A law that criminalises begging and rough sleeping was used dozens of times in recent years in Dorset, data shows.

Figures obtained through a Freedom of Information request

show that between April 2015 and December last year 96 charges resulted in court hearings - using the Vagrancy Act’s two most commonly used sections.

Of those, 64 court hearings were for begging and the remainder were for rough sleeping or being in an enclosed space without permission.

The Crown Prosecution Service, which provided the figures, said the pandemic impacted the volume of cases dealt with by the courts across England and Wales last spring.

Despite this, there were 11 Vagrancy Act court cases between April and December 2020

However, Dorset Police figures show there were only three section 3 breaches from 2019 to 2021. The Force’s differing figures reveal there were only 52 cases brought to court since April 2015.

Superintendent Gavin House, of Dorset Police, said: “Officers will make referrals to some of the many agencies that offer access to accommodation and support if required.

“On very rare occasions it’s 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 targeting members of the public for money.

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

“Between 2015 to date Dorset Police has used this legislation on average seven times a year and we’re pleased to say it has only been used on three occasions in the last three years and last year it was not used at all.”

Homelessness charity Crisis says the ‘cruel’ Vagrancy Act – which the Housing Secretary six months ago said should be abolished – drives vulnerable people away from support and can keep them on the streets for longer.

The law, created in the early 1800s, sees anyone prosecuted facing a fine of up to £1,000 and a criminal record.

Crisis chief executive Jon Sparkes said the charity was encouraged by Mr Jenrick’s comments, but is disappointed that the ‘offensive and counterproductive law’ remains in place.

He said: “We all agree that the cruel, unnecessary Vagrancy Act should be scrapped but it’s still being used week in, week out with devastating consequences. Fining people who already have next to nothing is pointless and just drives people further away from support, often keeping them on the streets for longer.”

Cllr Graham Carr-Jones, Dorset Council Portfolio Holder for Housing and Community Safety said: “Earlier this summer Dorset Council agreed a new five-year strategy to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping in Dorset.

“Through this we’re looking to tackle all forms of homelessness in Dorset and prevent it from occurring. Our council services, especially housing, adults social care, children’s services and public health work together on this issue and we work closely with Dorset Police, the NHS and community & voluntary partners, including The Lantern Trust, Bus Shelter Dorset and Julian House, in order to provide the best possible support for rough sleepers.

“Many people find themselves homeless through no fault of their own. Perhaps through loss of job, relationship or family breakdown, or because their landlord decides to withdraw their property from the rental market.

“Anyone who is homeless, or at risk of becoming homeless, should contact the council as soon as possible for free advice and assistance.”