A HOMELESS charity in Oxford and the MP for Abingdon have condemned the government’s plans to replace the Vagrancy Act, which made rough sleeping a criminal offence for almost 200 years.

The act made it illegal to sleep rough and beg in the UK and was introduced at the same time as the wars against Napoleonic France.  

In April, a long-running campaign to scrap it saw it repealed in England and Wales as part of the Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act.

But Michael Gove’s new Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill contains a clause that would allow the government to “disregard the repeal of the Act” and create “criminal offences or civil penalties” relating to begging or people deemed to be “rogues and vagabonds”.

The government claims that this is “placeholder text” which will be amended at the committee stage of the bill but has not given assurances that rough sleepers will be protected from the return of this legislation.

The prospect of a U-turn has concerned both homeless charities and campaigners, including Lib Dem MP Layla Moran, who represents Oxford West and Abingdon in the House of Commons.

In 2018, she began a national campaign to repeal the Vagrancy Act when a group of students from the Oxford University Student Union and Oxford-based homelessness group On Your Doorstep approached her with a petition to end the criminalisation of rough sleeping.

She then raised the issue during Prime Minister’s Questions: it was the first time it had been mentioned in Parliament since 1991.

Ms Moran said: “I am disgusted that this placeholder text seems to expose the true motivations of this duplicitous government. They promised over and over again to fully scrap the Vagrancy Act. 

“The revelation that they intend to bring it back in different words is a betrayal to those who campaigned long and hard for it but especially for the vulnerable people left out cold in the streets. 

“I am writing to the minister to seek a meeting to urgently clarify the meaning of his clause and urge them to bring forward the full text so it can receive proper scrutiny.”

Meanwhile, campaigners and charities supporting the homeless have argued there is no need for any replacement at all.

Jo Faulkner-Harvey, head of fundraising and communications at Homeless Oxfordshire, a charity which has been supporting people who find themselves homeless or vulnerably housed since 1987, said that replacing the act would “set people up to fail.”

She said: “There is no point fining people that have nothing. That act is 200 years old and we welcomed it being scrapped and we think it doesn’t have to be replaced.

“The biggest thing for us is that people should not be prosecuted for not having a house to live in – that would be setting them up to fail.

"It should all be about getting people off the streets really quickly but we don’t have enough social housing and rapid housing options available in the county and that is a big systemic problem.

“People don’t choose to sleep on the streets, that is their last option. The system has to change as a lot of the issues are the same they were 35 years ago – so many of our social services are underfunded and under pressure.

“We are experiencing the most complex clients we’ve seen in 35 years. 98 per cent of people we work with have substance misuse issues or mental ill-health.

"The majority of them have slept rough and some have been homeless for decades.

“We work really closely with local authorities and we are doing the best we can.”

For more information, visit www.homelessoxfordshire.uk