A law that makes rough sleeping and begging illegal should be repealed, campaigners say after new figures revealed that authorities struggling to cope with Britain's homelessness crisis are driving an increase in its use.
Data obtained under a Freedom of Information request uncovered a 6 per cent rise in the number of recorded prosecutions under the Vagrancy Act last year, at 1,320, marking the first increase in four years.
Charities, politicians and police said the act, which makes it an offence to sleep rough or beg, was leading to vulnerable homeless people being “criminalised” instead of being signposted to relevant support services – and called for it to be repealed immediately.
Rough sleeping in England has surged by 165 per cent in the past eight years, with 4,677 people recorded to have been sleeping rough last year, according to government figures – although concerns have been raised that this data underestimates the scale of the problem.
New figures from the Combined Homelessness and Information Network (CHAIN) reveal the number of people sleeping rough in London has surged to a record high, with more than 100 individuals sleeping on the streets for the first time each week.
Meanwhile, council spending on services for single homeless people in England plummeted, with a recent report stating it had fallen by £5bn in nine years, with local authorities now spending almost £1bn less a year on these services across England compared with 10 years ago.
Homelessness charity Crisis said the Vagrancy Act, which has been in place since 1824 and was abolished in Scotland nearly 40 years ago, was “obsolete” and that there were alternatives available to police, such as the anti-social behaviour act of 2014, which it said was a "more appropriate" way of addressing activity like aggressive begging.
Lord Bernard Hogan-Howe QPM, former commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, backed the charity, saying: “The Vagrancy Act implies that it is the responsibility of the police primarily to respond to these issues, but that is a view firmly rooted in 1824.
“Nowadays, we know that multi-agency support and the employment of frontline outreach services can make a huge difference in helping people overcome the barriers that would otherwise keep them homeless.”
Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran said the act was "Dickensian" and "making many people’s situation even worse", and called for an end to the "out of sight, out of mind" attitude towards the problem.
She added: “Now is the time to act. I will continue to campaign until we have scrapped this cruel law and we take a more compassionate approach to the homelessness crisis we are facing in this country."
Conservative MP Tracey Crouch, who is also backing calls to repeal the act, described it as a "blunt instrument that doesn’t take a holistic approach to tackling the underlying problems of homelessness and rough sleeping".
Jon Sparkes, chief executive of Crisis, said the practice of “criminalising” homeless people under the Vagrancy Act was a “disgrace”, adding: “There are real solutions to resolving people’s homelessness – arrest and prosecution are not among them.
“Of course, police and councils must be able to respond to the concerns of local residents in cases of genuine anti-social activity, but we need to see an approach that allows vulnerable people access to the vital services they need to move away from the streets for good."
Local councils said that while they were determined to prevent rough sleeping but that this was becoming “increasingly difficult”.
Cllr Simon Blackburn, from the Local Government Association, with represents councils across England and Wales, said homelessness services were facing a £421m funding gap by 2024/25, which had “severely limited” the ability of councils’ outreach services to support rough sleepers.
“Government needs to use the Spending Review to fund councils sustainably to prevent homelessness in the first place, and to help them resume their historic role as major housebuilders of good-quality, affordable homes,” he added.
Responding to the calls, housing and homeless minister Heather Wheeler MP said: “No one in this day and age should be criminalised for having nowhere to live. I’m committed to ending rough sleeping for good and our Rough Sleeping Initiative is providing an estimated 2,600 additional beds and 750 more support staff this year.
“We’re also carrying out a wider review of rough sleeping and homelessness legislation, including the Vagrancy Act, and will set out further steps in due course.”