becoming a Minister, I chaired the all-party parliamentary group on shared ownership housing. It is not just a question of allowing people to have places to rent; many people have the aspiration to buy. It is up to us to try to support those people as well.
It has been a real privilege to take part in a debate that I feel so passionately about, given my professional background before coming to Parliament, but more importantly in which there is such cross-party consensus across the House. I feel confident that in due course we will make significant progress with this legislation.
I thank everyone who has taken part in this important debate and the Minister for his response. It is clear from what we have heard from Members across the political spectrum that we are all of one belief: that the Vagrancy Act is no longer fit for purpose to deal with any issues surrounding rough sleeping in the 21st century. If we are ever to ensure that the Government meet their welcome ambition of ending rough sleeping for good, one of the first things they need to address is the Vagrancy Act, as well as long-term funding. Local authorities and charities cannot be expected to put in place the services required to support more rough sleepers off the streets without longer-term funding. It is just not possible.
The Minister made some very good points about the Mental Capacity Act 2005, but the problem is that we do not have sufficient capacity in homelessness mental health teams to go out on to our streets. Therefore, we need more funding, and more long-term funding, so that local authorities can put that in place. I honestly do not believe that it is a police officer’s job to have to move rough sleepers off the streets. I want police officers to be going after the bad guys, preventing crime before it starts and taking action against those involved in crime, not moving on rough sleepers. Therefore, I ask the Minister to ensure that the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government work together now. There is a brilliant opportunity, a golden opportunity, now, as we come out of the pandemic, for the three Departments to work together, with the cross-party support of hon. Members and charities in the rough sleeping sector, to ensure that we can repeal the Vagrancy Act and replace it with what is required in the 21st century.
I will end by mirroring what my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) said. We have to move away from arresting rough sleepers to assisting them. They are the most vulnerable, damaged people in our society, and they need and deserve better. And the first way to do that is to scrap the Act.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered repealing and replacing the Vagrancy Act 1824.