Is Begging Illegal in Scotland?
Words by Marco Biagini
The Illegally Legal Beggar
On Wednesday 17th June, I saw a beggar outside Firewater bar on Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow.
The beggar showed the tell-tale signs of a rough life, alone and desperately trying to make enough pennies to support herself, ironically on one of the main shopping streets in one of the first world’s biggest cities. As I walked by with my friends, I casually dropped a few coins into her cup… Yeah, I know giving money to beggars is a contentious issue as they could buy alcohol or drugs with it, but considering she was sitting at the ATMs outside Firewater – an establishment where people who have the privilege of a paid job go to get royally trashed – I felt it would have been a bit hypocritical to deny her some form of financial support, albeit minimal.
Turns out my self-righteous satisfaction was to be short-lived – my mild act of generosity had highlighted this beggar’s existence to a passing pair of Policemen in an oversized, multicoloured BMW 4×4. They proceeded to pull up and the driver shouted from his window at the beggar to “move along”, away from the ATM she was sitting at. She quickly hid a handful of the money in her cup away into a pocket, stood up and complied.
As she moved along the street, in the opposite direction of the Police 4×4, I stood and watched… just to see what would happen. The Police, watching her in the large rear-view mirror, proceeded to reverse slowly down Sauchiehall Street (towards the traffic) following the beggar. As she began to settle down at a new location, away from the ATM, the Police driver shouted at her again to move.
I was now confused. She was asked to move away from the ATM… and she complied… why, then, were they continuing to tell her to move? Where was she meant to go? I assume by her reply that by this point the beggar herself was also confused…
“How? Beggin’s no illegal!” she called back to the BMW.
“Yes it is! Come on, move along!” the driver shouted back.
Their back-and-forth continued as she stood again and walked, defeated, away from her 2nd resting point, and past me to turn the corner away from the Police.
Whether I was filled with the gift of giving, or the pint of high percentage beer slowly fermenting in my stomach was to blame, I decided to confront the issue. Now that the beggar was out of their way, down a side-street, I walked towards the Police 4×4 and asked something along the lines of: “Why did you move her along? She didn’t do anything?”
“She was begging” the driver replied.
“Is begging illegal?” I asked, stopping at the pavement directly in line with the driver’s seat to give off at least the impression that I knew what I was talking about. “She doesn’t have anything… why are you picking on her?” I then finished my heroic declaration with something embarrassingly inarticulate like, “That’s totally crap, mate.”
Instead of answering my question about begging being illegal or not, the driver replied, “And who are you?” I was a bit affronted by this. Why did it matter who I was? Are the Police not allowed to communicate with mere proletariat like myself?
“I’m just walking by,” I said.
The police driver replied “Well, look – we’ve had multiple reports of her harassing members of the public ‘just walking by’, and we have to move her along for public safety.”
I thought this was weird, since they had cited illegal begging as the reason to move -her, but when I asked about begging they didn’t really answer that part of my question. It was apparently now a much more serious matter of public safety! The thing is… I’m unsure who would have been calling the police about beggars on Sauchiehall Street on a Wednesday evening… it’s a common site that we’re all unfortunately used to – not the kind of thing a member of the public would ordinarily dial 999 for, never mind multiple times.
I was a bit frustrated by this point. I instinctively blurted jargon like “She’s desperate enough as it is, blah blah blah…” The Police driver was evidently not pleased at this second act of apparent petulance, and his tone changed drastically. He beckoned me over with a frown and a lazy flick of his index finger: “Come here!”.
“No”, I replied.
“No, come here now!” he said again, almost demanding I should walk over to the window of his Police car, presumably for some intimate interaction… I pretended I wasn’t slightly intimidated, gave him a childish glare and turned to walk away. I heard him call something like “Yeah, that’s right!” as I crossed the side-street and went to re-join my friends. I’m still unsure what that last statement was supposed to mean…
About a minute later, whilst mid-rant about this incident to one of my unfortunate pals, I began to cross another side-street and suddenly found myself engaging in an uncomfortably lengthy starting contest with the same Police Driver about 200m down the road. The exact same Police 4×4 was slowly rolling around the block (coming past Variety Bar on Elmbank St for those who know Glasgow) looking for the same beggar down the side-streets. They were crawling at about 5mph, searching the side-streets and lanes for a (potentially homeless) beggar with about £4 worth of coppers in a plastic cup…
And for what?
If the Police Driver himself was unclear about begging being illegal or not, then what was their motivation for stalking the beggar? Was this the really the best use of police time? If they weren’t in their big multicoloured BMW would this not have been sketchy behaviour? I’m pretty sure my old pal Chamillionaire referred to cruising the streets in an oversized 4×4 as ‘Ridin’ Dirty’ or something to that effect…
So, Is Begging Illegal In Scotland?
When I eventually got home last night, I made it my mission to find out what the law in Scotland actually is with regards to begging. It transpires that the only official UK Government act outlawing begging (‘cadging’ as it was referred to in Britain’s Dickensian glory years) lies in an almost 200-year-old law called The Vagrancy Act 1824, a law originally put in place to deal with a huge London-centric influx of discharged – and subsequently homeless – military personnel after the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. I guess that’s the price you pay for fighting for your king and country – complete marginalisation.
The Act was resisted heavily by politicians, philanthropists and slave-trade abolitionists like William Wilberforce, but was passed anyway, later compounded by a second wave of migration from Scottish and Irish economic migrants, looking for work in the new industrial capital of the British Empire.
Penniless urban poor? In London? This simply would not do!
So, The Vagrancy Act 1824 was enforced throughout England and Wales, and updated a number of times throughout the 19th century to include acts of “moral outrage” (1838) like nudity, and “soliciting or importuning for immoral purposes” (1898) i.e. prostitution (although at a time when brothels were commonplace, this latter amendment was (ab)used almost exclusively to prosecute homosexuals).
Elements of The Vagrancy Act 1824 pertaining to begging and sleeping rough were extended to Scotland via Section 15 of the Prevention of Crimes Act 1871, but this has virtually been ignored, presumably* due to the subsequent century of world wars, and the associated population guzzlers: conscription, famine and a plethora of heroic deaths for one’s own country.
* this is a personal opinion – not researched
After over 100 years, it transpired that Act had no real purpose in Scotland and was only really enforced on public transport. Thus, in a huge legislative leap towards compassion and social conscience, street-begging was officially legalised in Scotland when the Civic Government (Scotland) Act superseded the Vagrancy Act in 1982.
So, in short, whilst begging is still technically in England & Wales, it is totally legal in Scotland!
For the past 33 years, Glasgow has resultantly played host to it’s fair share of beggars, but nobody here seems to care too much. Glasgow is a friendly city, with its arms open to people from all walks of life… right?
I was admittedly a little bit shocked to find people discussing local homelessness as an apparent problem on the Glasgow Guide Forum. To be fair, comments further down the thread argue for compassion over marginalisation, but still – it saddens me to think that such opinions could come out, so strongly, from such an apparently welcoming city.
Glasgow, the Welcoming City
As a Glaswegian, I am normally quick to defend my often misunderstood bredren, dispelling stories of sectarian hatred and class violence through sharing accounts of the “friendly weegie, who will chat to you for hours at the bus stop no matter who you are”. The irony is that these friendly people with the best chat often are the very same beggars many contemporary Glaswegians do our best to avoid.
Further investigation into the legality of the matter unearthed some further worrying developments. It transpires that in the past 10 years, both Glasgow and Aberdeen city councils have tried to outlaw begging a number of times, but have repeatedly failed to find a way to do so.
Former Glasgow City Council leader Charles Gordon lobbied hard for a change in the law in 2005, citing that he wanted to “to follow England’s lead where several cities have used antisocial behaviour orders to banish persistent beggars.” Aberdeen’s council, who had lobbied for similar change in 2004, formally asked the Scottish Government with Glasgow’s in 2009 for help in outlawing begging – again, this request was met with silence. With a level of annoying persistence akin to Pharrell’s (presumably unsuccessful due to their repetiton) attempts to get lucky at house parties, Aberdeen council tried for another time in 2014 to outlaw begging, only for it to be rejected, once again, by Scottish Ministers in Holyrood. There have perhaps been other occasions with other local councils as well, but I haven’t looked into it.
Where is this sentiment coming from? Why the repetition? Outlawing vagrancy is clearly not an action that represents the compassionate people of this country: this is strongly reflected by Holyrood’s repeated rejection of Glasgow and Aberdeen Councils’ requests. Why, then, are local councils so persistent in trying to ban homelessness?
Commerce vs. Compasssion
It’s at times like these you have to step back and have a think… if their requests and actions do not represent the opinions of the masses, then who is really in charge of the councils? One of the most telling quote came from Stuart Patrick, the CEO of Glasgow Chamber of Commerce, a man “committed to delivering a strong business influence on the development of a growing prosperous city”.
In a 2012 article in the Evening Times, the journalist David Leask claimed that “Business leaders have become increasingly worried that beggars are putting off shoppers – or forcing them to go to out-of-town malls.”
Stuart Patrick is quoted to have said: “Begging is a very serious issue. Aggressive begging can be acted on, but general begging can’t, and it’s giving a bad impression of the city centre, impacting on all businesses including retailers, hoteliers and onward investors. The city centre is our front room, our showcase and we are letting ourselves down.”
And there we have it, loud and clear for all to hear. It would appear that the city councils’ corporate interests are superseding even the most basic of human rights. In a time when our Government is potentially signing away our civil liberties to giant corporations in a sketchy and non-sensical trade agreement called the TTIP, this realisation could not be more relevant.
We live in a time of materialism, commercialism and convenience. A very real power lies in these corporations: if they want us to buy stuff, they make sure we buy stuff, by any means possible. So, if a beggar is putting shoppers off buying that stuff, then that beggar simply must be removed, by any means possible.
One of the most discussed topics of last year was the issue of Homelessness Spikes, particularly in London where The Vagrancy Act 1824 is still active and beggars are often treated like criminals. Supermarkets, apartment blocks and small businesses all over the UK’s richest city have been pressured by a series of successful online petitions to remove spikes outside buildings, designed to deter homeless people from sleeping there. Homeless spikes are part of a global craze for “disciplinary architecture”, typified perfectly by this article on Japan’s anti-homelessnes benches, or bench cages in France. Harriet Well’s reactionary Change.org petition to remove spikes from a Southwark Bridge Road in London seemed to have a global impact on compassion towards the homeless, with articles cropping up in The USA and others highlighting spikes elsewhere in the world. This inspired others like Zahira Patel to petition Foxtons to remove spikes from their Holborn store in London, which was successful on 14th April.
Fabien Brunsing’s 2008 art installation “Pay & Sit: The Private Bench” has
been re-appropriated by online campaigns to draw attention to the elitist
implications of homelessness spikes in modern, capitalist society
Freya Turner is the chairperson of On Your Doorstep, an Oxford University Student Union charity, and launched a Change.org campaign on 6th April 2015 to convince Oxford City Council not to ban “rough sleeping” through the use of PSPO (Public Spaces Protection Orders). These PSPOs are part of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime & Policing Act 2013, which has not only been used to not only prosecute rough sleepers and beggars, but to shut down a protest against the London housing crisis earlier this year. (A very insightful briefing document on PSPOs from the Manifesto Club is available here.) Inspired by On Your Doorstep’s campaign, Zahira Patel once again organised a successful Change.org petition, this against the Hackney Council for introducing similar PSPOs against rough sleeping.
Patel’s second petition made it all the way to the Huffington Post, further helping the overall fight-back for compassion against the local councils, corporations and media outlets who continue to marginalise and demonise the less fortunate. Yesterday, Freya Turner emailed Change.org subscribers to encourage people all over England and Wales to start their own petitions to prevent their local councils from enforcing PSPOs against rough sleepers. Whilst these petitions do not get rid of PSPOs or The Vagrancy Act 1824, they are steps in the right direction towards a louder voice for compassionate members of society – it’s a reminder that we do have the power to change things.
Askthe.Police.Uk actively encourages English and Welsh citizens to
report begging as a crime, demanding compliance from every day people
In Scotland, the law currently protects – to a degree – the human rights of the less fortunate. However, the PSPOs south of the border showcase just how quickly legislation can change against the favour of the homeless, even in first world countries with huge GDPs. For spikes to be built, for beggars to be arrested and for drug addicts to be fined is not just the Police’s and Government’s doing. It takes some compliance from us, the voters. I am of the opinion that these faceless corporations will do anything to dilute our culture and warp our values, and the systematic demonisation of beggars and rough sleepers is just one example of it. If we allow our opinions to be warped by their values (which only exist to protect business, not us) then we are playing into their hands and losing touch with our own humanity.
Do you live in England & Wales? Find out if your Local Counil is criminalising rough sleeping as part of PSPO implementation. If so, start your petition here.