Beggars and rough sleepers brought to court dozens of times in Sussex

A law which criminalises begging and rough sleeping was used to bring people to court dozens of times in Sussex over nearly six years, figures reveal.

Homelessness charity Crisis says the “cruel” Vagrancy Act – which the Housing Secretary six months ago said should be abolished
Homelessness charity Crisis says the “cruel” Vagrancy Act – which the Housing Secretary six months ago said should be abolished

Homelessness charity Crisis says the ‘cruel’ Vagrancy Act – which the Housing Secretary six months ago said should be abolished – drives vulnerable people away from support and can keep them on the streets for longer.

The law, created in the early 1800s, sees anyone prosecuted facing a fine of up to £1,000 and a criminal record.

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Figures obtained through a Freedom of Information request by RADAR reveal that between April 2015 and December last year, Sussex Police made 100 charges which resulted in court hearings, using the act’s two most commonly-used sections.

The majority were for begging (section 3 breaches), with the remainder for rough sleeping or being in an enclosed space without permission (section 4).

The Crown Prosecution Service, which provided the figures, said the coronavirus pandemic impacted the volume of cases dealt with by courts across England and Wales last spring.

There was only one Vagrancy Act court case in Sussex between April and December last year – the latest figures provided.

A Sussex Police spokesperson said: “We note that the number referred to covers a period of nearly six years. During that time there has been a regular decline in prosecutions.

“We work with partners to engage with the small numbers of people involved in begging and rough sleeping, encouraging and enabling them to seek means of support and accommodation away from the street.

“Prosecutions, supported by the CPS, are used in the relatively small number of cases in which engagement and support are not succeeding, and even then those attempts will continue. In addition, convictions can enable courts to impose constructive requirements with community sentences or civil orders, as another means of directing individuals to get help and support from agencies.”

Call to scrap the law

Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick told the House of Commons in February that the act should be “consigned to history”.

Crisis chief executive Jon Sparkes said the charity was encouraged by Mr Jenrick’s comments, but is disappointed that the “offensive and counterproductive law” remains in place.

He said: “We all agree that the cruel, unnecessary Vagrancy Act should be scrapped but it’s still being used week in, week out with devastating consequences.

“Fining people who already have next to nothing is pointless and just drives people further away from support, often keeping them on the streets for longer.”

The CPS figures show there were 11,700 court hearings for Vagrancy Act section 3 and 4 breaches across England and Wales between April 2015 and December 2020 – 700 of which took place in the nine months to the end of last year.

Mike Amesbury, shadow housing minister, said the “outdated” legislation criminalises people who have lost their home.

“Stable and secure housing underpins opportunities, saving lives and livelihoods,” he added.

“It’s in everyone’s interests that ministers focus on ending homelessness through support, prevention and stronger legislation to protect renters.”

A Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government spokesperson said: “The Government is clear that no one should be criminalised simply for having nowhere to live and the time has come to reconsider the Vagrancy Act.

“Work is ongoing to look at this complex issue and it is important that we look carefully at all options. We will update on our findings in due course.”