HC Deb 12 May 1982 vol 23 cc773-7

'(1) Where a person is convicted—

  1. (a) under section 3 or 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824, of wandering abroad, or placing himself in any public place, street, highway, court, or passage, to beg or gather alms; or
  2. (b) under section 4 of that Act,—
    1. (i) of 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, and not giving a good account of himself; or
    2. (ii) of wandering abroad, and endeavouring by the exposure of wounds and deformities to obtain or gather alms, the court shall not have power to sentence him to imprisonment but shall have the same power to fine him as if this section had not been enacted.

(2) If a person deemed a rogue and vagabond by virtue of section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824 is thereafter guilty of an offence mentioned in subsection (1) above, he shall be convicted of that offence under section 4 of that Act and accordingly—

  1. (a) shall not be deemed an incorrigible rogue: and
  2. (b) shall not be committed to the Crown Court, by reason only of that conviction.

(3) This section applies to offences committed before as well as after it comes into effect.'.—[Mr. Mayhew.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Mayhew

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to take Government amendment No. 39.

Mr. Mayhew

The tabling of new clause 31 fulfils an undertaking which I gave in Committee in response to an amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Ormskirk (Mr. Kilroy-Silk). It was the general view on both sides of the Committee that, with one minor exception, the principle of the hon. Gentleman's amendment should be accepted. Accordingly, I undertook to bring forward a suitably drafted new clause on Report.

The effect of the new clause is to make nonimprisonable—a word for which I apologise—the offence in section 3 of the Vagrancy Act 1824 of wandering abroad to beg and the offences in section 4 of that Act of sleeping rough and beging by exposing wounds. I should perhaps add that if the drafting of the new clause appears somewhat tortuous, as it must, it is because of the peculiar structure of the 1824 Act, under which persons may be convicted of the same offence, but under different sections, according to whether it is a first or subsequent offence.

The only point at which the new clause differs in substance from the amendment discussed in Committee is that it does not apply to a separate offence in section 4 of the 1824 Act of fraudulently collecting alms. I think that the Committee was disposed to accept that this offence, involving as it does fraudulent pretence, is not on a par with the other offences.

Amendment No. 39 is simply a technical provision to ensure that the 1824 Act will be read in conjuction with the new clause, assuming that the latter is enacted.

I now turn to the policy considerations underlying the new clause. It is clearly right that Parliament should weigh very carefully, especially in the light of the overcrowding in our prisons, the need to retain a power to imprison in respect of minor offences of this kind. This is particularly appropriate where, as in this instance, the offences were enacted in very different times to deal with problems of a wholly different order.

Although relatively few persons are sentenced to an immediate term of imprisonment for these offences—in 1980 a total of 119 for the main begging and sleeping rough offences—any reduction in the prison population which can be effected without any appreciable risks to the public would be very welcome. Some right hon. and hon. Members—perhaps a good many—will take the view that it is wrong in principle that persons should continue to be liable to imprisonment for minor offences which are rooted in wider social problems. Others may place greater emphasis on the fact that there is little reason to think that a power to imprison serves as a deterrent in the case of persons liable to commit these offences or that prison is likely to help them to mend their ways.

The Select Committee on Home Affairs, in its third report last Session, recommended that these offences should cease to be imprisonable. Paragraph 26 of the report reads: While we have concluded that these provisions should, at least for the time being, remain on the statute book, we are convinced that imprisonment is neither a necessary nor an appropriate penalty for minor offences of this type. Though we accept that the criminal law must continue to play a limited role in controlling the activities of beggars and vagrants, we consider that it is quite wrong that they should be faced even with the theoretical possibility of imprisonment on these grounds alone, and we therefore recommend that both sleeping rough and begging should cease to be imprisonable offences. The Government considered this recommendation very carefully. We did not consider that the case for removing the power to imprison was quite as decisive as the Select Committee had suggested. In particular, we were conscious that the practical effect of such a change would be limited since a good proportion of those currently sentenced to an immediate term of imprisonment would end up in prison as fine defaulters instead. We also took into account the views expressed to us by the Magistrates Association and the chief metropolitan magistrate about the need for an effective sanction. The conclusion which we reached—it was fairly finely balanced—was that we did not feel justified at that time in bringing forward legislation to give effect to the Select Committee's recommendation.

I should be misleading the House if I were to say that these reservations have all been dispelled. It remains the case that the removal of a power to imprison will be of very limited effect. I am sure, too, that the reservations about the need for an effective, "last resort" sanction are still felt in some quarters.

We must also pay attention to a manifestation which has been noted in some reports of an increase in what may be described as aggressive begging. That is an important matter but it must be borne in mind that it would be open to the police, in the light of the circumstances of the case, to consider preferring a more grave charge than mere begging. It may be appropriate in a serious case where threats are made to prefer a charge under section 21 of the Theft Act 1968 for blackmail which consists in the making of an "unwarranted demand with menaces." In a less serious case it may be appropriate to prefer a charge under section 5 of the Public Order Act 1936 which provides for penalising any person using threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour in any public place with intent to provoke a breach of the peace or whereby a breach of the peace is likely to be occasioned. Both those offences carry a sentence of imprisonment which would make it possible for the court to consider a community service order or a detention order in an appropriate case.

It is a question of weighing in the balance the reservations about the practical difficulties which the removal of a power to imprison might cause in a small number of cases against the general argument, to which I referred earlier, in support of the change. Those are powerful arguments. No one in the Standing Committee said that this change should not be made. In the light of that, the Government see no decisive case for pressing a different view.

I commend the new clause to the House.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

As the Minister said, the new clause makes non-imprisonable the offences of begging and sleeping rough. It has been tabled in response to the assurances that he gave to me in Committee on amendments tabled by the parliamentary all-party penal affairs group. Therefore, I welcome the Minister's fulfilment of his commitment. I am glad that he has at last recognised that these offences, these minor nuisances, are not serious enough to warrant the severe, indeed draconian, penalty of imprisonment.

The change will affect a relatively small number of people and will not significantly reduce the prison population. Only about 100 vagrants a year are subject to a sentence of immediate imprisonment. But, given that the prison population last Friday was 44,169—almost a record figure—any reduction in the prison population is to be welcomed and should be particularly welcomed when the individuals we are discussing should never have been punished for what is largely their social inadequacy and homelessness. They certainly should not have been punished with the severity of a prison sentence.

It was made clear in Committee, as the Minister has pointed out, that there was considerable support on both sides for these proposals. There was also considerable support for the suggestion that these offences should be removed from the statute book and that we should recognise that we must deal more compassionately and humanely with the few people who must resort to sleeping rough or begging. However, I welcome the Government's commitment and the new clause, and I again thank the Minister for honouring the commitments that he gave in Committee.

5 pm

Mr. Matthew Parris (Derbyshire, West)

It was said often enough in Committee, and it deserves repeating, that the overcrowding of our prisons is not a reason for making non-imprisonable offences that were previously imprison-able. The overcrowding of our prisons is a reason for building new prisons, and that the Government are doing.

This change must be justified on its own merits. Is there any point or purpose in sending these people to prison? The Committee was convinced that there is no point in doing so. I am therefore glad that my hon. and learned Friend has moved the new clause, and I wish it a speedy passage.

Dr. Shirley Summerskill (Halifax)

It is welcome that the Government have decided to treat this as a non-custodial offence. There is much evidence to show that it is not justified to imprison vagrants or beggars, either on rehabilitative grounds or on deterrent grounds. In fact, the National Association of Probation Officers has stated that in its experience not only does prison have no deterrent effect upon these people, but they often emerge facing equal and sometimes greater problems than when they went in.

The Minister was cautious about creating non-custodial offences. We welcome the fact that he supported, albeit reluctantly, in Committee—when he took a neutral stance—the view that soliciting should now be a non-imprisonable offence. Vagrancy is now to be a non-imprisonable offence, and both those measures are welcome.

I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman will not now close his mind to making other offences non-custodial, particularly as the Bill is about to go to another place. He mentioned the fact that not many people will be involved as a result of this measure—only 119 in 1980—but, as I pointed out in Committee, if very few people are involved it could be argued that the measure will not have much effect on the huge prison population. That is true. Equally, if a larger number of people are involved, it could be argued—the Minister probably would—that clearly the courts are using the provision of imprisonment. Therefore, whether the number involved is small or large, it could be argued that an offence should remain custodial.

The main criterion that should be used is that used by the Home Secretary, who has said that people should not be put in prison for any criminal offence unless they can be seen to be a danger to the public. I hope that, in considering other offences and whether they should be custodial or non-custodial, the Minister will use the Home Secretary's yardstick and try to widen even further the categories of non-custodial offence.

Mr. Lawrence

By this measure, the Conservative Party can once again be seen as having a human face. Also, it can be seen to have a more human face than the Labour Party, because the Labour Party did not introduce this measure when it was in office. A blot has now been removed. It may not be a large blot, but it was certainly a blot on our penal system. It was always wrong—never more so than in recent times—to imprison people who had done no wrong. It was always a disgrace that some of the cases that came before this House should ever have arrived here because people who could not look after themselves were sent to prison.

We must now decide how to remedy the problem of those who have hitherto been sentenced to imprisonment for repeatedly and persistently sleeping rough and behaving as vagrants. I hope that the new clause will oblige the present and future Governments to take more account of the need to make proper provision for the misfits in our society who cannot look after themselves. It was never right to throw them upon the police service and to require the police to act as the warders for the inadequates in our society. Most of all, it was wrong to impose that burden on the police. More social provision will have to be made for the inadequates in our society, and I hope that in a small way the new clause will encourage the Government to look at the problem and to try to solve it in a more humane way than it has ever been dealt with in the past.

Mr. Mayhew

I am grateful for what has been said. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) is quite right. The Labour Government did not remove this offence, notwithstanding the publication of the report of the working party, known as the Brennan report, in 1976. However, I must not make too much of that or be too fierce with the hon. Member for Halifax (Dr. Summerskill), or she may be reduced to begging by exposing her wounds, an offence that we have left on the statute book.

I agree that this is not an absolutely open and shut case, because it remains right to give careful consideration to those who have expressed reservations.

My hon. and learned Friend asked what we would do about people who endlessly made nuisances of themselves. They are liable to control under the machinery of an injunction. If it becomes necessary, an injunction can be obtained to restrain them, and that, in the last resort, is enforceable by imprisonment. However, I am grateful for the reception that the new clause has received.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

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