HC Deb 24 February 1981 vol 999 cc756-8 4.12 pm
Mr. A. W. Stallard (St. Pancras, North)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to repeal the provisions of section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824, the Vagrancy Act 1935 and the provisions of section 64 of the Metropolitan Police Act 1839 which apply to sleeping rough; and to repeal the provisions of section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824 which apply to persons who are begging or who are found on enclosed premises. The Vagrancy Acts are punitive, arbitrary and unnecessary. Most people know that the "sus" law is to be repealed. I and many others welcome that. However, many people believe that it entails the repeal of section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824. Unfortunately, as I said during the Second Reading of the Criminal Attempts Bill, only a small part of section 4 is repealed. All the other vagrancy offences in the old Act will remain. My Bill would repeal offences related to sleeping rough, begging and being found on enclosed premises.

I welcome the repeal of "sus". The Government rightly have listened and responded to pressure from civil liberties groups, community groups and the Home Affairs Select Committee of the House. After a long investigation, the Committee concluded: the repeal of 'sus' signifies the removal of a piece of law which is contrary to the freedom and liberty of the individual. The same can be said of the other three vagrancy offences. Naturally, I am disappointed that the Government have not taken the opportunity provided by the Criminal Attempts. Bill to repeal those offences. However, I am heartened by the level of discussion in the Standing Committee this morning and by the cross-party support signified during our debate. Unfortunately, the vote went the wrong way and, therefore, I feel obliged to introduce my Bill.

Hon. Members will have heard of the shocking experience of the BBC "Nationwide" reporter who lived rough in London for a month. I commend the programme to hon. Members who have not seen it. A person who is penniless and has nowhere to stay has to fear not only the squalor and degredation of life in a lodging house or in the street, but arrest, conviction and even imprisonment simply for wandering abroad.

Is it credible that we still punish poor people because they have nowhere to stay? Unfortunately, we do. In 1978–79, 4,282 people were sent through the courts for such offences. That is a terrible waste of court time and public money. It serves no purpose to fine or imprison a person and simply to release him when he is still homeless. Once a person is labelled a criminal, he has even fewer prospects of finding a place to stay.

I wonder how many unemployed people who took the Prime Minister's irresponsible advice to move have discovered not only that there are no jobs but that there is nowhere to stay when they arrive in places such as London. I wonder how many have wandered the streets, lonely and in fear of imprisonment, because of the punitive laws.

A law which punishes homelessness is not only morally offensive; it is so stupid as to bring the criminal law into disrepute. The law does not protect society from mischieveous wrongdoers, it does not rehabilitate the offenders, and it does not deter people from committing further offences. The criminal law cannot deter a person from being homeless or poor. The idle and feckless rogue was the product of scared Victorian imaginations. No longer should we sustain their prejudices.

In a recent speech, the Home Secretary said: We are more sceptical nowadays about the positive good that imprisonment can do; more concerned at the possible and unnecessarily negative effects on individuals and their families as well as its rising cost. The vagrancy laws are punitive and arbitrary. I intend no criticsm of the police or the courts. They are given an impossible task by the nature of the loosely worded law. For example, section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824 provides that every person wandering abroad and lodging in any barn or outhouse, or in any deserted or unoccupied building, or in the open air, or under a tent, or in any cart or waggon… shall be deemed a rogue and a vagabond". On a subsequent offence the "rogue and vagabond" will be known as an "incorrigible rogue" and can be imprisoned for up to a year.

Even with the amendments in the Vagrancy Act 1935, the offence is so widely defined that it is subject to varied interpretations. Unfortunately, interpretation is usually left to the police rather than to the courts or to the House. The police decide which persons "wandering abroad" to arrest. They do not choose to arrest everybody who sleeps out. However, on some occasions they choose to arrest a dozen or more people in places which are traditionally considered "safe" places to sleep out.

When a person is arrested and brought before a magistrate, he is invariably convicted. The conviction rate was about 95 per cent. in 1978–79. The evidence on which a conviction is based is usually that of the police officer alone. Only rarely are civilian witnesses brought to give evidence that some mischief or offence was caused to them or to property.

Another reason why the conviction rate is so high is that vagrancy offences are not directed to active criminal mischief or intent but simply to the state of being homeless, asking for money or being in a barn, outhouse or deserted building. The prosecution has to show only that the person was homeless or in a building and: not giving a good account of himself. The accused person is assumed to be up to no good and is expected to demonstrate innocence to the court. The principles of natural justice are offended by the law and the practice of it.

I hope that the Bill will attract the support of all who uphold the freedom and liberty of the individual in society, since this vagrancy law infringes so greatly on a person's liberty. All the 300 or so people imprisoned each year for these offences add to the already serious overcrowding in our prisons.

In a recent speech to Leicestershire magistrates, the Home Secretary said: Hopes for a substantial reduction in the prison population must, in my view, rest primarily on a renewed commitment to avoiding custody wherever possible. He added, commenting on another initiative to reduce the prison population: The effect on the prison population will be small—we estimate no more than a few hundred—but in the present situation any reduction is valuable". Repealing the vagrancy law would achieve both of those aims. In my view, it is unnecessary.

There has been much discussion about whether the Criminal Attempts Bill will adequately plug the gaps left by the repeal of "sus". On the contrary, the criminal law is overstuffed. We would be doing the police, the courts and the country a service by discarding these ancient laws and bringing the system up to date. This Bill is a small attempt to do just that, by de-criminalising homelessness and poverty. The police have sufficient powers, apart from the Vagrancy Acts, to deal with genuine cases of nuisance caused by people on the streets or in buildings.

My Bill would repeal the offence of sleeping rough under the Vagrancy Acts and also under the Metropolitan Police Act 1839. It would also repeal the offences of begging and of being found on enclosed premises. The Vagrancy Act 1824 was designed for a different age, for different circumstances and for a different criminal law from that which exists today. So much has changed that this archaic law is unnecessary.

The principle of a humane approach to homelessness is already established in the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977. Homeless families are found homes. They are not sent to prison. The Minister for Housing and Construction has initiated a plan to provide more places in small hostels for those in need. With such imaginative steps being taken, imprisonment for the homeless remains an anachronism.

The need to remove these offences from the criminal law has been argued over several years by organisations such as the National Association of Probation Officers, the National Council for Civil Liberties, the National Association for the Care and Rehabilitation of Offenders, the Campaign for the Homeless and Rootless, the Howard League for Penal Reform, the Federation of Alcoholic Rehabilitation Establishments, and many others.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. A. W. Stallard, Mr. Joseph Dean, Mr. David Ennals, Mr. Robert Kilroy-Silk, Mr. Alexander W. Lyon, Mr. Clive Soley, Mr. Charles Irving, Mr. David Knox, Mr. David Alton, Mr. Dafydd Wigley, Miss Janet Fookes and Mr. William Hamilton.