Vagrancy Act 1824
The Vagrancy Act 1824 (5 Geo. 4. c. 83) is an Act of Parliament of the United Kingdom that makes it an offence to sleep rough or beg. It remains in force in England and Wales, and anyone found to be sleeping in a public place or to be trying to beg for money can be arrested.
Contemporary critics, including William Wilberforce, condemned the Act for being a catch-all offence because it did not consider the circumstances as to why an individual might be placed in such a predicament.
The law was enacted to deal with the increasing numbers of homeless and penniless urban poor in England and Wales following the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. Nine years after the Battle of Waterloo the British Army and Royal Navy had both undergone a massive reduction in size, leaving large numbers of discharged soldiers and sailors without an occupation or accommodation. Many were living rough on the streets or in makeshift camps. At the same time a massive influx of economic migrants from Ireland and Scotland arrived in England, especially into London, in search of work. Politicians in the unreformed House of Commons became concerned that parish constables were becoming ineffective in controlling these "vagrants". Furthermore the medieval pass laws which gave itinerant travelling people free movement through a given district were considered to be no longer effective.
The Act of 1824 was amended several times, most notably by the Vagrancy Act 1838, which introduced a number of new public order offences covering acts that were deemed at the time to be likely to cause moral outrage. It contained a provision for the prosecution of "every Person wilfully exposing to view, in any Street... or public Place, any obscene Print, Picture, or other indecent Exhibition".
Although the Act of 1824 originally applied only to England and Wales, Section 4 of the Act, which dealt mainly with vagrancy and begging, was extended to Scotland and Ireland by section 15 of the Prevention of Crimes Act 1871.
The Vagrancy Act 1898 prohibited soliciting or importuning for immoral purposes. Originally intended as a measure against prostitution, in practice the legislation was almost solely used to convict men for gay sex.
The majority of the original Vagrancy Act 1824 remains in force in England and Wales. In 1982 the entire Act was repealed in Scotland by the Civic Government (Scotland) Act. An attempt was made in 1981 to repeal Section 4 (and so, in effect, decriminalise begging and homelessness) in England and Wales, but the bill (the Vagrancy Offences (Repeal) Bill) did not progress beyond first reading.
In Ireland, Section 18 of the Firearms and Offensive Weapons Act 1990 repealed section 4 of the 1824 Act (begging and vagrancy).
Under the Act discharged military personnel continue to be granted exemption certificates allowing them to appeal for alms under certain circumstances.
In 1988 some 573 people were prosecuted and convicted under the Act in England and Wales, rising to 1,396 by 1989. In May 1990 the National Association of Probation Officers carried out a survey of prosecutions under the Act. That survey revealed that 1,250 prosecutions had been dealt with in 14 magistrates courts in Central London in 1988, which represented an enormous leap in the number of prosecutions under the Act, especially in London.
In 2014 three men were arrested and charged under Section 4 of the 1824 Vagrancy Act for stealing food that had been put in skips and bins outside an Iceland supermarket in Kentish Town, North London. Paul May, William James and Jason Chan were due to stand trial after allegedly taking cheese, tomatoes and cakes worth £33 from bins behind the shop. The Iceland chain denied any involvement in contacting the police, and in a public statement it questioned why the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) felt that it was in the public interest to pursue a case against the three individuals. The three men, all of no fixed address, were due to attend a hearing at Highbury Magistrates' Court on 3 February 2014. However, before that date the CPS announced its decision to drop the case, stating that it felt it had not given due weight to the public interest factors tending against prosecution. In 2020, 573 people were prosecuted under the act.
In 2020 and 2021, calls for reform of the law in England have been growing with increasing pressure placed on Government by homelessness campaigners, members of parliament and other NGOs. This has led to comments from some senior figures in the UK Government that the Act should be repealed.
- "An Act for the Punishment of Idle and Disorderly Persons, and Rogues and Vagabonds, in That Part of Great Britain Called England" (PDF). pp. 698–706. Retrieved 6 November 2013.
- HC Deb 25 June 1991 c861.
- Lacey, Brian (2008). Terrible Queer Creatures: Homosexuality in Irish History. Dublin: Wordwell. ISBN 978-1905569236.
- The Law Reform Commission (1985). Report on Vagrancy and Related Offences (Dublin: LRC (Ireland)) p. 6f.
- Hansard: HC Deb 24 February 1981 vol 999 cc756-8
- "Firearms and Offensive Weapons Act, 1990". Irish Statute Book.
- Kelly, Matthias (July–August 1990). "Using the law to punish the homeless and hungry". Childright. 68: 6–7. ISSN 0265-1459.
- "Three accused of stealing food from Iceland store bins". BBC News. 29 January 2014. Retrieved 18 October 2017.
- "Iceland food bin theft case dropped by CPS". BBC News. 29 January 2014. Retrieved 18 October 2017.
- "Ministers under pressure to revoke law which makes it illegal to sleep rough". inews.co.uk. 20 May 2021. Retrieved 15 June 2021.
- "Scrap the Vagrancy Act campaign". Crisis. Retrieved 22 July 2021.
- "Decriminalising rough sleeping and begging: Calls for repealing the Vagrancy Act 1824". House of Lords Library. 17 April 2020.
- Richard, Morris (14 April 2021). "Stop treating rough sleepers as vagrants, say MPs". BBC News. Retrieved 22 July 2021.