Criminal Justice (Public Order) Bill 2010

May 26th, 2010 - Pat Breen

Dail Eireann – 26th May 2010

Deputy Pat Breen: I begin by joining Deputy O’Connor in expressing my sadness on the sudden death of Senator Phelan. For several years now he and I have stayed in the same hotel in Dublin and I found him a very decent, honourable and hard-working Senator. I offer my sympathies to his family. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.
I take this opportunity, as we are dealing with a criminal justice Bill, to congratulate the Garda Commissioner, his team of detectives and the relevant members of the force, together with their counterparts in Spain and the United Kingdom, on their excellent work on Operation Shovel. I hope it will help alleviate the hardship caused by the menace of drugs affecting this country.
I welcome an opportunity to speak in the debate on the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Bill 2010. The name of the Bill would suggest we are debating a different issue but it is an important Bill in that it creates a new public order offence of begging when it takes place in a particularly sensitive location or is accompanied by intimidating or offensive behaviour. As other speakers have said, the Bill seeks to address the position which arose following the 2007 High Court judgment in Dylan v. the DPP which found that the law on begging as it stood was unconstitutional.
The object of the Bill is to crack down on begging gangs and associated anti-social behaviour. Previous speakers mentioned professional begging and people who need to beg, and it is important that we distinguish between both. There has been a broad welcome for the legislation from the retail community, newsagents, the Garda Síochána in particular, shopkeepers, business people and, more important, tourism interests. Tourist numbers have fallen dramatically but many of us who have travelled to foreign countries have been plagued by people begging on the streets which is off-putting, offensive and intimidating. It would make one decide not to return to particular countries.
I am aware the Dublin Chamber of Commerce and the various other tourism groups throughout the country are very concerned about the high number of incidents of begging, particularly in the capital city but also in urban areas, which puts people off and is a real problem.
Persistent begging is a major cause of concern. People do not mind the genuine cases, as other speakers have said, but the problem arises when people going about their daily business are constantly harassed. This legislation is designed to deal with that problem.
We have all heard stories and have seen examples of people who were intimidated by people begging. I was talking to a man in Limerick during the week, a Clare man, who needed to get money from an ATM. It was 8 o’clock at night. Three times during the process of making the transaction a beggar came up behind him and started tapping him looking for money. He was fearful that he might be attacked or that the beggar may have had accomplices and he left without finishing the transaction. He was frightened.
I am aware of another case where a young woman in a similar situation got so frightened that she left the money, which was about €100, in the machine. It had not come out of the ATM and she left it behind it because she was so fearful of the situation.
I have heard of other cases of people going into funeral homes being pestered by beggars on a number of occasions. People can be very upset by those type of incidents. They must be stamped out because there are many people caught in the poverty trap who have no alternative but to look for help on the streets. That is a sad reflection on society.
Penalties are imposed for this offence. Section 3 of the Bill provides for a member of the Garda Síochána to direct persons who are begging to desist and move on from the certain locations, the obvious one being 10 m from an ATM or vending machine but also 10 m from the entrance to a dwelling or a business premises that is open for trade or transaction with members of the public or if the Garda Síochána have reasonable grounds for believing that due to the person’s behaviour and the number of persons begging at or near those premises, a member of the public is likely to be deterred from entering this premises. That is important and it is the reason many of the business groups have welcomed this legislation.
We have all noticed the increase in the number of people begging on our streets since the recession. In particular we see people begging in and around churches and cathedrals. It is a common place for people to beg and can be intimidating, particularly for elderly people who go to the church to pray but find these people are around the church looking for money and harassing people. It is important we have legislation in place to stop that type of activity.
It is unfortunate that a consequence of the downturn in the economy is that more people find themselves with nowhere to go other than to try to survive on the streets. Every night when I walk back to my hotel I notice people sleeping on the streets and people begging for money. Those are genuine people and it is a sad reflection on society that despite the number of houses we built during the Celtic tiger years, many people found it difficult to get on the property ladder. The waiting list for social housing has doubled and to compound the problem many people have lost their jobs and find it impossible to pay their mortgages. For many people the sad reality is that they are losing their homes. At any one time approximately 5,000 people are homeless in this country and there are almost 100,000 people on local authority social housing waiting lists, with 93,000 households in receipt of rent supplements.
In my own constituency of County Clare there are 2,464 families and individuals on the social housing list. It is a pity the Government does not show the necessary commitment to deal with poverty in this country. That is important. My colleague, Deputy Flanagan, outlined that in his contribution when he said that we cannot deal with the problem of vagrancy through the criminal justice system alone because begging is inextricably linked to poverty, homelessness and access to social services. He further stated that the Government needs to address the reasons we have a begging issue. That is an important statement and this problem is something all of us in this House should be addressing.
The words of the founder of Focus Ireland, Sr. Stanislaus Kennedy, reflect the position very well. She stated: “How can it be that Ireland managed to build in the region of 250,000 homes that were not needed during the boom years, yet we have still failed to provide enough homes for those who need them most?”
In general terms, and other speakers referred to this, Irish people are very disposed towards contributing to charity organisations. A recent survey compiled by the Irish Charity Engagement Monitor shows that three out of every four people in this country donate to charity but levels are falling because of the recession. For example, the number of Irish people donating to charity fell by 75% in November 2009 compared to 83% in March 2008. Of course, charities are very dependent on on-street cash fundraising and it is important that they can continue to raise funds in this manner without any disruption.
The Irish Human Rights Commission expects that the number of people who are forced onto the streets with no alternative but to beg is likely to increase over the next number of years because of the economic situation. The commission is very critical of the fact that this legislation will not be effective in addressing the root cause of this problem. The need to tackle poverty in this country is something about which many have spoken in this House.
That is also supported by Barnardos. It claims that this legislation alone will not address the problem of begging, which stems from the societal failure to care for and protect vulnerable people, including children. We all will be aware that children are often used by beggars on the streets. It is a sad reflection on society, considering what has been happening over the past number of days, to see our children forced onto the streets to beg, accompanied by their mothers.
Approximately 400 children have gone missing in this country from the care of the HSE. Yesterday, we heard from the Minister of State with responsibility for children and youth affairs, who was frustrated at the failure of the HSE to confirm the number of children who died in its care over the past decade. The official figure is 23 but, unfortunately, this figure could be much higher. We must wait and see when we get the exact figure at the end of June.
Many children have gone missing and nobody has an idea where they are. This country has an appalling record of taking care of children under its care. Many of these children end up on our streets and they have no choice but to go out to beg to survive. Barnardos also points out that the imprisonment powers under this Bill will disproportionately impact on very vulnerable groups, particularly children.
The international experience shows that when similar legislation was introduced in the UK, for example, to deal with aggressive begging, and when it became a recordable or summary offence, areas in Nottingham and Birmingham credited the sanctions with a drop in the number of such incidents. However, some academics strongly opposed the measures taken by the Labour Government. In Australia, for example, begging in many areas is completely banned and in the State of Victoria the question of aggravated begging does not apply as people who beg at all face a 12 month prison sentence.
In this country, between 2003 and 2007, some 793 adults prosecuted for begging were convicted and the average number of convictions during this period was 176. Based on these figures, it is estimated that the average cost of keeping a prisoner in custody was approximately €91,700 in 2006 and €97,700 in 2007. Taking 176 as the average number of convictions per year and the 2007 figure in terms of the cost of imprisonment, and given that the courts would hand down the maximum custodial sentence of one month’s imprisonment in each case, it would cost approximately €1,432,816. That is a great deal of money, which would go a long way in helping those entrapped in real poverty.
As I stated earlier, there is a broad welcome among the business groups and tourism interests for this legislation and I very much support the need to stamp out aggressive begging, particularly of tourists. It is something that would turn one off, as is evident from our own experience of visiting other countries. I am concerned that there is no real commitment to deal with the underlying problem of poverty which is driving ever more people on to our streets for help.
The famous Indian politician, Mahatma Gandi, stated: “Poverty is the worst form of violence.” There is a great deal in those words. There is a growing culture in this country of violence which has child poverty at its roots. In 2007, a UNICEF report highlighted a study that showed Ireland is one of three countries where child poverty is still at 15%. Children who grow up in poverty are much more vulnerable and the Government needs to show the same urgency in dealing with poverty as it shows in dealing with the beggars on our streets.
I wonder how effective the fines imposed in the Bill will be. The financial penalties proposed originally in the heads of the Bill have been reduced by more than half in the Bill itself. Originally, the fine was €700 and it has now been reduced to €300 or one month in jail. I do not know how somebody who is begging will find €300 when he or she does not have the money and, as I stated previously, the cost of keeping somebody like that in jail is high, even for a period of one month. That is why it is extremely important that the Government deals with the root cause of begging, namely poverty, which might prevent much of what is happening on our streets.
Some of my colleagues raised a number of issues on the area of obstruction on the streets and the fact that it carries a penalty of one month’s imprisonment or a fine of €400. A matter that needs to be looked at is how one defines obstruction, threats and intimidation.
Overall, let us hope that this Bill will address the problem of begging. It gives additional powers to the Garda Síochána. However, it is extremely important that we deal with the problem of poverty in this country because it is a real problem.