What is the Vagrancy Act 1824?

The Vagrancy Act 1824 criminalises rough sleeping and begging, subject to certain conditions. For example, the legislation provides that individuals can only be charged with rough sleeping if alternative shelter is available to them (this condition was introduced by the Vagrancy Act 1935).

The main sections of the Act still in force are sections 3 and 4. Section 3 of the legislation (as amended) states:

Every person wandering abroad, or placing himself or herself in any public place, street, highway, court, or passage, to beg or gather alms, or causing or procuring or encouraging any child or children so to do; shall be deemed an idle and disorderly person within the true intent and meaning of this Act […]

Section 4 sets out further offences:

Every person committing any of the offences herein-before mentioned, after having been convicted as an idle and disorderly person; every person wandering abroad and lodging in any barn or outhouse, or in any deserted or unoccupied building, or in the open air, or under a tent, or in any cart or waggon, and not giving a good account of himself or herself; every person wandering abroad, and endeavouring by the exposure of wounds or deformities to obtain or gather alms; every person going about as a gatherer or collector of alms, or endeavouring to procure charitable contributions of any nature or kind, under any false or fraudulent pretence; every person being found in or upon any dwelling house, warehouse, coach-house, stable, or outhouse, or in any inclosed yard, garden, or area, for any unlawful purpose; and every person apprehended as an idle and disorderly person, and violently resisting any constable, or other peace officer so apprehending him or her, and being subsequently convicted of the offence for which he or she shall have been so apprehended; shall be deemed a rogue and vagabond, within the true intent and meaning of this Act […]

Individuals convicted under the Act may be subject to lower level fines or custodial sentences.

The legislation only applies to England and Wales. Any application of the Act to Scotland was ended in 1982.

The number of charges brought under the Act has decreased over the last ten years. However, annual charges remain around 2,000. The following table shows total charges brought under the legislation in each year since 2010/11. This data was issued in response to a parliamentary question on 25 June 2019.

Total charges under the Vagrancy Act 1824 and associated legislation

2010/11 2011/12 2012/13 2013/14 2014/15 2015/16 2016/17 2017/18 2018/19
3,686 3,119 2,660 3,732 3,850 2,958 2,249 1,845 2,146

Note: The table lists charges brought, not the number of individuals charged; individuals may be charged more than once.

What are the criticisms of the legislation?

A group of charities, including Crisis, Centre Point and St Mungo’s, have campaigned for the Act to be repealed. In a joint report published in 2019, they highlighted the “looseness” of the drafting and language used in the legislation and criticised the approach of penalising individuals, rather than offering assistance.

Commenting on current usage, the charities said police forces’ formal application of the Act varied. They reported that the legislation was more commonly used “informally”, with it used to move individuals on or to challenge them on their behaviours. The report claimed that this approach often made situations worse:

This kind of approach antagonises the people affected, including support and outreach workers and some police themselves, because it does not address the root causes of the situation. The approaches can also cause further problems by displacing people into more dangerous places or riskier activities, and potentially drawing people into a criminal justice system that is not well designed to address their needs.  

The report asserted that policing had changed “immensely” since the Vagrancy Act came into force, along with society’s understanding of the causes of begging or rough sleeping. It said there were now “very well evidenced links between vulnerability, trauma, and poverty and some of their social effects through people rough sleeping, begging and other associated street activity”.

The charities called for the Act to be repealed, with additional legislative provisions introduced to support this if necessary. For example, to cover specific instances of antisocial behaviour. In addition, they recommended increased support and outreach services across England and Wales. Police and criminal justice services should address antisocial behaviour with more “trauma-informed” approaches.

The report also contains a brief history of the Act, including details on its introduction. For example, it states that the legislation was initially an attempt to simplify centuries of vagrancy law into one Act.

What has the Government said about the Act?

The Government recently set out its stance in response to a parliamentary question on 2 March 2020. It said that it was reviewing the legislation, and was taking a range of views and options into account:

The Government is clear that no-one should be criminalised simply for having nowhere to live and we are committed to reviewing the Vagrancy Act.

This is a complex issue and we know from our engagement with stakeholders that there are diverging views about the necessity and relevance of the Vagrancy Act. That is why the Government believes that a review, rather than wholesale immediate repeal, is the right course of action and we are looking at all options including retention, repeal, replacement or amendment.

At the heart of the review will be the experiences and perceptions of a range of relevant stakeholders including the homelessness sector, the police, local authorities, business representatives, community groups and individuals with lived experience.  

The Government had initially committed to reviewing the Vagrancy Act in its 2018 rough sleeping strategy. It had hoped this review would be completed by March 2020. However, at the time of writing, no update has been published.

Campaign by Layla Moran MP

There is currently a private member’s bill before the House of Commons to repeal the Vagrancy Act 1824. Layla Moran (Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon) introduced the bill. It is due to receive its second reading on 26 June 2020. She also introduced the bill in the 2017–19 session, but it never received second reading.

Speaking in a debate on the 1824 Act on 29 January 2019, Layla Moran described it as a “cruel and outdated piece of legislation”. She spoke of her campaign to get the Act repealed and mentioned conversations she had had with ministers on the subject. She believed the Act did nothing to help individuals, with it simply displacing people from one area to another. She also stated that it sent out the wrong message for dealing with homelessness:

The legislation acts as a barrier to cultural change. It sends a message that the act of rough sleeping itself is morally wrong, and it treats people who are sleeping rough as a negative problem to solve, rather than individuals in need of positive support.

Several MPs supported her points in the debate. These included Tracey Crouch (Conservative MP for Chatham and Aylesford) and Anneliese Dodds (Labour MP for Oxford East).

Responding for the Government, Jake Berry, then Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, said the Government was reviewing the Act. He added the Government had received some representations from homelessness charities that it was a useful tool to deter begging. He stated that the Act’s provisions were primarily used to target persistent begging and public order offences. He explained:

We developed our rough sleeping strategy in collaboration with many national charities […] and they form part of the rough sleeping advisory panel. Enforcement can form part of moving some people away from the streets, but it should come with an offer of meaningful support. Some charities working with rough sleepers are clear that the ability to secure income through begging can make it harder, not easier, for vulnerable people to leave their damaging lifestyles behind. The 1824 Act is sometimes the only option to get someone off the street when they have become dependent on begging income to support their drug or alcohol dependency and to find ways of moving towards the support they need.

He said that the Government did not believe people should be criminalised for simply sleeping rough. Mr Berry reiterated that wholesale repeal of the 1824 Act should not occur without proper consideration of the consequences.

Layla Moran queried the minister’s point about support for the legislation among some homelessness charities. She said she had not heard this view from any of the charities she had been working with. She also disagreed with the principle of that point, describing it as “paternalistic”. She said the Act shamed individuals, rather than helping them.

What next?

Lord Young of Cookham (Conservative) is due to ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to repeal the Vagrancy Act 1824. The question is scheduled to be asked on 23 April 2020.

Image by Clem Rutter from Wikimedia.