Homelessness

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Begging Bill in the Seanad

The Criminal justice (public order) Bill, 2010, passed the Seanad (Seanad Eireann, Debates, 26th January 2011, 363-373), being guided through by the Minister for Justice & Law Reform, Brendan Smith.  The Bill was given support by Eugene Regan (FG, agricultural) who explained that begging was born out of extensive homelessness and poverty and could not be outlawed per se, but there must be an appropriate response to aggravating and offending acts.  Lisa McDonald (FF, Taoiseach nominee) described the Bill as dealing with begging in a compassionate way.  She commended the Simon Communities, the Combat Poverty Agency and Merchants Quay for taking people off the streets and away from begging.  Sometimes, begging was organized by people who were not necessarily homeless and she had spoken to people who were afraid to go into cities at night because of begging.  People should not be intimidated by begging at ATMs, parking and vending machines.  Shopkeepers and people with businesses had problems trying to keep their premises and shops welcome and open.  It was terrible to see children begging, but it was beyond contempt if parents tried to organize their children to beg.   The issue of homelessness and housing belonged to a different minister and department and it was essential to join the dots between the departments.

Similarly, Feargal Quinn (independent, National University) described the legislation as balanced.  He compared Ireland to India, where he had brought small denomination notes to give to beggars and once he did that, they were not threatening, but the behaviour of some beggars here had become a cause for concern and Ireland did not have that tradition.  For the Labour party, Ivana Bacik (Lab, Dublin University) said her party would not oppose the Bill and welcomed some parts of it, but argued against the penalty of one month’s imprisonment for being unable to pay the fine for begging.  Community service was more appropriate.

Responding to the debate, the minister, Brendan Smith, spoke of the importance of taking a fair and reasonable response.  There should not be a moderate response to organized begging which exploited weaker people such as children, for this was a form of organized crime.  Both the Fines Act, 2010 and the Criminal justice (community service) (amendment) Bill encouraged alternatives to prison for those unable to pay fines.  He told the senate that the government had responded to particular concerns of Barnardos by reducing the level of fines and dropping the concept of persistent begging.  The Irish Human Rights Commission had also been consulted and made similar recommendations.