HL Deb 07 July 1999 vol 603 cc869-71

Lord Gladwyn asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are taking any action to discourage begging in London.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, the Government recognise that many people feel intimidated by people begging on the streets and in other public places. Begging in a public place and much of the behaviour associated with it are already offences. The Metropolitan Police have a dedicated unit dealing with rough sleepers and begging. Joint operations are also run with London Transport Police, targeting begging on the Underground. The clear message is that if people want to help those in need, they should give to one of the homeless charities, not to individual beggars.

Lord Gladwyn

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I accept fully that the police cannot prevent a certain amount of begging and that their resources are limited. But is he aware that it is the perceived increase in the numbers of babies and children used in begging, as confirmed by the social services departments of several inner London councils, on the streets and on the London Underground system which distresses Londoners most? Last winter, the Home Office stated that such practice would not be tolerated. Since it is obvious that the women holding the babies are highly organised, is there not a case for a more co-ordinated approach to that problem, indeed to begging as a whole, along the lines of the Rough Sleepers Initiative?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, many of the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, are sound. In 1998, almost 1,600 offences of begging were recorded. Last year, the Metropolitan Police recorded only 27 cases of using a child for the purpose of begging—a distinct criminal offence—but recognise that there are likely to be many more. In terms of co-ordination, there has been a well-organised and co-ordinated exercise dealing with beggars with children on the Tube lines between Mile End and Tower Hill. The Metropolitan Police, Bethnal Green division, worked with social services and the NSPCC because all have an extremely relevant interest.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, is the Minister aware that recently in Knightsbridge I was stopped by a young girl who tapped me on the arm and produced a placard saying, "Money for food. I am from Kosovo"? When I arrived here and informed people of the incident, they told me that the Tube was full of such people and they were not from Kosovo. Will the Minister elaborate further on what he has already said?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, anyone who importuned the noble Baroness in Knightsbridge or anywhere else is a better man than I am, Gunga Din! I know of that practice because it happened to me also, but not in Knightsbridge. It seems to me that it is doubly wicked for people to pretend to be from Kosovo and to prey on public sympathy when they are not from there. As I said, it is an offence to have a small child with you for the purposes of begging. Very often, if one offers the price of a sandwich and offers to deliver the sandwich, one is spurned. That is because, I am sorry to say, what is wanted is money, not food. The police are aware of that. Certainly, there is an intensive operation in the Charing Cross area which is starting to work.

Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate

My Lords, many years ago, my training taught me that collecting alms was not begging if a service was provided with it, for example, singing or music. There is a growing tendency, particularly on the Tube, for people to "entertain" the prisoners travelling by that means. Does my noble friend agree with me that the way to proceed against those people might well be under the Trade Descriptions Act, in view of the quality of some of the entertainment?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, my noble friend was wrongly instructed by his superior officer. As is well known, there are offences relating to the pretence of singing, playing, performing or offering anything for sale if that is being done with a child under the age of 16. As the noble Lord will doubtless recall, they arise under Section 4 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933.

Baroness Miller of Hendon

My Lords, will the Minister tell the House what is being done about another nuisance, another kind of begging; namely, the practice commonly called "squeegee" performed by "squeegee merchants"? You have stopped in your car at the lights when somebody suddenly appears, cleans the windscreen when you do not want it cleaned, and then stands beside the vehicle in a somewhat intimidatory fashion and suggests you might like to give them some money? I ask what is being done about that, particularly in view of the fact that the Home Secretary said that when his party came into power that matter would be dealt with as a matter of great urgency.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, it is indeed a matter of great urgency, but it has been overcome in the urgency stakes by reform of this House. What I do with squeegee merchants—and I have the cleanest windscreen in the western world—is just sit there and say, "I haven't got any money".

Lord Allen of Abbeydale

My Lords, not long ago—and not for the first time—I saw a woman with a small child sitting begging at the foot of an escalator on the Underground. On my rather amateur reading of the Children and Young Persons Act, I am in some doubt whether she was committing what is still technically an imprisonable offence under that legislation or whether she was covered solely by railway by-laws. Can the Minister resolve the point? Further, is he in a position to say what policy the transport police follow in dealing with these very difficult cases?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, it is a potential criminal offence, both under the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 and also under the Vagrancy Act 1824. I am happy to reassure your Lordships that the policy of the London Transport Police is to target particular problem areas and to deal with the matter in as sympathetic and firm a way as possible. Some people who are begging are genuinely destitute, but I am afraid that many of them are not.

Lord Janner of Braunstone

My Lords, following the question put by the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, can my noble friend the Minister say whether the Government have considered how many of the beggars, or what percentage of them, really are genuine refugees in real need?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, many of them are not. Indeed, quite a lot of those who pretend to be homeless have settled accommodation and many carry misleading literature, as indicated by the noble Baroness. This is a confidence trick on the public and an offence of dishonesty.

The Earl of Listowel

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the work of the 12 officers of the Homeless Persons' Unit in the Charing Cross area who are widely respected by agencies working with rough sleepers? Is he aware that their remit has now been extended beyond the West End to the whole of Westminster and that it is felt by them, and many others, that they can no longer do their job effectively?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am grateful for that tribute. In fact, the Rough Sleepers' Initiative, which was launched by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, is focusing entirely on this matter with the intention of reducing the numbers of the homeless and those who sleep rough by two-thirds by the year 2001.

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