HC Deb 31 October 1990 vol 178 cc1020-2 5.36 pm
Mrs. Llin Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to abolish the crime of vagrancy and to repeal and amend certain statutory provisions in respect of homeless persons; and for other purposes. The purpose of the Bill is to abolish the Vagrancy Act 1824, which was introduced to deal with specific problems of vagrancy following the Napoleonic wars. We do not need this vagrancy law. It can give a criminal record to homeless people, making it even more difficult for them to climb literally out of the gutter.

The Act makes it a crime to sleep on the street and to beg. It makes it a crime to be homeless or destitute. Until recently, the Vagrancy Act had hardly been used and, indeed, it was abolished in Scotland by the Civil Government (Scotland) Act 1982. In recent years, however, as the number of homeless persons has increased, prosecutions under the Act have started to show a dramatic increase. In 1988, in England and Wales, some 573 people were prosecuted under the Vagrancy Act. In 1989 there were 1,396 prosecutions, according to a survey of only four central London magistrates courts. What happened to those people? In most cases, they were fined if they had any money on them, or imprisoned overnight if they did not, and then they went back out on to the streets, still homeless, still without money, but now with a criminal record. What a waste of police and court time.

All hon. Members know that the number of people, particularly young people, sleeping in shop doorways, under bridges, in cardboard boxes, in graveyards or in any rough shelter they can find has increased dramatically. There are now sleeping on our streets mentally disturbed people discharged from our mental hospitals without support, youngsters barred from making claims under our social security system, people who have left home because of the strains on family life, youngsters who leave home as the answer to abuse and young people who leave care without proper support—many people with a variety of reasons who are vulnerable not only because of their background or age but because they are homeless and penniless, and, because of that, they can acquire a criminal record.

Consider the case of a youngster who leaves home—perhaps no longer able to cope because of the many strains of teenage life. He or she may arrive in London frightened, with little money and nowhere to go, bewildered and lost in the vastness of the city, cold, hungry and not knowing what to do. Such youngsters can turn to petty crime or they can beg. They can sleep on the street or they can break into an unoccupied house for shelter. Whichever choice they make, they are criminals. In having nowhere to sleep but the streets, in being desperately thirsty and hungry and in asking a passer-by for a few shillings, a youngster commits a criminal act and, if caught, can acquire a criminal record, which will put a black mark against any future job opportunities. Where is the sense in that?

Homelessness and being without money are not criminal problems. They are problems with which the House should deal. It is our failing and our lack of a sense of priority that punish the poor and defenceless in our society.

Some people say that the repeal of the Vagrancy Act would encourage people to sleep rough. Have those people ever tried sleeping rough on the streets of our big towns, night after night, in all weathers, alone and vulnerable? I have heard it said that the repeal of the Act would lead to intimidation by beggars and that the police would have no control over that. But alternative laws already exist to cover intimidation. Section 4 of the Public Order Act 1986 covers the use of threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour. The obstruction of free passage of the highway is covered by the Highways Act 1980. Making an unwarranted demand with menaces is covered by section 14 of the Theft Act 1968.

It is being said that unscrupulous people are behaving like latter-day Fagins, using youngsters to beg, and that section 3 of the Vagrancy Act makes it an offence to cause or procure or encourage a child to beg. But that, too, is an offence under section 4 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933.

Section 4 of the Vagrancy Act states: Every person wandering abroad and lodging in any barn or outhouse, or in any deserted or unoccupied building and not giving a good account of himself"— where an unlawful purpose is involved— shall be deemed a rogue and a vagabond and that It shall be lawful for any justice of the peace to commit such offender for any time not exceeding three calendar months. But being on enclosed premises for an unlawful purpose is already covered by section 7 of the Criminal Law Act 1977. When the homeless and beggars commit real crimes they can be charged with real offences.

In February this year, the Minister of State, Home Office wrote to me: It is important to stress, however, that a person may not be prosecuted for sleeping rough unless he or she has previously been directed to a reasonably accessible place of shelter and failed to apply for, or…refused accommodation there; or he or she persistently wanders abroad notwithstanding that a place of shelter is reasonably accessible". The Government admit that the lack of sufficient accommodation available for the homeless is a real problem. It should not be the job of our overworked police force to check that beds are available or that accommodation has been refused. It should not be for our over-full courts to make a judgment on whether homeless people applied or did not apply to get into a hostel before declaring them rogues and vagabonds.

The Minister of State also wrote that sleeping rough or begging are not arrestable offences under section 24 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. If that is the Government's position, why do we need to retain the Vagrancy Act, which clearly states: Every person wandering abroad, or placing himself or herself in any public place, street, highway, court or passage, to beg or gather alms shall be deemed an idle and disorderly person within the true intent and meaning of this Act; and it shall be lawful for any justice of the peace to commit each offender for any time not exceeding one calendar month. The Secretary of State cannot have it both ways. Either the Vagrancy Act is being used to make criminals of homeless and hungry people or it is not. If it is not in use, it should be repealed. If it is being used, the Home Secretary should say quite clearly that the Government consider that it is a criminal offence to be homeless and hungry.

My hon. Friends and I believe that homelessness is a great social problem which only far-reaching policy initiatives can address. Sleeping out and begging are often the result of homlessness. It ought not to be the role of the criminal law to punish those most vulnerable groups in society who have been reduced to a life on the streets.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mrs. Llin Golding, Mr. John P. Smith, Mr. Frank Field, Mr. Peter Archer, Miss Kate Hoey, Mr. Dennis Turner, Mr. Dafydd Wigley, Mr. Tom Cox, Sir Charles Irving, Mr. Barry Sheerman, Mr. Robin Squire and Mr. Dave Nellist.