More than 1,300 rough sleepers in Yorkshire prosecuted under 200-year-old Vagrancy Act which makes begging a criminal offence

Hundreds of people across Yorkshire have been prosecuted under a 'cruel' 200-year-old Act which criminalises begging and rough sleeping, figures reveal.

The Vagrancy Act was created in 1824 and - while Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick six months ago called for its abolition - the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) are still able to use it to prosecute people for begging or sleeping rough in enclosed spaces without permission.

Those prosecuted can face a fine of up to £1,000 and a criminal record.

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Data released by the CPS under the Freedom of Information Act has revealed that the Vagrancy Act has been used to make 1,358 prosecutions in the past six years – including 214 between April and December last year during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Hundreds of people across Yorkshire have been prosecuted under a 'cruel' 200-year-old Act which criminalises begging and rough sleeping

Some 886 of these prosecutions came from West Yorkshire Police - the region's biggest police force - which also saw 189 cases taken to court over the act between April and December last year.

Humberside Police has seen 220 prosecutions under the Act in the past six years, South Yorkshire Police 199 and North Yorkshire Police 53.

Most prosecutions were made under Section 3 of the Act, which criminalises begging, while the rest were under Section 4, for rough sleeping or sleeping in an enclosed space without permission.

Homelessness charity Crisis described the Act as "cruel", driving vulnerable people away from support and keeping them on the streets for longer. while Housing Secretary Mr Jenrick told the House of Commons in February that the act should be "consigned to history".

Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick (pictured) has previously called for the Vagrancy Act to be abolished

Crisis chief executive Jon Sparkes said the charity had been encouraged by Mr Jenrick's comments, but added he was disappointed that the “offensive and counterproductive law” remains in place.

He said: “We all agree that the cruel, unnecessary Vagrancy Act should be scrapped but it’s still being used week in, week out with devastating consequences.

“Fining people who already have next to nothing is pointless and just drives people further away from support, often keeping them on the streets for longer.”

Mike Amesbury, shadow housing minister, said the "outdated" legislation criminalises people who have lost their home.

Hundreds of people across Yorkshire have been prosecuted under a 'cruel' 200-year-old Act which criminalises begging and rough sleeping

"Stable and secure housing underpins opportunities, saving lives and livelihoods," he added.

"It’s in everyone’s interests that ministers focus on ending homelessness through support, prevention and stronger legislation to protect renters."

A Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government spokesperson said: “The Government is clear that no one should be criminalised simply for having nowhere to live and the time has come to reconsider the Vagrancy Act.

“Work is ongoing to look at this complex issue and it is important that we look carefully at all options. We will update on our findings in due course.”

Superintendent Alisa Newman of West Yorkshire Police, said the force "fully appreciates" the issue was "a highly emotive subject"

Superintendent Alisa Newman of West Yorkshire Police, said the force "fully appreciates" the issue was "a highly emotive subject".

“As police our main concern is to help those at risk and we do a lot of work to support genuinely homeless people who, by virtue of this, are vulnerable," she said.

"We seek to encourage and support them to the get them the help they need from partners. Outreach teams have been working across West Yorkshire during the pandemic to support those in need and make them aware of available local authority services.

“The main thing for us is to make sure people who are vulnerable get the help they need. What we have found - and are still finding - is that some vulnerable people do have accommodation and receive benefits but have other issues that see them on the streets.

“Whilst our priority is to support and engage, this is not always successful. Where individuals repeatedly refuse to engage with us and /or partners to get the help and support they need, we do have a range of legislative powers available to us where we have no option but to take enforcement action; this can include arrest under the Vagrancy Act where necessary and proportionate and for persistent offenders we may consider an application for a Criminal Behaviour Order, if appropriate. Dependent on the circumstances, we also have other measures we can use such as dispersal orders and Public Spaces Protection Order Zones.

“The police and our partner agencies are committed to working together to protect vulnerable people and will continue to use all available measures to help people on the streets to turn their lives around.”