It’s not every day you get to say you changed the law, especially as a member of an opposition party.
However, following many years of persistent campaigning, I am elated that the Vagrancy Act is on the brink of being repealed. This comes just over four years and one month to the day when I first brought it to the attention of the then Prime Minister. The Government bowed to cross-party pressure and tabled an amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill to repeal the Vagrancy Act 1824 in full. This archaic and cruel law will finally be consigned to history, and no one in England or Wales will be criminalised for sleeping rough again.
This campaign has been long and hard-fought. It is a testament to the hard work and persistence of my team, our third sector partners, cross-party colleagues, and of course, the students who first raised the issue with me.
It was a group of Oxford University students who first brought me a petition in 2018 to end the criminalisation of rough sleeping. They were concerned at the manner in which homeless people were being treated by police, and the national approach to homelessness which seemed to favour pushing the problem away. I shared their outrage and agreed to take the petition on.
Achieving this milestone has involved the utilisation of a vast range of parliamentary tools. I have pushed for Government commitment through Prime Ministers Questions and endless questions to Ministers. I secured both an Adjournment and a Westminster Hall debate. There have been countless letters written. Most recently, I worked with my colleagues in the House of Lords to table an amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. All options were considered.
This campaign from the beginning was about citizens creating change. More importantly, students create change- the same students who are all too often overlooked by the Government when they want to make their voices heard. This to me is what democracy is all about and we need more examples of successful student politics like this in Parliament.
I was touched to receive an email from one of these students not long after the announcement. She couldn’t believe that a petition she worked on had now changed the law. Another wrote to me recollecting how they became invested in this campaign when they were in their third year of university, they had been kicked out of the clubs and they had talked to the homeless people on the streets of Oxford. They had asked them what scared them, and the homeless people told them about the Vagrancy Act.
Every single day that this legislation remained on the statute books, vulnerable people sleeping rough were still living under the spectre of criminalisation. Rough sleepers should be treated as individual human beings, not an irritant that needs to be pushed out of sight and out of mind.
In this campaign, we have shown that we have moved on from the time of Dickens, that we understand that if someone is sleeping on our streets, that is our collective failure, not theirs. And that they are not criminals. They are a person who deserves compassion, understanding, and a house would help too.
I hope the success of the campaign against the Vagrancy Act gives hope to students everywhere that they really can make a difference. I would urge them, even if they aren’t a constituent of mine, to write to their local MP about the issues that matter to them because you never know how you may be able to help.
Image Credit: UK Parliament/ CC BY 3.0– image partly cropped to fit to image frame