Layla Moran, the Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, has moved to abolish the Vagrancy Act in the new parliament.
The Act makes it a criminal offence to sleep rough, leaving homeless people open to arrest by the police. The nearly two-hundred-year-old Act was passed in 1824; it has already been repealed in Scotland and Northern Ireland but remains in force in England and Wales.
Regarding her attempt to scrap the Act, Moran said: “Even one person sleeping rough in 2020 is a disgrace, and repealing the Dickensian Vagrancy Act is the first step on a journey to taking a more compassionate and holistic approach to homelessness.
“In Oxford and elsewhere, we’re fining the homeless instead of helping them.
“With this Government’s blessing, we could bring back my Vagrancy (Repeal) Bill, introduced in the last Parliament, and finally scrap the Act.
“If there was a sizeable amount of political will to try and spend £500,000 making Big Ben bong for Brexit, then I firmly believe that there must be the will to repeal this heartless and outdated law.
“This campaign was first raised by Oxford students, and I won’t stop until the Vagrancy Act is repealed, either through my Bill or other means.”
Moran has highlighted recent statistics from the charity Crisis, which show that 71% of people believe arresting people for sleeping rough represents a waste of police time, while a majority support the view that sleeping rough is not a crime at all.
Moran’s effort to repeal the Act rests on the willingness of the Conservative government to support the measure. The approval of Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, will be essential in achieving this.
Speaking in Parliament, Moran acknowledged this, stating: “I know the Secretary of State is keen to make his mark, and I’d like to think we’re giving him a golden opportunity to do so.”
Members of the government did not respond to Cherwell’s request for comment.
Moran penned a piece in Politics Home last week, in which she laid out her case for repealing the Act, and explained why the government has so far failed to do so.
Moran wrote: “We will also repeal it this year because it’s easy to do. I don’t mean to sound crass, but I just cannot understand why an ambitious politician like Robert Jenrick doesn’t want to make his mark and scrap the Act. A simple action that shows you’re taking homelessness seriously.
“And to make it really easy for him, my Vagrancy (Repeal) Bill that I introduced in the last parliament can be brought back, with his blessing, in a heartbeat and become law. I stand ready.
“So, there’s the public will, increasing political will, and it’s easy to do. Then why haven’t we scrapped the Act yet?
“Because it hasn’t been a priority for the Government, who insist on waiting for the results of their review before deciding what to do, despite the incredible team at Crisis having put all the evidence together into a single report for them. Even the police in the West Midlands and the Metropolitan Police have now committed to moving away from using the Act. It’s time to go the whole hog.
“This Government has said a lot in the past few months about those left behind, about the domestic agenda. Homelessness will surely be up there, a priority. Well, I hope so.”
She also added: “That’s another reason I firmly believe we will succeed in scrapping the Vagrancy Act this year: a growing number of parliamentarians can’t avoid seeing what’s happening on our own doorsteps, and I plan to shout from the rooftops to make them look.
“Because what are we doing if we can’t even help those who are literally at our feet?”
Moran has previously attempted to repeal the Vagrancy legislation, introducing the Vagrancy Act (Repeal) Bill in March 2018, during the last Parliament. Her effort was blocked from advancing through the parliamentary process by Conservative MPs.
Moran said at the time – “I am shocked, if not surprised, that the Government have blocked debate on this legislation that would change the law to end the criminalisation of rough sleepers.
“I’ll be keeping up the pressure on the Government and will continue to fight to change the law.
“We must end the situation where homeless people can still be arrested and dragged before the courts using a heartless, Dickensian law dating back to 1824 just because they don’t have anywhere to spend the night.”
Moran’s move to repeal the Act this year, comes after she significantly increased her majority in the election to 8,943, up from 816 in 2017. There has also been speculation that Moran will mount a bid for leader of the Liberal Democrats, after Jo Swinson, the previous leader, lost her seat in December.