The modern return of Vagrancy Law

The crime of 'being suspicious' seems to be making a return as the state seems ever more keen to police the poor and vulnerable. The recent case of 'stolen food' from Iceland is a perfect example.

Joe Hermer
4 March 2014

Homeless man in London. Flickr/Deadly Sirius

The abandoned prosecution against three men for ‘skipping’ food from an Iceland grocery bin in North London last month caused public outrage and disbelief. A recurring feature of this story was that the men were charged under an ‘archaic’ and ‘obscure’ section of the Vagrancy Act 1824. The impression left by the media was that the current vagrancy law is a rarely used relic of Victorian times.

To present vagrancy law today to as ‘archaic’ and quaint statute makes invisible one of the most important but least understood police powers concerning poor people. In a series of complex maneuvers embedded within the leviathan like reforms to fight crime and disorder, the powers of the 1824 Vagrancy Act have been resuscitated in a way that has not been seen for more than a century. Indeed, the 1824 Vagrancy law has been re-purposed over the last decade as a truly modern tool to police poor, vulnerable and ‘suspicious’ people in public spaces.

The Iceland grocery case provides an opening to understand the very modern policing power of vagrancy law. Three men, Paul May, Jason Chan and William James were scheduled for prosecution at Highbury’s Magistrates Court charged under the 1824 Vagrancy Act for absconding with binned tomatoes, mushrooms, cheese and Mr. Kipling Cakes. The police characterization of the charge against the three men makes it sound reasonable: being discovered ‘in an enclosed area, namely Iceland, for an unlawful purpose, namely stealing food’. The full wording of the ‘enclosed premises’ offence of the vagrancy law actually reads: ‘every person being found in or upon any dwelling house, warehouse, coach-house, stable, or outhouse, or in any inclosed yard, garden, or area, for any unlawful purpose’.

The  ‘enclosed premises’ section was designed as an offence of suspicion, a crime of character rather than conduct. The much criticized section has only survived because of its relatively minor place in the Act and the reluctance of officials to remove a vague power. In evidence to the 1980-1981 Home Affairs Committee on Vagrancy Offences, the National Association of Probation Officers (NAPO) characterized the ‘enclosed premises’ offence most acutely. In arguing for its abolition, NAPO stated that the offence ‘is peculiar in so far that it attempts to control behavior which is in itself neither a substantive offence nor an attempted offence’. In other words, they accurately argued that the section makes simply appearing suspicious a crime in  itself, without any evidence that a criminal act has been or is going to be committed. ‘If such a principle were universally applied’, NAPO argued, ‘there would be little freedom for the individual under the law’.

The crime of being suspicious within vagrancy law has a notorious place in the history of racial discrimination and policing in England. The ‘sus’ or ‘suspected person’ offence was repealed in 1981 when it was clearly linked to the arbitrary stopping and searching of visible minorities, particularly young black men, repression which touched off widespread rioting in several cities, most notably in Brixton. Vagrancy policing based on suspicion went hand in hand with the societal racism that the late Stuart Hall and his colleagues so brilliantly documented in their 1982 book, Policing the Crisis.  The ‘enclosed premises’ section, while much more limited in the spaces that it can be enforced, can be viewed as a little brother to the repealed “sus” offence.

The capricious character of the vagrancy act offence can be clearly seen in the details of the now hastily withdrawn charges against the Iceland skippers. While the three men were reportedly arrested for burglary, that charge was dropped and replaced with the ‘enclosed premises’ vagrancy offence. If their unlawful purpose was stealing food why were they not charged with theft--they did after all, carry off what they scavenged--instead of being charged on the suspicion that they might steal? Perhaps one reason is because Iceland does not consider what they took was food, but rather ‘waste’ that was in their view ‘unfit for human consumption’, and presumably worthless. And who was the victim? Iceland Grocery wanted to know, along with almost everyone else, when they issued a public statement upon learning of the prosecution: ‘We are currently trying to find out from the Crown Prosecution Service why they believe it is in the public interest to pursue a case against these three individuals’.

One possible explanation for this otherwise inexplicable prosecution may be related to the death of Ranjit Singh in September 2012. A homeless man who often slept in bins in Smethwick in the West Midland, Mr. Singh’s life-less body was found on a sorting conveyor belt in a re-cycling plant. It is believed that he had been crushed by machinery in the plant after being dumped from the bin and processed to be sorted with the garbage. A survey conducted after the coroner’s inquest into his death found that 38% of waste companies had discovered homeless people in bins by sanitation workers in the last 12 months.

Are the police being motivated to pursue bin skippers and sleepers due to this death? If this is indeed the case, it is a particularly alarming and pathetic use of criminal law and police powers to treat abject poverty as a vagrancy crime in the face of failing social and welfare services for poor people.

The Iceland case is, however, just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how the Vagrancy Act has been re-armed with ‘modernizing’ reforms over the last decade. In a jigsaw of related criminal justice amendments, the government has revitalized the ‘rough sleeping’ (s, 4) and ‘begging’ (s, 3) offences of the Vagrancy Act and crafted them into everyday tools to move on and arrest visibly poor people. To make matters even more worrisome, the empowerment of the 1824 Act has occurred in tandem with an increasing array of powers given to civilian police Community Safety Officers (CSOs) to fight anti-social behaviour. Currently, CSOs can move on or detain people who are begging or rough sleeping for delivery to the police. This power itself raises serious questions about the legality of enforcing Vagrancy Law. For example, a 1982 case established that begging on an isolated occasional is not in itself evidence of an offence under the law. And a 1935 amendment to the Act prescribed that someone could only be arrested for rough sleeping who had refused a place of shelter to which he had been directed and which was ‘reasonably accessible’. This change had rendered the rough sleeping section unenforceable for many decades. Interestingly, the 1935 amendment was made in response to public outrage over the treatment of an ex-guardsman named Thomas Parker who was convicted of rough sleeping. Parker, who suffered nervous disorders, was sentenced to imprisonment with hard labour and subsequently died at Winson Green Prison in June 1933.

These ramped up powers, practically non-existent a decade ago, suggest that the vagrancy Act has become a major tool once again to police visibly poor people, using the raison d’etre of vagrancy law – the crime of being suspicious. This new vagrancy policing is a legal and moral obscenity, an emblem of societal attitudes where desperately vulnerable people, punished by law in the absence of adequate social services, are left to live and die on the street.


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