Criminalising rough sleeping and begging (Part 2)

Martine Lignon

19 April 2021

Rough sleeping and begging have been illegal in England and Wales since the Vagrancy Act was passed in the summer of 1824. Begging is a recordable offence under section 3 of the Vagrancy Act 1824 (as amended). Anyone found sleeping in a public place or begging for money can be arrested. However, begging, while illegal, does not carry a jail sentence under the Act. (But, people are committed to prison for begging, under the Anti-Social Behaviour Injunction regulations, under the civil law system, in County Courts.)

The Act was designed mostly to deal with one burning issue of the day, namely, the thousands of ex-servicemen returning from the Napoleonic wars, injured and homeless. Men who had once ‘fought for their King’ were now deemed ‘rogues and vagabonds’ whose new crime was to ‘endeavour, by the exposure of wounds or deformities, to obtain or gather alms’.  

Despite a relative decline in the use of the Act, these ‘offences’ have survived 196 years, based on the simplistic and discriminatory premise that street-homeless and/or begging people may justifiably be seen as actual or potential criminals.

In 1988, some 573 people were prosecuted and convicted under the Act in England and Wales. This had risen to 1,396 by 1989. In May 1990, the National Association of Probation carried out a survey of prosecutions under the Act. That survey revealed that 1,250 prosecutions had been dealt with in 14 magistrates courts in Central London in 1988. This represented an enormous leap in the number of prosecutions under the Act, especially in London.

1,320 adults were prosecuted under the Vagrancy Act in 2018 (the latest figures available). Whilst prosecution rates had more than halved until 2014, when new anti-social behaviour legislation was introduced, numbers that had fallen dramatically, underwent a marked bounce back.

That legislation, the all important, if derided, 2014 Antisocial Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act resulted, through its Public Space Protection Order (PSPOs), in banning begging, rough sleeping and related activities. Very similar to ASBOs (Anti-Social Behaviour Orders), “PSPOs allow for sweeping powers to criminalise behaviour that is not ‘normally’ criminal”.

Voluntary sector organisations have voiced concerns that the use of anti-social behaviour powers to tackle rough sleeping criminalises homelessness and leaves vulnerable people in an even more marginalised position.

According to Liberty, “PSPOs don’t alleviate hardship on any level. They are blunt instruments which fast-track so-called “offenders” into the criminal justice system”. Liberty urged the Government to rethink these powers: “handing hefty fines to homeless people […] is obviously absurd, counterproductive and downright cruel”.

There is also concern that enforcement activity in one area simply displaces street activity to another geographical area, and can sometimes lead to the elevation of activity (e.g. from begging into acquisitive crime). Moreover, it does not address the underlying causes of rough sleeping.

 A 2019 Guardian analysis found at least 60 councils were using PSPOs, allowing them to issue £100 fines which, if left unpaid, could result in a summary conviction and a £1,000 penalty. This, in spite Home Office guidance not to target the homeless.

In 2020, many Councils still opt to deploy the civil powers embedded under the PSPOs to ban begging, rough sleeping and related activities.

The Ask the Police website provides the following injunction:

“It is an offence to beg in a public place and the beggar can be arrested for committing such an offence. If you see a police officer or a community support officer in the vicinity, inform them or alternatively telephone your local police (via 101) and inform them of the location and a description of the person begging.”

“Over the years, the Act has been used to grant an air of legal responsibility to out-dated and repressive social attitudes” (Crisis), thus enabling its proponents to forge a fictitious link between rough-sleeping/begging and ‘immoral/reprehensible’ practices, and this in order to maintain the state sanctioned criminalisation of homeless or begging people. In short, the criminalisation of poverty.

The 1824 Vagrancy Act was extended to Scotland and Ireland by section 15 of the Prevention of Crimes Act in 1871. Scotland repealed the Act in 1982 and Northern Ireland most sections of it in 1990.

An attempt was made in 1981 to repeal Section 4 (and so, in effect, decriminalise begging and homelessness) in England and Wales, but the bill (the Vagrancy Offences (Repeal) Bill) did not progress beyond first reading.

As a result, police forces, whose resources, we are constantly told, are overstretched, expend (waste) valuable time and human deployment in arresting or, at least, interacting with individuals whose only ‘crime’ is to sit on the street pavement, outside a supermarket, holding an empty plastic cup.

Over the last couple of months, I have witnessed six such interventions in North-West London (Harrow Road and Kilburn High Road), each involving two Police Officers, one Community Police Officer and begging persons whose age and appearance would, in a more caring society, have prompted a 999 call for an ambulance rather than a police car.

Robert Jenrick, the Communities Secretary, announced in February that he would repeal the Vagrancy Act that prosecutes, by turning them into criminals, hundred of rough-sleepers every year. However, he has now informed MPs that he will not progress this decision during the current session of Parliament, which means that no action will be taken before the autumn, at best. Mr Jenrick justified this delay by mentioning the need to ‘preserve elements of the Act that, if removed, may otherwise hamper the ability of the police to deal with certain behaviours.’

To conclude, Bruce Western’s and Becky Pettit’s statement in “Incarceration & social inequality” Dædalus (Summer 2010) reads: “Acknowledging that the people in prison were, before they went to prison, some of the poorest people in this country, makes it even more important that we make policy choices that can break the cycle of poverty and incarceration.” Note that the adjective ‘poor’ not only refers to pecuniary deprivation – crucial and pivotal as this is – but also encompasses a disturbing poverty of human and social capital.

There is an earlier blog on this topic on our blog page – see here

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