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Vagrancy Act 1824

Volume 830: debated on Wednesday 17 May 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government when they expect to commence the relevant provisions in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 that repeal the Vagrancy Act 1824.

My Lords, as we made clear at the time of the PCSC Act and as was recently set out in the Government’s Anti-Social Behaviour Action Plan, we will repeal the Vagrancy Act when suitable replacement legislation is brought forward. This will be done at the earliest parliamentary opportunity.

My Lords, the delay in commencing the repeal of the Vagrancy Act has left this matter unresolved for more than a year. In that time, more than 1,000 vulnerable people have been arrested under its provisions. The plans the Minister refers to recriminalise homelessness through new anti-social behaviour legislation and are contrary to the principles established in the Government’s rough sleeping initiative. That is, in effect, the Vagrancy Act by the back door. When will the Government move past criminalisation as a response to homelessness and offer genuine, workable support measures? When will they finally repeal the Vagrancy Act?

My Lords, at the start of the year the Home Office was asked to take forward provisions to repeal and replace the Vagrancy Act, as the noble Baroness has referred to. That builds on the Lords amendment to the PCSC Act 2022 to repeal the Vagrancy Act once replacement offences have been considered. That amendment received support across parties in both the Lords and the Commons. The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities remains the policy lead on homelessness and rough sleeping. We are working closely with that department to determine the replacement legislation. That legislation is not ready yet. An extensive action plan for anti-social behaviour has been published, which goes into significant mitigations for homelessness. As soon as parliamentary time allows, we will do this.

My Lords, between 1964 and 1969 capital punishment was not used. It was allowed to fall into non-use. Could we do the same with the Vagrancy Act, which is one of the most heinous crimes because it turns homeless people into criminals?

My Lords, the Government do not collect figures on the police usage of the Vagrancy Act and as the police are operationally independent, we cannot comment on figures. The Ministry of Justice figures on prosecution show that it is a very small number of people. There were four prosecutions for sleeping out in 2021 and 459 prosecutions for begging in 2021.

My Lords, this is a very important piece of legislation which the Government are seeking to provide. Can the Minister give us an assurance that the Bill, or whatever the legislation is, will be delivered and completed by the next general election?

I cannot give that assurance but, as I said, last year we consulted on options for replacement legislation, along with other stakeholder engagement, and we are considering those complex issues carefully. The Government will publish responses to the Vagrancy Act consultation in due course. As soon as parliamentary time allows, that legislation will appear in front of your Lordships.

My Lords, what is the Government’s approach to commencement orders more generally? There was an engagement in your Lordships’ House last week about the non-commencement of journalists’ protection in the Public Order Act. Do the Minister and the Government understand that to delay commencement indefinitely, and thus to thwart the will of Parliament, is an unlawful abuse of power?

Of course, commencement is not really within the spirit of the Question, but I understand where the noble Baroness is coming from. There was no suggestion that commencement would be delayed indefinitely under the circumstances to which she refers.

My Lords, the various charities which campaigned for this change, led by Crisis, were deeply grateful for the amendment your Lordships passed which led to this legislative change. But a year on from the Government agreeing to legislate accordingly, we do not have that commencement. We do have the Anti-Social Behaviour Action Plan, which seems to be mostly about a rather penal attitude towards people begging. It does contain some positive comments about new powers—I am not sure whether there will be new money too—to help people who are currently homeless and in need of extra support. Can we hear a little more about the positive aspects of what the Government are attempting to do? In the meantime, can we abolish this piece of legislation before its 200th anniversary?

I am happy to give a bit more detail on the positive aspects of this. So far, we have invested up to £500 million through our flagship rough sleeping initiative 2022-25 so that local authorities can provide tailored support to end rough sleeping. We have launched the £200 million single homelessness accommodation programme, which will deliver up to 2,400 homes for vulnerable people sleeping rough or at risk of rough sleeping. In addition to the 6,000 homes being delivered by rough sleeping accommodation programmes, we have committed £42 million of funding since 2018 towards the subregional Housing First pilots in various regions. We have also committed up to £186.5 million in funding for substance misuse treatment services.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for those statistics and for his assurance of an eventual commitment to no one being criminalised simply for having nowhere to live. Is he aware of the Ministry of Justice data which shows that people released from prison to homelessness are over 50% more likely to offend within a year? What more is being done to ensure that prison leavers have a home on release?

I cannot specifically answer as regards all prison leavers. I know that a lot of work is being done with the rehabilitation of drug addicts in an effort to prevent recidivism. I will come back to the right reverend Prelate with more detail, if I can find it.

My Lords, the 1824 Act makes reference to “idle and disorderly” persons, “rogues and vagabonds”. I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm that this is not a reference to Conservative Peers. The 2019 manifesto committed the party opposite to ending rough sleeping by 2024, yet it continues to rise. It is up by 74% in the last 10 years and may be up by a quarter in the last year. What do the Government intend to do to reverse this trend?

The noble Lord is a magistrate. I will not comment on his first point, other to say that I am sure most of my colleagues would prefer not to appear in front of him. The statistics he gives are not quite as bad as he made them sound. The numbers are much lower than when homelessness peaked in 2017. Although there was a slight spike last year, they are significantly below previous peak levels.

My Lords, is it not a bit rough for the Government to massively increase the number of homeless people in this country and then do nothing to stop them being arrested?

My Lords, I have listened carefully to the Minister’s replies to all the questions so far. I am still none the wiser as to why the Government are not delivering the repeal of the Vagrancy Act. It should have been repealed. I do not understand what is stopping the Government moving forward.

My Lords, as noble Lords know and as I have tried to explain, we are hard at work on coming up with a suitable replacement, which is not a like-for-like replacement of the Vagrancy Act in its current form. But it is right that the police, local authorities and so on have the tools that they need to respond effectively to begging and rough sleeping. That work is ongoing.

My Lords, the Minister said two or three times that one of the factors is as soon as parliamentary time becomes available. We are already in an inordinately long Session, with no date yet announced for when it will end and when the King’s Speech will be. So is it not a pretty lame excuse to say that it is just a matter of finding parliamentary time? What we really need to see is the Government getting their act together.

My noble friend the Minister said that it is important to think about what could possibly replace the Vagrancy Act. Could he enlighten us about the thinking on why there needs to be a replacement, rather than purely repealing it?

It is felt that certain other types of activity associated with vagrancy should be looked into, including things such as nuisance and organised begging.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Vagrancy Act 1824 was introduced because many soldiers who had fought in the Napoleonic Wars had no employment and resorted to begging? As far as I know, from our recent war in Iraq, no vagrants are now begging. Does the Minister not think that he ought to catch up with what has happened in the last 200 years?

My Lords, can the Minister explain why the Government need to spend an inordinate amount of time looking at what to replace the Vagrancy Act with, having said that they will rescind it? Why will they not spend a similar amount of time on EU regulations?

That is well beyond the scope of this Question, but I am sure that everyone will have heard the noble Lord’s point.