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The number of people sleeping rough in England has more than doubled from 1,768 in 2010 to 4,677 in 2018. 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, voluntary sector organisations have voiced concerns that an increase in the use of these powers is criminalising homelessness and not addressing the root cause of the problem.

1. Powers to tackle anti-social behaviour

1.1   Criminal law

Begging is an offence under section 3 of the Vagrancy Act 1824 (as amended). It is a recordable offence. The maximum sentence is a fine at level 3 on the standard scale (currently £1000). Section 4 of the Vagrancy Act 1824 (as amended) makes provision for a number of offences, including ‘wandering abroad and lodging in any barn or outhouse, or in any deserted or unoccupied building, or in the open air, or under a tent, or in any cart or wagon, and not giving a good account of himself or herself’.

Other provisions also criminalise begging behaviour: wilfully blocking free passage along a highway is an offence contrary to section 137 of the Highways Act 1980 (as amended), punishable by a level 3 fine. Using threatening or abusive words or behaviour is an offence under section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, which also carries a level 3 fine.

In response to a Freedom of Information request, the Crown Prosecution Service in July 2016 released figures showing the number of prosecutions in England and Wales under the Vagrancy Act 1824 (as amended) in each of the last 10 years. The data shows the number of prosecutions under section 3 (begging) of the 1824 Act increased from 1,510 in 2006-07 to 2,365 in 2015-16. During the same period, the number of prosecutions under section 4 (including rough sleeping, among other offences) fell from 1,835 to 582.

Data from the Ministry of Justice, which is recorded differently, shows that between 2007 and 2017 the number of convictions for offences under section 3 of the Vagrancy Act 1824 (as amended) fell from 1,287 to 867, with convictions for offences under section 4 falling from 692 to 158.

1.2   Civil measures

Following its introduction by the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, the Anti-Social Behaviour Order (ASBO) was used extensively by local authorities attempting to address problems associated with begging.

The Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 replaced the ASBO, and other disparate powers developed to tackle a range of anti-social behaviour, with six new and much broader powers designed to be faster and more efficient to use. They include the following powers which may be used to deter anti-social behaviour:

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

1.3   Home Office guidance on anti-social behaviour powers

The Home Office published statutory guidance for frontline professionals in July 2014 to support the effective use of the new powers to tackle anti-social behaviour. The guidance was updated in December 2017 in the light of experience since the new powers were introduced.

The updated guidance 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 it clear that local authorities should not use Public Spaces Protection Orders (PSPOs) to target rough sleepers.

2.     Local authority use of anti-social behaviour powers

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 with PSPOs and not the rough sleepers themselves. The Government does not collect data on the use of PSPOs, but has asserted that the right safeguards are in place to ensure that they are used appropriately.

However, a survey of local authorities in England and Wales by the national 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 form putting up tents, begging, loitering and other behaviour associated with rough sleeping, up from 54 authorities the previous year.

In some cases the use of PSPOs by local authorities to prohibit begging and other street activities has caused controversy, forcing authorities to deny they have sought to target rough sleepers.

The human rights organisation Liberty has engaged directly with individual local authorities, urging them to reconsider using such Orders. The organisation has also launched a legal challenge against the Legal Aid Agency for refusing to fund a challenge to a PSPO that targeted rough sleeping and begging.

3.     Criminalising rough sleeping?

Voluntary sector organisations have voiced concerns that the use of anti-social behaviour powers to tackle rough sleeping is criminalising homelessness and leaving vulnerable people in an even more marginalised position. According to Liberty, “PSPOs don’t alleviate hardship on any level. They are blunt instruments which fast-track so-called “offenders” into the criminal justice system”. Liberty has urged the Government to rethink these powers: “handing hefty fines to homeless people … is obviously absurd, counterproductive and downright cruel”.

There is also a concern that enforcement activity in one area simply displaces street activity to another geographical area, and can sometimes lead to the displacement of activity (e.g. from begging into acquisitive crime). Moreover, it does not address the underlying causes of rough sleeping.

The national homelessness charity Crisis has called on councils to use enforcement measures against rough sleepers as a last resort, and to ensure that they are integrated with tailored support and accommodation. The Chief Executive of Crisis, Jon Sparkes, said:

We understand that councils and the police have to strike a balance between the concerns of local residents and the needs of rough sleepers, and where there’s genuine antisocial activity, it’s only right that they should intervene. Yet people shouldn’t be targeted simply for sleeping on the street. In fact, homeless people are far more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators, and rough sleepers are 17 times more likely to be victims of violence compared to the general public. They deserve better than to be treated as criminals simply because they have nowhere to live. 

There is a time and place for enforcement, and as a last resort it can play an important role in helping people off the street. However, if it is used against a rough sleeper for genuinely antisocial behaviour then councils and police must make sure it is accompanied by accessible, meaningful support and accommodation to help that person escape the streets and rebuild their life. Without that support, they risk further marginalising rough sleepers and making it even harder for them to get help.

3.1  Calls to repeal the Vagrancy Act 1824

Use of the Vagrancy Act 1824 (as amended) in relation to people who sleep rough is particularly contentious; there have been widespread calls to repeal the legislation. The Labour Party announced in December 2018 that it would repeal the 1824 Act. The Government has committed to reviewing homelessness and rough sleeping legislation, including the Vagrancy Act 1824. The review is expected to report by March 2020.

4.     Other deterrent measures

In addition to the criminal and civil measures outlined in Section 1 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.

5.     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.

Anti-social behaviour- new provisions (SN06950) gives an overview of the powers stemming from the anti-social Behaviour Crime and Policing Act 2014.

Constituency Casework: Anti-Social Behaviour (CBP07270) provides information to assist MPs and their staff in dealing with enquiries from constituents regarding anti-social behaviour.

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