‘Clearly the act is not fit for purpose – it represents social attitudes two hundred years out of date and must be repealed as soon as possible’
Pressure is mounting on the government to repeal a “draconian and outdated” Georgian-era law used to criminalise thousands of homeless people each year for sleeping and begging on the street.
Across our towns and cities, homelessness is on the rise, as are crimes against homeless people. For far too many, the housing crisis has become a human crisis, with people being criminalised who should instead be protected as our most vulnerable citizens.
When the act was introduced in 1824 it was to combat the influx of homeless soldiers returning from the Napoleonic wars. It was controversial even then. Opponents included the anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce, who criticised it for not considering the circumstances of the individual involved – 195 years later, there are no excuses. This law should have been axed long ago, and I will be doing everything I can to make sure it does not reach its 200th birthday.
On Tuesday, my private member’s bill, the vagrancy (repeal) bill, to repeal this Dickensian legislation will be debated in the House of Commons, not quite the same building where it began, but hopefully where this cruel and unjust law will end. The act has already been repealed in Scotland and Northern Ireland, with their governments recognising that moving people on, issuing fines or throwing people in cells is not an antidote to a social crisis that comes with a heavy human cost. It is the protection of these individuals that must be at the heart of the solution, ensuring that people have safe and secure environments in which to spend the night. It is too easy to demonise whole groups of people and attribute blame, but it does a disservice to the nature of our country.
There is no single cause of homelessness, and vulnerable people, those with mental health problems and addictions for example, need support not punishment. As a taxpayer, I want to see my money going to charities and support centres, not into a system handing out fines to people that clearly cannot afford them, and don’t deserve them.
The Conservative government’s neglect of social housing is all too apparent and should be a source of national shame. Last year, I presented this bill to parliament for the first time and Conservative MPs halted its progress, but now they have another opportunity to do the right thing. Where there is political will, there is always a way. As a parliament we risk looking like we have lost compassion for those who sleep in doorways, those we MPs pass every day on our way into Westminster. In my time in parliament, two have died there. This should be a huge reality check for us all.
Every day the same newspapers that often provide warmth to those sleeping on the streets warn us about the divisions in our society, the depth of inequality and the tensions bubbling under the surface. Repealing this act offers a chance to claw back some of that divide, to provide support and sensitivity where there is currently cruelty and criminalisation. A chance to move things in the right direction.
Any one of us could fall on hard times. Work and housing have the potential to be unstable, especially for those earning low wages or relying on family and friends. It should not be a criminal offence to sleep on the street. Repealing this act could not be easier and would send a powerful signal that this is a compassionate, caring country. It’s time the government backed the campaign to scrap the Vagrancy Act.
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