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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: November 26, 2008 @ 9:01 pm

    A little help please …

    Deaglán de Bréadún

    Herewith a letter in today’s Irish Times.  It restates the classic liberal position, which I would agree with in principle. But as someone who works in the city centre every day – and has done so since the late 1970s – I have to observe that there is something new taking place on the “begging front”.

     The increase in numbers is quite dramatic – and this after a period of unprecedented prosperity. I don’t think the problem can be left untouched and that we can just go on like before. There needs to be a solution that is “tough on begging, tough on the causes of begging”.

    It’s not enough, as I said in my previous post, to sweep it under the carpet with fines and a tough, legalistic approach. The social factors behind this begging-surge must be dealt with as well. Anyway, read the letter and see what you think (I’m assuming the author is the better half of the former Fine Gael leader and taoiseach John Bruton.) 

     ******

    Madam, – The proposed new law against begging is an attempt to take our humanity away from us. It is providing us with a carte blanche excuse to turn our hearts and our minds away from those most in need – not just of our money but of the human encounter, the smile, the touch, the greeting.

    No amount of rationalisation – updating the law, High Court imperatives, tourism or business – can justify this attempt to suppress and subordinate whatever remnants of compassion have been left on our shores as the tide of wealth ebbs slowly away.

    How do any of us know the circumstances of those begging on our streets? How can we now teach our children to give according to their hearts, unrestricted and unhampered by some set of utilitarian rules or laws? – Yours, etc,

    FINOLA BRUTON,

    Cornelstown,

    Dunboyne,

    Co Meath

    • Dan Sullivan says:

      Much of the recent surge isn’t necessarily coming from local sources and frankly I have much less patience with it.

    • Longman Oz says:

      When I read your colleague’s reporting of this during the week, four things struck me:

      (1) The extremes of the examples given by the Minister, which conveniently left out most people who are forced into begging. How will they be affected?

      (2) His reference to its damage to tourism. What does this mean – the few “hostile” beggars or all of them? I remember outrage here when China was reported for removing beggars from Beijing streets ahead of the Olympic Games …

      (3) Before people react too quickly to that last point, bear in mind that the proposed punishment is the relatively large fine or ONE MONTH IN PRISON. Fornicating or urinating in public gets you a “move along” warning from the guards. But dare be homeless and plead people for money – you risk being banged up for weeks …

      Moreover, the only people with the sort of money to pay a €700 fine are probably the extreme element that the Minister claims to be targeting!

      (4) Where was the mention of “tough on the causes of begging ” in his proposal?

      On the whole, Irish policymakers have consistently displayed a shockingly bad attitude towards the marginalised and politically disenfranchised in this country. As a result, any proposals that adversely affect such people that are put forward by this government should be treated with great suspicion.

      Accordingly, if you do remain a liberal at heart, I think that you move way too quickly to welcome this initiative.

    • Deaglán says:

      Thanks for the comments. I fully concur with the view that the social factors that lead people to the self-abasing practices of begging should be dealt with. I don’t have much confidence – practically none – in our political systemt to do that job. We need someone like the late Noel Browne who is infused with passion and also has access to the resources to get the job done.
      On a slightly-technical point It’s not really the Minister for Justice’s job to deal with the causes of begging, that’s a matter for Social and Family Affairs, Health, et al. I don’t feel good about even giving cautious and qualified support to the Bill but if you worked in the city as I do you would know that something is going on that isn’t quite kosher. There are guys larruping around the town on a Friday night as healthy as buck-cats and not at all poor-looking who are pressing themselves on people for money. There are good pickings in it, obviously. The wretched creatures who are “bona fide” beggars are another story of course. Mabye there should be a licensing system (only half-joking here). The Friday/Saturday night characters are probably just gougers looking for the price of a drink or a supplementary income to buy some “Charlie” (cocaine).

    • Dan Sullivan says:

      Licensing eh? A Patrician for Dublin modelled on Lord Havelock Vetinari is indeed one possible answer.

      Sad fact is that those most in need are also those least able to compete in the more aggressive and demanding begging environments of our modern cities. When it comes to begging this is one occasion where cutting out the middle man and providing aid directly to the person is not a good idea. By all means give the money to Simon, to Threshold, to other organisations that are working with those that need assistance, but giving it straight into the hand is giving it straight into their problems.

    • Eoin says:

      I have only been in the big city for three months so forgive me if this comes across as naive but I think the number of people begging that then go “larruping around the town on a Friday night as healthy as buck-cats” is a relatively small number. That said, I’ve known students on a night out to walk around Eyre Square in Galway asking people for cigarettes until they’ve collected about ten of them and then they’re sorted for the rest of the night. Of course they need to spend their own money on drink…

      Anecdotally, I’ve heard that the numbers begging in the city centre has risen dramatically in just the last three months, as has the numbers of those sleeping rough. Even in principle, I can’t support legislation that would seek to fine or imprison people who genuinely don’t have money. I agree that the political system won’t address the social factors that lead people to beg, but until we find some way of addressing them, we’ll just have to put up with the beggars – bona fide or not.

    • Deaglán says:

      I don’t imagine you are going to see lorryloads of indigents being hauled off to Mountjoy. I would assume that only aggressive persons who engage in serious harassment of the public will be targetted. The Guards have enough to do. You are right Eoin, about the numbers sleeping rough. I see them all the time in the area around Leinster House – a rich irony there I suppose. The bad part is when you think they might actually be dead and you don’t know whether to disturb them or not to see if they are still breathing.

    • Betterworld Now says:

      It seems to me that it all comes down to a question of whether the person begging is a victim or a criminal. Under any human rights based approach that distinction cannot be made by conjecture or prejudice – political ideology is irrelevant, as is misplaced human compassion. Clearly the criminal will seek to disguise him/herself as a victim, so an adjudication of their status is required by a properly qualified and established body.

      Broadly speaking, begging on the streets is evidence of either:

      1) a failure of the Government of Ireland through its various departments or agencies to do its job properly

      or

      2) A criminal act of extortion (sometimes accompanied by menaces)

      When a person is found begging on the streets, a member of the Garda Síochána should establish which of these categories they believe the victim/offender falls into. The member should then have the option of either instigating a prosecution against the Government of Ireland (on behalf of the victim) or against the individual to enable a court to pass judgement on the assessment of the member and apply the appropriate penalty if upheld. No evidence, beyond evidence of arrest and identity would be required from the Gardaí.

      Establishing the identity of the victim/criminal should be a first priority once s/he is arrested, if necessary by fingerprinting and DNA profiling but only in cases where a voluntary disclosure is not made. All arrested street beggars should be routinely photographed before being released on bail pending prosecution/remediation and a database established to record their activities over time.

      As begging can be associated with the most extreme forms of social exclusion – addiction, mental breakdown, homelessness, sexual abuse, destitution, etc, it would make sense for the Government of Ireland to put in place a 24-hour out-reach mediation service which would allow immediate remedial action to be taken by the Irish Government to correct its failure and thereby avoid prosecution.

      A system of penalties should be designed to encourage the elimination of failures to exercise due care in the provision of state support services over time. Those sanctions could include recommendations regarding the disciplining of state employees who had failed to provide the services they are employed to deliver. (I would even consider allowing for a naming-and-shaming of such public employees, whatever their level within the civil service, similar to that used for tax-dodgers, in circumstances of repeated individual failure to perform.)

      Monetary compensation, including exemplary damages, payable to the victim for those failures would ensure that the services the taxpayers are funding would be effectively delivered by the state in future.

      This is a very rough outline of a rights-based approach which others might be able to refine, but it is clear that our current procedures are inadequate, opaque and arbitrary and leave the Garda Síochána in an invidious position. Further measures might also be required to cope with an influx of organised criminal gangs from the corrupt failing states of the EU.

      Abolishing the Anti-Poverty Agency and then imposing a fine on begging reeks of the opposite of a rights-based approach. The Government must be truly worried about what is to come – perhaps they know something about The Great Depression of the 21st Century that they are afraid to reveal to us?

    • Frances says:

      There is no avoiding the increased numbers of beggars on our streets and all the political correctness in the world won’t change the fact that the vast majority are of Eastern Europe extraction. Walking down O’Connell St in Limerick last week I was accosted by 5-6 people obviously of Eastern European extraction, mostly elderly, displaying varying deformities. It reminded me very much of visiting Budapest years ago and remarking on the very surprising numbers of beggars on the streets. I was told at the time the reason was the absence of social welfare in Hungary at the time and that many were war veterans. Undoubtly an organised element has entered the “begging business” here recently particularly targetting the vicinity of Churches and of course the ATM sites.

    • Deaglán says:

      The ones I encounter in Dublin are not of East European extraction except for the occasional Roma. Mostly they are indigenous Irish, some of whom appear to be in a very bad way indeed while others – the more mobile ones – look as if they are chancing their arm quite shamelessly. The idea of naming and shaming officials who fail to meet their obligations in terms of the social services is quite appealing!

    • Betterworld Now says:

      Citizen Focus

      Yeh, if its good enough for the great and the good of Irish society then “name and shame” should be good enough for the servants of the people!

      I agree that it is mostly Irish citizens that are being failed by the state. To address this, I suggest that public servants (up to and including government ministers) who, by act or omission, put holes in the already barely-adequate social safety net should be removed from office. In the present climate they are likely to be rewarded for saving money even at the cost of increasing exclusion and inequality in Irish society. This reverse incentive flaw needs to be addressed by creating a counter-balancing disciplinary offence applicable to all drawing a state salary of “endangering existing social protections”. I can’t imagine any trade union opposing it.

      On the same topic, why not have a hand-picked hit squad of young, committed civil servants who are parachuted into a failing state agency for a period of six months to see if they can turn it around by identify the bureaucratic blockages, the petty corruption, the restrictive practices and the deadwood managers? At the end of the six months ask the clients of the state agency to vote on which team they want to keep. Call the hit squad something like “Citizen Focus”.

    • Deaglán says:

      Sounds like a civil service version of The Apprentice: I like it!


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