Justice officials are facing growing calls to scrap laws which “criminalise homelessness”, after “disturbing” new figures revealed they have been used more than previously thought.
ast month the Belfast Telegraph reported that 45 people had been convicted in Northern Ireland’s courts since 2015 using the Vagrancy Act 1824.
This Act was brought in to make it easier for police to remove destitute soldiers returning from the Napoleonic Wars from the streets, and it makes it an offence to sleep rough or beg.
It has now emerged, however, that another piece of legislation, the Vagrancy Act 1847, is also being used to prosecute rough sleepers and those begging.
Figures released by Justice Minister Naomi Long in response to an Assembly question from People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll show 271 prosecutions under the 1847 Act since 2015. The latest year the figures are available for, 2019, saw the highest number of prosecutions – 67.
Since 2015, 254 convictions were secured under the Act, with 2019 again seeing the most at 63. Out of court disposals were also handed out in respect of 174 cases from 2015 to 2019.
Jim Dennison, chief executive of the Simon Community, said: The differences between the 1824 and 1847 Act figures do suggest that a review of these laws could better ensure that individuals experiencing homelessness and in genuine need are not being negatively impacted.”
West Belfast MLA Mr Carroll said it is “disturbing” to learn that even more homeless people and those begging have been “criminalised under outdated legislation than previously thought”.
“It is wrong beyond any doubt to arrest or prosecute people for being in such a vulnerable position. I struggle to understand why moves have not already been made to wipe this law from our books,” he said.
Mr Carroll will question the Justice Minister about the matter in the Assembly today.
“But this can only be the beginning. We urgently need to see more public housing and funding for services which deal with people in need. The pandemic has left people in perilous positions and too many have been allowed to fall through the cracks.”
Tony McQuillan, director of the charity Shelter NI, said both Vagrancy Acts continue to criminalise homeless people and they do nothing to help tackle the root causes of homelessness.
“Our view is that every person prosecuted as a vagrant because they are homeless is one person too many,” he said.
“It could also prevent someone from accessing outreach services that support homeless people to move away from the streets. We believe there is a need to repeal the act to eliminate the criminalisation of homelessness.”
A Department of Justice spokesperson said Ms Long is aware of the issue, and has 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”.