HL Deb 11 December 1990 vol 524 cc465-93

8.2 p.m.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

This is not a Bill which seeks to deal with the appalling problem of increasing homelessness. However, it seeks to repeal the Vagrancy Act 1824, except for the provisions of that Act which relate to insulting behaviour towards females. The Bill further seeks to repeal the Vagrancy Act 1935. Therefore it intends to decriminalise the state of homelessness.

The history of legislation on begging and vagrancy is a long one. Numerous Acts have been passed and have been constantly amended, but the emphasis has always been laid on the prosecution of people whose way of life is begging and vagrancy. The preamble to the 1824 Act states the mischief that the statute aims to correct. It states: It is expedient to make further provision for the suppression of vagrancy and for the punishment of idle and disorderly persons, rogues, vagabonds and incorrigible rogues". The measure emphasised the wish to penalise people for begging or for vagrancy. The Law Society, the End of the Vagrancy Act Committee, the Children's Society, Crisis, CHAR, the London Homelessness Forum, the National Association of Probation Officers, the National Children's Home, Save the Children, SHAC, Shelter, the Single Homelessness Group, the Young Runaways Project, the British Youth Council and others call for the decriminalisation of vagrancy. They do so because they believe, as I do, that the 1824 Act does not work. In its present form it penalises a person for the way he or she lives rather than the effect that that person's behaviour has on others.

The House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee concluded in 1980–81 that, The offence of begging should not be regarded as a means of dealing with the problem of homelessness". However the committee declined to recommend the repeal of the legislation, stating: The police would be powerless to act in response to a complaint or to mitigate a genuine public nuisance". However, that point was addressed in the Public Order Act 1986. That Act gives the police powers, to act in response to a complaint or to mitigate a genuine public nuisance". That was the exact phrase used by the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee in 1980 as the reason for declining to recommend the repeal of the vagrancy legislation. Clearly the arguments used for the retention of the 1824 Act have been shown to be redundant. The same phrase that was used by the House of Commons committee was used in the 1986 Act to the opposite effect.

It is also my understanding that the Civil Government (Scotland) Act 1982 abolished the only provisions of the 1824 Act that still applied in Scotland. I understand that since 1982 it has not been an offence to beg in Scotland. Many states in the United States of America have ruled that vagrancy laws are unconstitutional. The most recent state to do so was New York earlier this year. A number of countries have come to recognise that vagrancy legislation is being used in the wrong way.

In my opinion Sections 3 and 4 of the 1824 Act should now be repealed for all the reasons I have just outlined and because the prosecution of a mode of life is entirely out of context in the 1990s. We have moved on. The mischief that legislation aims to correct should not be a person's way of life but the effect that a person's behaviour has on others. I shall come back to that point time and time again.

In a letter to the End of the Vagrancy Act Committee dated 21st March 1990 the then Home Secretary advanced a number of reasons for the retention of the 1824 Act. He wrote: the basic purpose of the vagrancy laws is to preserve public order and decency and to protect individuals from offence or injury". However, that aim is already adequately served under Sections 4 and 5 of the Public Order Act 1986. I shall not read those sections out as they are rather long, but noble Lords can take it from me that they adequately cover the aim I have referred to.

The Home Secretary further stated in his letter: No one can be prosecuted for sleeping rough unless they refuse a place of shelter to which they have been directed and which is reasonably accessible". However, in a letter to the National Association of Probation Officers dated 6th March the then Home Secretary contended that the words, 'reasonably accessible' meant free and regularly available to vagrants". The sad facts are that many hostels have been closed in recent years. I have a great deal of personal knowledge of the closure of Rowton houses. Noble Lords will recall that a number of those houses existed in London. There were houses at Vauxhall, Lambeth, King's Cross, Camden Town and other places. Some of them have been closed while others have been converted to upmarket hotels. Others still have been refurbished and are used as rather more specialist hostels. That has resulted in the loss of literally thousands—Bruce House and all kinds of other establishments existed in the London area—of what we used to call access beds. Those were beds to which people in such a situation could be referred. They were cheap, or even free in some cases, and available to vagrants, people on the streets and people who were desperate for somewhere to sleep. That is a great many immediate access beds to lose. There are very few, if any, left.

Madeleine Drake, in her excellent book Fifteen Years of Homelessness in the United Kingdom, sums it up thus: Closing the large old hostels and replacing them by smaller modern ones is in many ways a desirable policy, but several difficulties have emerged from it. The first is that at a time when the numbers of single homeless people are increasing, beds are being lost and the numbers not made up. Single homeless people are having to sleep rough, 'crash', or live in hotels which provide worse conditions than prevailed in the large hostels which have been closed. The second difficulty emerging from the closure policy is that the newer hostels are less openly accessible to homeless people off the street than were the older hostels. Entry to the newer hostels is normally by referral whereas homeless people could present themselves at the door of the older hostels. The third difficulty is that much of the new provision is targeted at specific need groups". That sums up the situation in inner London. The homeless people are there but the beds have disappeared, by and large, and there is nowhere for them to go. There are very few alternatives for people in that position. Therefore, they are forced to sleep rough.

However, that is not the whole story. In addition, there is the evidence of the impact of social security benefit changes, the introduction of the 20 per cent. minimum community charge and the grave shortage of permanent, accessible, affordable housing. Even if housing were to be available, from looking at my local paper in London it is clear that even people in work cannot afford the rents. People on minimum benefits, and certainly those receiving no benefit, could never afford the accommodation.

Therefore, we can see the dilemma that faces a great many people who took the Government's advice and got on their bikes and came to London in desperation to seek some dignity, to escape from unemployment and the dole queues. There is a real problem which I do not believe has been understood. The social security changes, in my view, are a major factor responsible for the enormous increase in the numbers of people, old and young, male and female, living on the streets.

That answers one of the points in the Home Secretary's letter. He made another point. He said: I understand that, in general, the police arrest only where there is some element of threatening or intimidating behaviour". However, nowhere in Sections 3 and 4 of the 1824 Act—and I have looked at it umpteen times—are the words "threatening" or "intimidating" used. They are not used in the Act. Instead, the offence of begging is where the person places himself or herself, in any public place, street, highway, court or passage, to beg". If threatening or intimidating behaviour is used the police should prosecute. However, they should prosecute under Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 and not under the 1824 Act.

In 1989 throughout England and Wales 1,402 people were prosecuted for the simple offence of begging—an increase of 150 per cent. over the figure for 1988. That is the size of the problem. It can only mean that in those cases there was no element of threatening or intimidating behaviour. Had there been, the police would have been obliged to prosecute under the Public Order Act 1986.

In a letter to Llin Golding, MP, dated 22nd February 1990, Mr. John Patten, MP, writing on behalf of the Government, said: There is no specific power of arrest attached to the 1824 Act and sleeping rough and begging are not arrestable offences under Section 24 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. But there is a general power of arrest in Section 25 of the Act if the suspect's name and address are not known or the address given is doubtful, in which case it would be impossible to serve a summons; or where there are reasonable grounds to believe that arrest is necessary to prevent the suspect from causing unlawful damage to property, committing an offence against public decency or causing an unlawful obstruction of the highway". As it is not possible to serve a summons on the homeless they are always dealt with by way of arrest, for the reason outlined in Mr. John Patten's letter. However, the Government correctly point out that offences under Sections 3 and 4 of the Vagrancy Act are not imprisonable. Offenders are generally dealt with by way of a fine, but there is an additional sentence of imprisonment in default of payment. Noble Lords will not be surprised to learn that homeless and penniless people therefore have two options—to go out to beg to raise money for the fine, and risk another offence, or to spend time in custody. Consequently, a situation exists in which people are likely to be imprisoned for offences which the Government felt in 1982 were not sufficiently serious to merit such punishment.

The acquisition of a criminal record in those circumstances further disadvantages a homeless person, either in the housing field or in employment. That adds a further burden to people who already have enough difficulties.

I began by saying that the Bill is not intended to deal with homelessness. Neither should the Vagrancy Act be used to try to disguise the real problems on our streets. Homelessness has to be taken out of the criminal justice system and dealt with as the most serious domestic social problem confronting all of us. I have tried to illustrate that the Vagrancy Act 1824 is outdated, redundant, and unnecessary. It is a relic of the past. It has been superseded. Alternative legislation already exists for all the offences one could name. There are 18 alternative offences: begging, theft, damage, indecency, and so on. All the matters covered by the 1824 Act are covered by other statutes. The same applies to the 1935 Act.

I hope that the noble Earl who is to reply will try to answer the points that I have raised and resist the temptation simply to repeat the clearly flawed replies that the Government have made so far. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time. —(Lord Stallard.)

Lord Boardman

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down—

The Deputy Speaker (Lord Alport)

My Lords, I am afraid that I have anticipated my noble friend. I have called the Motion. Perhaps my noble friend can intervene at a later stage.

8.18 p.m.

Lord Alexander of Weedon

My Lords, perhaps I may first congratulate and thank the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, for bringing forward the Bill and for the comprehensive and clear way in which he explained its purpose. I suggest that this is a Bill which deserves all-party support and indeed support throughout the House. In particular, I suggest that there can be no justification for treating homelessness as a criminal offence.

My own interest in the topic is as the current chairman of the trustees of Crisis. It is a charity which is well known for providing the Open Christmas for those who are homeless. It is perhaps less well known that Crisis also seeks to contribute to the funding each year of approximately 275 projects throughout the country which seek to provide shelter for the homeless, so it has direct and widespread experience of the problem.

My predecessor as chairman of the trustees was the noble Lord, Lord Murray of Epping Forest. He is unable to be here tonight but he has asked me to say that he fully supports the Bill. I also welcome the fact that the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod, whose involvement in Crisis together with that of her late husband goes back to its foundation, will speak later in this debate. Before I go further I apologise that because of a long-standing engagement I shall not be able to stay until the end of the debate.

Tonight is perhaps not the occasion to debate why there is the problem of homelessness or its causes. Suffice to say, everyone agrees that it is a problem which has grown and is growing. That must be the awareness of all who go about the streets of London, whether they walk in the City or, if they are lawyers, near Temple Station, or from this House along Victoria Street to Victoria Station.

There is clearly no one cause of homelessness. In some cases family breakdown may be a direct catalyst which causes someone to go out on to the streets. Equally, as the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, said, over recent years there has been greater difficulty in securing social security benefits. There has been the increased release of psychiatric patients into the community and there is a greater shortage of rented accommodation. All those reasons may contribute. But for whatever reason undoubtedly many of those who are on the streets are mentally ill and many of them are young people. Surely it is inappropriate that they, or anybody else, should be branded as criminals for doing so. The purpose of the criminal law is to punish wrongdoing, not to penalise misfortune.

Even when the legislation was first passed, at a time of unrest and social mobility after the Napoleonic wars, there were those who were far-sighted enough to question the principle on which homelessness was made an offence. That view gained force, to the extent that the Vagrancy Act was repealed in Scotland. Indeed, as I understand it, in 1981 the Home Office stated that it had no objection to following Scotland and at some future date decriminalising sleeping rough and begging. That future date has surely now arrived.

As the noble Lord stressed, no one seeks to expose society to threatening behaviour, intimidation, public nuisance, demanding money with menaces, obtaining money by deception or any other offence against public order. All those offences are amply covered by other legislation. The purpose of this Bill is simply and solely to ensure that homelessness and begging for subsistence do not fall within the ambit of the criminal law.

The purpose of the criminal law, ranging from the law of murder to regulations governing traffic offences, is to protect the public against antisocial behaviour which harms other members of society. It is not designed to add a new pressure to social misfortune or social ills. As I would expect, the Government have recognised that the steady increase in the numbers of homeless people is a social problem. Earlier this year the then housing Minister, Mr. Michael Spicer, promised £15 million toward providing shelter and an advisory reference service for those who are homeless. More recently the new housing Minister, Sir George Young, expressed his considerable concern at the extent of the problem of homelessness. So on all sides this is recognised to be a social misfortune.

If, by contrast to that approach taken by the Department of the Environment, the Home Office seeks to suggest that for some reason homelessness should remain a criminal offence, I very much hope that my noble friend the Minister will clearly spell out the jurisprudential foundation in criminal law for that view. So far as I know there is none.

Perhaps I may now turn to the suggestion sometimes made in the past on behalf of the Government that no person can be convicted unless he has refused a place of shelter. The original Vagrancy Act existed unamended for 110 years. In 1935 by the Vagrancy Act of that year Parliament provided that no one could be convicted unless he or she had been directed to a reasonably accessible place of shelter and failed to apply for or refused accommodation there.

But that provision, sometimes relied on in response by the Government in the past, is not effective to help those who are homeless. Nor is it a protection for them. Of itself it raises new problems. Who is to be the judge as to whether the place of shelter is reasonably accessible? Is the shelter to be deemed to be accessible if the person has no funds to pay to get there by bus or Underground? Nor is there any indication in the legislation as to what should be the standard of the place of shelter. Is a person to be required to go there even though he or she may be subject to violence, intimidation or wretched standards of hygiene and discomfort? The section is simply unsatisfactory.

In any event let us turn to the reality of the extent to which the section achieves, or rather fails to achieve protection for those who are charged before the courts. Those who come before the courts on a vagrancy charge come before busy magistrates' courts. Those people are cold, limp, hungry and almost certainly will not ask for nor receive legal aid. Almost invariably they plead guilty. I very much doubt whether in any of those cases there is a real exploration by the courts or police as to whether they were directed to and refused to go to a reasonably accessible place of shelter. I also very much doubt if in such cases the police always carry out investigations as to whether a place is available in the place of shelter at the time or whether the person has the means to get there or knows how to get there.

In practice those who come before the courts are summarily convicted. They are fined money which they do not have and then, as the noble Lord said, may have to serve a 24-hour sentence in lieu of payment of the fine. They are then released on to the streets. How does that help society at all? How does it help them at all? That progression indicates not only the inadequacy of the legal requirement which the Government previously relied on in justification of the Bill but also the utter pointlessness of convicting such a person. It is simply piling indignity on misery.

I also believe that there is another cause of concern in regard to this legislation. All those who have passed homeless people in doorways would have to be rather insensitive not to realise just how exposed those people are. They sleep open to the skies and the elements in a blanket or at best in cardboard boxes. Unlike the rest of us, they have nowhere in which they can be private. They have no door which they can shut as their security against the outside world. They are thus quite intensely vulnerable. It is bound to add to that vulnerability if a policeman approaches them and instructs them to move on, using the possibility of a prosecution to back up that request.

I very much hope that my noble friend will not suggest that the need for the police to be able to move someone on is a justification for retaining this outdated law. The police have ample powers if that person is creating a public nuisance. If that person is not a public nuisance, this legislation should not exist to enable them to move someone on and cause them great concern. I have heard that in fact the process of moving on people by mentioning the existence of the criminal law happens. Again it can obviously add to the anxiety, loneliness and pressure upon those who are among society's most unfortunate.

Perhaps I may draw to a conclusion. Homelessness is a social problem and not a crime. It is sad that some people are homeless of their own choice. I suppose that may be so. But I also suspect that very few people live flat way by choice for long. The majority are trapped. They are trapped because without a home they cannot get work and without work they cannot get a home; or they are trapped because they are mentally unstable and in any event would find it difficult to get employment. It seems to me that it would be intolerable if 170 years after the vagrancy legislation, which even in those harsher days was controversial, our Government with their humanity and care sought to maintain on the statute book either homelessness or begging for subsistence as criminal offences.

In my experience those who beg in this condition are often embarrassed at doing so and they are almost invariably in genuine need. Their condition may be uncomfortable to the remainder of us. We may pass by or the other side or we may stop to give. But either way we are embarrassed to see people in this condition. However, it is not the purpose of the criminal law to spare the embarrassment of society at the plight of its most disadvantaged. On the contrary, it is surely the litmus test of a civilised society that it bend s over backwards to protect such people rather than imposing on them the stigma of criminality. I should be rather disappointed if the Government were not to respond positively to the Bill. It has my wholehearted support.

Lord Boardman

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down perhaps he can assist me on a point which has caused me some anxiety with regard to begging. Would the effect of the Bill be that any person or group of people could beg in any public place provided that they did so peacefully and honestly without causing an obstruction? I do not refer to begging to relieve their homeless plight but to obtain relief for themselves or for any cause. If so, that would cause concern. Can my noble friend help me on that?

Lord Alexander of Weedon

; My Lords, as I understand it, primarily the begging on the streets exists for people who claim that it exists for subsistence. I am sure that my noble friend, with his humanity, would regard that as an understandable last resort to seek help. I have no doubt that theoretically, if begging were removed from the criminal law, it might be possible for people without committing a public nuisance to seek to raise money for other causes, whether charitable or personal, without licence. Having said that, they would commit an offence if they used any form of deception in seeking to obtain that money. Thus it is left to the judgment of the person who gives as to whether it is a good cause. I respectfully suggest that, provided that is so and provided that there is no intimidation or public nuisance, there is no reason to criminalise such conduct.

8.35 p.m.

Lord Henderson of Brompton

My Lords, it is late and for that reason I shall be brief. However, I should like the Cross-Benches to be represented, so far as I can represent them in my humble capacity, as supporting the noble Lord, Lord Stallard. I congratulate him on bringing in the Bill, and the noble Lord, Lord Alexander of Weedon, on supporting him from the Government Back Benches. There is therefore support for the noble Lord from all sides of the House. The two preceding speeches have been so persuasive and comprehensive that I shall be extremely brief.

My reasons for supporting the Bill are as follows. The mischief which gave rise to the Vagrancy Act 1824 no longer exists. It was clearly a combination of factors: fear of menacing beggars and fear of the economic instability which they might cause flooding in from Ireland or from the disbanded soldiery after the Napoleonic wars. It was possible that they could be a public nuisance. The familiar words which describe the condition that gave rise to that Act are, Hark, hark, the dogs do bark The beggars are coming to town". They do not come in bands any more. They do not menace the public in such a way as to give rise to that doggerel utterance. They come in trickles, one by one. They are wretched people who for one reason or another cannot go home or who have left home and can find no social security. They have nowhere to go or for some reason or another—one cannot understand why; it is puzzling—they sometimes do not wish to go to refuges that are made available to them. The noble Lord, Lord Alexander, mentioned that very likely they may be mentally disturbed. It is a difficult, profound problem which is better left to those who have experience in psychology than to lay Lords such as myself.

However, nobody fears those beggars or homeless people in cardboard boxes. The predominant emotions that we feel on seeing them are of compassion and, as the noble Lord, Lord Alexander, said, of embarrassment. I believe that we feel a collective shame that those people are exposing our inadequacy to cope with them when we find them on the streets. The mischief has gone and we should not pretend otherwise.

A very good schedule of alternatives has been prepared by those who have sponsored the Bill. For the life of me I cannot understand the necessity to keep the two sections of the 1824 Act because it has been shown convincingly that the Act is superseded except in the small respect which is expressly saved in the Bill. I propose that when such part, suitably amended to apply to both sexes, is incorporated into more modern legislation the remainder of the Act can then be repealed as spent. I draw attention to the fact that a Criminal Justice Bill is before Parliament this Session. I can see no better way than to incorporate that saving in the Criminal Justice Bill and in the schedule. The remainder of the 1824 Act can then be repealed as spent. The provision would clearly have much better advantage in a Government Bill than in the tender vessel which is being put out to sea—a Private Member's Bill started in the House of Lords. If by any chance the Government oppose the Bill or ask the House to vote against it and are successful, we should take the opportunity to push hard with regard to incorporating that part in the Criminal Justice Bill.

Both previous speakers asked: if Scotland can do without the residual provisions, why cannot the remainder of Great Britain? The Government may find that very hard to explain. An excuse for retaining this out-of-date Act would need to be very convincing.

Like previous speakers, I have read all the utterances on which I could lay my hands by government spokesmen in the past year or so. I refer to Mr. Waddington (as he then was), Mr. John Patten and the noble Earl. I can find no compelling justification in those utterances for the retention of the Act beyond the saving in the Bill. As with other speakers, I believe that we should not make vagrancy as a way of life punishable by fine, or on non-payment of fine by imprisonment. I would find that intolerable. I very much dislike the thought that the police may be moving those people on by the threat of the Act.

I wholeheartedly support the purposes of the Bill. Any defects can be put right in Committee. I see no reason why it should not have a Second Reading. I favour the repeal of the Act and the retention of the part in respect of indecent exposure in the Criminal Justice Bill because it is more likely to succeed in that form than in the Private Member's Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Stallard. I very strongly support his Motion for a Second Reading.

8.40 p.m.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, I too should like to support this Bill because the law is clearly outdated. It is 170 years old. But I rise to oppose the exclusion of Section 2 about exposure. For a lady to see what is now known as a flasher is offensive, upsetting and affronting and no one would suggest otherwise. But there is little damage done. In an age when a lady can go to a cricket match and be liable to see a streaker, to equate flashing with any other crime such as burglary, where one's house is probably ransacked and defiled, is now over the top. Times have changed since 1824. Magistrates are continually asked to keep people out of prison; so it comes as a surprise that this offence must carry a prison sentence with it.

Most of the people who flash suffer more from weakness of character than from criminal tendencies. There was a man in my town who made a little hole in the door of his father's garage. He sat behind it and when women passed by he opened the trap door and hammered on the garage door. Needless to say, he ended up in prison and that did him no good at all. I took pity on him and employed him for a time when he came out. He was quite harmless. But it was not long before he was in gaol again, and he probably picked up a few tips while he was there. It did him no good at all.

These people are sick, weak and unable to control themselves, and it is quite pointless trying to crowd the prisons with them. What they need is treatment. If there is a real problem, as opposed to the occasional case, under the existing Act, there should be psychiatric units set up to which these people should be sent. That would probably cost no more than sending such people to prison, but there would be a better chance of curing them and would avoid their having to attend the universities of crime and returning again and again. Therefore, there is every reason for modernising Section 2 as well as the whole Act.

8.42 p.m.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, has brought to our attention one small but very important part of the whole problem of homelessness. I welcome the discussion on this problem which we shall have on 19th December, when I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, will introduce the big debate on this very important matter and when we shall be able to discuss much wider issues than these tonight. I must apologise to the noble Lord and to my noble friend, because I do not think I shall be able to stay until the end. I am so sorry about that, but we are running late.

We are discussing tonight Sections 3 and 4 of the 1824 Vagrancy Act. It is suggested that Section 2 should be retained. It will be interesting to know what my noble friend the Minister says in reply to the ideas of my noble friend Lord Gisborough. As we all know, sleeping rough and begging all too frequently go together, the one leading to the other. The Vagrancy Act makes sleeping rough and begging criminal offences. I do not think that the repeal of this Act alone is the best way to help these people.

The problem, already acute, is increasing rapidly. In 1988, 573 people were prosecuted under the Vagrancy Act in England and Wales; but in 1989 the figure was 1,396 in the four central London magistrates' courts. Unfortunately—this has been referred to, but as a magistrate I feel that I ought to bring it forward again—it seems that where the defendant is found guilty, the punishment is a fine. As these people have been begging for money in the first place, that procedure does not seem to me to be reasonable. If I was on my magisterial bench I would put the defendant on probation, so that that excellent service could give him some guidance.

It seems that prosecution for the offence of homelessness or sleeping rough is not being implemented, presumably on the grounds that with the changing social pattern some people prefer to sleep out. But the majority, we have to admit, have nowhere else to go and are sleeping rough for that reason. We are therefore discussing whether or not begging should still be an offence.

I agree with the 1980–81 Home Affairs Committee in another place, which concluded that the offence of begging should not be regarded as a means of dealing with the problem of homelessness, but which declined to recommend its repeal because the police would then be powerless to act in response to a complaint or to mitigate a genuine public nuisance.

More recently on 21st March 1990, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Waddington, as Home Secretary, wrote to the Law Society saying: The basic purpose of the vagrancy laws is to preserve public order and decency and to protect individuals from offence or injury. There seem to me to be three categories of beggars. The one causing most concern to the majority of people are the under 16-year olds who come to London having left their homes for a variety of reasons, all well known to us. They arrive here with no roof and usually no money. Under the 1980 Children Act, local authorities have to safeguard the welfare of the children. In other words, they are under an obligation to see that the child has a roof and adequate food and clothing. But unless the police have some authority, these young people will continue to eke out an existence by begging. This is no way for our children to live in what is increasingly a vulnerable society. I am delighted to see today that the Salvation Army are considering looking at the plight of the young homeless. The well-known organising abilities of this excellent band of people ought to be encouraged to give us all their advice.

The second category of beggars are the people who have been begging for most of their lives. I used to find that they managed to get picked up in time to spend Christmas inside. The third category of beggars are a well organised band of people who "do" the stations and streets on a rota basis. They are capable of work, probably draw unemployment pay and keep two lots of clothes in a dark alley, one for begging and the other as smart as anyone in your Lordships' Chamber tonight. I am told that they are careful not to use threatening or intimidating behaviour and they sail very close to the wind. If this part of the Act is repealed the vagrants will swarm into London with nothing, and with no one to stop them. I hope the Minister will be able to tell us that the Government are to give urgent thought to these widespread problems.

We need a deterrent. The police must be on hand to see that our city is not made a vagrants' paradise. Meanwhile, I look forward to the debate on 19th December which is to be initiated by the noble Lord, Lord Stallard.

8.49 p.m.

Viscount Brentford

My Lords, I should like to express at the outset what my goal is in this whole field of vagrancy, and why I am speaking in support of this Bill. Put simply, I do not believe that sleeping rough or begging should be a criminal offence. We have already heard, particularly from my noble friend Lord Alexander of Weedon, how the people who are sleeping out or begging or both are a very vulnerable sector of society; otherwise they would not be there. There are many well-known characters along the Strand who have been sleeping out, through their own choice, for 20 years. I am sure that there is nothing that the law can do about that situation.

I should like to mention a few points in relation to Sections 3 and 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824. First, the wrong atmosphere is created if these two states are criminalised (using that rather unpleasant word). Today The Times has referred to the vulnerability of those people. If they run the risk of committing a criminal offence, that only adds to their feeling of vulnerability and increases the unlikelihood of their being able to get out of the rut in which they are.

Section 4 refers to sleeping rough; but there is no reference in the Act to the requirement of being moved on before a legal offence is committed. According to Section 4 that, coming in from other Acts, is a different matter, just as sleeping out is in itself an offence—and I do not believe that it should be.

Secondly, reference has been made to the problem of convicting a person under the two heads by a fine which they cannot pay. They will either revert to begging or they will go to prison; or, even worse, they will take up stealing in order to provide the money for the fine. That would be a very unsatisfactory state of affairs. Thirdly, if a person is convicted, they get a criminal record and that in turn makes it more difficult for them to gain employment, which is the long-term aim of rehabilitation.

It is often said that sleeping rough is a way of life rather than an act which should be penalised. I therefore question whether sleeping rough should be penalised as a way of life.

I do not believe that these laws achieve the intended aims. My noble friend the Leader of the House, in his previous incarnation in another place, expressed a goal with which we all agree 100 per cent: "The basic purpose of the vagrancy laws is to preserve public order and decency and to protect individuals from offence or injury." The Acts do not do that. I discussed this matter with a lady today and she stated that in the evening she cannot walk from her office to the Tube station because it means going past a large crowd of homeless people. They gather because the Salvation Army will later come along with a truck containing food. When they are together, although they are doing nothing threatening or intimidating, by their presence they make her feel so uncomfortable that she will not walk that way. Therefore, it seems to me that these Acts are not achieving the laudable purpose that was expressed. Either they are not working or they are unnecessary or both; and they are largely redundant.

There are various reasons why these offences can now be repealed. Most of the offences in the Vagrancy Act have already been repealed. Nowadays we do not need to worry about peddlars and the other people referred to in the original Act. Begging under false pretences is covered by the Theft Act. Threatening behaviour or causing offence is covered by the Public Order Act.

Much reference has been made to the repeal of this offence in Scotland. Can the Minister say whether that repeal led to an increase in begging for its own sake? That is clearly an anxiety for all of us, as was so clearly expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod of Borve.

A question has been raised concerning begging on behalf of charities, or soliciting donations. That situation will continue to be covered by the local authorities' licensing provisions and it is very important that that situation should continue.

Turning to the Bill, I do not favour the sexist tone of Clause 4. It may or may not be necessary to keep that provision and I look forward to hearing my noble friend's reply to the question posed by my noble friend Lord Gisborough. Assuming that the clause is necessary, it should be revised so that it is less sexist.

Section 22, which according to my reading of the original Act is inaccurate in its quotation, is repealed. The only part of Section 22 which stands is the exclusion of Ireland and Scotland. Therefore, that can be dispensed with.

Reference has been made to the 1989 figures and the fact that 1,256 prosecutions for begging were brought in London. The total number of offences is nearly three times the number in 1988. That is something that worries me and I question whether it is a correct use of the courts' valuable time. There were only 24 prosecutions for sleeping out, 12 in London and 12 outside London. That is a very small number, but it leads to the question of whether this offence should be kept on the statute book.

I should like to see those two offences removed from the statute book. Ideally, I should like the Minister to look at the question and see what can be done in order to avoid causing additional hardship to that very vulnerable section of society.

9 p.m.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, everything that I was going to say has been said. Nevertheless, I propose to say it again because I feel so strongly about the matter.

I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, for bringing the Bill forward. I agree with the decriminalisation of vagrancy. I do not agree that Clause 2 should be left in the Bill, and therefore I agree with my noble friends Lord Gisborough and Lord Brentford.

The situation regarding vagrancy, begging and indecent behaviour should be looked at again, perhaps by a committee. First, as regards the question of vagrancy, I have looked up the word in the dictionary. A vagrant is one who has no settled dwelling, no settled home and wanders. As many noble Lords have said, in our country today the problem is connected with our housing policy, which causes homelessness.

With regard to the young, research has been carried out—I am not prepared to give a figure because I believe that a survey has been carried out since 1983 —which shows that a high proportion of young people who are homeless have either been in penal institutions or in care and have no home. Therefore, those who say that they should go home mean that they should return to the penal institution or children's home in which they were brought up, which is a legal impossibility.

If a child under the age of 17 is sleeping rough in London, it is possible for him or her to be dealt with under the Children and Young Persons Act or the Children Act. However, if they are 17, 18 or 19 there is no way in which the local authorities can deal with them other than through the housing department, which we know is often impossible.

What is needed in this country is low cost, affordable rented social accommodation. There is no way that such accommodation can be provided on the open market because no landlord will provide low cost rented affordable accommodation when he can obtain a higher income from his property. Therefore, it is quite impossible for it to be provided on the open market.

Who should provide it? I maintain that it should be provided by the local authority. It has been said that such accommodation should be provided by the housing associations but I have been in touch with them and they tell me that they were never set up for that purpose. They were an adjunct to local authorities in order to provide specialised accommodation. I have been told that the organisation to which the Government give money to distribute to the housing associations is in financial difficulties and there is a cash flow problem at present. That brings me to the point that only the local authorities can provide that accommodation. It is then said that if the local authorities provide low cost, affordable rented accommodation, they must build and build. I maintain that it would be possible to lease those properties to people until they can find accommodation for themselves.

As I said, the homeless and those sleeping rough can be divided into two categories: the very young and older people. The very young resent being sent to hostels. If they go to a hostel, they can stay there for only a certain length of time. What happens to them then? They are back on the streets. Young people want a home of their own in the community, with the community helping them. Therefore, we are back to the situation where we need low cost, affordable rented social accommodation.

With regard to the older people, the other day I asked an old man why he continued to sleep rough. He said, "It is my habit". For many such men it is their habit. If they want to do that and are doing nothing wrong, why should that not be permitted? It is true that some older men do not wish to sleep rough. One Christmas an old man came to me and said that he had come to wish me a happy Christmas. I told him that that was very kind of him but that he was two days early. Fie said, "I know, but I have business to do today". When I opened the evening paper he had "clocked" a policeman and because he had done that rather badly—he was taken to prison and kept there throughout the Christmas period. Of course that is exactly what he wanted. The problem is that he said to the prison governor, "They have not got my usual cell ready for me".

As a result, we set up hostels which many of the older men prefer. However, there are those men who like to walk the country and do not want anywhere to go. They perhaps need a night shelter from time to time. I suggest that our country made a great mistake when we closed Part 3 accommodation which enabled men to walk from the North to the South of England, 25 miles per day, and have somewhere to sleep at night. Therefore, as regards the homeless, I support the noble Lord, Lord Stallard. I believe that he is right to abolish the offence because our social policies lead homeless people to do what they are doing.

As regards begging, surely it is wrong to link begging with homelessness. I know many people who beg who are not homeless. I know many people who are able to obtain money from their parents but they do not wish to do that and so they beg. However, it surely cannot be right to link begging with homelessness. It should be dealt with in a different way under different legislation.

With regard to indecency, I submit that many homeless people would never dream of committing an indecent act. Many people from good homes do commit indecent acts. Therefore, again I believe that it is wrong to link indecency with homelessness. It is a separate problem which should be dealt with separately.

I support this Bill. I agree with my noble friend Lord Gisborough. I do not believe that Clause 2 should remain on the statute book. The last point is most important. I should like to ask why at this stage we are bound to an Act which dates back to 1824. The noble Lord, Lord Seebohm, to whom I am deeply grateful, has given me a quotation which I should like to read: New occasions teach new duties Times make ancient good, uncouth".

9.8 p.m.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I am glad of that point; it leads into much of what I hope to say. I apologise to the House for intervening in the gap. I do so because I promised long ago to speak on this Bill if at all possible. I did not put my name down because I was not certain that I could be in the Chamber during the course of the debate.

This problem is even older than 1824. If one were to accept the view of some poets that vagrancy might be regarded as a profession it would be capable of competing for the title of the oldest profession. To my certain knowledge the use of the law to deter people from vagrancy and begging goes back at least four centuries, and I believe a great deal further.

I agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Brentford, that the laws certainly do not achieve their desired effect. That has been true at least since the reign of Elizabeth I and, I believe, a great deal longer. Over the centuries a vast administrative burden has been placed on many public officers, but it has achieved very little. The basic idea behind the laws was that by punishment one could deter people from vagrancy and begging; but one cannot deter people from their social condition. That was always the basic misapprehension behind the law.

There has been a cyclical pattern in the enforcement of vagrancy laws over the centuries. The rise in prosecutions that we have seen between 1988 and 1989 is the umpteenth of many. Historians as a profession do not agree about much, but looking at previous occasions in other centuries they seem to be agreed that those peaks in vagrancy prosecutions do not mark peaks in original sin, which is not that much of a variable. They mark periods of exceptionally poor social conditions. The variable relates to the degree of poverty and unemployment and the adequacy of relief.

In the Act of 1601 there was understood to be something of a bargain. On the one hand, there was provision of assured support from public funds and, on the other, an attempt to deter begging. One could see the sense in that bargain. However, every time it has broken down it seems to have been the availability of support from public funds which fell down and not an increased propensity to beg. Everything that has been said tonight, including what was said by the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, regarding 16 and 17 year-olds appears to fit into that well-established context.

I listened with a great deal of care to the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod of Borve, who argued a contrary case which deserves attention. It is my belief that it is correct, as the noble Lords, Lord Stallard and Lord Alexander of Weedon, argued, that the offences to which the noble Baroness referred can be dealt with by means other than through the law. Her third category of beggars—almost the same as the ones in velvet gown to whom the noble Lord, Lord Henderson of Brompton, referred—are undoubtedly guilty of fraud. They are undoubtedly guilty of obtaining money by false pretences. I believe there are sufficient resources under the law to prosecute them. We do not need this Act.

Every time vagrancy prosecution has been used it has been based on mistaking the symptom for the cause—a mistaken desire to sweep the problem under the carpet. As the noble Viscount, Lord Brentford, said, it makes people feel uncomfortable to see it. In fact, prosecution has always been an attempt to shut the safety valve. That is not a very wise thing to do.

9.13 p.m.

Lord Meston

My Lords, the arguments for the Bill have been put eloquently and powerfully and I shall try not to repeat them. The 1824 Act is a near redundant product of another age. It is written in archaic language which might be thought interesting or amusing in a historical document but which is not helpful or appropriate for a piece of operative legislation as the 21st century approaches.

It is worth reviewing the recent attempts to reconsider this legislation. For example, in 1968 the Law Society put forward proposals for modernisation of the Act. In 1974 the Home Office working party was set up with terms of reference which, unfortunately, did not extend to consideration of the social problems of vagrancy but which recommended modernisation and reform. The Labour Government of the time apparently found no opportunity for legislation.

Paragraph 25 of the 1981 report of the Home Affairs Committee of another place stated that in deciding that the time was not then ripe for repeal it hoped that the offence would be regarded as no more than a temporary means of dealing with an immediate social problem, and that within the then foreseeable future the wider availability of suitable accommodation for the homeless would render the offences unnecessary. That was 1981 and how misplaced that hope was! The reason why these Benches are not more populated this evening is that my noble friends are carol singing with characteristic harmony on Waterloo Station in aid of Crisis at Christmas.

Had we had this debate 10 years ago one of the arguments for reform would have been that the 1824 Act was little used and obsolescent. Now the argument is that, whereas the Act should have become obsolete as the Home Affairs Committee hoped, it is now over-used. In debating reform of the 1824 Act we should be asking ourselves what good it does. The answer is that it does precious little either for society or for the individual offender, who is neither deterred nor practically helped. The vast majority of people who sleep rough do not choose to do so: the vast majority of those who beg do so only because they have to.

If next one asks what harm the 1824 Act does, the answer is that it is probably counterproductive so far as the offender is concerned, and that point has been well made by several noble Lords. It is potentially open to abuse in so far as it effectively gives the power of arrest for essentially non-criminal activities, or indeed for non-criminal inactivities. If one asks what effect the Bill will have, the answers seem to be as follows. There would not be a sudden attraction either in sleeping rough or in begging to live. I was not impressed by the floodgates argument put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod. From what I have heard, it does not seem that there is evidence of the floodgates having been opened in Scotland.

To deal with the truly criminal and offensive misbehaviour of certain people there is an existing and adequate range of other criminal and public order legislation. I shall not now list the relevant Acts of Parliament but they would serve well enough. That point has also been made repeatedly. There is the problem of unduly aggressive begging. As the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, said, that can be dealt with under Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986. There is also the problem of the bogus charitable collection. That can be dealt with under the Theft Act and other existing legislation which deals with street collections.

The mechanism to deal with the problem of indecent exposure is preserved by Clause 2 of the Bill. I shall not attempt to follow the noble Lord, Lord Gisborough, in an analysis of the difference between flashers and streakers, and neither will I go into the question of whether there is a need to cover the female flasher, so to speak. It is not a problem that I have come across. It may be that he has a point in suggesting that a legislative opportunity should be taken to consider whether punishment by imprisonment in relation to indecent exposure should have the legislative prominence that it presently does.

As several noble Lords have said, as far as we can understand it there no longer appears to be the offence of begging in Scotland. That has been the position since the Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982 which I spent some time looking at this afternoon. It introduced a modern code to deal with, Offences of annoying, offensive, obstructive and dangerous behaviour". That seems to set a good example for England and Wales where piecemeal reforms are no longer good enough. This is a whole area of the law which could do with rationalisation and modernisation.

Meanwhile, south of the Border and in London in particular there has been a startling increase in the number of prosecutions which cannot be explained except as a symptom of the Government's policy of releasing psychiatric patients into the community and their housing and social security policies. The 1824 Act comes from an age which had no social policy much beyond its penal code. Today's social problems of homelessness and deprivation should no longer be addressed by the criminal law but by political will and well-directed resources. The noble Baroness, Lady Macleod, was right when she said that the repeal of the Act of 1824 will not be enough. If the Government are sincere in their wish to help the homeless, support of this Bill will be a good indication of such sincerity.

9.20 p.m.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Stallard for introducing this very important measure and for doing so with such clarity. It has the support of the Labour Party, which believes that the Vagrancy Acts are outdated and unhelpful and should therefore no longer remain on the statute book. My noble friend has had strong support from all sides of the House, led by a powerful speech from the noble Lord, Lord Alexander, which we shall not forget.

The whole question of homelessness is not central to our debate this evening but it has been referred to in many speeches. Noble Lords have referred to the problems which homeless people experience with their benefits and through having no fixed abode. Noble Lords have also referred to the importance of de-criminalising homelessness and begging. There was almost total agreement on that point. Many speakers pointed out that there is already legislation on the statute book to deal with public order offences. As the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and the noble Lord, Lord Meston, asked, how can we keep on the statute book a measure enacted as far back as 1824 considering all the changes that have taken place since that time? The Minister will have to find some powerful arguments to counter the points made in the debate.

The Bill seeks to repeal the Vagrancy Acts but to retain the provision relating to indecent exposure. That point was cleverly discussed by the noble Lords, Lord Henderson and Lord Gisborough, and the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull. The idea of the noble Lord, Lord Henderson, to include in the Criminal Justice Bill a non-sexist provision relating to indecent exposure seems a very sensible proposition.

Until recently the Vagrancy Act 1824 appeared to have withered away through lack of use. However, my noble friend and the other sponsors of the Bill have been convinced of the urgent need to repeal the legislation by the fact that lately it has been revived to deal 'Kith the growing number of young people sleeping rough on our streets. It is feared by many that the increased use of the legislation is an attempt to tidy up certain areas of London. Many noble Lords have referred to the increase in prosecutions under the Act. It is a sobering thought that between 1988 and 1989 the number of prosecutions increased by 150 per cent.

Lord Boardman

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that the vast majority of the prosecutions were not for sleeping rough but for begging?

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, I am fully aware of that fact. I intended to give the figures but they have already been given by previous speakers.

Apart from the total lack of humanity in penalising young people for something which is not their fault, what possible point can there be in criminalising them? There can be no justification for making begging or homelessness a crime. The rise in homelessness is due to a number of social and economic factors which surely must be dealt with through social and economic solutions. Criminalising the homeless can only worsen the problem, as the acquisition of a criminal record makes it even harder for those people to find employment or accommodation. It must be true to say that young people sleep rough because they have no home and not because they wish to do so, and that they beg only because they have nothing upon which to live.

I support my noble friend's Bill. I do so for the reasons I have given and also because I believe, first, that such Acts are outdated. That fact has been recognised in Scotland where, as I understand it—perhaps the Minister will be able to confirm this—in 1982 the legislation was changed in order to decriminalise begging. Secondly, the role of the criminal law should not be to punish those who have already been marginalised because of their problems, especially the most vulnerable groups; namely, young people and the mentally ill who have been reduced to spending their lives on the streets.

My third reason for supporting the Bill is the backing which it has received from so many organisations, as mentioned by my noble friend. It is also supported by the NCCL and other human rights organisations and by the probation service. I have with me a letter from a probation officer who works in inner London. He says that he is becoming increasingly concerned about the criminalisation of homeless people under the Vagrancy Act, especially the 17 year-olds who are trapped in a no-win situation.

I should like to conclude by giving your Lordships one example of the work carried out by an organisation that is very close to young homeless people. It is a West End day centre called the London Connection, which is situated behind St. Martin-in-the-Fields. The organisation works with the most vulnerable young people who come to London from many different parts of the country. I believe that 12 per cent. of them come from Ireland. They are aged between 16 and 20.

The organisation stresses the fact that when such people arrive in London they are almost always filled with hope and determination to find a job and somewhere to live. If they cannot find somewhere to live, that determination is dampened almost immediately. They then give up and take to the kind of life about which we have heard today. Very often they find a day centre to attend during the day. The staff at the centre try to find them accommodation or, alternatively, try to persuade those who have left home to return home. If both efforts fail, the young people sleep rough at night and spend the morning in a day centre recuperating, after which they go out in the evening either to beg or to busk. The noble Lord, Lord Alexander, gave us a graphic description of these young people when they are taken to the police station. He described how they felt cold and damp and already hopeless. That was a very strong point.

Many such cases have been described to me by the director of the London Connection. He has told me how these young people are charged under the Vagrancy Act and then either let off or fined between £20 and £50 at the magistrates' court; or, as an alternative, they have the choice of spending a day in custody. A point has been made about the cost of such procedures to the system. Not only are such procedures followed but there is sometimes a procedure whereby a social inquiry report is required. Of course, such a report must be compiled while the young person is remanded on bail. Therefore, there is not only the disastrous effect on young people and the injustice to be considered; there is also the added cost to the system of charging such young people for begging under the Vagrancy Act.

The noble Lord also mentioned the coverage in the tabloid newspapers. He said that that did not help the situation. There have been headlines in such newspapers stating that young people collect vast amounts of money through begging and pointing out how worthless is such an existence. That is not just misleading, it gives a bad impression of those young people who make only meagre pickings from begging.

I hope that the Minister will at least agree with the Bill's aim. He may find something wrong with the Bill, but he will have listened to some powerful and convincing speeches in which all have agreed that we should decriminalise begging and sleeping rough, and that those are social problems which cannot be solved through the penal code. No one believes that to repeal the Vagrancy Act provides the ultimate solution to the homelessness crisis, but it is at least one step in the right direction.

Homelessness must be taken out of the criminal justice system. The punishment of those vulnerable people merely for being unfortunate and under-privileged should cease. I look forward to hearing what the Minister says. As I said at the beginning, he will have to find some powerful arguments if he is to oppose not just the Bill but the principle that has been expressed all around the House, that we should not criminalise begging and homeless people.

9.31 p.m.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, we have had an important and moving debate. People from all sides of your Lordships' House have been concerned about the effects of homelessness and begging, the sorrow it causes to those who are involved in it and the distress it causes those who witness it. I am glad that when he introduced the Bill, the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, said that he was not dealing with the appalling problems of homelessness, because that is correct. My noble friend Lady Faithfull amused me, as she so often does. She said that everything she had intended to say had already been said but, like a battleship, she said that that would not stop her from saying it again; and she did. It was good to hear her speak in such forthright terms.

I am in a different position. Nothing that I intend to say has already been said, and so I shall speak from a different point of view. I thought that it might be helpful if I were to explain the Government's position on the proposals put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Stallard. However, I should like first to take the opportunity of congratulating him on his stamina and persistence, but not just in forgoing his dinner. If that were the cause of his stamina and persistence, I would join with him other noble Lords who have also forgone their dinner, and congratulate them. I might with modesty also include myself in those congratulations. It was nearly 10 years ago when he first introduced a Bill in another place to abolish the vagrancy laws. He did not have too much luck then, and so he tries it again in the more salubrious surroundings of your Lordships' House. We shall see what success he has here and in another place when the Bill reaches there.

I could probably best help your Lordships if I were to provide an assessment of the legal and practical effects of the Bill if it were enacted and to clarify some of the issues that have been raised during the debate. The subject is one which touches most people's hearts and their natural concerns and sensitivities about homeless people, as has been evident from the speeches. I as well as other noble Lords have seen homeless people in cardboard boxes in the Bull Ring at Waterloo, in doorways along the Strand or in Lincoln's Inn Fields. My noble friend Lord Brentford referred to the Salvation Army truck. I have been with the Salvation Army and seen the astonishing work that it does. After witnessing all this, one would have to be steely-hearted not to feel a twinge, even a tug of conscience, to make one ask, "What have we or what has society done to bring this about?" Of course, there is a kaleidoscope of reasons, and it is neither necessary nor appropriate to bracket everyone as being poor or without jobs. I met one man whose home was in the north of England and who lived in a cardboard box in the Bull Ring. He told me that he went off at three o'clock in the morning to walk for an hour; he had a job in an abattoir where he worked, then he came back and lived in the cardboard box at night. He found that a satisfactory way to live, but it does not mean he was out of a job or necessarily penniless.

When one sees all this, one automatically—but perhaps wrongly—equates homelessness with begging, vagrancy or matters of ill-repute. However, people who are homeless are not necessarily beggars; and people who are beggars are not necessarily homeless. It is important to keep these two disagreeable aspects quite separate and distinct.

The noble Lord, Lord Stallard, my noble friend Lord Alexander in his powerful speech and my noble friend Lady Faithfull, as well as many others, referred to homelessness. We share the concern that many people expressed about it. But it is important not to confuse what we can and should do in order to eliminate homelessness with what is and should be on a separate occasion a legal offence. My noble friend Lord Alexander spoke of what we ought to do to help the homeless. My noble friend Lady Macleod of Borve was also concerned.

There is sometimes a contradiction which was brought out in the remarks of both my noble friend Lady Faithfull and the noble Lord, Lord Henderson of Brompton, that to some people it is a way of life. If so, why should they not continue it? The next moment we say, "These people are sleeping rough, it is a disgrace, an offence; and society should not allow it". There is a distinction to be drawn and the person of whom I spoke earlier was content to live that way. It may cause offence to others who witness it, but that is how some people wish to live.

We share the concern of noble Lords who have expressed anxiety about homelessness. The Government have done and are doing a great deal about it in a co-ordinated effort. We have given much in the way of resources to the problem, but it is right to get it into perspective since there has been much understandable criticism of homelessness. The sum of £300 million has been allocated to local authorities and housing associations over the next two years in order to help to house the homeless. Aid for voluntary bodies helping the homeless has been trebled in the past year alone to £2 million. There were government initiatives last June and in the Autumn Statement on 8th November concerned with the single homeless in London. For them over £50 million of additional money is allocated for this year; £38 million for next year; £43 million for 1992–93; and £6.5 million has been given in grant aid to the vital voluntary sector. That means that over the next three years over £100 million is committed to combat single homelessness in London. By any standards that is a great deal of money.

The noble Lord, Lord Stallard, referred to the loss of hostel beds. These should be replaced by the Government's single homeless initiative. The hostel beds will be available to all and not just to those who are referred to them. They will be available to those who turn up at the door. They will be established under a phased programme which will run from January to April next year. It is quite unacceptable that people should sleep on the streets. My noble friend Lady Faithfull said that low cost rented accommodation should be available. It is the basic tenet of housing policy that everyone should have a home which they can afford. The Housing Corporation is the main provider of social rented housing and the Government give it millions of pounds every year. Local authorities should be the enabling authority but not necessarily the provider.

Housing benefit is available for those who cannot meet 100 per cent. of their rent. Under the single homeless initiative we shall be providing more rented accommodation in the next few years. Some £38 million is to be provided next year and £43 million is to be provided in 1992–93 specifically for homeless people on the streets. The money will be provided to move those people to hostels.

The noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, mentioned benefits. People who have no fixed abode can still claim benefits. They can claim income support and unemployment benefit. People without an address can also register as unemployed. The noble Lord, Lord Stallard, said that the social security rules caused homelessness. There are a wide range of benefits, including income support, which continue to be available to homeless people. Therefore there is no reason for anyone to be without an income. Housing benefit is available to pay for reasonable rent and accommodation charges.

The noble Lord, Lord Stallard, asked whether it would not be possible to manage without a Vagrancy Act. The legislation, he said, had been repealed in Scotland. However comparisons with Scotland are not very illuminating. The criminal law in Scotland is different to that in England. The Scottish breach of the peace powers at common law enable action to be taken where such action would not be possible in England and Wales. My noble friend Lord Brentford asked what the position was now that the situation had changed in Scotland. I cannot give my noble friend an answer. I doubt whether I could provide an illuminating answer as statistics do not show the size of the problem.

My noble friend Lord Alexander of Weedon, the noble Lord, Lord Meston, and my noble friend Lady Faithfull referred to the mentally ill. They said that such people should not be discharged into the community. I agree with those remarks entirely. By 1st April next year all district health authorities will be required to initiate, in collaboration with local social services departments, explicit, individually-tailored care programmes for such people. The care programme approach is reinforced by the new specific mental illness revenue grant and by the project for increased authorisation for capital expenditure on mental illness. Those measures should help to secure improvements in community services and ensure that mentally ill people are not discharged from hospital unless there are adequate health or social services available to meet their needs.

All these are important factors which the Government are addressing. The Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, does not propose any new measure to ameliorate or alleviate the basic problems of poverty and vagrancy. It concerns itself solely with the reform of a part of the criminal law; namely, the Vagrancy Act 1824. The Bill states in effect that the Act is obsolete and that it does more harm than good in today's society. The Bill further suggests that the Act should be taken off the statute book.

The only substantive offence in the Vagrancy Act which the Bill proposes to retain is that in Section 4 which enables the police to proceed against those who indecently expose their person to women, the people whom my noble friend Lord Gisborough referred to as flashers. All the other offences in the Vagrancy Act would be dispensed with under the terms of the Bill.

The title Vagrancy Act is somewhat of a misnomer since the Act is concerned with a much broader range of mischiefs than most people have in mind when they think of vagrancy. We need to be clear about the offences which would cease to exist if the Bill were to pass into law.

It is certainly true that the Act criminalises begging in all its various manifestations. It is also true that it enables action to be taken against those who persist in sleeping rough provided—and this is a very important proviso which is all too often overlooked by the Act's critics—that that person has an alternative place to go to or that he or she is causing offensive consequences.

The Act also provides for action to be taken against unlicensed pedlars, riotous or indecent behaviour by common prostitutes, dishonest fortune tellers and those who are found on enclosed premises for an unlawful purpose, as well as the offence of indecent exposure which the noble Lord would wish to be retained.

It is all too easy, as did the noble Lord, Lord Meston, to mock the quaint way in which the 1824 Act describes those mischief-makers. Also it is not difficult to dredge up various Acts and by-laws which on the face of it might be thought to cover some of the matters with which the 1824 Act was designed to deal. That was the approach of the noble Lord, Lord Stallard.

I cannot agree that the alternatives put forward by the critics of the Vagrancy Act are satisfactory. The offences proposed do not fit or have inappropriate penalties. There is no specific offence of begging outside the Vagrancy Act. Some of the offences in the Public Order Act might catch some bad cases of begging, as the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, suggested. However, they are not specific and because they require proof of different and wider mischiefs they could well mean, for example, that an old lady would be forced to go to court to testify in order to get action against an aggressive beggar. There is much to be said for the Vagrancy Act, with its straightforward remedy for a straightforward mischief, rather than resorting to the artificial use of charges that were never intended for that purpose.

There is another approach, however, which questions whether it would be advisable to alter, still less to do away with, provisions which the police evidently find valuable in dealing with particular types of undesirable activity and which in the instances which I have described are scarcely ever applied to the homeless. That certainly was the view in another place when the Home Affairs Select Committee considered the vagrancy offences in its 1980–81 session. The committee decided that the Act should stay.

The number of prosecutions for those other offences is considerable. They totalled 2,053 in 1989. Taken together they outnumber the prosecutions which were instituted for begging, 1,405, and sleeping rough, a mere 24 across the whole of the country. We have heard a certain amount about police action against the homeless. The fact of the matter is that prosecutions under the Vagrancy Act for sleeping rough are extremely rare. As I said, there were only 24 prosecutions in 1989 for the whole of England and Wales. Only 12 of those were in London. So far as we know, not a single person aged under 17 was prosecuted for sleeping rough in London. Therefore, although some people may say that the police are persecuting the homeless under the Vagrancy Act and because of the Vagrancy Act, that does not stand up to the facts.

The noble Lord, Lord Stallard, and my noble friends Lord Alexander and Lord Brentford argued that it is wrong to have on the statute book an offence which punishes those whose only crime is that they are obliged to sleep on the streets—in other words, homelessness. They are perfectly right, but no such offence exists. The Vagrancy Act was amended in 1935 in order specifically to provide that no one can be prosecuted for sleeping rough unless they are spurning free and accessible accommodation or unless their sleeping rough has offensive consequences. Therefore, it is simply not true to say that the Vagrancy Act makes it a criminal offence to be homeless. It does no such thing. What it does is provide the police with what many think is a useful power and indeed a reasonable one to point the homeless toward available accommodation.

If the Vagrancy Act were to go, so would the power to help those who would not otherwise accept help. That Act enables the police to direct the homeless to shelter which they can take up. If that shelter is refused the police can take action against them. If the Act is removed the police will have no power to move the offenders to better accommodation. They will have no power at all to move them. Some would remain on the streets inadequately housed, and that would be an offence to the people involved and to others.

I now turn to the different matter of begging which has been referred to by a number of noble Lords. It is important. It is true that there are more prosecutions for begging nowadays and it is also true that most of those are in London; but it is not true to infer from that that those who beg are necessarily genuinely needy or homeless. It is certainly not true that they are young. My noble friend Lady Macleod of Borve was concerned about the plight of the young who beg. Only two young persons were prosecuted for begging in London last year. No young persons at all were prosecuted for begging in the rest of England and Wales. So prosecutions for begging are in practice restricted to adults.

It is clear that the police receive many complaints about beggars. If people have a genuine need to beg that is a state of affairs which all of us deeply regret, but all the social security provisions which are available nowadays are designed to make begging unnecessary. My noble friend Lord Alexander said that my humanity should be such as not to make begging a criminal offence. Whatever one's views about the sociology of begging, I agree with my noble friend Lady Macleod that some beggars—not all—are no more than idle rogues who are prepared to use any racket in order to cadge money from the public.

Some of them are quite clearly on the look out for soft touches and can cause quite serious offence. For instance, one hears of begging near Notting Hill because Middle Eastern gentlemen are sometimes considered to be more generous than others who live there. Of course, if you take a dog with you, the pourboire is likely to be considerably enhanced because people feel sorry for the dog. The noble Baroness, Lady Ewart-Biggs, shakes her head. I simply say that not all beggars are genuine. She must accept that.

I do not deny that there are some offences in the Public Order Act 1986 which might catch the activity of some beggars, but there is no specific offence of begging in that Act. For a successful prosecution under the section of the 1986 Act mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, certain additional matters have to be proved, such as that the behaviour complained of causes harassment, alarm or distress. As I explained earlier, that might require the victim to go to court for the matter to be proceeded with.

It is not impertinent to pose the question: why should a person be subjected to all that when the simple mischief is that he was the object of a beggar's attention? The virtue of the Vagrancy Act is that begging which amounts to a nuisance can be dealt with before it reaches that pitch and certainly before it amounts to blackmail, demanding money with menaces or any of the other so-called alternative offences which were mentioned by noble Lords. The question to be faced is whether we want to deprive the police of the power to act in response to genuine complaints from members of the public about begging and of the ability to mitigate what is and can be a genuine nuisance.

The noble Lord, Lord Stallard, and my noble friend Lord Alexander said that we should not send beggars to prison. My noble friend Lord Brentford said that people should not be sent to prison for sleeping rough. Imprisonment for begging and for sleeping rough was abolished in 1982. The noble Lord, Lord Stallard, then went on to say that it was pointless to prosecute the poor under the Vagrancy Act because the poor do not have any money to pay fines. My answer is that the courts are well able to take account of the means of people who come before them in deciding the appropriate sentence. They could quite easily, for example, give a conditional discharge. In some cases—and begging may well be one of them—the offender will have money. But prosecutions and convictions are not the object of the exercise where homelessness is involved. We are concerned that the police should be able to use an effective power which is provided by the Act to point the homeless to free, available shelter.

The noble Lord, Lord Henderson of Brompton, said that he would like to see the Criminal Justice Bill used to repeal the Vagrancy Act except for the indecent exposure offence. I wish to make two points. First, the Criminal Justice Bill deals with the administration of justice and not the creation of new criminal offences. Secondly, it makes no real sense to describe the Act's offences as spent, as I believe the noble Lord wished to do, when they are in fact still well used. It is of note that 3,482 prosecutions under the Vagrancy Act were made in 1989 and less than half of those were for indecent exposure.

Lord Henderson of Brompton

My Lords, will the noble Earl say how many of those prosecutions by the police were instigated by members of the public? It is one Of the noble Earl's great arguments for the retention of those provisions. Without such prosecution by the police there would be no way for members of the public to bring prosecutions except in person. It would be very interesting if he could tell us how many originated from requests by members of the public.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I do not have those figures. I do not know whether the statistics would show them. My guess is that they would not.

The noble Lord, Lord Stallard, is right to worry about vagrancy. It is a matter that concerns us all. It is one of those subjects where one's natural response is to look to social policies rather than to the criminal law for answers. I agree with him on that. That is our primary response too.

I have tried to explain what we are trying to do as a Government over homelessness. I believe that it is a substantial amount. However, there is too a role for the criminal law with regard to begging. We have seen a role also, albeit a rather limited and unusual one, as regards those who sleep rough. We have also hesitated—your Lordships might think wisely—about sweeping away all the offences in the Vagrancy Act. That is why the Government have a natural hesitation in giving a chorus of approval for the noble Lord's Bill. However, in the end it is a matter for your Lordships to decide. I shall watch its progress with interest.

9.58 p.m.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, I am grateful to all those who have participated in what has been an exceedingly interesting debate and for the constructive and helpful remarks made by noble Lords and noble Baronesses on both sides of the Chamber.

I have listened closely to the arguments. I can see much sense in some of them, in particular with regard to Clause 2. There may well be a case for amendment of that part. I have never professed that the Bill as it stands has no defect or is unable to be amended. I shall be only too pleased to consider amendments.

I thank the noble Earl for his long and in places understanding reply. I was more grateful to him when he left his brief. He spoke then in his own compassionate way —I know him to be a compassionate man. I felt a little sorry that he had to read a brief prepared by people who are not in touch with the real world. One had only to listen to the noble Lord, Lord Alexander, to find out what happens in the real world. What happens to these people when they appear in court? Where do they go from there? How are they put into custody? Concrete examples were given. They were not dreamt up to answer a debate in a sedate Chamber, as the noble Lord said, but demonstrated a real understanding of the law.

I was a little sad to hear the noble Earl having to read that brief. Much of his brief was more relevant to next week's debate on homelessness. I certainly welcome the initiatives that he mentioned, and I dare say that they will be repeated. But they are not really an argument for retaining the Vagrancy Act, which deals with a completely different set of circumstances.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, perhaps I may interrupt the noble Lord. He is being very fair. The argument might have been more suitable for next week's debate. The only reason that I mentioned it tonight was because much of the debate turned around homelessness.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, I am glad the noble Earl accepts that these initiatives will be better discussed in a broader debate on the whole question of homelessness. But in this narrower field I did not feel that the noble Earl justified the retention of the Act because he did not reply to the points that I made about the schedule of alternatives. I do not know whether he has seen it, but I shall be happy to send him a copy of that schedule. Nor did the noble Earl reply to my point about the 1986 Act, which gave the police specific powers to deal with the nuisance that he mentioned. The 1986 Act used the same words that the 1981 Act used to oppose a repeal. So that point was adequately clear, and the noble Earl did not reply to it.

There are various sections of the Theft Acts which he did not mention and which deal with demanding money and obtaining property by deception. This would encompass feigning poverty in order to obtain money. These are already offences under different Acts. The noble Earl mentioned them as if they did not exist, and implied that if we took away the Vagrancy Act, none of these offences would exist. But they exist in 18 different statutes which can be used. So there is no justification for cluttering up the courts, or for sending people to gaol when we are trying to get people out, so as to make room for the real villains. The noble Earl did not in my view justify the retention of the Act on any of those grounds at all.

He mentioned the question of equating begging with vagrancy. It has been equated ever since the first Act was introduced. They are always lumped together, and the 1824 Act is the same. It is that that we are trying to get rid of. In some parts, the noble Earl was really arguing for the repeal of this ancient law and for replacing it with something else, though he did not say with what else.

So I feel that the arguments have been posed. Constructive proposals have been made and suggested amendments are acceptable to me. In view of all that and what has been said, I commend the Bill to the House.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.