It’s been a long time coming. On Thursday in the House of Commons, the secretary of state for housing, Robert Jenrick, finally said that the cruel and archaic Vagrancy Act of 1824, which makes it illegal to sleep rough or beg, should be scrapped.
It’s an antiquated piece of legislation that should be consigned to history. In 2021, when there is a myriad of reasons why people end up on the street, and the entire country has been coping with the impact of a global pandemic, it is an absolute travesty that homelessness should still be a crime.
The Liberal Democrats have been campaigning for this Dickensian act to be abolished for years. My involvement began when I was first elected as an MP in 2017, in response to a petition by the Oxford University Student Union and Oxford-based homelessness group On Your Doorstep. I managed to raise it in PMQs and then in a debate in 2019.
Together with the charity Crisis – and supported by Centrepoint, Shelter Cymru, St Mungo’s and others – we then launched the Scrap the Act campaign and held an event in Parliament where we brought MPs and Peers together. We heard stories from people who had lived experience of rough sleeping and the Act. It was heartbreaking, and we resolved to do more and get this law repealed for good. Last year, with cross-party support, I brought forward a Bill for the second time to repeal the Act.
We’ve built momentum and the government has heard us. Now they need to make good on their word; our Bill can be picked up and given time by the government at a moment’s notice.
But scrapping the Act is just the first step on a journey towards a more compassionate and holistic approach to ending homelessness in this country.
Everyone should have the right to have a roof over their heads and a place to call their own.
We know that people can become homeless for all sorts of reasons, including poverty and a lack of affordable housing. But life events, such as sudden unemployment, the breakdown of a relationship, mental health issues or addiction can all result in homelessness. According to the charity Shelter, during the Covid-19 pandemic more than 250,000 people in England alone are homeless and living in temporary accommodation.
The coronavirus crisis has exacerbated the homelessness issue, with many hospitality workers forced to live on the street having lost their jobs and being unable to pay their rent. There are countless people sofa-surfing, sleeping in garages, or spending each night in a different place. Many women experiencing homelessness will have escaped a violent or abusive relationship, while people can also be forced into homelessness when they leave care, prison or the army and have nowhere else to go.
In recent years we have all heard of the tragic cases of homeless people who have died because they have been left out in the cold – every one an avoidable tragedy.
Gyula Remes died in 2018 in Westminster underground station, on the doorstep of MPs and Peers. And what did parliament do? Erect another barrier further down an entranceway – out of sight, out of mind.
Well we can’t hide from this problem. During this the pandemic, rough sleepers are at a much higher risk of catching the virus, and have no way to self-isolate if they do. The Everyone In initiative proved that it is possible to help rough sleepers, but it's not a permanent solution to a deep-rooted problem. These issues must be addressed, and support given with proper resourcing.
As so many people know – particularly young people and families – there is a shortage of affordable, safe housing across the country. I am so proud that Lib Dem-controlled councils such as Sutton in London and Eastleigh in Hampshire have been working hard to address this.
Imagination and innovation are essential to solving this crisis. For example, pioneering projects such as the shelter set up by former footballer and former Stoke City manager Lou Macari, which gives homeless people a Covid-safe pod to call their own, with a proper front door and address so they can apply for jobs and get their lives back on track, could be rolled out in areas with high levels of homelessness across the country.
Scrapping the Vagrancy Act is the first big step to ending homelessness in the UK and making important, lasting changes that will improve lives for some of the most vulnerable people in our society. We have a real opportunity here. Let's not waste it.
Layla Moran is the Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon