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The new law on begging

The Dail debated a new law on begging, the Criminal justice (public order) Bill, 2010 (Dail Eireann, Debates, 25th May 2010, 57-70; 26th May, 404-8, 430 – 461)). Joe Carey (FG, Clare) referred to the numbers of people homeless in the country. Furthermore, in his constituency office, he had noticed an increase in the numbers of people asking for help with social welfare payments, in many cases because the department was using the habitual residence clause to delay payments. ‘The emergency budgets administered by community welfare officers are stretched and people are just not getting their entitlements’, he said. This was happening more and more each week and the bureaucratic nature of our systems, along with retrenchment of our social services, would contribute to begging in the future. Poverty issues like this had come to the surface now that we were two years into the recession. The effects of long-term unemployment, the relentless nature of personal debt and the breakdown of relationships would manifest themselves on the streets in the years to come. Begging was inextricably linked to poverty, homelessness and proper access to social services. The government must continue to address the reasons why people begged. Those that were the most vulnerable were the first to suffer from cutbacks. We should be spending more time dealing with these root causes, rather than criminalizing people who begged because they had fallen on hard times.
Pat Rabbitte (Lab, Dublin SW) said that he was uneasy about the Bill. At a time of a banking crisis, we were preoccupied with putting beggars into prison and he did not get much comfort from the fact that the Bill’s purpose was to replace the Vagrancy Act, 1847. Then, beggars who had been forced onto the streets because of famine conditions could be incarcerated for a month. The mindset had not changed much since then, because the penalty for a beggar failing to discharge a fine was still a month in prison. How realistic was it to ask people who were down on their luck, like the homeless, drug abusers or those ejected from their home to pay fines of €200 to €400 in the knowledge that if they were unable to do so, they would go to Mountjoy? He accepted that the minister did not intend imprisonment to be the normal consequence, but the issue was not the minister’s good intentions but how the court would consider it. He asked the minister about the comment of Barnardos, which is that the law applied to people of all ages, including a child. Legislation alone would not address the problem of begging which stemmed from the societal failure to care for and protect vulnerable people including children. Begging children were very vulnerable to exploitation and abuse: the lack of a 24hr nationwide social work service and the closure of residential centres placed them in further danger. He also drew attention to the observation paper of the Irish Human Rights Commission which noted that begging was frequently a direct result of homelessness and recommended a defense of reasonable excuse.
Brendan Kenneally (FF, Waterford) spoke of how there had been a proliferation of children begging – but the ISPCC had asked people not to give money to them. The children were being exploited and vanloads distributed by adults to various parts of the city. People listened to the ISPCC and generally one did not see children begging any more. Many of those begging now were foreigners, from countries where there was a tradition of begging. We need to stamp it out as much as we can, he said. The more money we contributed, the more people would come to Ireland. He was not being uncharitable, but we were seen as a soft touch. There was no need to beg in this country, because we had a very good welfare state here. People down on their luck could fall back on their jobseeker’s allowance or social welfare payment or might be entitled to a medical card or local authority housing. People who begged on the streets did not have a real need to do so, because we looked after people well in this country. Some genuine people might be involved because they were not aware of their entitlements.
For John Perry (FG, Sligo – North Leitrim), there was evidence that not all begging was related to real need. For some it might be a lifestyle choice, while for others it supplemented state benefits and supports. There were some examples of professional beggars and there was a clear danger that this was associated with some social or ethnic groups, leading to damage to the sense of community in the country. One notable charity that helped people was the Society of St Vincent de Paul, which helped fill the gaps in income of many families in need in a dignified, compassionate and discreet way. Cyprian Brady (FF, Dublin central) said he had observed some very aggressive begging and the nature of begging had changed. He remembered the time when Traveller children had sat on O’Connell bridge begging in the middle of winter, but that was dealt with sensitively and effectively. This Bill would deal with begging adequately and fairly – it was not making begging illegal but was giving the gardai powers to deal with situations of intimidation and aggression. Most such cases were not reported to the Garda. People might have an element of sypmathy for the person begging or the intimidation or assault might prevent them from reporting. In his experience, under-reporting was significant. Genuine beggars should be spoken to, helped and encouraged to give it up. Begging was bad for a person’s morale and their general health. Beggars who threaten should be stamped out.
Thomas Byrne (FF, Meath E) referred to the observation papers of the Irish Human Rights Commission and Barnardos. They had concerns, but they were marginal: given that the poor were always with us, a social response was demanded from the state, which should cover the basic requirements of people. We must regulate begging, yet at the same time consider the reasons why people went out to beg. For some it was a profession, for children it was because they were forced to, but for many the cause was poverty, which was addressed by the national anti-poverty strategy. Charlie O’Connor (FF, Dublin SW) spoke of how he had been born in Dublin’s inner city and remembered as a small child seeing children who had no choice but to beg. Their need was far more genuine that some of the people he saw on the streets today. But one should be careful: he spoke of how a visiting Conservative MP visiting Dublin recently had told him that he had been approached by 12 people begging and was not convinced that they were not genuine. Darragh O’Brien (FF, Dublin N) added that we should not forget the genuine people who had, through not fault of their own, fallen on hard times.
Pat Breen (FG, Clare) quoted the words of Sr Stanislaus Kennedy who questioned how we had managed to build 250,000 homes during the boom years, but still failed to provide enough for those who needed them. He cited the Barnardos position which claimed that legislation alone would not address begging, which came from societal failure to care for and protect vulnerable people including children. It was a sad reflection on society to see children forced to beg, accompanied by their mothers. He wondered how effective the fines of the Bill would be. The fine in the Bill was €300 or a month is jail, but he did not know how someone who was begging for lack of money would find €300. The cost of keeping someone in jail was high and it was important that the government deal with the root cause of begging, namely poverty, which might prevent much of what was happening.
Michael D Higgins (Lab, Galway) challenged the notion that we had a wonderful country for social services. There was no 24hr nationwide service for children. There were two residential centres for children aged 12 to 16, but the Health Service Executive had announced a funding freeze for services dealing with homelessness in July 2008. He pointed to the deconstruction of language in the Bill which was that if one was begging and homeless and no services were available , one should remember to be polite. The important thing was not to upset anyone. There was an assumption that begging was a blot on the landscape and got in the way of tourism, but one should really identify the source of the problem and address it and one did not need to send people to jail. He described beggars as an easy target for a cheap piece of populism. Ireland had the biggest waiting list of helicopters, we had more Mercedes per head than Germany, the highest number of golf courses in the world and we were terribly worried about people begging on the streets. He hoped sanity would break out later. Ulick Burke (FG, Galway E) asked would it not be totally against human rights if the guards were to bring in a child into a garda station [for begging]? It was unthinkable that such an event should happen in Ireland in 2010.
Finally Seymour Crawford (FG, Cavan Monaghan) found it difficult to understand why so many people were lying in doorways, begging and unable to look after themselves. Having had ten to fifteen years of reasonable wealth, it was unacceptable that such a situation persisted. There was no point in simply arresting beggars and throwing them in jail. We must find out why they were there and what was causing them to beg and if their difficulties came from alcohol or drugs, it was in our interest to ensure that facilities were there to deal with these problems. Begging would not go away because of the Bill and had been there since the start of the world.