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Rough sleeping is often associated with nuisance activities such as begging, street drinking and anti-social behaviour. Homelessness is a complex issue and entrenched homelessness presents particular difficulties; addictions and criminal and offending behaviour may be a symptom of homelessness as well as an underlying cause.

Nuisance activities can have a negative impact on local communities. The police and local authorities have a range of powers to tackle these activities. However, homelessness organisations are concerned that the use of these powers criminalises rough sleeping and does not address the root cause of the problem.

Criminal law

Rough sleeping is a criminal offence under section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824 (as amended), subject to certain conditions. There is also an offence for ‘being in enclosed premises for an unlawful purpose’, which is used, for example, when dealing with people suspected of burglary. 

The number of prosecutions and convictions under section 4 of the 1824 Act has declined in recent years. In 2019, there were 183 prosecutions and 140 convictions, with only 4 convictions being for the specific offence of ‘sleeping out’. 

Begging is a criminal offence under section 3 of the Vagrancy Act 1824 (as amended). In 2019, there were 926 prosecutions and 742 convictions for begging. 

Most convictions for these offences result in a fine or a conditional discharge however offenders are sometimes sentenced to custody. In 2019, one person was sentenced to immediate custody for begging and 16 for being on enclosed premises for an unlawful purpose.

Although the number of prosecutions and convictions under the 1824 Act has declined, homelessness organisations assert that the Act is more commonly used informally, to move individuals on or challenge behaviour without formal caution or arrest.

Civil measures

Public bodies have a range of powers under the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 to tackle anti-social behaviour, including:

  • Civil injunctions
  • Criminal Behaviour Orders
  • Community Protection Notice
  • Dispersal powers
  • Public Spaces Protection Order 

Home Office guidance 

The Home Office published statutory guidance for frontline professionals in July 2014 to support the effective use of the anti-social behaviour powers. Under pressure from homelessness and civil liberties organisations, the Home Office revised the guidance in 2017 to make it clear that Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs) should not be used to target people based solely on the fact that they are homeless or rough sleeping.

The guidance (last updated January 2021) emphasises “the importance of ensuring that the powers are used appropriately to provide a proportionate response to the specific behaviour that is causing harm or nuisance without impacting adversely on behaviour that is neither unlawful nor anti-social”.

The guidance makes clear that councils may receive complaints about rough sleepers, but that rough sleeping itself is not behaviour likely to have an “unreasonably detrimental effect on the community’s quality of life which justifies imposing restrictions using a PSPO.”

Local authority use of anti-social behaviour powers

The Government does not collate and publish statistics on the use of anti-social behaviour powers. Without robust data, it is difficult to assess how these powers are being used and what impact they are having. Data can be gathered through Freedom of Information requests, although the quality of such data can be variable.

The Government has asserted that appropriate safeguards are in place to ensure that PSPOs are used appropriately, specifically, local authorities must consult with the police and relevant community representatives before making a PSPO and publish the draft order before it is made. Other measures, such as Community Protection Notices and dispersal powers, have no such obligations.

Advocates of PSPOs, and other enforcement measures, regard them as a useful tool to address localised problems with anti-social behaviour and ensure the safe-guarding of the wider community and public spaces. It is argued that it is the anti-social behaviours that can be associated with rough sleeping (aggressive begging, street drinking, leaving personal belongings in doorways etc.) that are targeted and not the rough sleepers themselves. This approach is in line with the Government guidance on the use of anti-social behaviour powers.

However, a survey of local authorities in England and Wales by the homelessness charity Crisis in 2016 found that 36% (29 out of 81) of respondents had specifically targeted rough sleeping with enforcement measures. 

In March 2019, the Guardian reported that at least 60 local authorities had PSPOs in place that prohibited people from putting up tents, begging, loitering and other behaviour associated with rough sleeping, up from 54 authorities the previous year.

PSPOs can be particularly controversial attracting strong opinions both for and against. In some cases the use of PSPOs by local authorities to prohibit begging and other street activities has attracted considerable public and media attention, forcing authorities to withdraw or amend their PSPOs.

Criminalising rough sleeping?

Voluntary sector organisations are concerned that the use of enforcement measures against rough sleepers criminalises homelessness and leaves vulnerable people in an even more marginalised position.

According to the human rights organisation Liberty, the use of such measures is counterproductive and cruel:

Anyone can see that slapping people with fines they can’t possibly afford is not an appropriate response to homelessness. All it can do is plunge them into ever more debt and potentially fast-track them into the criminal justice system.

There is also a concern that enforcement activity in one area simply displaces street activity to another geographical area and may mean that rough sleepers are forced to move away from vital support services. In some cases, enforcement may lead to the displacement of activity (e.g. from begging into acquisitive crime). Moreover, it does not address the underlying causes of rough sleeping.

Homelessness organisations have proposed that enforcement action should be used only rarely, as a last resort, and that instead:

i) support and outreach services should be expanded to rapidly link people who are rough sleeping and/or begging into suitable accommodation and support; and

ii) police and criminal justice services should adopt more trauma-informed approaches that take into account the experiences of those who are homeless and sleeping rough.

A survey of more than 3,000 people in 2020, commissioned by the homelessness charity Crisis, found that 71% of the public think that arresting people for rough sleeping is a waste of time, while 52% said rough sleeping should not be considered a criminal offence.

Calls to repeal the Vagrancy Act 1824

Use of the Vagrancy Act 1824 (as amended) in relation to rough sleepers is particularly contentious, and there have been widespread calls to repeal the legislation:

  • The Labour Party announced in December 2018 that it would repeal the 1824 Act.
  • In March 2019, more than 240 Labour MPs signed an open letter, which called for “an end to the Vagrancy Act, and for councils and police forces to cease using all measures which ban begging and rough sleeping or target those experiencing homelessness”.
  • A Private Members’ Bill sponsored by Layla Moran – the Vagrancy (Repeal) Bill 2019-21 – would repeal the 1824 Act. The Bill received its First Reading in the House of Commons on 18 March 2020, a date has not yet been set for Second Reading.
  • Homelessness organisations – Crisis, Centrepoint, Cymorth Cymru, Homeless Link, Shelter Cymru, St Mungo’s and The Wallich – have launched a Scrap the Act campaign. Their campaign report sets out the case for repealing the 1824 Act.

The cross-Government Rough Sleeping Strategy, published in August 2018, committed to reviewing homelessness and rough sleeping legislation, including the Vagrancy Act 1824. The Government confirmed that its review of the 1824 Act was considering a range of options, including retention, repeal, replacement or amendment of the Act.

The review was initially expected to report by March 2020. In February 2021, during a debate on Rough Sleeping in the House of Commons, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Robert Jenrick, said the 1824 Act had been reviewed and, in his opinion, should be repealed. He labelled it “an antiquated piece of legislation whose time has been and gone”. The Government intends to report its review findings in due course.

Other deterrent measures

In addition to the criminal and civil measures outlined in Sections 1 and 2 of the paper, a range of other less formal measures may be used by businesses, security companies and planners to deter rough sleeping, including:

Physical deterrents (sometimes referred to as ‘defensive architecture’): street furniture and the urban environment may include features such as spikes, curved or segregated benches, and gated doorways, to deter rough sleeping;

‘Wetting down’: – spraying and hosing down doorways/alleyways with water or cleaning products to stop rough sleepers using the space;

Noise pollution: sounds, such as loud music, are projected through speakers to deter rough sleepers;

Moving-on: security guards/enforcement agencies tell rough sleepers to move out of an area;

Diverted giving schemes: local authority sanctioned schemes that promote and advertise in begging hotspots asking members of the public to reconsider giving money to beggars and give to local charities instead.

These measures do not incur legal penalties or sanctions, but use of such measures is also controversial. A survey by the national homelessness charity Crisis in summer 2016 identified widespread use of such deterrent measures.

Further information

The following Commons Library briefing papers may be of interest:

Rough sleeping (England) (SN02007) provides background information on the problem of rough sleeping and outlines Government policy on this issue.

Rough sleepers: access to services and support (England) (CBP07698) provides an overview of the support and services – including accommodation, health, welfare, training, employment and voter registration – that are available for rough sleepers in England, and the challenges rough sleepers can face in accessing them.

Tackling anti-social behaviour (CBP07270) explains what anti-social behaviour is and how local public services in England and Wales tackle it.

A short guide to anti-social behaviour complaints (CBP09125) provides information to assist MPs and their staff in dealing with casework involving anti-social behaviour.

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