POLICE in Dorset have arrested 129 people under the Vagrancy Act in the county in the last five years.

The arrests were made for begging or for being found in a location for any unlawful purpose.

Officers have now been criticised for using the Act, which is nearly 200 years old and was originally brought in to make it easier for the police to clear the streets of destitute soldiers following the Napoleonic Wars.

Homelessness charity Crisis claims the arrests criminalise the homeless and do nothing to help them off the streets.

And it has carried out a national survey to find out the public's views of such arrests.

A total of 72 per cent of people in the south said they believe arresting people who are sleeping rough is a waste of police time and three quarters said they do not believe arrests will end their homelessness.

Around 76 per cent said homeless people need support rather than being arrested.

Figures for Dorset reveal 52 people were arrested under the Act in 2014, 13 in 2015, 34 in 2016, 12 in 2017 and 18 in 2018.

Chief Inspector Jim Beashel, of Dorset Police, said: “Dorset Police supports partner agencies across the county to ensure supportive mechanisms to help a homeless person are in place.

“Officers will make referrals to some of the many agencies that offer access to accommodation and support for rehabilitation if required.

“On some occasions it is necessary to make an arrest under the Vagrancy Act if someone is begging in a public place, an example being anyone sitting in a particular location, such as a cash machine, and targets members of the public for money.

“The number of arrests made under the Vagrancy Act in Dorset remains low, and we will continue to work to reduce this number.”

Police said the arrests are irrespective of whether someone is homeless or not as rough sleeping is not an offence.

The Government is currently conducting a review into the Vagrancy Act, but Crisis is calling for the Act to be repealed immediately to prevent more people from being pushed further from the vital support they need to move away from the streets.

The survey showed the public supports this approach, as 50 per cent would like the government to make scrapping the Act one of its priorities.

Responding to the findings Jon Sparkes, Crisis Chief Executive, said: “It should be a source of national shame that people in our society continue to be criminalised for being homeless. This is not how we treat people, and it’s clear that the public would like to see it stopped for good.

“Of course, police and councils must be able to respond to the concerns of residents in cases of genuine anti-social activity but using a cruel and outdated law is not the answer, especially when all it does is further dehumanise people who desperately need support.

“What we need to do is treat people with dignity and respect. The Government is currently reviewing the Vagrancy Act as part of its rough sleeping strategy, but it must go further and scrap this antiquated law once and for all.”