Thursday, March 15, 2007
As I chow down on my lunchtime smoked salmon bagel, it's probably not immediately apparent how sympathetic I am towards people suffering very deprived circumstances.
But I am. There have been times I've had little or nothing to my name except debt. There have been times between work when I had to get three days of meals out of a couple of quid and some old cans of beans.
There's even been the odd night I've found myself with nowhere to stay, though I've only ever had to crash outdoors once.
So in real ways, I can empathise with the sort of people you see in the centre of pretty much every sizeable Western European town, the bummed-out grubby faces crouched against a wall, clasping a paper cup.
If I don't smell drink, I'll often hand over a bit of change to them, though I'm well aware that it makes more sense and gets more done to give the few quid to the Simon Community instead.
However, just because I understand how close most of us are to being on the streets ourselves (only three paychecks according to one survey) doesn't mean I think it should be legal to beg.
Which, since this morning, it now is in Ireland, thanks to a madcap ruling by Mr Justice Eamon De Valera (undoubtedly a relation of old Bignose).
The 1847 vagrancy act, a Victorian legal relic from the British statute books, had its section relating to jailing beggars struck down after it was challenged by former student Niall Dillon, who presumably had fallen on hard times.
The result is that it is now legal to beg in Ireland.
I am still trying to get my head around the idea that legalising begging is necessary because it being illegal was an infringement of people's right to self-expression. How is begging a form of self-expression? Surely it's harrassing strangers for cash, which is really annoying not to mention intimidating for the alone, elderly, female, or infirm?
So while I'm all for initiatives to eradicate poverty, and remove the desperate deprivation many people find themselves in, giving out carte blanche to all and sundry to come and beg on my doorstep has to be the stupidest move I've ever heard of.
There are great reasons for begging being illegal. If you're skint and can't beg, you try to get off your backside and find paid employment. But if it's free and easy to beg, then why not do that? Beats working for a living, after all.
It's no secret that many of those currently begging in Dublin city centre are organised into gangs and a significant livelihood amounting to thousands of euro a day is being gained by one begging gang of East European extraction alone.
Methods to extract cash from the public include irritating a child so it constantly wails, 'selling' the Big Issue and asking for more than the cover cost, following people along the street with hand outraised, grabbing people as they walk past, and other even more intimidatory and unsavoury practices.
Giving money to a beggar doesn't solve their problems. It merely ensures they'll still be begging tomorrow. The Indian ad campaign against begging pictured above is particularly acute. Basically, begging is not acceptable and we all need to push people out of begging, not out of our way.
And obviously, legalising begging only pushes people into it.
Let's hope that the Government will be as quick to respond to this gap in the law as they were when they accidentally legalised grooming children for sexual abuse earlier this year.