Did you know – in this country it is essentially illegal to be a rough sleeper.

The 1824 Vagrancy Act is ‘An Act for the Punishment of idle and disorderly Persons, and Rogues and Vagabonds, in England’. It outlaws ‘gathering alms’, being in any ‘deserted or unoccupied building’ and most alarming, ‘not having any visible means of subsistence’.

The language is clearly archaic. I’d like to think as an MP I would not have supported it even then, but having not lived in the time of Dickens I have no direct experience of the social context of when it was enacted. However, what I can say with certainty is that I do not believe such a law reflects the views of modern society, neither in its language nor its intent.

So it may shock you to know that is still used fairly prolifically. According to a Freedom of Information request to the Crown Prosecution Service, this Act was use just shy of 3,000 times in 2015-16 to bring people before the courts, the vast majority of whom, I am told by homeless charities, are rough sleepers who resist being moved along by police if they sleep in shop windows.

If anyone has been to Oxford recently they will know this problem has been getting steadily worse over recent years. But criminalising those who are in tough circumstances is not going to make it better. As I have written in previous columns, the current drivers of homelessness are a lack of joined-up thinking in vital services like health and housing benefit, but also the spiralling rents in the private rented sector. A homeless person is a person who needs help, not someone who should be hidden away.

The burdens of proof in the Act are extremely low as the police need just one witness (who can be another police officer) to justify using it.

Incidentally, this would likely have been the Act that the Tory council leader of Windsor would have encouraged police to use to move the beggars along before the Royal wedding. We saw how well that suggestion was received.

I have already prepared the repeal Bill and will be presenting it to Parliament this week and I plan to raise the matter with the Prime Minster. There is also a petition started by Oxford Students’ Union Homlessness Campaign ‘On Your Doorstep’ and I encourage you to sign and share it (see my website). It already has about 15,000 signatures, but if we get it over 100,000 signatures it will spark a debate in Parliament and the Home Office will have to justify why this Act is fit for purpose.

We are a compassionate country and I believe it is time the Vagrancy Act is repealed. Should police feel that they need these powers then the Home Office should bring forward a new, modern Act for Parliament to debate in the context of our society now.