Freedom of Information requests (FOI) have revealed that a UK police force has been arresting children as young as 12 under a law passed in 1824; 193 years ago.
As The Bristol Post reported, an FOI it submitted to Avon and Somerset Police showed that the force arrested eight people in Bristol in the past year, using the Vagrancy Act of 1824. Police charged four of the people, three of whom were homeless when they were arrested. The other four were not homeless and were not convicted. But the use of this archaic law is actually more widespread than just these isolated incidents.
An FOI submitted in 2015 to Avon and Somerset Police shows[pdf] that between January 2012 and September 2015, it arrested 249 people under the act. And of these, 38 were children aged under-18. While Avon and Somerset Police didn’t detail why children were arrested, the act makes it a criminal offence to:
- Wander abroad to beg or gather alms.
- Place yourself in public place to beg.
- Procure a child to beg.
- Be idle and disorderly.
- Cause a child to beg.
- Sleep out.
- Lodge in barn outhouse deserted or unoccupied building or open air etc.
- Be found on enclosed premises for an unlawful purpose.
- Collect alms or endeavour to procure charitable contribution by false pretense.
- Profess to tell fortunes.
- Wander abroad and expose a wound or deformity to obtain alms.
- Persistently beg.
A nationwide problem
But the use of the act is more widespread in some forces than others. Between 2010-2016 the Metropolitan Police, for example, arrested [pdf p4] 6,711 people under the act. While West Yorkshire Police arrested [pdf] 245 people in the same period.
In 2016/17, police brought 1,810 cases to court under the Vagrancy Act. And while this is a fall of 40% from 3,071 in 2014/15, homeless organisations are critical of the law being used against rough sleepers. Jon Sparkes, Chief Executive of homeless charity Crisis, told The Bristol Post:
We understand that councils and the police have to strike a balance between the concerns of local residents and the needs of rough sleepers… Yet people shouldn’t be targeted simply for sleeping on the street. In fact, homeless people are far more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators, and rough sleepers are 17 times more likely to be victims of violence compared to the general public. They deserve better than to be treated as criminals simply because they have nowhere to live.
A spokesman for Avon and Somerset police told The Bristol Post:
Our Streetwise team, which consists of a police officer and council officer, work full-time in Bristol with other agencies to support people found to be rough sleeping, begging or street drinking.
Their starting point is always to offer support, based on the individual’s needs. If people are persistently begging or street drinking and don’t engage, they could receive a warning. If they continue, an injunction may be used, which if breached, means they could be arrested… Enforcement [is] used as a last resort for people who otherwise won’t take the help offered to them.
Solidarity, not charity. And not criminalisation
Rough sleepers and homeless people are already facing a crisis without being arrested. And the use of archaic legislation to arrest children is unacceptable. Meanwhile, the latest figures show that the Conservative government has presided over [pdf p16] a:
- 134% increase in the number of rough sleepers since autumn 2010.
- 73% increase in the number of children in temporary accommodation since March 2011.
- 63% increase in the number of households where their council had to step in to stop them being homeless since 2009/10.
- 60% increase in the number of households in temporary accommodation since March 2011.
Anyone who finds themselves without a roof over their heads needs support, not criminalisation. But currently, it appears that some of our police forces are doing the exact opposite.
– Support homelessness group Streets Kitchen.
Featured image via Flickr
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