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PSNI accused of targeting vulnerable by arresting people begging in pandemic


The PSNI has been criticised for continuing to arrest people for begging during the pandemic (Brian Lawless/PA)

The PSNI has been criticised for continuing to arrest people for begging during the pandemic (Brian Lawless/PA)

The PSNI has been criticised for continuing to arrest people for begging during the pandemic (Brian Lawless/PA)

The PSNI has been accused of targeting some of the most vulnerable in society by continuing to arrest and fine people found begging during the pandemic.

Figures released to The Detail show 21 people were arrested and six fines averaging £75 each were handed out between March and mid-December 2020.

West Belfast MLA Gerry Carroll criticised the PSNI’s approach, accusing them of "targeting some of those most isolated and marginalised groups in our society".

"I would strongly urge the PSNI cease from engaging in this disgraceful, counterproductive and damaging approach," Mr Carroll said.

"I will also be raising this with the Justice Minister to ensure this issue is addressed."

Arrests for begging have increased in Northern Ireland in recent years, with more than 320 arrests have been made under the 1824 and 1847 Vagrancy Acts since 2015.

There were 35 arrests for begging in Northern Ireland in 2015, rising to 88 in 2019. The PSNI said that the overall rise in arrests has been "gradual".

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The majority (74%) of those arrested were later charged. Over £5,000 of fines were handed out in the same period.

The figures cover those who were taken into police custody, not people who were dealt with through other means such as community resolution notices.

A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said Minister Naomi Long was aware of the issue.

“Recognising the cross-cutting nature of the issues involved, (the minister) has asked officials to review the use of this legislation, taking account of developments in neighbouring jurisdictions, and to advise her of their findings in the coming months,” a Department of Justice spokesperson said.

Police forces in England and Wales have reduced the number of arrests under the Vagrancy Acts, according to data obtained by the BBC. A review of the legislation there is pending.

The majority of those arrested in 2020 were from Northern Ireland, after an increase in the number of arrests of EU nationals in recent years.

Between 2015 and 2019, approximately 60% of those arrested in Northern Ireland were Romanian nationals. Over 25% were from the UK or Ireland. People from Northern Ireland made up the fastest growing group of those arrested over the five year period.

There were concerns about Romanian nationals begging and rough sleeping in Londonderry and the North West region in 2019, the director of operations at First Housing Aid and Support Services Eileen Best told The Detail.

Northern Ireland’s Housing Executive often has no statutory duty to rehouse migrants, she said, meaning that supporting migrants who are begging or rough sleeping can be complex.

There was a coordinated multi-agency approach to support Romanian nationals in 2019, she said. "There was a genuine concern that people may have been rough sleeping and had no recourse to public funds and no way of getting off the street. It wasn't easy to watch people that were forced to beg on the streets."

Efforts included helping those who wished to do so to return to their home country.

Arresting EU nationals for crimes such as begging can end up putting them at greater risk of homelessness and a criminal record can be a barrier to their right to remain in Northern Ireland.

Chief Superintendent Simon Walls said in a statement that the PSNI "are conscious that issues such as begging are challenging. The answer lies with wider society and policing is only one part of this."

Chief Superintendent Walls said the police consider a range of options before arrest.

"Our Neighbourhood Policing Teams work closely with a range of organisations who are seeking to find meaningful alternatives to begging and rough sleeping," he said.

"Where those people we find on the street are vulnerable and in need of help we will work with our partner agencies to help keep them safe."

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