The prosecution of beggars in Cambridge

07:20 Wednesday 3rd December 2014
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

DOTTY MCLEOD: How are you this morning? I hope that all is going well in your world. Now there’s been a reported rise in the number of beggars facing prosecution in Cambridgeshire. There were 80 prosecutions last year, compared with 45 the year before. That’s according to a Freedom of Information request of the Central Prosecution Service. We’ll speak to the manager of a Cambridge homeless shelter shortly about what could be driving this rise, but first of all Sue Marchant’s been out into Cambridge to find out more.
SUE MARCHANT: I’ve come to Fitzroy Street in Cambridge, which is just outside the Grafton Centre. I would imagine quite a busy thoroughfare for anybody who wants to find some money from somewhere, if they are begging. Let’s ask one of the traders here. Excuse me, are there usually beggars along this part of the road?
TRADER: Quite frequently they are, yes. They go up and down the street quite a few times a day. You often see about ten or twelve a day.
SUE MARCHANT: What about recently, say in the last month or so?
TRADER: In the last week I’ve only seen about one, if any at that.
SUE MARCHANT: I did manage to find someone to talk to on the streets of Cambridge to talk about their experience of begging. Have you ever busked,  or been apprehended?
PERSON: Yes I busk more or less nearly every day. I just get money for my food, rent, (INCOHERENT) I actually depend on the generosity of the public give me some money.
SUE MARCHANT: So you tend to busk rather than stand out there begging.
PERSON: Oh no I don’t beg. No no no.
SUE MARCHANT: Have you ever been persecuted at all for busking?
PERSON: Yes. Three times this year I’ve been done for begging. Yes.
SUE MARCHANT: What happened?
PERSON: When I’m sitting busking people come and talk to me. The police has probably seen me talking to someone and they think I’m begging. They showed their card, and I got a letter through the post saying I’d been charged for begging. I’ve tried to pull the police back and say to them look, these people here, I’m only talking to them. I wasn’t asking them for money or nothing yeah? Sometimes when I’m feeling cold and fed up I probably will say to them just a slight chance I might go and (UNCLEAR).
SUE MARCHANT: Have you noticed an increase on police surveillance?
PERSON: I don’t see much police going about. The plain clothes obviously for shoplifters and that they’re still here. Yes.
SUE MARCHANT: Did you have to pay a fine for your begging when you say you were done? How much was that?
PERSON: £50. Last time it was £60 fine and £30 costs.
SUE MARCHANT: How does it make you feel?
PERSON: It’s like being back in the Oliver Twist days. Please sir can I have some more. If I get a target, I need to make a day about £20 or £5 or £4. And once I get that target that’s me gone.
SUE MARCHANT: How long have you been in Cambridge?
PERSON: I’ve been in Cambridge for a number of years now, of and on. If it wasn’t for my friends here, homeless people and people like that, I don’t think I’d be on this earth to be honest with you.
SUE MARCHANT: Have you ever been prosecuted for begging?
PERSON 2: Not so much prosecuted, but once I was trying to settle into a place of mine and I had a couple of stimulant drinks. I don’t think I was on my medicine really. I was outside and I was just picking up some butts, you know, off the floor, just so I could do a roll-up. I asked a couple of people if they had the odd 20p and that. And suddenly this guy’s come down on me like a ton of bricks. I weren’t ready to know that I would get in trouble for such a little thing.
DOTTY MCLEOD: That’s Sue Marchant reporting in Cambridge. Let’s talk to James Martin. He’s the Service Manager at Wintercomfort, which is a homeless shelter in Cambridge. Now of course James we’re not saying that all people who use your shelter will try begging on the street but presumably it’s fair to say that there is some crossover there.

JAMES MARTIN: Yes I’m sure there is. I’m sure a number of our service users that need to support themselves do begging and busking.
DOTTY MCLEOD: So what do you make of this rise in prosecutions?
JAMES MARTIN: I’m not sure. I was hoping you’d have had Kevin .. Kevin Misik was going to be on the line to speak about the police’s take on the prosecutions.
DOTTY MCLEOD: We did ask to speak to the police but no luck unfortunately this morning.
JAMES MARTIN: No. I attend a number of meetings (UNCLEAR) to look at anti-social behaviour. I wasn’t overly aware of any particular drive to target beggars. There’s always a focus on trying to reduce anti-social behaviour, and we work in partnership with the police and the City Council to try and tackle that. But I mean I was quite shocked by the increase compared to last year.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Do you think it’s helpful to prosecute someone for begging?
JAMES MARTIN: It can’t really be helpful, because you just end up giving somebody a fine that’s then either recouped from their benefits or not paid and paid by spending time behind bars. So in some ways you’re then counterproductive, increasing somebody’s need to beg, because you’re also having their money taken out of their benefits for fining them for begging. So it’s not really a great solution of this.
DOTTY MCLEOD: You say that you’ve not been aware of any particular clampdown. So what do you think could be driving this rise? What could be driving more people to beg maybe more obviously, in our towns and cities?
JAMES MARTIN: I wonder whether the benefit reforms are a little bit to answer for this. I think we’ve seen an increasing rise in the people who don’t actually engage with the benefit system, and choose not to claim benefits.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Even though they’re eligible.
JAMES MARTIN: Yes. I know quite a few (UNCLEAR) benefits, but choose not to. I think some people who perhaps are quite ill, perhaps have mental health and alcohol and drug issues actually end up ground down by the benefit system and choose not to claim benefits, because it is really difficult to actually maintain their benefit claim.
DOTTY MCLEOD: So there’s people who need help and who qualify for help but because the system is so difficult they just can’t access it, so they give up.
JAMES MARTIN: Yes. If you think of somebody who’s sleeping rough and also has a range of mental issues, and you’re asking them to engage in JSA, because there’s been a drive to pull people off ESA, then that person is going to struggle to manage to do 30 hours of job search a week, and apply for X amount of jobs, and also do all the things that are in the ‘job seeker’s agreement’ in order to for them to pay their benefit. And they end up sanctioned anyway. So they either don’t get any money because they’re sanctioned and have to claim hardship, or they just end up getting out of the system as a whole.