Police are using plain clothes officers to catch people begging on the streets. Sussex Police last year arrested more than 60 people in Brighton. Critics argue that fines routinely imposed for begging offences simply increase the financial burden on rough sleepers, many of whom have issues with drug or alcohol abuse.
A defence lawyer, Ray Pape, who routinely deals with cases involving homeless people and individuals with mental health issues in Brighton said he was dealing with an increasing number of begging cases. “It is difficult to see why it is in the public interest to pursue these cases. I am not talking about aggressive begging or harassment but situations where people have asked for a few pence. I currently have two cases where the arrest was made by plain clothes officers. In one case it was two officers who stood in close proximity to the individual hoping that they would be asked for some change. Is this a good use of public money? We are talking about the cost of officers’ time to make and process these arrests, the cost of detention and the cost of prosecution.”
Jason Knight, a Brighton businessman who works with homeless people in the city, said: “People are effectively being victimised for sleeping rough. We have a ridiculous situation where homeless people are being arrested for asking for a few pennies, fined by the courts and then put back out on the street. These are vulnerable individuals who are being criminalised. Surely the police have something else they could be doing with undercover officers than this?”
The arcane legislation being used to arrest and prosecute beggars is the 1824 Vagrancy Act, which outlaws activities such as fraudulent palmistry and unlicensed trading by “petty chapman”, defines begging as a person “placing himself or herself in any public place, street, highway, court, or passage, to beg or gather alms”. It was introduced nine years after the Battle of Waterloo in part to deal with an increasing problem with jobless soldiers discharged following the Napoleonic Wars. Its original critics included the anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce, who complained it was too sweeping and failed to take into account individual circumstances. It is a view shared by many of the law’s contemporary detractors, who say its failure to distinguish between aggressive begging or harassment and so-called passive begging, such as simply sitting in the street, makes it an archaic and overly-blunt legal tool. The legislation, which includes a legal definition of the term “incorrigible rogue”, has been entirely repealed in Scotland and was thought to have become defunct in England.