Begging crackdown reflected in numbers brought before courts

Crackdown on begging in Cambridgeshire

Rebecca Cole, aged 36, appeared in court this year when she was banned from asking members of the public for money after “targeting vulnerable people”. - Credit: Cambs Police

Ely’s tough stance is reflected in figures for all of Cambridgeshire which shows that a law which criminalises begging and rough sleeping was used hundreds of times over six years. 

Figures obtained through a Freedom of Information request reveal that between April 2015 and December last year, Cambridgeshire Constabulary made 253 charges which resulted in court hearings, using the act's two most commonly-used sections. 

Nearly all were for begging (section 3 breaches), with the remainder for rough sleeping or being in an enclosed space without permission (section 4). 

The Crown Prosecution Service, which provided the figures, said the coronavirus pandemic impacted the volume of cases dealt with by courts across England and Wales last spring. 

Three years ago, East Cambridgeshire District Council spelt out the policy locally on begging. 

“We are aware of the issue of begging in our district and are completely committed to doing our utmost to prevent it including working in conjunction with East Cambs Policing,” a council spokesperson said. 

Police in Ely also maintained their zero policy on begging by reporting a man in the city centre. 

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Officers out on patrol with officials from East Cambridgeshire District Council spotted a man begging in the market. 

“One male has been reported for summons for the offence of begging,” said a police spokesman. 

“The male was not homeless and has access to a wide variety of help from various agencies.” 

A local police sergeant at the time was also quoted as saying “there are no rough sleepers in Ely. 

“All of the individuals that have been seen begging recently have been catered for with regards to housing and support”. 

Homelessness charity Crisis says the “cruel” Vagrancy Act – which the Housing Secretary six months ago said should be abolished – drives vulnerable people away from support and can keep them on the streets for longer. 

The law, created in the early 1800s, sees anyone prosecuted facing a fine of up to £1,000 and a criminal record. 

There were no Vagrancy Act court cases in Cambridgeshire between April and December last year – the latest figures provided. 

Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick told the House of Commons in February that the act should be "consigned to history". 

Crisis chief executive Jon Sparkes said the charity was encouraged by Mr Jenrick's comments, but is disappointed that the “offensive and counterproductive law” remains in place. 

He said: “We all agree that the cruel, unnecessary Vagrancy Act should be scrapped but it’s still being used week in, week out with devastating consequences. 

“Fining people who already have next to nothing is pointless and just drives people further away from support, often keeping them on the streets for longer.” 

The CPS figures show there were 11,700 court hearings for Vagrancy Act section 3 and 4 breaches across England and Wales between April 2015 and December 2020 – 700 of which took place in the nine months to the end of last year. 

Mike Amesbury, shadow housing minister, said the "outdated" legislation criminalises people who have lost their home. 

"Stable and secure housing underpins opportunities, saving lives and livelihoods," he added. 

"It’s in everyone’s interests for ministers to focus on ending homelessness through support, prevention and stronger legislation to protect renters." 

A Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government spokesperson said: “The Government is clear that no one should be criminalised simply for having nowhere to live and the time has come to reconsider the Vagrancy Act. 

“Work is ongoing to look at this complex issue and it is important that we look carefully at all options. We will update on our findings in due course.”