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House of Lords Hansard
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23 April 2020
Volume 803

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to repeal the Vagrancy Act 1824.

The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.

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My Lords, the Government believe that no one should be criminalised simply for sleeping rough. In the cross-government review entitled the Rough Sleeping Strategy which was published in August 2018, we committed to review the Vagrancy Act. The review has consulted with stakeholders on all the options, including retention, repeal, replacement or amendment. The Government will announce the conclusions of the review in due course.

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My Lords, I am grateful to my noble and learned friend for that reply. Does he agree that attitudes to those who sleep rough have softened over the past 200 years and that legislation which refers to “idle and disorderly”, “rogues” and “vagabonds” living in “coach-houses” and “stables” has no place in modern legislation? Given that charities working with rough sleepers have criticised the use of the Vagrancy Act for drawing rough sleepers into the criminal justice system, at the very time when the Government’s commendable Rough Sleeping Initiative is seeking to tackle the problems of rough sleeping at their roots, can my noble and learned friend say when the review he has referred to, which was scheduled to be completed in March this year, will come to an end? Further, does he agree that we should replace the Act with legislation that is more appropriate and effective?

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My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his further question. The review, which was led largely by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, has essentially been completed. However, in light of the work being done in respect of Covid, it has not yet been reviewed by Ministers, although we will seek to bring it forward as soon as possible. I would acknowledge that the language of the 1824 Act is archaic, albeit that the meaning is clear. I should reiterate that we have no desire to criminalise those who are simply sleeping rough, but the provisions of the Act also apply in respect of, for example, begging and persistent begging. We have consulted with all the interested parties, including local authorities and the police, in order to determine a way forward.

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If Section 4 of the Vagrancy Act, which was enacted after repeated harvest failures created an army of the dispossessed, were presented to us today, beyond the archaic language to which the noble Lord, Lord Young, has already referred, we should reject it as being vague and uncertain, and arguably tarnished with an improper reverse burden of proof. If we would not enact it, why should it remain on the statute book for a minute longer?

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My Lords, I do not accept that the essentials of the provisions of Section 4 would not be worthy of enactment today. The provisions are of assistance to local authorities and indeed to the police. I understand that, quite often, the police are able to suggest the possibility of prosecution under Section 4 as a means to persuade those who are homeless and those who are begging to seek assistance either from drug and alcohol hubs or by seeking to claim benefits. It therefore remains of use in the view of some authorities.

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My Lords, I very much support what we have heard from the previous speakers. I think that the country has witnessed the awesome challenges presented by rough sleepers as a result of the pandemic and I believe that, given the spirit of national unity and cohesion that we are seeing, it would be totally behind the calls for repeal. I think that this cannot happen too soon and that the country is looking for a lead on issues like this. We have seen the dreadful suffering of rough sleepers, so the eradication of rough sleeping, coupled with the repeal of a 200 year-old Act, are surely things that the Government should be supporting with enthusiasm.

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I mentioned earlier that there is a concern as to whether we should repeal this legislation, amend it or substitute it with something else. As regards the position which has arisen as a result of the Covid-19 situation, the Government have asked local authorities in England to support rough sleepers into appropriate accommodation. Indeed, I understand that more than 5,400 rough sleepers, which represents over 90% of those who were on the streets at the beginning of the crisis and were known to local authorities, have now been made offers of safe accommodation, and we are concerned that that should continue.

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Lord Bird has a supplementary question. Lord Bird? Okay, we will move on to Lord Foulkes of Cumnock.

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Can the Minister confirm that the provisions of this ancient Act as they apply to Scotland were repealed in Westminster by the Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982? The kind of things he has talked about, such as persistent or aggressive begging, are being dealt with in Scotland using other legal provisions. Why cannot that be done in England, and why cannot the Government move quickly to bring England and Wales in line with the excellent situation in Scotland?

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My Lords, the provisions of Section 4, but not Section 3, of the Vagrancy Act 1824 were extended to Scotland by Section 15 of the Prevention of Crimes Act 1871. Section 4 was of course concerned with rough sleeping and Section 3 with begging. The noble Lord is quite right that the extension of Section 4 to Scotland was repealed by the Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982. It should be noted that Part 4 of the 1982 Act brought in a series of very specific offences of what was termed

“annoying, offensive, obstructive or dangerous behaviour”—

essentially public order offences. In that regard, the law was brought up to date in Scotland. Indeed, it has been amended in England as well in some instances, for example by virtue of the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014.

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Does the Minister agree that Dame Louise Casey’s strategy has provided hope for rough sleepers, with well over 5,000 people coming off the streets within a fortnight, as he has already mentioned? Tempting as it is to ask what took the Government so long prior to the pandemic, instead I ask: will the Minister share with us what commitment the Government have now made to ensure that none of those rough sleepers returns to the streets? Will he undertake to organise an urgent meeting with Members of this House who are interested in this issue to outline those plans and commitments?

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My Lords, we consider that there has been a truly remarkable achievement since the Covid-19 epidemic emerged with regard to achieving suitable accommodation for rough sleepers. A great deal of that work has been done by local government and other agencies and charities across the country. Of course, we would like to see these vulnerable people protected going forward. We have provided additional funding to local authorities in excess of £1.5 billion so that they can be more able to respond to the pressures brought to bear by Covid-19. That includes taking suitable social welfare steps in respect of those who do not have appropriate housing. I would be more than willing to meet with relevant Members, although I should add that the lead on this matter is taken by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

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Lord Falconer of Thoroton. No? Lord Harries of Pentregarth.

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Following on from the question from the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, if Scotland can abolish this without any harmful effects, surely we can do the same in this country. Bearing in mind what the Minister said about using the law to encourage rough sleepers to find help, there are plenty of other laws on the statute book about disorderly behaviour and being a public nuisance that could be used in exactly the same way. Given the Government’s wonderful promises about housing rough sleepers in hotels, how many rough sleepers does the Minister think have not yet been housed?

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There are other statutory provisions in place addressing public order offences; the Public Order Act 1986 is an example and I also mentioned the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014. However, the evidential requirements of these other statutory provisions can be quite challenging when dealing with those who are sleeping rough. For example, it is not possible to serve a community protection notice under the 2014 Act without a prior written warning. Noble Lords will appreciate that it may be difficult to issue a prior warning to someone with no fixed abode in the first instance and then to follow that up with further steps. There is a place for the provisions of the 1824 Act, but of course we will look very carefully at all sources of opinion in respect of this matter. I reiterate that Section 3 of the 1824 Act has never extended to Scotland—only Section 4.

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My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has now elapsed. We move on to the fourth and last Oral Question. Baroness McIntosh of Pickering.