BEGGARS will still be targeted by plain clothes officers after Sussex’s police and crime commissioner failed to challenge the controversial method.

Katy Bourne asked the deputy chief constable about the tactic after The Argus exclusively revealed officers were catching more than one homeless person every week last year.

Olivia Pinkney justified the actions of officers by telling Mrs Bourne police used anti-begging laws effectively to force beggars with addiction problems to get help.

The comments were made in a meeting where the police and crime commissioner (PCC) asked her to explain the tactics – despite after saying two weeks ago they were the “right way” to deal with the problem.

The initial story in The Argus sparked a huge public reaction with MP Caroline Lucas calling it arguing such enforcement was “counterproductive and ineffective”.

Campaigners said prosecuted beggars often end up with huge fines that force them back on to the streets to pay.

Mrs Pinkney told the PCC that begging laws were used to arrest the “small cohort” of people begging to fund drug and alcohol addictions but not engaging with addiction or other health services.

She said: “It is a really, really serious issue when someone in the street community is not engaging with support services and that’s why we don’t leave them to it and we use our powers – carefully and thoughtfully worked out – to deal with that small group.”

She said that police were not working undercover in this field but were simply not wearing police uniform and would identify themselves.

But she was not challenged on this point by the crime commissioner, despite it apparently contradicting a statement from Sussex Police to The Argus two weeks ago, saying that plain-clothed officers were used because homeless people were unlikely to ask a police officer for money.

Mrs Pinkney said officers wore plain clothes as they did not want to put homeless people at risk of being seen by, for example, a drug dealer talking to police.

She added that while police could use anti-social behaviour or public disorder laws instead in this field, begging was a “trigger offence” meaning that someone arrested for it could be required to undergo a drugs test and treatment.

She said: “So it almost forces them to take that initial step towards treatment – so that is what that enforcement power really allows us to do.

“We rarely criminalise anyone, we are not in the business of giving someone a criminal record for this does not actually help them, it does not solve the problem.”


The Argus: Sussex' police and crime commissioner Katy BourneSussex' police and crime commissioner Katy Bourne

IF crime commissioner Katy Bourne had been chief interrogator in a murder investigation, the suspect would almost certainly have slipped through her grasp.

Time and again the £85,000-a-year official – elected to hold police to account – let them off the hook over a controversial tactic that has stirred public outrage and filled her postbag.

After nearly two weeks of public debate and protests, Mrs Bourne started yesterday’s police meeting saying there had been “a lot of talk” around the issue of police tactics against beggars and asked Deputy Chief Constable Olivia Pinkney to “set the scene”.

Ms Pinkney gave a lengthy description of how begging laws are used in a "tried and tested" approach to force a small cohort of beggars with drug and alcohol addiction problems to get help All helpful, but key questions remained. For example, how has this approach been tried and tested and where is the evidence that is works? If 62 people were arrested last year for begging despite this long-running practice, does it really work? Why are they "refusing" to engage with available drink and drugs services? Do they work?

We were not given the chance to find out, because the next question Ms Bourne asked was about what sort of powers police have.

To which Ms Pinkney replied begging laws were the most helpful and noted that “giving someone a criminal record does not actually help them; it does not solve the problem”.

Perhaps chief among the points that went untested was Ms Pinkney’s statement that “we use no element of subterfuge whatsoever” in tackling beggars.

Ms Pinkney claimed police officers were not “undercover” in the strict sense in this area because they would identify themselves as police officers and were wearing plain clothes for other reasons.

Yet only two weeks ago, The Argus published a statement from her force saying: “We use plain clothes officers to gather evidence against people begging as they are not likely to ask a uniformed officer for money.”

Defence solicitor Ray Pape was also quoted in The Argus story saying he knew of cases where undercover police had been jangling change in front of people in the hope they would ask for some.

Apparently oblivious to these statements, Mrs Bourne responded to Ms Pinkney: “So you are not using, this is not an undercover tactic that is targeted at beggars, this is police officers going up, introducing themselves as police officers and then trying to engage with that homeless person.” “Exactly that, commissioner,” the deputy chief constable replied.

It is not the first time Mrs Bourne’s performance and accountability meetings – regularly talked up by Mrs Bourne and praised by the Home Secretary – have failed to live up to their name.

Far from providing the rigorous scrutiny of the force expected of the newly created commissioner role, her meetings often appear more of a platform for police to have their say or to explain things to the public. Whether this reflects Mrs Bourne’s overall robustness in holding Sussex Police to account is a question that will only grow with elections for her office looming.