Police were accused yesterday of a "headline-grabbing publicity stunt" after a number of Big Issue magazine vendors were arrested on suspicion of running a drug-dealing ring.
Officers held 54 people in Liverpool, including four women, and seized heroin, crack cocaine and weapons, including a sword, knives and a replica pistol. About 30 of those arrested are believed to be homeless. Thirty people have been charged with drug supply offences, and four were released on police bail. The rest were in custody yesterday.
The arrests were part of a 15-month operation by Merseyside Police, involving 200 officers. It began as a investigation into aggressive begging.
Superintendent Alan Cooper, head of operations in Liverpool, said: "This operation is the culmination of a comprehensive investigation, which we embarked on following concerns raised by city centre businesses, shoppers and the general community.
Fay Selvin, chairwoman of The Big Issue in the North, accused Merseyside police of targeting vulnerable people, the majority of whom were made homeless through drug dependency, as a "way of grabbing headlines".
She added: "These arrests are bizarre. We work very closely with the police and if they had any concerns about vendors dealing drugs, we would have banned them straight away.
"I feel this is a publicity stunt which has set back the causes of homeless people and those with drug addictions.
"The whole idea of investigating aggressive begging confuses vendors with beggars; they are not begging, they are selling a legitimate magazine. And it confuses drug addiction with drug dealing.
"We have had a lot of vendors coming to our doors who are very worried they are going to be taken for drug dealers."
A statement by The Big Issue in the North, which is owned by The Big Life Company, said it had no way of establishing if those arrested were "legitimate vendors or rogue vendors who use the magazine illegally as a front for begging or other activities".
It went on: "Arresting homeless people for the possession of drugs is not going to affect drug dealers in the city centre."
The magazine said most of the city's 130 vendors were white men aged between 20 and 30. Research shows 62 per cent of Big Issue sellers are drug addicts and they are more likely to receive treatment when working as a magazine vendor.
The Big Issue statement said homeless people were more susceptible to becoming the victims of crime and they were five times more likely to be subjected to physical abuse than any other member of the public. Superintendent Cooper added that the police force had a "broad approach" to the problem of drugs and that treatment for all those arrested would be encouraged.
"Our officers will be working alongside the drug-alcohol action team to ensure they receive the required treatment and medical advice," he said.
"Tackling the problem of drugs requires a broad approach. By co-ordinating our efforts, firm enforcement can be balanced with effective education, prevention and treatment programmes."
All legitimate vendors of The Big Issue sign up to a code of conduct and are trained. Begging is banned, as is selling drugs or alcohol, and transgressors can be stopped from selling the magazine. A staff team patrols to ensure vendors abide by the code, and information on anyone caught dealing is passed to the police.
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