Homeless charity campaigners have attacked a government proposal to continue to fine beggars as part of a planned reform of 200-year-old vagrancy laws.
Earlier this year the government pledged to repeal the Vagrancy Act – in force since 1824 – which carries fines of up to £1,000 and a criminal record for sleeping rough or begging. The Department of Leveling, Housing and Communities this week launched a consultation to replace the law, which former Secretary of State Robert Jenrick called “outdated”.
But the chief executive of homeless charity Crisis, Matt Downie, said the government‘s plans “don’t really move us forward”. The proposals include possible fines of £200 for beggars.
Mr Downie said: ‘In our experience it is completely counterproductive and in many cases cruel to fine people for begging. And how are they supposed to find the money to pay such fines? It’s still pretty funny.
“We really don’t think people should be criminalized just for being destitute and begging – and for us the only time it’s appropriate is if there’s additional harassment or behavior antisocial – in which case existing legislation fully covers what is needed. So I think the government’s idea of continuing to fine people doesn’t really move us forward on the vagrancy law that they agreed to abolish.
Mr Downie also said we ‘cannot replace one punitive legislation with another’ and expressed concern that the proposals were far too broad and could lead to people being punished instead of be helped. He said: “Instead of focusing on measures that could further penalize people on the streets, the government instead needs to look at how it can encourage a multi-agency approach.”
The government’s consultation paper highlights two case studies which it says describe how fines are “ineffective deterrents” and can be “counterproductive”, but goes on to propose a lower fine of £200. The fine, he said, could be retained in the new legislation as the maximum penalty for “minor begging offences”, while more serious offences, including those involving exploitation, could require harsher penalties.
Types of harmful begging specified in the consultation include persistent begging, or begging in places such as transport hubs, business entrances and ATMs, or when approaching stopped cars in traffic. They also include fraudulent begging, begging organized by more than one person, or begging involving exploitation and coercion.
Housing and Housing Minister Eddie Hughes MP said: ‘No one should be criminalized just because they have nowhere to live, and it’s right that we repeal the outdated Housing Act vagrancy. We must balance our role of providing essential support to vulnerable people with ensuring that we do not weaken the ability of the police to protect communities. »
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