Moved by Baroness Blake of Leeds
292H: After Clause 170, insert the following new Clause—“Offences under the Protection from Eviction Act 1977 (1) Where a local authority is investigating an offence under the Protection from Eviction Act 1977, the police must cooperate with the relevant local authority and provide relevant information to it. (2) Local authorities must review such information that they have received every year.”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment would support procedure for dealing with illegal evictions.
My Lords, this amendment would improve enforcement against illegal eviction. It would provide for stronger partnership between the police and local authorities to combat this serious crime, requiring co-operation and the sharing of relevant information by police forces. In almost all cases, an eviction is legal only if it is performed by court-appointed bailiffs. Anything else is an unlawful eviction, and renters have been protected from these since 1977 under the Protection from Eviction Act. A landlord may seek to deprive a renter of their home through harassment, changing the locks, cutting off electricity or other utilities, and other tactics that circumvent the legal system. This is a criminal offence, with penalties including up to two years in prison. Although those protections have been in place for years, in reality tenants are far too often left unprotected. In effect, there is a failure to enforce the law. In 2019-20, local authorities across England reported 1,040 cases of homelessness caused by illegal eviction, yet there were only 30 prosecutions of offences under the Protection from Eviction Act.
We have to ask what is behind that exceptionally low prosecution rate. The impact of cuts to local authority budgets has meant that many local authorities do not have tenancy relations officers who are trained in this area of law. More crucially to today’s debate, this issue of training also applies to police forces, with significant problems arising because forces lack officers and call handlers who are fully trained to respond to such incidents. Where the police do not recognise the criminality of these tactics on the part of landlords, it leads to underreporting of incidents and to those reported being routinely classed not as a criminal offence but as civil matters or breaches of the peace.
Although London Councils reported 130 incidents of homelessness caused by illegal eviction in 2019-20, the Metropolitan Police recorded only a 10th of that number of offences. In addition, in recent evidence to a Senedd committee, Shelter Cymru explained that it had encountered police assisting illegal evictions of tenants from their homes.
Amendment 292H is a small step which builds on the principle of partnership between local authorities and the police, strengthening their ability to prevent illegal evictions, prosecute offenders and ultimately deter landlords from using such tactics. It would require the police to provide local authorities with the information they need to investigate suspected offences and, as part of that, to increase police forces’ awareness of the offence. As part of a much-needed package, these changes must also inform police training programmes to ensure that illegal evictions are recognised and responded to.
The key questions for the Minister are: what are the Government doing to improve the dismal prosecution rate of this offence and what is being done to find and replicate good practice by police forces on this issue? For example, South Yorkshire Police routinely provides Sheffield council with incident logs to help support eviction cases.
The process of being evicted is most likely to be a traumatic experience when done legally. Being evicted illegally, often with nowhere to go and with one’s belongings dumped on the street, can be devastating. Renters should know that, when they reach out for help, police and local authorities will both recognise and be able to provide support against illegal activity. Failure to do so erodes trust and paves the way for increasingly serious problems, including homelessness.
I look forward to hearing from my noble friends Lord Hunt and Lady Armstrong on their important amendment in this group, which addresses protecting children both from violence in their own home and from exploitation outside it. Since the delay from the other evening, there are two additional amendments in the group, Amendments 320 and 328. I look forward to hearing the contributions on those. I beg to move.
My Lords, I want to speak to my Amendment 292J. This is a pretty heroic group of amendments in a bid to assist the Committee.
There is a connection between the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lady Blake and mine, because her amendment is about encouraging collaboration between the police and local authorities. I too want to see such collaboration. I want to add to that the NHS and other local bodies and, essentially, give a huge boost to support for services for vulnerable children. If we were able to do that, it would have a massive impact on the lives of those vulnerable young children but also ensure that far fewer of them went through our criminal justice system in later life, hence my justification for bringing this amendment to your Lordships today.
I am very much relying on the recently published report of the Public Services Select Committee. I am delighted that my noble friend Lady Armstrong, who excellently chairs the committee, is with me today, and I pay tribute to the members, some of whom will make a brief intervention in this debate, and the staff for their excellent work and the report.
The number of vulnerable children was increasing before Covid hit us, but, since March 2020, the crisis has accelerated. More than 1 million children are now growing up with reduced life chances, and too many end up in our criminal justice system. Despite this, the Government have not yet recognised the need for a child vulnerability strategy. Unfortunately, the results of not having one are readily evident. Our inquiry showed a lack of co-ordination on the part of central government and national regulators, which has undermined the ability of local services to work together to intervene early and share information to keep vulnerable children safe and improve their lives.
This poor national co-ordination means that many children fall through the gaps. In 2019, the Children’s Commissioner warned that more than 800,000 vulnerable children were completely invisible to services and receiving no support. We think this unmet need is likely to have grown during the pandemic. The Select Committee surveyed more than 200 professionals working with children and families and they reported increases of well over 50% during the past 18 months in the number of children and families requesting help with parental mental ill-health or reporting domestic violence and addiction problems in their home.
The problem is that public services are just too late to intervene before trouble comes. In our most deprived communities, too many children go into care and have poor health and employment outcomes. They are excluded from school or end up in prison.
We need to deal with these structural weaknesses. Part of that is to do with the way in which priority is given nationally and locally, but it is not divorced from cuts to local authority budgets, which in turn have contributed to a lack of support and collaboration and undermined efforts to improve life chances for deprived children. A particular problem we have identified is the silo working of so many national bodies; they seem to set different targets and funding mechanisms and often work to prevent collaboration between different public services. This is where a national strategy would really come into play. Even the sharing of data between agencies seems to be inhibited; at the end of the day, it is quite extraordinary that public bodies seem to be unable to share data that would improve the life chances of young people if only they could collaborate.
I am sure my noble friend will refer to many of the recommendations in the report, but the one that relates to our amendment is the requirement for a statutory duty on local authorities, the NHS and the police to improve children’s life chances. There is already a duty in the Children and Social Work Act placed on safeguarding partners—the police, the NHS and local authorities—to work together to safeguard and promote the welfare of all children in local areas. That is the foundation, but it does not compel authorities to co-operate and intervene early to support children at risk of poor long-term education, health or well-being outcomes. Barnardo’s told us that it would be a real advantage to have a statutory duty on the relevant public authorities to commission specific, specialist domestic abuse support for children who have witnessed domestic violence in the home, as one example of what could happen if we were to go down this route.
So there is a persuasive argument for the Government to introduce a statutory duty on local authorities, the NHS and the police to improve long-term outcomes for children in their areas and to ensure that early help is provided to children living in families with serious parental addiction or domestic violence concerns, or parental mental ill-health, to those who are at high risk of criminal exploitation and to young carers. When we think about what this Bill seeks to do, I can think of no better way to try to prevent people going into the criminal justice system than to invest more in vulnerable children. I hope the Minister can respond positively.
My Lords, I support Amendment 292H in particular. It is a bit of a stretch to have included Amendment 292J, which has been clearly explained, in this group, but I support it as well. I am afraid the inclusion of Amendments 320 and 328 has caught me out, because I know that my noble friend Lady Bennett would have liked to have spoken on those.
On Amendment 292H, it has been extensively reported that, despite the Protection from Eviction Act, the police routinely fail to assist tenants against illegal evictions. Part of this, as the noble Baroness said earlier, is lack of police, but it is also lack of training on this Act. Many police wrongly conclude that this is a civil matter and not a criminal one. As we know, this could not be further from the truth, and I hope the Minister can confirm that the police have power of arrest to prevent an unlawful eviction, so that we are all completely clear.
This has been a problem for quite some time, and it will only get worse in the coming months as winter comes on and Covid protections against evictions lift. Many frustrated landlords will want to kick people out of their homes, and some will knowingly or unknowingly try to evict without following the correct procedures. So I hope the Minister can confirm that police have power of arrest and that the Government will outline what is being done to ensure that the police properly protect tenants.
My Lords, I support Amendment 292H and declare my interest as director of Generation Rent. I also add my voice in support of Amendment 292J in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, and others. As my noble friend Lady Blake of Leeds said, it is a criminal offence under the Protection from Eviction Act 1977 for a landlord to try to evict a tenant themselves. Local authorities and police officers have a crucial role to play and have the powers to stop illegal eviction and to prosecute offenders. However, the law on illegal evictions is not enforced nearly as much as it should be. Generation Rent research has shown that less than 2% of cases result in a prosecution.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, said, there are too many instances where a tenant calls the police for help with an illegal eviction, only to find that the police officer dismisses the issue as a civil matter, despite it clearly being a criminal act. This was highlighted very well in a 2020 report by Safer Renting, a charity which helps tenants enforce their rights. If the Minister has not read it, I urge her to do so. In London in 2018, for example, there were 130 cases of homelessness due to an illegal eviction, but only 14 incidents were recorded by the police.
We need a stronger partnership between the police and local authorities to combat this serious crime. Requiring co-operation and sharing of relevant information by police forces is necessary. This amendment will help secure that co-operation. In addition, more needs to be done to reset police attitudes to illegal evictions, with better training of police officers and call handlers so that they know how to respond correctly when a renter is being illegally evicted. We need better data recording and the publishing of that data on incidents between landlords and tenants. Authorities need the powers that currently exist with regard to enforcing safety standards and licensing to demand documents from parties of interest to cover investigations into illegal evictions. The sentencing guidelines should also be addressed; only two of the 10 fines handed down in 2019 were of more than £1,000. Fines can even be lower than the £355 it costs to make a legal claim for possession through the courts. They are far too low to act as any real deterrent to the crime.
Illegally evicting someone is a grave offence, and it affects the most vulnerable renters. Amendment 292H is a step forward. It will improve enforcement of this crime through ensuring that closer working relationship between the police and local authorities which is necessary for proper enforcement and prosecution.
My Lords, I will intervene briefly to support my noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, who is a member of the Public Services Committee, which I chair. I am delighted to see other members of the committee in the Chamber this afternoon. We published our report only on Friday and I am sure the Minister will be relieved to know that I will not go through its recommendations in great detail. I am sorry the Chief Whip has gone; I was going to say that I hope we will get an opportunity to do that properly on the Floor of the House in the not- too-distant future.
The amendment, despite its length, is quite simple and straightforward. It arises from our report on vulnerable children, which was published last Friday. The report demonstrates very clearly that the country faces a crisis in the growing number of vulnerable children —or “children in need”, as the Government tend to say. The committee found that, since 2010, money at local level has been moved from early intervention and programmes of prevention to crisis intervention. I do not blame those at local level; they had to bear large cuts because of the austerity programme and, legally, they cannot avoid crisis intervention. If something goes wrong, they have a duty to remove a child from the home, exclude them from school or get them into the criminal justice system if they are in real trouble. We know that, as early support for families is reduced, there is evidence that children are more likely to end up in crisis and require being taken into care or excluded from school, or even ending up in the criminal justice system.
The amendment seeks to protect families and children through a duty on agencies at the local level to provide early intervention to help prevent that crisis and breakdown, and it encourages and puts within that duty collaboration between those local agencies. One of the quite shocking things we heard, given that this has been talked about for so many years, is that one agency would very often not know what was happening with the child or the family if they were directly involved with another agency. We think that that level of co-operation and collaboration at a local level is also essential.
This provision would protect what local agencies feel is necessary in order to have that early intervention, which, if it works well—and we know it can—will prevent necessary crisis intervention later on. In the long term, this would save us money as taxpayers and as a society. That is the problem: we never get to the long term, because since 2010, the money spent on early intervention has been slashed. In my own county of Durham, 66% of the funding they were spending on early intervention has now been switched to crisis intervention. In Sunderland that figure is 81%. We found in our inquiry that this had happened most in the areas of greatest need around the country. For us as a nation, that is unacceptable.
There are huge pressures on local authorities in relation to children, and even more have been flagged up since our report was published only last Friday. The County Councils Network report earlier this week predicted a rise in the number of children requiring care, and yesterday the Home Office said it was going to require more local authorities to accept unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. I approve of that responsibility being shared, but it tells us that the pressures at that heavy end are not going to lessen at this time. The only way to reduce those pressures is by giving families support at the time that will help them to avoid crisis down the line. I know that if a new duty is placed on a local authority, the Government have committed themselves to it and it is in legislation that they will fund—although certainly never as much as the local authority wants—that new responsibility. So, there is money attached to a new duty, and that is one of the reasons why we put this in the way we did.
As a nation, we cannot afford this continuing and escalating crisis in the number of children who are vulnerable and in need. This is spelled out in the amendment, so let us really back what we know can work in terms of early intervention. I ask the Government to signal that they understand what this amendment is about and that they are going to make sure that this sort of thing happens in the future.
My Lords, I rise briefly to support Amendment 292J in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong. It has been a real pleasure to serve on that committee with them, and it was brilliantly chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong. I did not agree with everything she said this afternoon, but we always disagree well. I do agree with the terms of the amendment, and I think the arguments were tightly set out. The points around siloed working are critical, and if we do not do this, we will see more of the pretty harrowing examples that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, referred to. I am pleased to give my support to this amendment.
My Lords, my Amendment 320 and the consequential Amendment 328 are—slightly surprisingly—in this group. Together, they would finally repeal the Vagrancy Act 1824, which makes homelessness a criminal offence.
I am grateful to the homelessness charity Crisis for devising these well-crafted amendments. I am most grateful to the noble Baronesses, Lady Thornhill and Lady Bennett of Manor Castle, the noble Lords, Lord Young of Cookham and Lord Sandhurst, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, for adding their names to these amendments. They join the long list of distinguished parliamentarians, including William Wilberforce in the 1820s and Winston Churchill in the 1930s, who have opposed this objectionable legislation. Indeed, last month the Prime Minister himself spoke out, saying:
“No one should be criminalised simply for having nowhere to live, and I think the time has come to reconsider the Vagrancy Act”.—[Official Report, Commons, 20/10/21; col. 752.]
Since there can be no objection from the Treasury, as there is no expenditure involved, it seems, therefore, that the moment has arrived. After almost 200 years, the antiquated and misguided Vagrancy Act can at last be laid to rest.
Certainly, the importance of repealing the Act remains, although I will not repeat my Second Reading speech on this theme. Suffice to say, punishing people for being homeless is entirely the wrong approach. Fining people up to £1,000 for sleeping rough or begging and giving them a criminal record is surely a travesty, making their recovery and reintegration into society more difficult than ever. It inhibits the referral of those sleeping rough to the community and social services that can help them, and as long as being homeless is itself a criminal offence, homeless people are deterred from engaging with the law when they are the victims of dreadful violence and abuse, as they so often are.
I note that rough sleepers are 17 times more likely to be victims of crime than the rest of us. Among the examples provided by Crisis, I note the quote from a man in Oxford, who said that
“in my nine years on and off the street, I was violently attacked, shouted at and even urinated on by total strangers. Enduring this abuse was hard enough—I didn’t expect the law to hold my very existence against me.”
Other case studies from Crisis demonstrate just how counterproductive the Act is in blocking the chance for agencies to help and instead penalising and fining those least able to pay.
However, it is now clear that, to the highest levels of government, Ministers have accepted the case for repeal. Nevertheless, in case there are any lingering doubts or hesitations, perhaps I could offer some observations on possible objections to these amendments.
First, securing this repeal has been inhibited to date by the problem of finding the parliamentary time for the Government to do what they want to. Clearly, this obstacle is behind us now that the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill provides the opportunity for this to be expedited right away. Indeed, it would absorb far more parliamentary time if the Government were to prepare a fresh Bill to be taken through its 10 stages in the two Houses. It would also take more time if the Government turned down the opportunity before us and required these amendments to go to a vote, with all the extra toing and froing that this would entail. Missing this moment now would surely mean a long, frustrating and pointless wait for the next legislative opportunity, which might be years away.
Secondly, there is the objection that the amendments themselves need revising. The Minister raised such an objection at Second Reading: she noted the devolution implication, given that it extends to Wales. This is an important point and has now been the subject of discussion with the key people in Wales. Welsh Government Ministers have themselves advocated a repeal, and the Ministry of Justice has now been notified that the Welsh Government have indicated their full support for the amendments to apply to Wales as well as England. The necessary legislative consent Motion from the Senedd is scheduled once further amendments are made to the Bill. A tweak to the amendments before us has been prepared to embrace this Welsh dimension, and this can be brought forward, I hope with government approval, on Report. The devolution issue here is one of extra support from Wales. I add that the Vagrancy Act has already been successfully repealed in Scotland.
Thirdly, it might be argued that there are still parts of the original legislation covering aggressive begging and anti-social behaviour which need to be preserved, complicating any repeal of the Act. However, this line of argument ignores the far more extensive powers now available under other legislation, notably the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, to which I believe the noble Lord, Lord Sandhurst, will draw attention.
There are compelling arguments for the police to use these powers very sparingly in so far as they embrace homeless people, but it cannot be said that the necessary powers do not exist. To support necessary action by front-line police, Amendment 320 includes the totally non-contentious but none the less valuable subsidiary provision for updated guidance on the 2014 Act to be disseminated, promoting the preventive approach now adopted by most police forces.
Fourthly, it is said that it is not worth bothering with repeal of the Vagrancy Act since the number of people charged under it has been declining. However, the Act is still used as a fallback, even though other, more appropriate measures are available. Under pressure from local members of the public, the Act is still deployed.
Moreover, the symbolism in this repeal should not be underestimated; it demonstrates a more enlightened understanding of homelessness. The Government could be rightly proud of making this symbolic gesture alongside their good work in responding to homelessness in the pandemic with their Everyone In initiative; their support for the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, Bob Blackman MP’s Private Member’s Bill, which I had the honour of taking through your Lordships’ House; and their excellent funding for the Housing First projects.
The Government have the laudable objective of ending homelessness by 2024. Removing the barrier of the Vagrancy Act that still hangs over homelessness policy must be an essential step in this direction. I hope the Minister will agree that there really are no arguments for further delay. It has been over three years since the Government committed to look again at this issue and no difficulties have been uncovered. It is almost 200 years since this controversial measure was enacted; let us not kick the can any further down the road. At last, here and now, we have the opportunity to get this done.
I would be delighted to meet Ministers to discuss any further tweaks that could improve these amendments before Report, an offer I am sure goes for the other noble Lords supporting these amendments. Because of the way amendments have been grouped today, I will not be invited to sum up the position after the Minister’s response, so perhaps I can be clear now that I intend to take these amendments to a vote on Report if we are unable to agree a form of words to repeal the 1824 Act. However, I hope it will not come to this and I eagerly anticipate the Minister’s response.
My Lords, first, I will say a brief word on Amendment 292J, proposed by noble Lords on the Public Services Committee, on which I and my noble friend Lady Wyld also serve. It backs one of the recommendations made in last week’s report and I support the case being made. Indeed, on
I have added my name to Amendment 328, which is consequential to Amendment 320, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Best. I add a brief footnote to what he said, in support of the campaign which he has long championed. On
“attitudes to those who sleep rough have softened over the past 200 years and that legislation which refers to ‘idle and disorderly’, ‘rogues’ and ‘vagabonds’ living in ‘coach-houses’ and ‘stables’ has no place in modern legislation”.
Later in that exchange, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, weighed in, saying:
“If Section 4 of the Vagrancy Act, which was enacted after repeated harvest failures created an army of the dispossessed, were presented to us today, beyond the archaic language to which the noble Lord, Lord Young, has already referred, we should reject it as being vague and uncertain, and arguably tarnished with an improper reverse burden of proof.”—[Official Report, 23/4/20; col. 84.]
“An Act for the Punishment of idle and disorderly Persons, and Rogues and Vagabonds, in England”,
should be repealed. As the noble Lord, Lord Best, said, here we have an amendment that would deliver government policy. At Second Reading, the Minister said she was sure the House would hold her to account on her assurance that she was on the case—so here we are.
This is not the first attempt at repeal. On
“whether the new Recorder of Liverpool, Mr. Hemmerde, K.C., has just sentenced a young man, Edward Gillibanks, to twenty-five strokes with the birch, in addition to twelve months’ hard labour, for being an incorrigible rogue; and whether, in view of the effect of this form of punishment, he will consider the desirability of proposing the repeal of the Vagrancy Act”.
“I cannot say that I think the punishment inflicted on him supplies an argument for repealing the Vagrancy Act.”—[Official Report, Commons, 17/8/1911; cols. 2103-04.]
Let us hope we fare a little better today.
It is now common ground that the Act does nothing to resolve or tackle the causes of homelessness. On the contrary, by directing rough sleepers down the criminal justice route, it risks isolating them from the very sources of help now generously provided by the Government, which can help them to rebuild their lives.
The right approach is set out in the thoughtful and comprehensive approach of Westminster City Council, detailed in its rough sleeping strategy, which outlines how rough sleeping can be sensitively handled in a borough to which the magnetism of the capital attracts so many. Every rough sleeper is offered a personalised and sustainable route away from the streets, based on their circumstances. The council has remodelled its services to accept women, who make up some 17% of rough sleepers, and can accommodate women who will not be parted from their dogs.
Westminster also makes it clear that it needs powers to deal with those who behave aggressively or anti-socially. The amendment contains the necessary provisions and my noble friend Lord Sandhurst will refer to other provisions on the statute book to deal with unacceptable behaviour. We have the perfect vehicle to bring our legislation up to date. I hope we are pushing at an open door and I look forward to the Minister’s gracious speech of acceptance.
My Lords, I give the support of our Benches to Amendments 320 and the consequential amendment, Amendment 328, to which I have put my name. We also support Amendments 292H and 292J. I ask for the indulgence of the Committee in allowing me to speak now, as I was unable to speak at Second Reading. I am also very conscious that time is short for the weighty matters that we are trying to achieve today, so I will try to be succinct in covering what should have been two separate interventions.
The noble Lord, Lord Best, has summed up only too well why the Vagrancy Act 1824 should be repealed, so noble Lords will be relieved to know that I will not repeat his arguments. That we still criminalise homelessness in 2021 is a stain on our societal conscience. Some 200 years ago, starving children were imprisoned for stealing bread, people hanged for petty theft and poverty was attributed—this is the key point—to individual fecklessness. The fact that vagrancy remains a crime is an anachronistic throwback to those times and repeal is long overdue.
Having dealt with several police chiefs in my 16 years as a directly elected mayor, I know that the very fact that begging and homelessness were in themselves crimes evoked different attitudes in different offices, in both the council and the police. This resulted in conflicting approaches to how we should work and how effective we were. We had to work together and go on a journey to find a truly multiagency approach. On that journey, we had to challenge some very firmly held views on the stereotypes of homelessness and what we believed might work. Repealing this Act would change this culture and ensure consistency of approach towards the homeless.
A concern that one might have in agreeing to the amendment is whether the police would feel that they would be unable to deal with some of the genuine issues that occur—I know because we have used some of these tools. When an area has a significant number of homeless people in the community, would they feel a loss of some powers? I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Sandhurst, will expand on that. From my experience, I know that there are plenty of other arrows in the antisocial behaviour quiver to deal with such issues. Thus, we hope that the Government will give serious consideration to our amendments.
I have briefly mentioned the challenges of partnership working, and such working is at the heart of Amendments 292H and 292J. As was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Blake of Leeds, we have the Protection from Eviction Act 1977, which, in the vast majority of cases, works. It ensures that eviction follows due process and, very importantly, that anyone evicted has a right of appeal. It gives them more time to find somewhere to live. Most importantly, they are not deemed to have made themselves intentionally homeless, which is critical for being eligible for help from the local authority.
Cutting to the chase, in my experience, the police and local authorities play pass the buck this one—if they respond at all. A survey by the charity Safer Renting found widespread ignorance within police forces of the details of their powers in the Act, many wrongly believing that it was a civil matter. There was even some evidence of the police helping landlords to evict illegally. I am in no doubt that this amendment would strengthen those partnerships, obliging the police and local authorities to share information—a point well made by several noble Lords. The data issues on sharing information are mystifying. Most importantly, it would act as a deterrent against landlords who are quite willing to break the law. Almost inevitably, when it comes to light, they are breaking the law in other housing and tenancy matters.
The noble Baroness cited the 2019-20 figures. We should be concerned about the disparity between offences and prosecutions. It signifies that either the authorities are not taking it seriously or they are not gathering the correct information to enable a prosecution. This amendment addresses that. It is also true that it is usually the vulnerable and marginalised who are the victims of rogue landlords and they need and deserve our protection. The Act should be taken seriously. It is not at the moment. The amendment would ensure that that happens.
The amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, would also encourage greater co-operation and collaboration between the relevant authorities on the protection of children—surely there is nothing more serious than that. It is necessary, because I recognise from bitter experience that it is only by working together that we can begin effectively to challenge these ills in our society. But it is sometimes necessary for the Government to do their bit and insist on that co-operation, in order to drag the agencies to the table to start making a difference by changing lives in partnership.
My Lords, I will speak to Amendments 320 and 328, which would repeal the Vagrancy Act. This 197 year-old Act does nothing to tackle and resolve homelessness, and nor does it prevent antisocial behaviour. In fact, by criminalising rough sleepers, it prevents them accessing vital services to support them to move off the streets. This is important in the context of people trafficking—modern slavery. Its victims are those likely to end up sleeping rough on the streets to escape danger. They need our help. Criminalising rough sleeping marginalises the most vulnerable and may mean that rough sleepers move away from, not towards vital support. It does not address the underlying causes.
The Act now has only two effective provisions. Section 3 makes it an offence in any public place to beg or cause a child to beg. An offender can be locked up for one month. Section 4 addresses what we call rough sleeping. It also encompasses those who are in enclosed premises for an unlawful purpose. This is used to deal with people who are thought to be “up to no good”. The fact is that there are perfectly good ways of dealing with all those people both within and without the criminal law. Indeed, on
The number of convictions for rough sleeping and begging have fallen consistently in the past 10 years. Indeed, in 2019—the most recent year for which figures are available—only one person received a custodial sentence for begging, and only 16 received a custodial sentence for being in enclosed premises for an unlawful purpose. The numbers are tiny. Let us throw away the sledgehammer. The police, local authorities and other agencies have ample powers.
Let me explain very briefly. The Highways Act 1980, Section 137, makes it an offence wilfully to block free passage along the highway. That is punishable by a fine. The Public Order Act 1986, Section 5, makes it an offence to use threatening or abusive words or behaviour. That, too, is punishable by a fine. Moving to civil measures, the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 introduced a wide range of measures to deal with the different types of anti-social behaviour. Recourse can properly be made to those measures for people who are repeat nuisances. They are all available under the 2014 Act.
Taking it very summarily in the short time available, there are civil injunctions to prevent nuisance and annoyance. Breach of those civil injunctions gives rise to civil contempt, with all the remedies available for that—up to 2 years’ imprisonment for the worst offenders, but it is done properly. Secondly, there are criminal behaviour orders. These can impose requirements as well as prohibit certain activities. Thirdly, there are community protection notices. These can be issued by the police, a social landlord or a local council if behaviour is detrimental to the quality of life of a local community. Fourthly, there are dispersal powers, under which a local council, following consultation with the police, may issue a public spaces protection order to place restrictions or impose conditions on activities that people may carry out in the designated area.
In respect of that, since 2014 the Home Office has issued statutory guidance under the 2014 Act, recently updated this January. Our amendment, as noble Lords will see from its terms, will strengthen that. We propose a co-ordinated package. Where something has to be done, the police and local authorities have the powers to do it. We ask the House to act now to put an end to this prehistoric, unjust and inappropriate law. I commend the amendments.
Briefly, I entirely support the repeal of the Vagrancy Act, and there is no point in repeating what have been compelling, eloquent and, I believe, unanswerable points. Long experience has shown that arguments do not get better by repetition.
What I wanted to do, however, was to make four quick points from my experience in support of Amendment 292J in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath. First, the category of person dealt with is easy to identify. Therefore, that is not an answer. Secondly, the evidence of the risk of future offending is compelling. That in relation to Wales is set out—I need not repeat it—in the report of the Commission on Justice that I chaired and there is masses of such evidence. Thirdly, the proposal is plainly value for money. One has only to look at the cost of what it takes to deal with those who have gone wrong. Fourthly—surprisingly, some may think—the proposal would have enormous public support. When we canvassed views about it, and when I did so as a judge, one always found that the overwhelming majority felt that these people deserved a chance and support.
My Lords, my noble friend Lady Thornhill has spoken comprehensively on these amendments, so I can be brief. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Blake of Leeds, for introducing the amendment. She rightly points to the failure of the current legislation to adequately deal with this problem on the basis of the facts that she presented. Something clearly needs to be done to ensure that the police play their part. If South Yorkshire Police can do it, why cannot every force? We support this amendment.
I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, for his Amendment 292J. Noble Lords may have seen the ITV “News at Ten” last night on how young people are increasingly being exploited, particularly by drug dealers. That is in addition to a 6% increase in reported domestic violence during lockdown, when many more children would have become vulnerable. There is too much emphasis on the criminal justice system as a way to deal with these vulnerable young people, rather than there being a statutory duty on local authorities, the NHS and the police, as this amendment suggests. We support it.
The noble Lord, Lord Best, introduced Amendments 320 and 328. I remember being told as a young constable about the antiquated legislation—the Vagrancy Act 1824—introduced to deal with soldiers returning from the Napoleonic wars. That was in 1976—not the Napoleonic wars, when I was a young constable; they were a bit earlier. People should not be criminalised simply for begging and sleeping rough. There is adequate alternative legislation to deal with anti-social behaviour and the Vagrancy Act is now redundant. As the explanatory note says, these amendments would require police officers
“to balance protection of the community with sensitivity to the problems that cause people to engage in begging or sleeping rough and ensure that general public order enforcement powers should not in general be used in relation to people sleeping rough, and should be used in relation to people begging only where no other approach is reasonably available.”
On that basis, we support these amendments as well.
My Lords, perhaps I may begin by saying that I have great sympathy with the wish of the noble Baroness, Lady Blake, to firmly stamp out the illegal eviction of tenants. This distressing activity has no place in our society and it is an unacceptable practice carried out by rogue landlords, perpetrated on tenants.
I totally agree that the police and local authorities need to work together to tackle that. Many noble Lords have spoken in today’s Committee who have experience of this type of multiagency working. It is essential in terms of supporting the vulnerable, and there are many examples of that. I always talk about the troubled families programme, which is one such intervention but it is such an important one because some people have multiple problems. It is a fantastic way for agencies to sort them out together. Local authorities and the police also have mechanisms in place to work collaboratively to tackle criminal landlords. The police are also able to establish protocols for information sharing, which the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, spoke about. We expect them to use those protocols to their full extent to aid investigations into illegal evictions and enforce the law.
If the noble Baroness, Lady Blake, has examples that suggest a lack of effective co-operation, I should be very happy to pass them on to my colleagues in DLUHC. As has been pointed out, there are lots of good examples of how interventions have worked well, particularly in Westminster. If there is an issue, the solution here is not more legislation. The existing powers we have are sufficient. But I accept that it is incumbent on the police and local authorities to work collaboratively to tackle crime in their areas, including on illegal eviction investigations. As regards the point about police saying that issues are a civil matter, which the noble Baronesses, Lady Kennedy of Cradley and Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, mentioned, the police have powers of arrest and it is important that those powers are used appropriately, including on illegal eviction investigations.
As the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, explained, Amendment 292J would provide for a new duty on specified authorities to collaborate to support children affected by domestic violence or those children at high risk of criminal exploitation. We touched on these issues when we were debating the serious violence duty. Some of my initial comments on the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Blake, apply here as well.
Ensuring that vulnerable children remain protected is such a high priority for the Government and society. In 2017, we introduced significant reforms requiring local authorities, clinical commissioning groups and chief officers of police to form multiagency safeguarding partnerships. They were fully established in 2019, and we continue to work across government and with local partners to ensure that they are as effective as possible. With strategic oversight from health, policing and local authority leaders, those multiagency safeguarding arrangements can co-ordinate identification, protection and intervention for those at risk of harm in a way that best responds to local circumstances. I should say that the troubled families programme often identifies other interventions that are needed.
As safeguarding partners, local authority, police and health leaders already have a statutory duty to collaborate in their child safeguarding functions, which includes working together to identify and respond to the needs of children in their areas. These partners are able to name other authorities, as noble Lords will know, including representatives from the education and criminal justice sectors, as relevant agencies in their arrangements. Where named, these agencies are under a statutory obligation to comply with those arrangements. That duty to collaborate in supporting children at risk of, or affected by, these crimes therefore already exists on a statutory footing. However, we recognise the imperative to give focus to the twin issues that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, raised in his amendment.
Does the noble Baroness accept that there is a problem with that situation, which happens often at the crisis level and not the early intervention level? It also excludes any organisation, such as a voluntary sector agency, that may be working with a child if they are not one of the three official statutory agencies.
What I was trying to say was that legislation is in place but, if it is not always followed in practice, it would be very helpful to know about it. However, I accept the final point that the noble Baroness makes.
I turn to the issues that the noble Lord raises in his amendment. If you consider first children impacted by domestic abuse, it is totally unacceptable that some children have to witness abuse carried out in their home by those whom they should trust the most. This Government have demonstrated their absolute resolve to tackle domestic abuse and its impact on children, both in legislation earlier this year—the Domestic Abuse Act—and through the upcoming domestic abuse strategy.
As part of the landmark Domestic Abuse Act, children are recognised as victims of domestic abuse in their own right where they see, hear or experience the effects of domestic abuse. This is an important step which will help ensure that locally commissioned services continue to consider and address the needs of children. Further, the Act created the role of the domestic abuse commissioner in statute to provide public leadership on domestic abuse issues and to oversee and monitor the provision of services for victims, including children. The provisions of the Act came into force on
It is really important that young victims receive the right support at the right time—which was precisely the wording that the noble Baroness, Lady Armstrong of Hill Top, used—to help them cope and recover and to mitigate the long-term impact of their experiences. We are determined to continue to improve the standard of support for victims of crime. This year the Government will provide £150 million to victim support services, which includes an extra £51 million to increase support for rape and domestic abuse victims. That includes support for children and young people.
Through the children affected by domestic abuse fund we have provided £3 million this year for specialist services for children who have been affected by domestic abuse. This funding is enabling a range of therapeutic interventions for children, such as one-to-one or group support. In addition, the Home Office is this year providing £169,000-worth of funding to Operation Encompass, a scheme which connects the police to schools through a specialist support helpline for teachers concerned about children experiencing domestic abuse. The helpline was established during the Covid-19 pandemic, as noble Lords might recall, and we are continuing to fund it this year.
Turning to the matter of child criminal exploitation, the Government are investing in specialist support for under-25s and their families who are affected by county lines exploitation in the three largest exporting force areas—London, the West Midlands and Merseyside. The Government are also funding the Children’s Society’s Prevention Programme, which works to tackle and prevent child criminal exploitation, child sexual abuse and exploitation, and modern-day slavery and human trafficking on a regional and national basis. This has included supporting the #LookCloser public awareness campaign, which focuses on increasing awareness and encouraging reporting of the signs and indicators of child exploitation. We also fund Missing People’s SafeCall service, which is a national confidential helpline for young people, families and carers who are concerned about county lines exploitation.
Through cross-government efforts we are working to identify areas of learning with regard to child criminal exploitation and improving our response to it. The Home Office and the Department for Education are currently testing the effectiveness of how multi-agency safeguarding partnerships respond to serious violence and county lines through a series of deep dives. We have recently received the findings from those reviews and are considering the best way to share the learning and practice with local areas.
In the wider landscape, the noble Lord will be aware that the Government will be consulting on a victims’ Bill. As part of that consultation, we will seek views on the provision of community-based support services for victims, including children. The consultation will carefully look at how local bodies collaborate to support victims and will consider the evidence to determine where legislation could be used more effectively. Therefore, although I am very sympathetic to the aims of the noble Lord’s amendment, I hope that he is sufficiently reassured by the extensive ongoing efforts to tackle these two issues, the existing arrangements in place and, indeed, our plans to consider the duty to collaborate further as part of the victims’ Bill.
Finally, in relation to Amendments 320 and 328, I agree wholeheartedly with the noble Lord, Lord Best, that the time has come—
I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way. Before we get on to the Vagrancy Act and the other amendments, she talked about treating children as victims of domestic violence if they witness it, and about child criminal exploitation. There is a third group: children who witness violence, particularly in the home, and suffer adverse childhood experiences as a result which lead them into committing crime. I remember attending a juvenile detention facility in Scotland, where almost every child in custody had experienced violence in the home as a cause. The Minister talked about two issues, but there is this third issue of adverse childhood experiences leading to offending behaviour, which I believe the noble Lord’s amendment addresses in a way that the Minister has not.
My intention was not to leave out that issue; we could have a whole debate on the effect of childhood abuse, trauma and witnessing violence on the future prospects of a person when they become an adult and their increased likelihood of going on to abuse, but my intention was not to dismiss it. I apologise that I did not mention it, but the intention certainly was not to dismiss it at all.
Finally, I move to the amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Best. As I said, the time has come to reconsider the Vagrancy Act—some of the language that was used is so antiquated that it would perhaps be alien to some of this generation. I agree that nobody should be criminalised just because they have nowhere to live. Back in 2018, we committed to review the legislation following mixed views among stakeholders regarding the continued relevance of the Act, given that it is, as noble Lords have said, nearly 200 years old. I am sure that noble Lords can understand that announcing the outcome of this review has been delayed by several factors. One noble Lord mentioned the dedicated response for vulnerable individuals who are sleeping rough during the pandemic, which was outstanding.
It has been imperative to understand the full picture of how and why the Vagrancy Act is used, and what impact any change to or repeal of the Act will have. Rough sleeping and begging are complex issues, and the Act continues to be used. The review considered a range of factors and at its heart has been the experiences and perceptions of relevant stakeholders, including local authorities and the police. The Act continues to be used to tackle begging, and, if repealed, a legislative gap would be left that might impact on the police’s ability to respond to it.
The Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 is not an alternative in this context. The powers in the Act are available to police and local authorities to tackle specific forms of behaviour that meet the legal tests in that legislation—for example, behaviour that is likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress to a victim or community. As I have said, begging is complex, but plainly it does not always come with these forms of accompanying behaviours.
I was just about to say that I have not finished my answer.
Begging is clearly complex but plainly does not always come with these forms of accompanying behaviours. We must ensure that there are no unintended consequences in repealing the Act. We carefully consider the operational impact for the police, who play a very important role in local partnership approaches to reducing rough sleeping, as well as ensuring community safety and tackling crime. Although the police will often not be best placed to provide support to vulnerable individuals, enforcement can form part of moving people away from the streets when working closely with other agencies and coupled with a meaningful offer of support. It is important that the police have effective tools to respond to behaviour that can impact negatively on communities.
The anti-social behaviour powers to which my noble friend Lord Sandhurst referred do not have the immediacy of a criminal offence. We need to consider further whether there is a continued place for criminal law in tackling begging.
As I have previously stated, the Government do not wholeheartedly agree that the Vagrancy Act is outdated and inappropriate—I am sorry; we do agree. I am quite tired today. The Government agree that the Vagrancy Act is outdated and inappropriate for modern-day society. However, as I have outlined, it needs to be considered alongside consideration of what more modern replacement legislation should look like.
To that end, in relation to subsection (4) of the proposed new clause, I share noble Lords’ ambition to make sure that those who are rough sleeping are supported appropriately. We know that not all individuals who are rough sleeping beg and that not all individuals who beg are rough sleeping. There is a range of circumstances in which an individual may beg, including forced begging; a perpetual cycle of begging can have a detrimental impact on the health of an individual, as well as impeding engagement with support. We also know that some people engage in begging with various motives. Where an individual is truly destitute, it is paramount that a multiagency approach is wrapped around them to provide the necessary support, but we must recognise that this does not always happen. We need to ensure that legislation creates the right environment in which to deliver effective services and engage with vulnerable people constructively.
In relation to subsection (5), I am not convinced that additional guidance is needed on the use of anti-social behaviour legislation beyond existing statutory guidance. The Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 was introduced to provide simple and effective powers to tackle anti-social behaviour, and existing statutory guidance makes it clear that those powers are not there to target vulnerable people based solely on the fact that they are homeless or begging without there being accompanying behaviour that meets specific legal tests. Therefore, we believe that the position that subsections (3) to (7) of the proposed new clause seek to specify are an already-established position reflected in statutory guidance.
I accept that these are relative points of detail about the drafting of the noble Lord’s amendment. The central point is that the Government are committed to completing their review of the Vagrancy Act as soon as practicable. This helpful and timely debate will inform that process. I would like to extend an offer on behalf of Eddie Hughes, the Minister for Rough Sleeping, to meet the noble Lord, Lord Best, and other noble Lords who have spoken in the debate ahead of the next stage.
When I voiced my support for something needing to be done about the Vagrancy Act, there was a general acknowledgement that something needs to be done about it. I extend the invitation to the noble Lord, Lord Best—and, indeed, to my noble friend as well if he so wishes—because it would be an important discussion ahead of the next stage. What I was trying to say in my rather long-winded explanation is that there are some complex things in the Vagrancy Act that need to be unpicked and understood, with consideration of the legislation on the back of that.
I hope that this is an appropriate time for me to ask the Minister two questions in relation to her answer on this group.
First, in contrast with the Minister’s answer to the subsequent amendment in the name of my noble friend Lady Armstrong of Hill Top, the answer to Amendment 292H in the name of my noble friend Lady Blake seemed to be that there are adequate powers for local authorities and the police to work together to protect people from unlawful eviction. However, there is obviously a difference between powers and duties. The intention behind this neat and compelling amendment is to do what the Government have tried to do in other aspects of this draft legislation: create a duty for people who already have powers to prioritise a problem and work together. Why not prioritise protection from eviction in the way that other types of crime have been prioritised, with duties and not just powers, in other parts of the Bill?
Secondly, I listened carefully to the Minister’s answer on vagrancy. I do not understand why, if begging is not causing harassment to people, it is a crime at all. The Minister talked about two sides of the begging problem: it is bad for the person who has to do it and potentially bad for the people who experience it. If it is bad for the people who experience it, there are, as the noble Lord, Lord Sandhurst, set out, adequate criminal laws, whether in anti-social behaviour or in other legislation, that cover unwanted harassment. If it is just about protecting people from unhealthy behaviours, we do not do that by criminalising people for being desperate and poor. When she meets her noble friends to discuss this amendment, will the Minister look at whether this review cannot be speeded up in time for Report? The Government seem able to move very quickly when it comes to adding extra powers to suppress protests, but it takes hundreds of years to repeal the Vagrancy Act.
I am sure that, when my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Best, meet Minister Hughes, they will cover some of the points made by the noble Baroness.
I do not think that this is about an acknowledgement that there are adequate powers; it is about the application of those powers. As I said to the noble Baroness, if there are deficiencies in collaboration at the local level, it would be helpful if they were brought to my attention.
I did not want to interrupt or contribute to this debate because there have been many eloquent speeches, but I want to ask the Minister a granular question. This is going to turn into a shaggy dog story in which everybody agrees that this 200 year-old legislation is out of date unless somebody sits down and does something serious about it with the intention of bringing the discussion to an end. As a question of fact, has parliamentary counsel ever been instructed to produce, or try to produce, legislation to replace the Vagrancy Act? If not, why not? If so, can we know something about the result?
I thank the noble Lord for trying to wrap the discussion up in that one important question. I will take it away. When my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Best, speak to Eddie Hughes, the Minister, we will see what progress has been made at that stage. But at this stage, I wonder whether the noble Baroness, Lady Blake, will be happy to withdraw her amendment.
I apologise for interrupting. We have had an hour and 19 minutes on this, but the answer that the Minister gave on the problems with Amendment 320, to which I have put my name, were difficult to follow. She made the point that begging or sleeping rough does not in itself amount to action causing alarm or distress in the absence of other factors under the 2014 Act, with which I agree and which the drafters of Amendment 320 explicitly reflect in subsection (3). I am simply unable to understand her reasons for not accepting Amendment 320.
This is important. It is not possible to say, “Well, here are some incomprehensible reasons that nobody in the Chamber understands, therefore we need the completion of a review.” I did not follow whether the review is part of the way through, whether it is finished or whether there is an expected date for its conclusion. Will the Minister answer two questions? First, what is wrong with Amendment 320 if it precisely reflects what she said? Secondly, where has the review got to? When did it start and when will it finish?
As for what is wrong with Amendment 320, I explicitly said to the noble Lord, Lord Best, that the Government agree that the time has come to consider the Vagrancy Act. There is an opportunity to speak to the appropriate Minister before Report to answer some of the questions that have been asked this afternoon. I do not know the answer to the second question, but I will write.
My Lords, I pay tribute to the contributions that we have heard this afternoon. They have been incredibly thoughtful and based on evidence. On my Amendment 292H, we have heard many examples supporting the words that I used: there is evidence out there of what works, in the same way that there is evidence of what does not work. This is a real opportunity to get to grips with this issue for the sake of the victims of eviction and their families. I assure the Minister that everyone who has access to evidence will be extremely happy to supply it, with the expectation that it will be considered as we make further progress with this Bill. This is a real opportunity to get things right.
I thought that I was going back a long way, to 1997, not back 200 years, but it clearly is not good enough that, where there are powers, they are not being used. My noble friend Lady Chakrabarti put it well: there must be an express duty to focus minds. It is not enough for us to say that in certain parts of the country this is being done. I can attest from my time as leader of Leeds City Council that there was incredible progress in this area and a real expectation that everyone would come to the table. Not sharing data was never an excuse. It was expected and supported by all the partners. It can be done everywhere but it is not being done everywhere. The resources are not there within the police or local authorities—they are diminishing—to ensure that enforcement is seen through. We are talking about innocent victims who suffer from the lack of enforcement. I made the point that all we are asking for is a simple change, through the amendment, that would bring to an end so much misery for people that does not need to happen.
I pay tribute to my noble friends Lord Hunt and Lady Armstrong for the work that has gone into their Amendment 292J. I support all the comments that were made about appropriate intervention at the right time. I get incredibly disappointed standing here and raising points while being told that millions of pounds are being spent. If they are not being spent properly and appropriately to have the necessary intervention to deal with the problem up front, then we all have some responsibility for accounting for that.
I hope that everyone agrees that more thought needs to be put into this. I sensed that the Minister had some sympathy with our expressions of frustration in both these areas and I hope that we can come to some accommodation, because it seems to me that we will miss a real opportunity if we do not bring this forward. The Public Services Committee, chaired so ably by my noble friend Lady Armstrong, has made the case clearly, as supported by other members today, for the early intervention model. This focuses on children. We know that when you get that early intervention right, not only do you get better outcomes for children and young people, as well as their families, but the resource that you spend can effectively be ploughed back and reinvested in supporting the early intervention that we know works. I am sure that all of us will supply any amount of evidence to demonstrate those points.
I am grateful for the interventions from my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer and my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti on Amendments 320 and 328. I feel that we will be forced to come back to this issue. Again, this seems an incredibly wasted opportunity. We need to get this right and move on because, as we know, the opportunities to get a grip of this issue are few and far between. I hope that we will continue these discussions and that my noble friends will be included in those further discussions, particularly around the review and other matters. I also hope that we can move to some sensible, timely changes in what has been proposed. With that, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 292H withdrawn.
Amendment 292J not moved.