Finally, we are going to see the back of the outdated Vagrancy Act.
The government has tabled an amendment to its Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which returns to the Commons today.
In it, there is a commitment to repeal the Vagrancy Act in full, in England and Wales. This is the right thing to do. It will bring us a huge step closer to ending rough sleeping, and importantly, it will mark a major shift in how we help those on the streets.
I’m proud to be part of a government that wants to end rough sleeping. But it is a complex mission. We know that many on the streets have complicated and multifaceted needs. Some do not have the mental health capacity to make decisions for their own well-being or to accept the help on offer. Rather than criminalising these people, we need to be addressing the reasons why they are on the streets in the first place. This long-overdue reform will reframe the issue of rough sleeping, away from criminality, towards a complex, health, housing, and social challenge.
Ending rough sleeping will take a multi-sectoral approach, including local authorities, charities, the police, and central government. We took this type of approach in the ‘Everyone In’ strategy during the pandemic and we saw an incredible 90% of rough sleepers accept accommodation, showing that we can achieve impressive results when we work together.
But what about the other 10%? In the first lockdown, we saw around 100 people refuse help and remain on the street in Westminster. Even on the coldest days of the year, a considerable number of people choose to ignore the no questions asked help of a hot meal and a roof over their heads - whether in local authority accommodation, a church, a community centre, or a mosque. They were fearful, mistrusting or often so mentally unwell that they preferred to remain outside in below zero temperatures.
Speaking to outreach workers and former rough sleepers, it is clear that we need to offer greater social care and specialist medical support alongside the safety of a bed. That includes an addiction counsellor, the psychiatric help, and the medical support for those who have suffered after years of sleeping rough.
I’m pleased to see proper funding is being put in place to achieve this through a multi-sectoral approach. Some £212m - from the £435m Rough Sleeping Accommodation Programme - has been allocated to local authorities between 2021 and 2024. This money is designed to end the revolving door whereby rough sleepers accept help, are placed in short term accommodation such as a hostel, but then they too often find themselves back on the streets because their underlying mental health or addictions have not been tackled.
It will get people off our streets and into longer term accommodation, often converted old buildings that were in a state of disrepair. Importantly, ongoing support will be attached to this accommodation – once they are in their new home, they will be helped by specialist staff such as health workers and counsellors.
We have the largest number of rough sleepers in the UK in my constituency of Cities of London and Westminster — and helping them is one of the reasons I got into politics. I’ve been campaigning on this for several years in partnership with charities such as Crisis, St Mungo's, and The Passage. I’ve led the campaign inside Westminster, worked with ministers, and taken it all the way to the top. I’m pleased that this government is doing something about it.
Nickie Aiken is MP for Cities of London and Westminster