Its continued existence sends a message about certain forms of behaviour
In an amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, the House of Lords this week voted in favour of repealing the Vagrancy Act in its entirety, defeating the Government in the process. The Act is a rather unusual piece of legislation to still find on the statute books, not least because it dates back to 1824. Its language is undoubtedly antiquated. The Act calls beggars “idle and disorderly” persons; those repeatedly convicted of begging “shall be deemed a rogue and a vagabond”. It has nasty things to say about those “endeavouring by exposure of wounds and deformities to gain or obtain alms” and those “lodging in any barn or outhouse….or in any cart or waggon”.
The law has few defenders; when the Government opposed the Amendment it did not offer a thoroughgoing defence of the Vagrancy Act — far from it. Home Office Minister Baroness (Susan) Williams stated that the government was committed to repealing the legislation but that its repeal without something in its place would leave the police without the necessary powers to clamp down on persistent begging.
Few would argue that the Vagrancy Act should be the central tool used to fight the complex and interrelated factors that can lead to rough sleeping, begging and its all too common corollaries of alcoholism and drug addiction. Governments use many measures to combat the ill of rough sleeping with mixed success; criminal prosecution is — rightly — not the foremost tool in this armoury.
There is, however, a strong case for the Vagrancy Act as it stands. The Act sends a moral message that certain forms of behaviour are a non-trivial nuisance and undesirable; society does not approve of them. Aggressive begging is a major problem in cities and it does no good to repeal a law that aims to curb it. Is that really a message we want to send? We live in a society where laws — whether we think it a good thing or not — constantly make moral judgements on matters that do not clearly harm others. Since that is the case, why is it wrong for the law to make a moral judgement about aggressive begging, especially as it clearly does cause nuisance and potentially distress to others?
Other than the law’s quaintness, the main argument made against it is that it criminalises poverty. By any fair-minded reading, this is not correct. It does not criminalise the fact of poverty but certain behaviours associated with poverty. In the mythology of parts of the Left, opposition to anti-vagrancy legislation has a particularly cherished place as Karl Marx himself inveighed against them in Das Kapital. In the German messiah’s reasoning vagrancy, legislation was passed to control the peasantry dispossessed by the enclosure of Common Land — and thus give the burgeoning proletariat no alternative but to succumb to wage slavery.
In the current climate so much of what is proposed — from protestors taking down statues to councils renaming streets — is about sending a moral message rather than policy outcomes. Whatever a Bristol jury might have thought, very few would argue that the tearing down of Edward Colston’s statue and dropping it into Bristol harbour did anything to improve a single person’s life. It is a form of public moralising — and should public moralising only come from one direction?
The Government will consider how to respond to the Lords’ amendment when the Policing Bill returns to the Commons. It may simply seek to overturn the amendment while pledging to repeal it in the longer term. But it should be more robust and make the case for the Vagrancy Act and the opprobrium it attaches to begging. The fact that this law today is foremost a moral statement rather than practical policy makes it very much a law for our time.