Law guide: Complaints and disputes

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Liz W, London




The UK has an extensive and effective welfare system which is intended to provide for those who can't provide for themselves. Begging is seen as undesirable against this context, as it can be intimidating for those they approach. In addition, it is dangerous, damaging and humiliating to those who beg and traps them in a cycle of poverty and deprivation. Beggars are among the most vulnerable people in our society – many of them are, or have been, rough sleepers and share the same complex set of problems, including high levels of mental ill-health and dependency on drugs or alcohol.

Begging has been made a criminal offence and some believe it may be related to other criminal activity. A problematic category of beggars are those who beg to sustain a drug habit which can result in a high incidence of this type of beggar in areas where drugs are traded on the street.

What action can be taken?

Local agencies have schemes in place to manage begging, in addition to their enforcement powers. An arrest may provide an opportunity for an individual to engage with the arrest referral scheme and voluntarily accept a referral for appropriate treatment. People begging can be arrested and prosecuted under the following powers:

  • Vagrancy Act 1824 (section 3). Enables the arrest of anybody who is begging. It is a recordable offence and carries a level 3 fine (currently £1,000)
  • Highways Act 1980 (section 137). If a person wilfully obstructs the free passage along a highway they are guilty of an offence. This carries a level 2 fine (currently £500)
  • Public Order Act 1986 (section 5). Causing harassment, alarm or distress. This carries a level 3 fine (£1000) or a penalty notice of £80

Community sentences can currently be imposed when the court considers that the offence is serious enough to warrant that penalty.

Under the Criminal Justice Act 2003, the courts can issue community sentences, rather than fines, to persistent offenders aged 18 or over, convicted a fourth time for an offence, where that offence would not otherwise have been serious enough to attract a community sentence. This may include community penalties for drug, alcohol and mental health treatment. In some cases it may be appropriate to use other civil measures, including injunctions under section 222 of the Local Government Act 1972. Anti-social behaviour orders may be obtained in Scotland or Northern Ireland. In England and Wales, orders under the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 such as injunctions and Public Spaces Protection Orders may be appropriate to reduce begging in an area.

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