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‘Perverse’ Law Criminalising Homelessness Clings On in Northern Ireland

The 200-year-old Vagrancy Act is still being used to arrest and fine people sleeping on the streets of Northern Ireland, despite it being repealed in the rest of the UK

Men standing around a brazier burning wood and coal on a cold night in central Belfast Northern Ireland. Photo: Radharc Images/Alamy

‘Perverse’ Law Criminalising Homelessness Clings On in Northern Ireland

The 200-year-old Vagrancy Act is still being used to arrest and fine people sleeping on the streets of Northern Ireland, despite it being repealed in the rest of the UK

Northern Ireland will soon be the only part of the UK still using a ‘perverse’ 200-year-old law that criminalises homelessness, despite its repeal in the rest of the country.

The UK Government is due to officially repeal the 1824 Vagrancy Act, which makes rough sleeping and begging a criminal offence in England and Wales, long after it was first repealed in Scotland in the 1980s.

However, the continued use of the Vagrancy Act in Northern Ireland has been criticised by homelessness charities, after reports showed the extent of people fined, arrested and convicted there.

Arrests had been on the rise in recent years, in contrast to most police forces in England and Wales where numbers have declined.

The practice has continued during the Coronavirus pandemic, with 21 people arrested for begging and six fines handed out from May to mid-December 2020 in Northern Ireland under the law.

At the time, the Northern Ireland Department of Justice said that Minister Naomi Long was aware of the issue and that she had “asked officials to review the use of this legislation, taking account of developments in neighbouring jurisdictions, and to advise her of their findings in the coming months”. She has indicated that she is open to repealing the outdated laws.

However, new figures for the first six months of 2021 show that arrests and fines have continued, according to a Freedom of Information request submitted by Byline Times.

Gerry Carroll, a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly for West Belfast, said that the continued use of the Vagrancy Act was “perverse”.

“As fuel prices spike, universal credit is cut, and many face a winter of hardship without added support, these laws are a cruel punishment for people who will be pushed into poverty and desperate measures,” he told this newspaper.

“I welcome confirmation from the minister that she is planning to review this law but we cannot wait any longer. Whilst we wait on the minister to act there must be an immediate end to the use of the cruel, punishing impact of the Vagrancy Act.”

While there was only one arrest between January and May 2021, there were six in June alone. The nationalities of those arrested were listed as Irish, Northern Irish, and Romanian. There were also three fines made under the Vagrancy Act in June.

In response to the new figures, a Northern Ireland Department of Justice spokesperson said that the minister is aware of concerns expressed about continued use of the Vagrancy Acts, and that she is committed to reviewing the legislation but that this will now not take place within the current mandate.

The power-sharing administration at Stormont will be dissolved on 28 March, in preparation for a fresh election on 5 May. 

The Department spokesperson went on to say that the Minister always maintained that homelessness should never be criminalised and is “conscious of the cross-cutting nature of the underlying issues which lead to begging and rough sleeping which repeal alone will not solve. Homelessness, addiction and poor mental health are wider societal issues which require a coordinated approach across the Northern Ireland Departments.”


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Criminalising Homelessness

The use of the almost 200-year-old legislation to penalise people for begging and rough sleeping has been criticised by homeless charities including Simon Community and Shelter NI, which have called for the Vagrancy Act to be repealed.

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph last year, Shelter NI director Tony McQuillan said that it “continues to criminalise homeless people and does nothing to help resolve and tackle the root causes of homelessness”.

The law was originally introduced to make it easier for police to clear the streets of destitute soldiers returning from the Napoleonic Wars, having the full title of ‘An Act for the punishment of idle and disorderly persons, rogues and vagabonds’.

Charities say that they have long questioned how well-placed police forces are to deal with rough sleeping and begging.

Chief Superintendent Simon Walls said last year that the police consider a range of options before arrest and that the Police Service of Northern Ireland is “aconscious that issues such as begging are challenging” and that “the answer lies with wider society and policing is only one part of this”.

“Our neighbourhood policing teams work closely with a range of organisations who are seeking to find meaningful alternatives to begging and rough sleeping,” he said. “Where those people we find on the street are vulnerable and in need of help we will work with our partner agencies to help keep them safe.”

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