Moved by Baroness Taylor of Stevenage
277: After Clause 226, insert the following new Clause—“Levelling-up and the Vagrancy Act 1824Within 90 days of this Act receiving Royal Assent, a Minister of the Crown must publish an assessment of the impact of the enforcement of sections 3 (persons committing certain offences how to be punished) and 4 (persons committing certain offences to be deemed rogues and vagabonds) of the Vagrancy Act 1824 on levelling-up and regeneration.”Member's explanatory statementThis means that a Minister must publish an assessment of the impact of the enforcement of sections of the Vagrancy Act 1824 on levelling-up and regeneration.
My Lords, the Vagrancy Act 1824 was initially intended to deal with injured ex-servicemen who had become homeless after the Napoleonic Wars. What was their crime after serving their country? I will quote from the Act. It was
“endeavouring by the Exposure of Wounds or Deformities to obtain or gather Alms … or … procure charitable Contributions of any Nature of Kind, under any false or fraudulent Pretence”.
This essentially means that ex-soldiers were begging, and the Act was brought in to stop it.
The Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Sharpe, committed to repealing the Vagrancy Act 1824 within 18 months in March 2022. In the debate on the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill in 2022, he said:
“The Government agree that the Act is antiquated and no longer fit for purpose. That is why we have brought forward amendments in lieu to consign this outdated Hanoverian statute to history”—[Official Report, 22/3/22; col. 764.]
“Hear, hear”, we all thought.
My noble friend, Lady Kennedy of Cradley, noted in May this year that this Act, which refers to the homeless as
“an idle and disorderly Person … deemed a Rogue and Vagabond” to be committed to the “House of Correction”, is still being used to criminalise “more than 1,000” homeless people a year. We are told that the 200 year-old Act cannot be repealed because there is nothing to take its place and that it is a slow and complex process to bring an alternative forward. I quote the Minister again from 2022. He said that
“we must balance our role in providing essential support for the vulnerable with making sure that we do not weaken the ability of the police to protect communities who play an important role in local partnership approaches to reducing rough sleeping. We must ensure that the police have the tools that they need to effectively respond to behaviour that impacts negatively on communities and to protect all individuals”.—[
I had a quick check on the College of Policing website. It shows more than 15 pieces of legislation which give police and councils the powers they need to tackle anti-social behaviour and aggressive begging. This includes the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, community protection notices, public space protection orders, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act, rapid intervention for PSPOs and dispersal powers. In relation to begging, there is the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 and the Public Order Act 1986. So, frankly, it is incredibly disappointing that, in spite of amendments put before the House to this Bill, the Government have refused to use the levelling-up Bill to confine the Vagrancy Act to history, where it belongs, before its 200th birthday.
Fundamentally, this is a levelling-up Bill, and the treatment of vagrancy in our communities is a levelling-up issue. It is an issue that should not be the subject of legislation made nearly 200 years ago when the world, its values and our country were very different places. Incidentally, that was the year when New York’s Fifth Avenue opened for business and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony had its premiere in Vienna. Why do we still have on our statute book an Act that seeks to penalise the homeless against the measure of an Act forged in what was another world?
Our Amendment 277 and its consequential Amendment 304A require a Minister to publish an impact assessment of the enforcements permitted in the Vagrancy Act against the Bill’s stated ambitions for levelling up. We hope that this will concentrate the Government’s mind on ensuring that street homeless people in Great Britain in 2023 will be treated with compassion and given the help they need to tackle the underlying issues that have led to their homelessness, and not confined to the punishment regime of an Act which has no place in modern Britain.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Stevenage, has raised a fundamental issue of human rights and dignity. I am really surprised that the Government have so far failed to repeal the Vagrancy Act. It just needs to be deleted from the statute book. Perhaps the Minister can give us the assurance that it will be. If he cannot, and if the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Stevenage, wishes to press her amendment to a vote, we will certainly be supporting it.
My Lords, I thank both noble Baronesses for their comments. I am pretty sure that that will be the only time I am mentioned in the same speech with Beethoven.
In response to Amendment 277 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Stevenage, I am still clear, as are the Government, that the Vagrancy Act is antiquated and not fit for purpose. I am happy to reassure the noble Baronesses, Lady Pinnock and Lady Taylor, that we will repeal the Vagrancy Act at the earliest opportunity, once suitable replacement legislation has been brought forward. Given that we remain committed to repealing the Vagrancy Act, there is little value in carrying out an assessment of the kind described in the amendment. The House will have ample opportunity to debate the matter when further details on any new legislation are set out.
Amendment 304A, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, is on the timing of the statement of levelling-up missions. We have committed within the Bill to publish this within one month of Part 1 of the Act coming into force, which will be two months after Royal Assent. This is already an appropriate and prompt timescale, which includes time to collate materials and data across government departments before the publication and laying of the report. Reducing that time would be unnecessary and may undermine the purpose of the missions: to ensure focus on long-term policy goals. I hope that provides reassurance for the noble Baronesses and that Amendment 277 can be withdrawn, and the other amendment not moved.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Sharpe, for his response, and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Pinnock, for her comments. The Minister repeated the assertion that the Vagrancy Act will be repealed at the earliest opportunity. I do not know quite what “earliest” means in the Government’s mind, but it is certainly longer than the amount of time it has taken since the original commitment to repeal the Act.
The fact is that this Act is still being used to penalise homeless people every day in this country. I am not convinced that this is going to move quickly enough without some further steps being taken, so I would like to test the opinion of the House.
Ayes 177, Noes 152.