UK Government to repeal law criminalising homelessness
The UK Government has confirmed that it will repeal the 1824 law that criminalises rough sleeping and begging in England and Wales.
MPs had been set to vote on a Lords amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill repealing the Vagrancy Act, but the government has now tabled its own amendment to enact repeal.
It follows the Scrap the Act campaign by homelessness charity Crisis, which has received support from Peers and MPs of all parties, as well as Crisis supporters and people with experience of homelessness.
Matt Downie, chief executive of Crisis, said: “For almost two hundred years, the criminalisation of homelessness has shamed our society. But now, at long last, the Vagrancy Act’s days are numbered and not a moment too soon.
“This offensive law does nothing to tackle rough sleeping, only entrenching it further in our society by driving people further from support. We know there are better, more effective ways to help people overcome their homelessness.
“We thank the UK government for using the policing bill to finally consign this appalling act to history, where it belongs. We look forward to working with them to finish the job without delay and ensure the criminalisation of destitution is over.
“We are immensely grateful for the tireless work of Peers and MPs from across parties, as well as every Crisis supporter who has got behind our Scrap the Act campaign, who have all brought us to this historic moment.”
Rt Hon Robert Jenrick MP, previous Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, added: “The repeal of the Vagrancy Act builds on the success of the Everyone In programme I established during the pandemic and is another important milestone on the road to ending rough sleeping.
“This long overdue reform will reframe the issue of homelessness away from it being a question of criminality, and towards our modern understanding of homelessness as a complex health, housing and social challenge.
“The Vagrancy Act is an archaic piece of legislation which creates a wholly unnecessary obstacle that homeless people must overcome in order to rebuild their lives. I welcome the action that is now being taken to put repeal into law and I urge the government to continue to work with charities, including Crisis, on the detail of its implementation.”
The announcement comes after councils across England warned of a rise in the number of people experiencing homelessness as the impact of the withdrawal of pandemic protections, such as the eviction ban and universal credit uplift, piles pressure on people up and down the country.
New research found that, of 155 councils surveyed across England, nearly all (97%) say the end of the eviction ban will lead to an increase in homelessness, while 80% say the recent £20 cut to universal credit will contribute to rising homelessness. The overwhelming majority also warn that other financial policies such as the freeze on Local Housing Allowance (LHA) rates (77%) and the benefit cap (71%) are likely to cause an increase in homelessness in their areas.
Commissioned by Crisis and led by Heriot-Watt University, The Homelessness Monitor: England 2022 is an in-depth state of the nation report on homelessness trends across the country.
The research also highlights some of the progress made during the last year. Over 37,000 people experiencing or at risk of rough sleeping were helped into emergency accommodation when COVID was at its height, while widespread evictions were prevented as a result of the eviction ban.
But with protections now being scaled back, more people are being left at risk of homelessness. This is made even worse by the cost of living crisis with people struggling in the face of spiralling household bills such as energy costs and soaring inflation, which will only heap further financial pressure on households.
In terms of who councils are expecting to see forced into homelessness, 91% said there would be an increase among people evicted from privately rented homes. A further 79% said they anticipate seeing more families with children experiencing homelessness in 2021/22 compared with the previous year.
One council in the south said: “We are expecting a tidal wave, to put it mildly. It is going to be a very, very busy couple of years. The impact of the pandemic is just beginning for homelessness services.”
One London council added: “The ongoing benefit cap, LHA freeze and the removal of the £20 per week Universal Credit uplift and soaring food and energy bills will see more people struggling to pay their rents and facing a threat of homelessness.”
The survey revealed most councils found it more difficult to access private (78%) or social (57%) rented accommodation for homeless households in 2020/21 compared with 2019/20, a problem that is likely to worsen in the coming months as the effects of the cost of living crisis are coupled with the impact of the scaling back of pandemic protections.
Matt Downie, chief executive at Crisis, said: “The warning from these findings is clear, without action, more people will be forced to live without a place to call home.
“Currently many people fear having the rug pulled out from underneath them as evictions start up again and financial protections are eroded. This is compounded by the cost of living crisis where people already under crippling financial pressure are edging closer to homelessness as they struggle to afford basic necessities like heating, eating and keeping a roof over their heads.
“It doesn’t have to be like this. The protections put in place during the pandemic helped thousands of people off the streets and prevented many more from facing homelessness. It would be shameful for this progress to unravel before us, at a huge human cost and financial one for the local councils left to foot the bill.
“To stop these warnings from becoming a reality the government needs to invest in the Local Housing Allowance so it truly covers the cost of rent across the country, alongside a strategy to deliver the genuinely affordable homes needed so everyone has a place to call home.”
Beth Watts, from Heriot-Watt University and lead author of the report, added: “The evidence in this year’s Homelessness Monitor is worrying. The accounts from councils and people who work in the public and voluntary sector across England highlight the pressures that are pushing people into homelessness and provide vivid warnings of what will happen if no action is taken by government. Our analysis of ‘core’ homelessness trends also shows homelessness levels in England increasing by one third between 2019-2024.
“Councils have clearly outlined the difficulties they’re encountering supporting people experiencing homelessness and these issues must be addressed as a matter of urgency. Without improved access to appropriate and affordable housing, people will remain trapped and unable to leave homelessness behind for good.”