Thursday, 10 June 2010
Dáil Eireann Debate
Deputy Deirdre Clune: During my previous contribution when the debate on the Bill was adjourned some two or three weeks ago I made the point that we cannot discuss the issue of begging and putting in place controls to tackle this problem without mentioning why people find themselves in the position that they have to beg. I acknowledge there can be many cases of organised begging, which is unacceptable. I hope this legalisation will give the gardaí powers to act in those circumstances. The Garda welcome this Bill because up to now there was a vacuum in terms of legislative provision which had made it difficult for them to tackle the problem of organised begging. We cannot ignore the fact that many people who are homeless find that they are forced to beg for many reasons. The obvious comment about such begging is that people are entitled to contributions from the State, be it jobseeker’s allowance, disability benefit or rent allowance, but many people do not have an address whereby they can claim allowances. We are all aware of homeless accommodation units in our constituencies where organisations, in particular, the Simon Community and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, provide valuable support to those who are homeless. They are active in my constituency and they do excellent work in providing emergency shelter to people who find themselves for whatever reason without an address or a roof over their heads.
The Simon Community provides a particular range of services for those who are experiencing drink or drug-related issues. Its administrators recognise that strict criteria cannot be observed at all times. For safety reasons, most hostels do not allow people to access their services if they have been drinking and they are not allowed to bring alcohol onto the premises. The Simon Community, however, goes a step further. The organisation had a long struggle a number of years ago to establish a wet shelter, which males and females can access if they are under the influence of alcohol or drugs. That must be commended in the context of tackling homelessness because some people on the streets cannot access the services they need to support them, particularly if they have health issues. The services provided by the Simon Community and other organisations are invaluable and they must be supported in order that the homeless can access health professionals or have an opportunity to have a shower and tend to other health needs aside from the drink or drug-related issues they may have. These services are important.
A balance needs to be struck and the message must go out, as previous speakers said, that the legislation will not clamp down on begging completely, regardless of the circumstances or the issues affecting those engaged in it. Section 1 recognises that begging is legal if it is not accompanied by aggravating factors and this is an important statement. If a beggar is found guilty of harassment, obstruction or intimidation, he or she can be fined €400 or imprisoned for up to a month.
The Bill also allows the Garda to intervene in the interest of public order and the safety or other people and property and move a beggar on. This is particularly relevant around ATMs or outside the entrance to business premises. The Garda will have powers to move people on if they are within 10 m of an entrance and they will not have to demonstrate harassment or aggravating factors under those circumstances. I was walking along a high street the other day and there was a shop entrance every 10 m. If gardaí become over zealous, they could clear a street completely of beggars but we are not overrun by beggars. It has always been part of our culture, as beggars looked for support and for alms. People give generously and I hope the Garda’s powers in this regard are not used too extensively and the provisions will be implemented in such a way that people can offer a contribution or a service in return for alms. A balance needs to be struck and we should not go over the top.
Tourism and business interests have welcomed the Bill because they are concerned about the intimidation of their customers and the impact begging may have on them where it is a problem. The Dublin tourist authority states tourists are often intimidated by the volume of beggars. I am not aware that there is a huge number of beggars in the greater Dublin area. I have read tourism reports and I have attended many Fáilte Ireland briefings and receptions but I have never heard that begging was an issue and that the number of beggars turns tourists off. Begging and people looking for contributions are part and parcel of city life. This is how society deals with those who are homeless and who are forced to beg. That is how I would judge any society.
Given the current downturn, more people will be forced to beg. I welcome the provision that allows gardaí to deal with organised begging and beggars who harass the public and I hope the Bill will be implemented in a balanced manner in order that busking and other services provided on the street, which are part and parcel of what we are, will not be affected. The legislation has highlighted that some people are forced to beg, as previous speakers said, because of the difficulty they have accessing services and this is positive. I look forward to the Committee and Remaining Stages of the Bill.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate and I congratulate the Minister on the timely introduction of this legislation. Many of us have received representations from constituents who felt intimidated by beggars. The legislation replaces the old regime, which criminalised all forms of begging. I am happy it only seeks to make it unlawful for those who engage in any form of intimidation or harassment because, unfortunately, this happens. A High Court judgment led to the introduction of the Bill after it found section 3 of the Vagrancy (Ireland) Act 1847 to be unconstitutional.
The legislation recognises the current position. Unfortunately, people in our society have to resort to begging. The Minister is trying to ensure begging accompanied by aggression and intimidation will be outlawed. I have met people who have felt intimidated by beggars approaching them as they exit banks or shops or as they use ATMs. Gardaí should have the right to move people on and the legislation will provide that they will have the right to ask anyone begging within 10 m of a business premises or a home to move on and if they do not, they can prosecute them.
People are exploited every day. As drivers pull up at traffic lights, they are approached by people who knock on their windows. Female constituents of mine find that intimidating. I suspect some of those involved are part of an organised begging ring. In my opinion the people doing the collecting are probably not the beneficiaries of any money they might receive and it is going to these begging ring lords.
I drive through Westland Row every day, and every morning, at 7.30 a.m., as I drive by I see a young man in bare feet. I ask myself each time I see him whether he is a victim of one of these begging rings or if he is so unfortunate that he has to resort to that. He is consistently in bare feet, probably underdressed as well in all types of weather. I hate to believe that this poor unfortunate fellow is being forced by some begging ring to be out there in winter, spring or summer, at 7.30 in the morning when I see him.
I certainly believe this Bill will protect those unfortunates who, for one reason or another, seem to have to resort to begging. I was in town doing a radio interview one Saturday morning some weeks ago when I came across a young girl in her late teens. I stopped and talked to her, to inquire what her circumstances were and find out why she saw fit to beg. I offered her breakfast, but she did not want that. She wanted money because she was effectively collecting €40 every day so that she could stay in a guest house, as distinct from the State-sponsored bread and breakfast facilities, because she felt unsafe in them. Once she had achieved her target of €40 she moved on and was quite happy.
That girl is quite articulate and intelligent. She left home because she says her step-father was abusing her. I asked her whether she would not go to the Garda and she said she would not on the basis that her mother loved this man, and she did not want to cause her any trouble.  I do not believe this proposed legislation in any way affects those types of situations and I sincerely hope that it will not. This young girl told me that she had quite a good relationship with the gardaí, who all knew her circumstances and were quite happy to let her stay in position on Molesworth Street.
It is important, too, that charity collectors are allowed to continue with the great work they do. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, in launching the Bill emphasised that all charity collections would continue and noted that they were already covered under the various Charities Acts, such as the one introduced last year. That is very important, because the Irish people have a great record in terms of supporting different charities that organise collections from time to time.
I am happy to support this Bill, which I believe reflects the attitude that people now take to most begging. They are quite happy to support it, but have grave difficulties with organised groups or individuals who resort to intimidatory and often threatening behaviour. I do not believe any citizen going about his or her daily business should have to encounter that, and the Garda should have the powers to ask such people to move on.
In conclusion, I want to pay tribute to all the voluntary groups. When I was talking to that young girl, Mary, in Molesworth Street a couple of weeks ago, she mentioned that quite a number of agencies actually supported her, such as the St. Vincent de Paul Society and the Simon Community. A group from the North actually comes down and is supplying material goods to these unfortunate people. The soup runs at night, too, effectively give great support to the groups.
We all know that the incidence of begging has increased enormously across the country. People say the reason is the downturn in the economy, but it has been evident in this city in both good and bad times. There were as many people begging in the capital and in the towns and villages in the good times, just as they are today, for whatever reasons.
People can be very critical and formerly it was said that it was always the Irish who were begging, homeless and so forth. However, the number of foreign nationals begging on our streets has increased fourfold in recent times. As my colleague talked about a girl he had come across here in Dublin, I recalled doing five or six runs around Merrion Park just before Christmas, in order to lose some weight. I did not succeed too well, but in any event I did my best. I saw four foreign nationals, three of whom had young babies in their arms, and they were begging to buy something for the children for Christmas. As I went around they were still there. When I had completed my rounds of the park I noticed that they were all in a group, having a chat, apparently dividing up the money. To me they were not begging individually. They seemed to be part of an organised group to beg on the streets.
As the Acting Chairman, Deputy Michael Kennedy has said, one would love to buy a person a loaf of bread, breakfast, a carton of milk, bar of chocolate or whatever, but they do not want these. I would be very concerned that they might be begging for drugs, given the problems we have here and in other countries in that regard. That is something I would be very worried about.
As the Acting Chairman and Deputy Clune have so rightly said, there are many organisations doing tremendous work for the homeless, such as St. Vincent de Paul which has a presence in so many parishes around the country. There is also the Simon Community, although this perhaps does not have such a large presence in rural parts. We met a group from the Minister’s area, Dundalk, recently which had some concerns. I know the Simon Community is in Navan, Dundalk and the larger towns, but the St. Vincent de Paul Society is doing tremendous work in the smaller towns and the rural areas for those types of people.
I have had complaints from many elderly people about intimidation. Often they are so keen to help people who are begging, as they emerge from the post office, the credit union or the bank, or are doing their shopping in the supermarket or local shop. On some occasions when an elderly person takes out his or her wallet or purse to give something to a beggar, unfortunately somebody will grab it and run off with all the money. This happens regularly, regardless of whether this is organised. Although it may not be organised by those who are begging, people are watching out for such things and as soon as the elderly person takes out his or her purse, it is pinched and those responsible are gone. This is something about which I am greatly concerned.
While going through the Bill’s provisions, I note that section 3 proposes a new power that would permit a member of the Garda Síochána to direct persons who are begging to desist and move on from some key locations, namely, from any point within 10 m of an ATM or a vending machine, an entrance to a dwelling or an entrance to a business premises that is open for trade or transaction with members of the public when the member of the Garda Síochána has reasonable grounds for believing that due to the person’s behaviour and the number of persons begging at or near those premises, members of the public are being or are likely to be deterred from entering the premises.
I also ask the Minister to consider precluding begging from events such as people attending religious services. This happens every Sunday and not only on Sunday. I often go to a church that is not too far from Leinster House during the day, at which it is possible to light a candle or perhaps attend mass and so forth, and the number of people who are begging outside it is enormous. At some churches, people can be seen begging both outside the gate and at the door. This is highly unfair and I appeal to the Minister to examine this area. I acknowledge that it is a public place within the grounds when people are attending a service. I also appeal to the Minister to consider sporting events such as Gaelic, rugby and soccer matches, as well as concerts. Perhaps on Committee Stage, when amendment are being made, he might include such events. In addition, an enormous amount of begging takes place at train stations and bus stops and it is unfair to those who are waiting at such locations or who are attending their local church for Sunday or daily service or whatever. The Minister should examine this issue.
I again compliment all the voluntary people who do so much work for the vulnerable. There is no need for much of the begging that takes place. The Acting Chairman, Deputy Kennedy, referred to being able to make €40 per day and that is a lot of money on top of one’s social welfare benefits. Many people in receipt of social welfare benefits today do not receive any hard cash into their pockets and I am sure all those involved in the activity under discussion also are in receipt of some form of social welfare. I recently encountered a woman begging just down the street from Leinster House, who told me she was expecting a baby and had no money to visit the doctor. While I am sure that women had a medical card, she still was begging and this certainly is highly unfair.
As for fines, the Bill proposes that where begging is accompanied by threats, intimidation, violence or obstruction, an offence will carry a penalty of one month’s imprisonment or a fine of €400. I am unsure whether it ever would be possible to get €400 from some of those involved, the foreign nationals in particular, even were they brought before a judge. On a few occasions, I have challenged people who were begging as to what they wanted the money for. All they could say in response was that they could not speak English. However, they had enough English to beg. Consequently, it will be very difficult for the Garda Síochána to bring charges against many of those concerned.
However, this Bill certainly constitutes a move in the right direction and I again compliment the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Dermot Ahern, on its introduction. I again appeal to him to consider the inclusion on Committee Stage of those areas I suggested, such as church services, sports events, train stations, bus stops and so on. I include taxi ranks as another area at which begging takes place. I again thank the Minister. I am sure this Bill will be enacted and hope it will improve matters.
Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh: Tááthas orm an deis a bheith agam labhairt ar an Bhille tábhachtach seo. Nílim ag cur ina choinne, ach tá fadhbanna agam maidir leis an treo a ghlacadh go dtí seo. Tá súil agam, má fhaighim an deis freastal ar an gcoiste a bheidh ag déileáil leis, go mbeidh mé in ann roinnt leasuithe a chur a dhéileáilfidh leis na buarthaí atá orm agus ar dhaoine eile maidir leis an méid atá sa Bhille san iomlán.
Tá, dar ndóigh, níos mó daoine ag lorg déirce sa chathair. Glacaim ón méid a bhí le rá ag na Teachtaí a labhair romham go bhfuil seo fíor lasmuigh den chathair seo chomh maith. Tá fáthanna leis sin. Ceann de na fáthanna ná go bhfuilimid ar fad níos boichte ná mar a bhíomar cúpla bliain ó shin. Fiú nuair a bhíomar ag barr ár réime le linn aimsir an Tíogair Cheiltigh, bhí líon mór daoine gafa ag lorg déirce ar na sráideanna toisc go bhfuil ár sochaí míchothrom. Bhí daoine ann le neart sealúchais agus flúirse airgid ach ag an am céanna bhí daoine ar leith gan pingin rua acu agus iad go minic gan dídean. Tharla seo in ainneoin an fhlúirse airgid a bhí sa tír.
Tá fadhb ann maidir leis an reachtaíocht seo a thabhairt isteach ag an am seo, mar go bhfuil i bhfad níos mó daoine thíos de bharr polasaithe an Rialtais le tamall de bhlianta anuas, an dhá bhliain deireanach ach go háirithe. Tá na daoine seo anois ar an ghannchuid agus iad an-bhocht de thoradh na bpolasaithe a ghlacadh le tamall anuas agus de bharr go bhfuil an oiread sin d’airgead an phobail dírithe ar na banic agus NAMA in ionad a bheith dírithe ar dhéileáil le bun fadhbanna ár sochaí nó leis an gceist i dtaobh an fáth go bhfuil na daoine seo bocht sa chéad áit. Feicimid agus feicfimid níos mó daoine bochta ag brath ar déirce de bharr na cinntí atá glactha ag an Rialtas agus de bharr an treo atáá thógaint aige. Is cuma sa tsioc le haon duine atá thíos chomh mór sin an bhfuil sé nó sí ag briseadh an dlí nó nach bhfuil, mar chaithfear maireachtáil. Tá cuid mhaith de na daoine a fheictear ag lorg déirce go mór in ísle brí mar go bhfuil siad ag brath ar an méid a bhfuil mise, aon Teachta nóéinne eile sásta a thabhairt dóibh.
Is fearr liomsa i gcónaí airgead a thabhairt do charthanais seachas é a thabhairt dóibh siúd a bhíonn ag lorg déirce. Ach le tamall de bhlianta anuas, is daoine gairmiúla iad na daoine a bhailíonn airgead do charthanais agus ní théann an t-airgead ar fad chuig an charthanas ach isteach i bpócaí gnónna atá eagraithe chun ach 10% nó 15% den airgead a bhailíonn siad a sheoladh ar aghaidh go dtí an carthanas. Níor díríodh ar an gceist sin sa Bhille seo. The Bill is a missed opportunity. A regulatory impact assessment of the Bill asserts that it is “the only practicable solution to address the levels of anti-social begging activity”. In reality, it is not a solution at all. The Bill addresses one part of the problem but it does not address a single one of the many complex causes which give rise to begging.
My party’s assessment is shared by many in the human rights, homelessness and poverty sector. The Human Rights Commission held that the legislation will not provide “an effective or humane response to begging and will not be effective in addressing the root causes of begging”. The children’s charity Barnardos argued that “the legislation alone will not address the problem of begging which stems from the societal failure to care and protect vulnerable people including children”. Focus Ireland, which works with the homeless, acknowledges the Bill does not re-criminalise begging per se but rather focuses on “aggressive begging”. That reflects arguments made by many others in the sector who deal with those who end up in poverty, begging or are totally dependent on the State for care. Similar arguments have been made by those who work with those who end up in prison, some of whom started off begging in the first place. Focus Ireland also concluded that the Bill will not make any real difference or do any real good. It is a poor message for any government to send out that it will provide for the imprisonment of those involved in begging while on the other hand it will not prosecute those who have screwed the nation of billions.
The Bill provides for imprisonment of up to one month on summary conviction for the relevant offences. Of all the potential responses available, the Government — surprise, surprise — chose to opt for prison. Prison is the most expensive and least cost-effective response available. The Government’s regulatory impact assessment asserted that “the implementation of the legislative proposals is expected to give rise to only minimal, if any, additional costs”. However, it was also admitted in the assessment that the cost could rise to €1.5 million annually. The average number of convictions in the past for begging amounted to 170 or 180 per annum. The average cost to the public purse of a one month prison stay is more than €8,000. On the basis of past average begging conviction rates, that approach will cost the taxpayer €1.4 million annually.
An important question when considering legislation that could result in imprisonment is whether the money could and should be better spent. I believe it could be better spent. If we are genuinely committed to tackling begging, there are many better avenues through which this money could be spent. The excellent Leanbh service is one such example. Leanbh was established by the ISPCC in 1997 to address child begging in Dublin. It offers an around the clock service to children, young people and parents who are begging or at risk of begging. The ISPCC, like many other charities which provide vital services, has been hit by a fall in donations in the context of the recession. In 2008, total State funding for the ISPCC amounted to €675,000. That puts into context the money that could be required for the Prison Service following the enactment of the Bill.
I encourage the Minister to discuss the Bill with the Minister for Finance and in the context of the imprisonment option to seek funding to assist the Leanbh service to expand to ensure an alternative option is available to imprisonment. One could ask what sort of signal the Bill sends to all those who are down on their luck at the moment. Once again, the Government is all about the big stick. It is more interested in passing the legislation than sorting out the economic crisis which has led to many people ending up on the street. The Government is forcing people into a situation where some will consider begging as the only option.
Dole payments have been cut to unemployed young people, some of whom have large debts, including mortgages. The sum of €100 a week will not go very far, which will force people to consider other options. It is not as if they have the option of finding a job, as no jobs are available for the 500,000 people who are unemployed, especially those who are young and have limited literacy and no skills. I urge the Minister to talk to the Minister for Social Protection to reconsider the ill-advised cut to the dole payments of young people under 22 years of age. Many graduates who qualified in the past month are facing the dole although, when they started their courses of choice, jobs were available for engineers, electricians, teachers and many other professions but those jobs have now dried up. Those graduates are languishing at home or considering the bád bán, the emigration boat. Government policy is forcing people into a situation where they are living in poverty.
Another area over which the Government has a degree of control is the habitual residency condition. Destitution gives rise to begging and through its application of the habitual residency condition the Government has chosen to make people destitute. An increasing number of constituents, including returned Irish citizens, have come to me detailing desperate scenarios of poverty and of being forced to sleep on floors in friends’ houses or on the street. All of them had applied for one form or another of social protection but were refused on the basis that they did not qualify under the habitual residency condition which is a requirement for even the most basic emergency welfare payments. This condition, which in practice requires the applicant to be habitually resident in the State for two years in order to be eligible for State support, is making Irish citizens and others who are in this country destitute.
The condition is being used in a blanket manner to exclude many from welfare support. I have brought a number of cases to the attention of the Minister with little success to date. I regret that the Minister has not been able to consider the cases personally and has used the cover of industrial action to avoid giving a reply. By way of parliamentary question, I have asked the Minister to make changes to the habitual residency requirement because it is acting as a barrier for many returned Irish citizens to access the protections they need. To justify the refusal, the Minister for Social Protection stated he is satisfied Irish nationals returning to live in Ireland on a permanent basis should experience no difficulty in demonstrating that they satisfy the requirements of the habitual residency condition.
The Minister is totally out of touch. We might give him some leeway as he is new to the job but the same attitude was demonstrated by the previous Minister and the officials making the determination. There is no reason welfare should be refused to a constituent of mine on the grounds that he does not satisfy the habitual residency requirement because he was born and lived in Derry. That Irishman has not left the island of Ireland for any length of time, yet he is deemed not to be habitually resident and is, therefore, denied social protection. If it were not for the generosity of friends, he would be forced to beg. Unless the condition is examined, a person such as him will end up on the street in the near future.
Another case I am dealing with concerns a woman who is seriously at risk of becoming destitute. She was refused the jobseeker’s allowance on the basis that she has not been habitually resident here. She fled England because her 16-year-old son was raped at knife-point. She cut all ties with England and is an Irish citizen born in Ireland. Her only connection with her former home in England is her father. All her other nearest relatives live in Ireland. The family is experiencing severe trauma, trying to set up home once again in Ireland, yet the lady was refused the allowance.
Under the legislation, when determining whether an applicant satisfies the habitual residency requirement social welfare officers are supposed to consider all of the circumstances of each case, including five considerations in particular. These are the length and continuity of residence in the State or in any other particular country; the length and purpose of any absence from the State; the nature and pattern of the person’s employment; the person’s main centre of interest; and the future intentions of the person concerned as they appear from all the circumstances. There is either a blanket ban on accepting applicants who meet the habitual residency requirement or the officials are not doing their work in the cases I have highlighted.
I presume many other Deputies have encountered similar cases of people who have been refused some type of social protection, be it because of the habitual residency condition or some other condition. I am concerned the affected people will end up begging on the street and will consequently be threatened by this legislation if the Ministers do not take into account all the reasons people end up begging or destitute in the first instance.
There is concern over organised begging by organised gangs, the parents in which drop off their children in the streets to beg. They should be prosecuted under child abuse legislation or organised crime legislation. The offence should also be prosecutable under truancy laws and addressing it should involve the welfare services. We know that the welfare services in the HSE cannot cope even with part of their workload. It is State failures in this area that have resulted in organised begging on the streets. The problem needs to be addressed but not in the sledge-hammer fashion that this legislation envisages.
It is a pity we have not addressed harassment by companies collecting for charities. Even under this legislation, they will probably still harass us as we walk up and down the street. I refer to organised, big business whereby the companies concerned give a proportion of the money obtained on the streets to a charity. I praise any charity that has volunteers and supporters out trying to obtain money. The form of collection to which I refer is not charity but business and we should put to an end the accosting, sometimes in a harassing fashion, of people who are walking up and down the street.
Other Deputies mentioned the illogical aspect of this Bill, namely, that its intention is to fine people who are begging despite the fact that if one is begging, one does not have the money to pay fines. I guarantee that 90% of people on the streets begging cannot afford any fine, let alone a fine of €400. I ask the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to re-examine the legislation. There is a loophole because there is no definition of goods and services. It means that anybody with any wit at all will be able to offer in exchange for a charitable donation a piece of paper or an old biro, for example. This is a way around the Bill and it will make it illogical and unworkable.
I am concerned that the Bill does not address begging on the streets in the way it should. The way of doing so is by investing in social protection, literacy and education and by not cutting community services and other services delivering for those who end up destitute. The services should be enhanced in an era during which there will be an increasingly greater call thereon. I urge the Minister to find in the big pot from which he seems to be paying billions to the banks a small portion to be distributed to charitable services, which are addressing and destitution in our city.
Deputy Ó Snodaigh is accusing us of not prosecuting wealthy people and refers to a big stick in respect of this Bill. I can safely say he does not believe what he is saying because he knows right well that the Government does not prosecute. It initiates legislation in this House, which then passes it. It has initiated legislation not just in this area but also in the area of white collar crime, etc. It is up to the State agencies, the Garda and the Director of Corporate Enforcement to prosecute under the legislation for which they are responsible. If we pass this Bill, it will not be the Government that will be prosecuting anyone but the Garda. The Deputy should not try to suggest otherwise.
Comments made by Deputies on this Bill have been measured in the sense that, while the Government is amenable to making amendments thereto, it must obviously do so in the context of the parameters laid down under the Dillon case. As I stated previously, there are some who feel this legislation is not going far enough. Equally, there are those who feel it is going too far and that we should not be legislating in this area at all.
Deputy Clune referred to the fact that some of the tourism bodies have not raised this issue with her. When I was in Paris on St. Patrick’s Day duty, I was lobbied at a function promoting Ireland as a tourism destination by some Irish organisations that were plying for business on the basis that this legislation was not going far enough. We must strike a balance and I believe we have done so.
Deputy Ó Snodaigh suggested there are ways around this legislation, such as providing something as a quid pro quo for the money received. Equally, there is ample opportunity for people to beg and stay within the law because we made it clear that, under the Dillon judgment, we cannot ban begging entirely. Under the judgment we cannot ban begging entirely and under the freedom of expression provision in the Constitution, we must allow that people are entitled to beg, provided they do it within the law and in a reasonable way.
There are others who feel that no one should be entitled to beg and that there is no need for anyone to beg because we have excellent State services and supports and NGO supports. It is, however, a social reality and we must deal with it legislatively and in terms of assistance. I acknowledge the contributions made by voluntary organisations, many of which are supported by public funding in the work they do, to provide assistance to those who feel the need to beg. Equally, I have a duty as Minister to discharge my responsibility to preserve public order. That is what this Bill is termed, it is specific public order legislation to deal with a public order problem, namely, aggressive begging.
Some Deputies asked about public places. The definition of a public place is contained in the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994. A public place includes a highway and any outdoor area where there is access and that is used for public recreational purposes. Deputy Johnny Brady asked about begging around a church. In the 1994 Act there is a reference to a public place including any cemetery or churchyard. It also includes any train, vessel or vehicle where the carriage of persons is for reward and any premises or other place where the general public has a right to go to or would go there for a payment. That would include concerts and places where people congregate, such as football matches. If there is any further scope when we go into the detail of the Bill on Committee Stage, I will agree to some amendments if we can tailor them.
A number of Deputies raised the issue of begging interfering with normal social and commercial activity. The Department has received a considerable number of representations from groups including IBEC, the Business Association of Ireland, the Cork Business Association, the Irish Tourist Industry Confederation and the Dublin City Centre Business Association on the need for this legislation. We have also received correspondence from Oireachtas Members exhorting us to deal with this problem and, equally, have received representations from members of the public. I was at a football match recently where a man asked me to deal with the situation in Dundalk, where there was a suggestion that a non-national was begging to such an extent that €2,000 a week was mentioned. That is ultimately an issue for the Garda but it shows the public is exercised by this.
Deputy Rabbitte asked about the additional statistics on begging. Recorded incidents in 2003 numbered 961, in 2004 there were 575, in 2005 there were 891, in 2006 there were 605, in 2007 there were 461, in 2008 there were 30 and since then virtually none. That is a result of the Dillon decision, which meant the Garda no longer proceeded on the basis of the Vagrancy Act.
I was asked about the use of children to beg by Deputy Joe Carey. Section 247 of the Children Act 2001 is not concerned with children begging but with those who procure and control children for the purpose of begging. The numbers show a similar pattern in the opposite direction of the recorded begging incidence. In 2003 there were six such incidents, in 2004 there were four, in 2005 there were two, in 2006 there was one and then in 2007 there were 75 and in 2008 there were 124. This section was used more often than before because of the Dillon judgment.
Deputy Rabbitte mentioned that the penalty under section 247 was low compared to the levels proposed in this Bill. The maximum fine for a first offence is €250, with a fine of €500 for subsequent offences in this Bill. The fines under the other Act will be upgraded by the Fines Act under the indexation provisions. There would not, there, be much difference ultimately.
The involvement of foreign nationals was raised and there is concern in this regard. My wife and I recently witnessed a situation in Dundalk that brought to mind the purpose of this legislation. A non-national lady was begging, not in an aggressive way but it could have turned aggressive quickly because of the nature of the conversation with the people she was begging from. The people involved were quite upset afterwards. If this legislation is passed, it would be difficult to ground a prosecution because it could not be said the lady, and I witnessed this, was being aggressive but it could have turned aggressive and could have been very nasty within seconds. Perhaps on Committee Stage we could look at this again within the parameters of the Dillon judgment.
Deputy Rabbitte asked about the Human Rights Commission and we were pleased to be able to accommodate a number of points it made, some of which I mentioned in my speech. He also referred to the submission from Barnardo’s, which echoed the statement from the Human Rights Commission and which we took on board. It stated that begging in itself should not be criminalised but the Bill recognises that begging cannot be banned because of the court decision.
Deputy Joe Carey asked about the report of the Law Reform Commission on vagrancy. In the Dillon case, the High Court referred favourably to that report and many of the proposals referred to have been enacted in subsequent legislation: the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994, the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997 and the Criminal Justice (Theft and Fraud Offences) Act 2001.
While people make the political point that we should not be addressing this Bill, that we should look after “bigger” criminals, I do not accept that we are not passing the required legislation to allow the State authorities to prosecute those people. We have made it clear that if other legislation is required in that area, the Government is more than amenable to bringing such legislation forward. The fact we are dealing with one area does not mean to say we completely ignore other areas. It is safe to say that given so many people have spoken in the House about begging on Second Stage, and that so many Members have raised these issues with me, it was right to introduce this Bill. I look forward to the more forensic examination of these issues as the Bill passes through Committee Stage and Report Stage in this House.
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