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Begging for change

July 26 2016
ThamesReach posters urged people not to give to people begging ThamesReach posters urged people not to give to people begging
There's a complicated relationship between begging and homelessness. And the solutions are not about sweeping people off the streets

There's a complicated relationship between begging and homelessness. And the solutions are not about sweeping people off the streets.

It’s a sunny evening in Glasgow and Edward is begging just a few feet from Rogano, a posh Glasgow oyster bar in the city centre. He says his Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), first granted after he injured his back in 2005, was stopped last year.

And though he managed to challenge it and is due to have his money backdated, he meanwhile depends on the £15–£20 a time he makes when he goes out begging.

He came off methadone in 2009 but on leaving rehab was put in the same block of flats as a drug dealer. “What chance did I have?” he asks.

The drug dealer has since been arrested, with locals blaming Edward and targeting him as a result. “They’ve written ‘grass’ all over my front door and now I’m scared to go home,” he said. “So sometimes I just skipper [sleep rough] in the town.”

Some people say begging is a choice. Edward, who is also an alcoholic, doesn’t agree. “Begging is soul destroying,” he says. “If I had somewhere that I felt safe to live, I wouldn‘t do this.”

Begging is something everyone has an opinion on. In England and Wales, it’s also against the law. Begging is an offence under Section 3 of the Vagrancy Act 1824 and Section 70 of the Criminal Justice Act 1982, though many campaigned against it, arguing that the Victorian law is irrelevant to modern life.

In Scotland, it’s legal, though several local authorities including Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen have looked for ways to stamp it out through by-laws or used existing anti-social behaviour clauses or exclusion orders to tackle “problem” beggars.

This summer, the Glasgow Community Safety Partnership launched a survey, asking the public for their views on begging which they claim will “help shape future approaches to this complex and emotive issue”.

Thousands responded and they expect findings to be available in coming months.

It has been criticised for asking questions that assume begging is a problem – the council insists that though it’s been prompted by complaints of “aggressive begging” over the years, they also want to find the best way to help.

So should people have the right to beg? If you believe right-wing media, it’s a con can make you thousands of pounds and help you buy your very own mansion.

Meanwhile many of the big charities try to discourage the public from giving at all, claiming that it often goes on drugs or alcohol, and could end up “killing someone with kindness”.

ThamesReach used the now infamous image of a body made up of loose change in 2003 campaigns to persuade the public that it was more responsible to give to charities than to individuals, who might splurge on drugs and end up overdosing.

It’s been copied by local authorities across England, including a recent one in Nottingham using the slogan “watch your money go up in smoke” and in recent years has teamed up with London boroughs and the police and run high-profile poster campaigns. Other charities, such as the Passage, have used similar tactics.

“We started that campaign because we were sick of losing people. People from our hostels were dying from overdoses and staff were attending funerals with next to nobody there. We decided we needed to be honest and let people know what was really going on,” Mike Nicolson, a spokesman for ThamesReach, tells the Pavement.

And what of those who beg themselves? Whether in London, Glasgow, Edinburgh or elsewhere, the same reasons come up.

Not everyone who is begging is rough sleeping, or vice versa. But some claim they beg to pay for a bed in a hostel when they’ve been turned away by local authorities. Some say they need the money to feed addictions; it stops them shoplifting at least.

Others are there because they are homeless, overwhelmed by what’s going on and so haven’t got help to get their benefits put in place. Or been sanctioned. Some have mental health problems. And some have told us it’s just a great way to make money in a short space of time.

In England, though, you are increasingly likely to end up with a criminal record if you beg. The most recent figures show that prosecutions rocketed by 70 per cent, with 2,771 cases coming before magistrates in 2013. Police claim that many more people are moved on and given a caution. Fines can be up to £1,000 and while in practice they are often small, if you ain’t got the money that can lead to problems.

According to Josie Appleton, director of the Manifesto Club, it’s part of move to sanitise our cities. “We are seeing an increase in the criminalisation of behaviour seen as undesirable in our city centres,” she says. “That effects homeless people disproportionately.”

According to Simon Community Scotland, which runs the Rough Sleepers and Vulnerable Person’s service (RSVP) for rough sleepers in Glasgow, there is not a direct association between begging and homelessness. In a survey they did in June, just nine of 42 begging in the city centre had no accommodation.

But the way they see it, there are clear reasons why people end up begging.

Hugh Hill, director of services at the Simon Community Scotland, said: “In our experience very few people chose begging as a lifestyle. It’s not a good place to be. Whatever you’re needs are, you have needs.”

For workers from the RSVP service it’s not criminalising begging that’s needed. It’s finding solutions to the real problems, which are sometimes complicated.

Many people are struggling to find help with benefits, one worker tells me. The forms are long and complicated and have to be completed within one sitting. Workers help to make sure that homeless people get through the service, but they say the DWP also needs to make the process easier.

More help is also needed for people with mental health problems. It’s too hard to get help in the first place, and too easy to get discharged Hill tells me. His team have to fight hard to get people the support they need. And for those with addictions there needs to be more flexible help on offer.

In other word, what's needed is change. But as the slogan goes, you can keep your coins.


Begging: your rights

England & Wales

Begging is illegal across most of the United Kingdom under the 1824 Vagrancy Act.
Begging does not carry a jail sentence even though it is illegal.
Begging was made a 'recordable offense' in 2003 as part of a Government scheme to tackle 'anti-social behaviour'.
The police can ask you to leave an area if they think you are begging. The police can also take your details and keep a record of them.
The number of beggars being charged under the 1824 Vagrancy Act increased by over 50 per cent in 2013–14.
More beggars are charged in London than in the rest of the UK, with a total of 813 in 2014.
The Police actively encourage the British public to report beggars in town centres.

For more information on begging rights in England, visit:



Begging is completely legal in Scotland, unlike the rest of the United Kingdom.
You cannot be arrested or asked to leave a public space if you are seen peacefully begging, in a town centre.
Only aggressive begging is punishable by law in Scotland.
The Scottish Government got rid of the 1824 Vagrancy Act in 1982 when they passed the Civic Government Act.
In recent years, various Scottish cities, including Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen have talked about changing the law to make begging illegal again.
Some private companies and businesses are campaigning to make begging illegal in Scotland's big cities, as they think it makes the city look 'unattractive' to shoppers. These plans have been opposed by the Scottish Government


Finding alternatives

•  Know the law: If you are begging in England or Wales you could be arrested. In Scotland you could be charged if your behaviour is aggressive or anti-social. If you are charged, get legal advice.
•  Get accommodation: If you are homeless, get free legal advice from Shelter or a local law centre – find out if you can challenge the decision not to accommodate you.
•  Get your benefits sorted out: most day centres have drop-in sessions or can refer you to advisors.
•  Get help with addictions: ask around to find the best options for you (there are lots in the list) and ask for a referral. If it doesn’t work out, try another service. Not all are the same.
•  Ask for extra support: maybe extra services like befriending or mentoring could work.