As another Christmas approaches, many of our minds will turn to those without a home this Christmas. Under growing economic pressure, these numbers have risen over the past year, with Shelter reporting that 139,000 children will be in temporary accommodation over the festive period. As someone who believes in an open, compassionate and forward thinking society; this is something we have to fight to change.
The Vagrancy Act (1824) made sleeping rough illegal, meaning that those faced with the terrible decision of sleeping on the street could be arrested. In 2018, Lib Dem MP Layla Moran began the battle to repeal this archaic and Dickensian legislation.
In January, Liberal Democrats joined a cross-party effort to repeal the Vagrancy Act. Unfortunately, instead of using this as an opportunity to undo an outdated, heartless law, the Conservatives refused to repeal the Bill in practice, and pledged to find "appropriate replacement legislation" to enable future arrests of the homeless.
I was disgusted to see the Home Secretary recently describe homelessness as a “lifestyle choice” and to propose criminalising charities providing tents for people in the winter. Although it was a relief to everyone, including the PM, to see Suella Braverman removed, the UK government is still pushing forward with plans that would make ‘nuisance sleeping’ a crime and therefore homelessness an arrestable offence.
The Tory government has said it will only remove the Vagrancy Act once replacement powers have been brought in and they are now trying to do this through the Criminal Justice Bill 2023. Layla Moran MP has proposed amendments that will prevent the criminalisation of rough sleeping in the Criminal Justice Bill.
The icy fingers of this cruel Bill clutch at Cambridge too. A recent FOI request showed that 8 people were arrested in Cambridgeshire this year for sleeping rough. We all see homelessness increasing when we pass through the city at night. We have to do something to change this.
At Mill Road winter fair last week, we launched our petition to ask the government to scrap the Vagrancy Act once and for all. The interest and uptake was breathtaking. So many people came to speak to us to ask us about what it meant, many rightly shocked that being homeless is still criminal.
We are so fortunate in Cambridge to have a number of charities and voluntary organisations working hard to offer refuge to the homeless this Christmas. Winter Comfort, It Takes a City and Jimmy's all work tirelessly to make sure that those who do fall on tougher times have a place to go and a source of help. But it should not have to fall to charities to do the work of the government. Homelessness is not a lifestyle choice.
We need to keep the pressure up to see the Vagrancy Act repealed once and for all. As we prepare for a warm Christmas in our homes, please sign our petition on behalf of those facing the festive period on the streets this year and sign our petition here.