Should vagrants be flogged in the street?

From the 14th century it was customary to administer punishment to vagrants in the street in Britain. Some were flogged, some clapped in irons, others dragged around on wooden frames.

At the end of the Middle Ages, society was highly stratified, and most people were not permitted to travel freely. The word vagrant means ‘wanderer’ and to an extent the wanderer was being punished for ‘not being in his or her place’. Many were escapees from rural servitude.

So the fact that the transgression of vagrancy is still on the statute books, might suggest we have not progressed sufficiently far in our society since the 14th century.

All strength therefore to the Lib Dems and Layla Moran MP for campaigning to remove the offence of vagrancy from our laws.

Over the decades many welfare services have been established with the aim of ending homelessness, of course. Social housing, shelters for the homeless, obligations on local authorities to house the homeless, and homelessness charities, have all played their part in reducing homelessness.

So why has the number of homeless people, especially those living ‘on the street’, demonstrably increased in the last few years ?

One obvious general reason is the squeeze on local authority finances coupled with shortages of social housing.

There are more specific factors too, such as the odd mix of governmental institutions national and local in addressing homelessness, which create bureaucratic barriers in bringing different services and assets to bear; many homeless people have a range of problems including drug & alcohol addiction, mental health issues. Just the process of finding out if a person has any such problems in the first place is a cumbersome process.

At the centre of these problems is vagrancy.

On this I can speak from personal experience. My years as a homeless teenager were spent outside the UK, but in countries that had inherited vagrancy laws from the UK. When I speak with homeless people in London the story hasn’t changed. You get visited upon by the police more than anyone else. It’s the police that throw you out of all night launderettes, bus stations and shopping malls into the cold, and cart you away nightly from the rear of takeaway food places as they close.

What you really want is someone to ask why you have nowhere to live and to find ways to help.

Vagrancy laws however mean that the ‘authorities’ want to police you as much as help you. Local authority officers have to ‘strike a balance’ between policing you and helping you, and this is central to the problem of bureaucracy and gaps and overlaps in services provided. It is one of the reasons why many local authority representatives ask you a lot of questions but go no further. In any case the police move you on and those trying to help often cannot find you again.

Removing vagrancy as an offence will be a major step forward for our communities. It will make it much easier to provide services. The most important and urgent of these is dedicated temporary accommodation which provides 24 hour privacy and protection, individual support, and an address in support of gaining employment. Those who volunteer in aid of homelessness will have heard the phrase ‘I need somewhere where I can get myself together’ or similar, so many times.

Removing barriers to helping the homeless such as vagrancy will help pave the way for the provision of services tailored to the demands of individuals. I say ‘bloody well done’ to Layla and the Lib Dems for this initiative on vagrancy.

* Paul Reynolds works with multilateral organisations as an independent adviser on international relations, economics, and senior governance. He is an elected member of FIRC and an Executive member of Liberal International (British Group).

Read more by or more about .
This entry was posted in Op-eds.
Advert

15 Comments

  • Richard Easter 5th Mar '19 - 8:44am

    Should we flog vagrants in the street? If we can define Chris Grayling as a vagrant, then I suppose an argument in favour could be constructed…

    On a more serious note, it is simply disgusting that in a country of such wealth we have this level of poverty. And things have got worse since the Tory cuts.

  • We still have the idea that streets are for travelling on. Otherwise we are loitering. We need to design more people friendly spaces, and accept that people have a right to be there rather than simply pass through.
    I accept of course that this does not solve the problem of homelessness. In the end we need to ensure enough homes for all.

  • John Marriott 5th Mar '19 - 9:18am

    I am sure that there are some people who actually prefer to live that way.. Evidence has shown that, when offered accommodation quite a few end up back on the streets, which many of us would find bizarre. However, the real issue for me is mental health coupled with addiction (alcohol and drugs). Many of the people we see sleeping rough are the victims of a lack of rehabilitation for prisoners, a ‘big stick’ approach to drug dependency in particular, family turmoil and a host of issues that include, of course, austerity.

    We decided in the 1980s to close many of our mental hospitals in favour of so called ‘care in the community’. What a joke! Grim as some of them were, at least these facilities, many of them admittedly designed for different times, offered ‘asylum’ to those unfortunate people whose mental fragility made everyday life a challenge for them. Yet another great idea from across the pond, such as open plan classrooms in primary schools or Police and Crime Commissioners, to give just two examples, was taken on board, without proper research, in the mistaken belief that, because it came from the USA it must have been a good idea. Thanks for nothing, Mrs T.

    It’s ironic that, just as the scheme was being rolled out across the country, the ‘inventors’ were having second thoughts. I vividly remember a sentence in his Inauguration Speech in 1989 where President George H W Bush promised to “build more mental hospitals”. Too late for us, then?

  • Jayne Mansfield 5th Mar '19 - 10:19am

    @ John Marriott,
    ‘Care in the community’.

    Indeed. What care?

    It was, and still is, a political disappearing trick. The reappearance of some who are in need of care on our streets is an embarrassment to governments, and now with a swing to the political Right, to many ordinary citizens , who feel that they must, literally on some occasions, be swept away from sight.

    Those of us who watched, appalled and helpless, can now see the same ‘Care in the Community’ extended to those with physical needs. Out of sight and out of mind. But at least , as far as central government is concerned, those with physical conditions are often too frail to get out of bed, let alone out onto the streets. They simply make the choice between payment for carers or food and heating.

    Local government funds have been cut to such an extent that we can no longer be classed as a civilised nation.

    When we leave the EU, I fear that the Americanisation of our health and social care system , already well advanced, will be completed. The spirit of Mrs Thatcher has lived on through politicians and governments who have inherited her ideology.

    ‘Too late for us, then’. Yes. I believe so.

    Helpless rant over.

  • Paul Reynolds,

    I expect mental illness in the Middle Ages would have been seen as some form of demonic possession. You might find this short article on Medieval incomes and beer drinking interesting https://medium.com/@zavidovych/what-we-can-learn-by-looking-at-prices-and-wages-in-medieval-england-8dc207cfd20a

    “After subtracting cost of basic consumer products, housing, and taxes, typical mason would probably have some disposable income to treat himself to some good wine once in a while, buy an old horse, and pay guild fees. He wouldn’t be able to afford a more significant purchase, such as university education, armorer’s toolset, or knight’s equipment. Therefore, moving up a social class by simply working hard was not an option. Most of leftover money was probably saved for exceptional events, such as wedding and funerals.”

    I would echo your conclusion “Removing barriers to helping the homeless such as vagrancy will help pave the way for the provision of services tailored to the demands of individuals.” The housing first approach requires resources and joined-up thinking but has proved successful in Finland and elsewhere. Congratulations to Layla on seeking a review of this law, although we should anticipate it will run into concerns over the rights of councils to clamp down on aggressive begging in town centres when debated.

  • nigel hunter 5th Mar '19 - 12:22pm

    The police could take vagrants to the local hospital where their needs could be assessed. Here the appropriate needs could be worked out and authorities notified. If police were unable to do this they could wait until an ambulance turned up to take the person to hospital. As most vagrants are identified with health problems it should not be a criminal offence but a health/welfare one.

  • Richard O'Neill 5th Mar '19 - 1:05pm

    Shocked by the number of people who I speak to who think that people choose to beg.

    Kind treatment of the most struggling is a sign of a civilised society. If the austerity fans need a justification it could be considered an investment spending money on better facilities and assistance to make them more “productive” members of society in the long run.

  • Ronald Murray 6th Mar '19 - 8:35am

    Suspect this was an offence in English law.

  • John Marriott 5th Mar ’19 – 9:18am….I am sure that there are some people who actually prefer to live that way.. Evidence has shown that, when offered accommodation quite a few end up back on the streets, which many of us would find bizarre…..

    There may be; but I’ve never met one.
    However, I meet ‘rough sleepers’ who prefer to stay out of night shelters because of the threat of violence and theft in such places. When all your worldly goods are in a knapsack ‘little things mean a lot’.
    Anyone who believes that ‘passive begging’ is a life choice should try it on a rainy, cold day and then try and imagine that tomorrow and all foreseeable tomorrows hold the same.
    “Solidarity stunts” of tring it for a single day have the same meaning as closing one’s eyes for a short time and pretending that it qualifies you to understand blindness!

  • Nigel Jones 6th Mar '19 - 10:31am

    It is right to say that some people on the streets have good reasons not to go to a ‘hostel’. In Scandinavia they provide homes for them with individual rooms and spaces where they can choose to avoid close contact with others who are violent or take drugs etc. They still have a few who choose to go back on the streets; they are the ones who need more time and help to adjust to a new way of living, but most soon adapt to living in house.

  • John Marriott 6th Mar '19 - 11:32am

    @expats
    I don’t want to argue the toss as to why some rough sleepers may appear to prefer that life. What I wish people would do is to ask themselves why we have so many people sleeping rough in the first place.

    My answer is ‘Care in the Community’, or rather LACK OF Care in the Community. Sadly, for every one Good Samaritan there are literally thousands would would prefer to ‘pass by on the other side’. You know, in a funny kind of way Scrooge may have been in some way prophetic when he answered with the question; “Are there in prisons? Are there no workhouses?” Perhaps today for ‘workhouse’ read ‘rough sleeping’. Neither was the answer back in the 1840s and neither is the answer today. However closing mental health facilities certainly doesn’t help.

  • James Murray 6th Mar '19 - 12:24pm

    Liverpool city centre has several dozen people who choose to sleep on the streets.

    As you enter the centre there are big illuminated notices stating that the City Council has some six hundred beds for the homeless available every night. The notice goes on to say that therefore there is no reason why anyone should sleep rough in the centre.

    We must assume that the notice is correct and further assume that many main cities have similar resources.

    That people choose to live on the streets is up to them.

    Walking around these, I chat to them and, speaking as an ex-psychiatric social worker, see no obvious evidence of mental illness – although I admit some such people will almost certainly have some issues.

    However, people have written here about their being wary about going to a hostel place because of fear. I can only say that with the number of the hostels available, there must some that are run carefully to control threatening behaviour.

    As a Libertarian, I cannot support taking them off the streets without their consent.

    Jim Murray

  • James Murray 6th Mar ’19 – 12:24pm…Liverpool city centre has several dozen people who choose to sleep on the streets…….As you enter the centre there are big illuminated notices stating that the City Council has some six hundred beds for the homeless available every night. The notice goes on to say that therefore there is no reason why anyone should sleep rough in the centre.We must assume that the notice is correct and further assume that many main cities have similar resources. That people choose to live on the streets is up to them.

    Perhaps, ‘as a liberal’ (your words), you might ask yourself why they choose the streets rather than homeless shelters? Again, perhaps, why not visit one and imagine it, at 1am filled with those with all the mental, social and physical problems of rough sleepers?

    Scrooge….. “I help to support the establishments I have mentioned–they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”
    Gentleman…”Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”
    “If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population”

    Sadly, 186 years on, they still do!

  • Paul Reynolds 7th Mar '19 - 10:53am

    There is a report in the Guardian of increasing use of fines levied on homeless rough sleepers. It says:

    ‘The number of councils that have obtained the power to issue £100 fines for rough sleeping, begging and “loitering” in England and Wales has increased despite Home Office guidance not to target the homeless’.

    https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/mar/07/rising-number-of-councils-issuing-fines-for-rough-sleeping

Post a Comment

Lib Dem Voice welcomes comments from everyone but we ask you to be polite, to be on topic and to be who you say you are. You can read our comments policy in full here. Please respect it and all readers of the site.

If you are a member of the party, you can have the Lib Dem Logo appear next to your comments to show this. You must be registered for our forum and can then login on this public site with the same username and password.

To have your photo next to your comment please signup your email address with Gravatar.

Your email is never published. Required fields are marked *

*
*
Please complete the name of this site, Liberal Democrat ...?

Advert



Recent Comments

  • User AvatarDavid Evans 23rd Jul - 1:19am
    Laurence (Cox), Michael BG is absolutely right. Our desire for equality cannot (and must not) be constrained to just a desire for equality of opportunity...
  • User AvatarDavid Raw 23rd Jul - 12:03am
    @ Joe "One place to start to reverse this trend is by bringing failing care homes back under Local authority ownership and control. Another prime...
  • User AvatarFiona 22nd Jul - 11:23pm
    Shrill. One of those words only ever applied to women for having the audacity to have speaking voices that aren't as deep as proper manly...
  • User AvatarMartin 22nd Jul - 11:17pm
    David Raw: I suspect that the other Martin does have a problem with being both Scottish and female. He has chosen the wrong comparison because...
  • User Avatarcrewegwyn 22nd Jul - 10:51pm
    I hope Jo does well but I'm afraid her speech and her performance on the BBC "hustings" underlined why I feel it was right to...
  • User AvatarChris Cory 22nd Jul - 10:15pm
    I am inclined to think that what @Martin means is not that he personally has a problem, but that there may well be people with...
Sun 28th Jul 2019
Thu 1st Aug 2019
Sun 4th Aug 2019
Sun 18th Aug 2019