In defence of the Vagrancy Act of 1824
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.
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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.
I spent years living homeless and rough – on the streets, roads, in the woods, under bridges, behind hedges and around the detritus of urban places. About 5 years living out of a back pack, and very poor. I got to know the homeless, the drifters, and even old Hobos still existed back then, 1970s – 80, on the roads in America – and the cults, schizophrenics, guys riding the rails still back then, the ex-cons with no where to go, the abused run off with nothing to live off, drop outs, messed up people, crazies, and always addicts of all kinds – and just people who were useless, and a very few who had suffered total economic collapse and were on the streets by personal disaster.
But it was a very different world back then. Homelessness was either utter misfits, or addicts, or homeless by choice like me, because I was a ‘road freak’ and just could not stay off the road (although it is as hard and unpleasant existence as any there is) and a pretty large number of young people just getting high and living rough as leading the total stoner existence was not compatible with holding a job and paying rent, but not even real addicts – just wan* ers who had no end goals, there are always a lot of these. But almost all were living on the streets as a phase – it was not a viable existence as one had to ‘Move On’ – one could not just make a home in the streets. You had to hide to sleep, the law moved you on, their were big incentives to get back into some kind of normal.
The thing was – living on the streets was a transitory thing back then. People were super incentivized to get off the streets and somehow get back into some kind of dwelling and a life which was not so exceedingly antisocial as being a street beggar/stoner/addict/crazy. Lots of charities with very street wise outreach were active – charity which were not actually ‘For Profit’ NGOs and just government pork like now- but Churches who paid out by contributions from the faithful, and workers who did it for their need to help – not as some paid job from some $$$ tax money – and also vast corruption siphoning off 90% of the $$$ to corrupt practices and individuals. (If 5% of the funds directed at homeless helps anyone I would be surprised – most is either wasted, stolen, or does something actually harmful to the target.)
If you make homelessness viable – it becomes a TRAP. It is enabling, it destroys millions of lives the way it is done. To subsidize, and enable, and tolerate antisocial behavior (and being homeless is Extremely antisocial, and also extremely self destructive (It is hell – it is – to be a street person who has slid to the bottom – yet given enough they do not use the’ Hitting Rock Bottom’ as the incentive to climb out) – You enablers just destroy them more.
People have to save themselves (with assistance a bit) or they will not be saved. You do not stop real addiction by being sent to rehab or ‘educated out of it’ – you have to get to where the suffering of the addiction exceeds the need to get stoned – or you are not going to get sober for long. You have to hit rock bottom – and climb out of the hole yourself – and this is the modern homelessness thing – instead of rock bottom all the money and tolerance means it is not rock bottom – but a tar pit which grabs you and will never let go….
Read Orwell’s fantastic book ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’. I read it a during the later of my homelessness days – and it is how it is – You want to know how homeless is? Read it – and then think about is the old system of hard ways caused more misery, or less. It caused less – because it got people to not just fall all the way and then stay down – but to always try to get back up. Obviously times were very hard – The Great Depression, so the actual harshness of the world was different – no benefits back then, for anyone much. Anyway
– I lived a great many years on the road, and this is the best book to read to get a gimps – different times, but still – Orwell wrote of universal truths of Man.
If I remember clearly in the London part of the book Orwell describes the system of ‘spikes’ or homeless shelters that existed in England in the 1920s. You had your possessions confiscated and were given a flea-bitten bed and two meals of tea, bread and margarine. And you had to stay there until midday. Once you were released and got your possessions back, you had to “tramp” to the “spike” in the next town for your evening meal and that nights bed. It was a method to stop vagrants from always congregating in one area because you couldn’t spend two nights in one spike. It’s where the word “tramp” originates I believe.
Great post. What’s your opinion of modern drugs such as fentanyl? My impression is they’re so powerful they destroy people, and irrevocably addict them, in a short period of time. Maybe that’s changed the homeless/rehabilitation equation?
Superb post. Great witness. Thanks.
If you have seen how homelessness is spreading in the US cities that made rough-sleeping easier, you would not want to repeal the Vagrancy Act.
I’ve got more annoyed about this issue thinking about it overnight! What wa kers these people are, thinking they know better than the people who for 200 years have used this law to control vagrancy. All in all Britain has done a good job and today we strike a pretty decent balance between helping the down-and-outs and controlling public nuisances. And these people think they have the wisdom to undo it all!
Well done Michael for raising the topic. I hope the government scotches this amendment and let the Act stand.
Also – last point this – the government only has itself to blame. It should have learned from the Brexit years that the current Lords hold opinions that are out of step with the public and are willing to use their position to stymie the will of the people. It should have been appointing sympathetic Lords since 2016. They could have had dozens of ex-UKIP peers for instance.
It reminds me of cities changing by-laws to allow people to keep chickens in their yards. They have simply forgotten what a complete nuisance it is to have neighbours with chickens in the back yard. Defunding the police is another example – the US Democrats are furiously backpedaling from it less than 2 years after endorsing it. We take so much for granted in modern society.
The 1824 act was brought in to deal with soldiers and other stragglers returning from Wellington’s adventures in Europe, culminating in Waterloo. Then, like now, British society was incapable of caring for its military veterans. I applied the provisions of this act in another life, and in reality the only section used was section 4, it was abused and became known as the infamous ‘sus law’. It was abused because the provision was so badly written (as was the whole act) and courts were not inclined to consider the original purpose of the act, as they should have done. Attempted car theft was dealt with using notions of Georgian morality. The criminal law has no place in dealing with morality. To retain a turgid, impenetrable, prolix piece of criminal legislation because it sends a moral message that some behaviour is a nuisance and ‘undesirable’ makes me want to head down to Aldershot and sleep rough with the Gurkas to force any government to address a social scandal.
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