Ahern to introduce €700 fine, jail term for begging

 

New laws are to be introduced to clamp down on begging, with offenders facing a maximum fine of €700 or a month in jail.

Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern said today the Government had approved the proposal, which would result in the first reform in begging laws since the Famine.

"There are various reasons why the law on begging needs to be reformed, not least the fact that some vulnerable members of the public are often fearful when approached on the street by individuals begging,” he said in a statement.

Mr Ahern said intimidation and threats of violence were sometimes used by such people and that “women and the elderly are often fearful for their own personal safety”.

“In addition, it is very distressing to witness young children effectively forced on to the streets to beg by sinister adults.”

The Minister said business and tourist interests were also damaged by begging on the streets of cities and towns. “The current law does not provide An Garda Síochána with the powers to effectively police this problem.”

Mr Ahern said the reform follows a High Court judgment that the current law is unconstitutional.

“In the case Niall Dillon-v-the DPP the High Court found that section 3 of the Vagrancy (Ireland) Act 1847 was too vague and was incompatible with the Constitution’s provisions on freedom of expression and freedom to communicate.”

“However, the Court stated clearly that there was nothing in its decision that would prevent the Oireachtas from enacting new laws to control begging.”

Mr Ahern said he was satisfied the new legislation would address the constitutional concerns identified by the High Court.

Under the new public order offence, begging will be an offence where it is accompanied by “unacceptable behaviours such as harassment, obstruction or intimidation”.

Gardaí will be empowered to direct persons who are begging to desist. A failure to comply may result in an arrest and charge. On conviction, an offender could face a maximum penalty of €700 fine or a one month prison term.

The Minister said the law will recognise that circumstances can arise where “asking for help is not to be regarded as begging”.

“An example would be a young person not having money to pay a bus fare late at night.”

He said most people would accept that it would be wrong to criminalise a person who asks for assistance in instances such as that, provided there is no harassment or intimidation involved.

“I know that aggressive begging is an issue that gives rise to a lot of difficulty for traders and local communities. I am satisfied we are dealing with it in an effective manner. The existing law is completely out of date.”

The Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which runs the Leanbh service protecting children who beg on streets, said child protection controls must be enshrined in the proposals.

“Children who beg or their parents or guardians must not be criminalised under the new legislation,” said Leanbh manager Adriana Fechete. "Child protection must remain the main consideration above all else.”

The Bill will be published in the coming months and the Department has published a general scheme of the proposals on its website.

Additional reporting: PA