Housing

Yet another beggar banned from asking for money. Does legal action really tackle the problem?

Begging has become a common sight across the UK – but steep fines and criminal charges don’t tackle its root causes, campaigners have warned

vagrancy act rough sleeping

The Vagrancy Act has made sleeping rough and begging on the streets of England and Wales a crime for almost 200 years. Image: Dan Burton / Unsplash

Begging has become a common sight across the UK – but steep fines and criminal charges don’t tackle its root causes, according to campaigners.

Last week, a court in Lincoln banned a local man from soliciting cash or goods in the city centre.

The 30-year-old was issued with a criminal behaviour order (CBO) prohibiting him from gathering money from passers-by. The verdict will make Lincoln a more “safe and enjoyable place”, local police have pledged.

The Lincoln injunction is the latest in a slew of similar verdicts in Chelmsford, Stroud and Mansfield. 

But harsh legal action doesn’t tackle the root causes of the problem, campaigners say.

A punitive approach “decreases trust in services and often drives people further from the support they need”, warns Elizabeth McCulloch, policy manager at St Mungo’s.

“It does not help to deal with the root causes and can also cause further problems by displacing people into more dangerous situations or riskier activities, as well as pushing people into a criminal justice system, which can create a vicious cycle of homelessness,” she added.

Many people who beg are also sleeping rough. Tough anti-begging laws can disproportionately impact these vulnerable groups and “push people to the fringes of society”, Crisis chief executive Matt Downie said. 

“While genuine anti-social behaviour must be addressed, we know that engaging people in support services is much more effective at ending their homelessness for good,” he said.

“Above all, no one should be punished just for having no home.”

So how does criminalising begging work in the UK – and what are the alternatives?

“While genuine anti-social behaviour must be addressed, we know that engaging people in support services is much more effective at ending their homelessness for good,” he said.

“Above all, no one should be punished just for having no home.”

So how does criminalising begging work in the UK – and what are the alternatives?

Is begging illegal in the UK?

Begging has been illegal in the UK since the introduction of the 1824 Vagrancy Act. The slight exception is in Scotland, where begging is legal unless it is deemed to be aggressive.

The act – which sets out to punish “idle and disorderly Persons, and Rogues and Vagabonds” ­– was initially intended to deal with injured ex-serviceman who had become homeless after the Napoleonic Wars.

Between 2018 and 2022, nearly 4,000 people were arrested under vagrancy laws for sleeping rough or begging.

The government officially repealed the act in February 2022, but it will remain on the statute book until ‘suitable replacement legislation’ is brought forward. Unfortunately, the archaic laws are set to be replaced by equally punitive powers.

Rishi Sunak unveiled his anti-social behaviour plan back in March, pledging to “stamp out crimes” like begging “once and for all”. The plan ramps up police enforcement powers to move on people “causing harm and blight”. Crisis have described this as a “dressing up the Vagrancy Act in new clothes”.

The police can also charge beggars with anti-social behaviour under the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014.

If you don’t ban begging, how do you fix the problem?

The Big Issue has offered an alternative to begging for more than 30 years. Selling the magazine offers people who turn to begging a chance to break the vicious cycle. Other innovative schemes ­– like sending people to community hubs instead of police stations ­– have been trialled across the country.

Increasing capacity in mental health services and social care systems will reduce the number of people left asking for money.   

As the cost of living crisis bites, the government should focus on “alleviating destitution” if it truly wants to tackle begging, McCulloch said. Funding for trauma-informed, holistic community services is also crucial.

“For many people who beg, the main driver is addiction. Increasing treatment options for addiction would help address this root cause of the urgent and driving need to source funds for drugs,” she explained.

A lack of affordable housing forces people into homelessness, making them far more likely to beg.

“If we built more truly affordable housing, funded support services and invested in housing benefit so people can pay their rent we could end rough sleeping for good,” Downie said.  

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