The Vagrancy Act 1824: criminalising rough sleeping and begging
There are many strands linking homelessness and the criminal justice system. Ex-prisoners struggle to access accommodation on release. They often lose their homes while in custody – sometimes being accused of having made themselves ‘intentionally homeless’.
The Prison Reform Trust reports that six in ten female prisoners have no homes to go to upon release. Fifteen per cent of newly sentenced prisoners report being homeless before entering custody and the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) reported in 2010 that reconviction rates for that cohort are significantly higher than for others. Yet, rough sleeping and begging alone can lead to a criminal record, to fines and ultimately to imprisonment. This illustrates how poverty, homelessness and criminalisation are inextricably linked. This instance of criminalisation results from the Vagrancy Act that dates back to 1824. It was part of a move aimed to simplify existing vagrancy laws into one Act. At the time, criminal justice was the main way to tackle ‘vagrancy’ and intended, partly at least, to deal with the fall-out from the Napoleonic Wars. The Act makes it a criminal offence to ‘wander abroad’ or to be ‘in any public place, street, highway, court, or passage, to beg or gather alms’ in England and Wales.
The charity Crisis and our campaign partners are calling for the immediate repeal of the Vagrancy Act by the next government. Repeal of the Act would remove the legal route to criminalising people just for sleeping rough or begging. It would make clear that addressing these activities is not primarily a police matter, but rather an issue for social support services. Even under the Anti-Social Behaviour Crime and Policing Act 2014, punishment for persistent or repeated begging may be draconian.
Case study: Case Number D02BM967: James Maguire v Birmingham City Council. On 30 August 2019, Recorder Hill QC, sitting in the County Court at Birmingham as a Judge of the County Court, sentenced the defendant in that case to a custodial sentence of 26 weeks for contempt of court for breaching an Injunction Order. ‘The basis of the sentences imposed is that James Maguire was in breach of the Injunction by begging in Stratford Road, Birmingham. These breaches were contrary to the terms of the Injunction Order dated 15 December 2018 to which James Maguire was subject’.