Five of the Best

The top five comment pieces from today's papers

In the Guardian, Naomi Klein argues that Obama's progressive image has allowed European countries to join him and mask their adoption of more conservative positions:

At the April meeting in London, it seemed for a moment there might be some kind of co-ordinated attempt to rein in transnational financial speculators and tax dodgers. Sarkozy even pledged to walk out of the summit if it failed to produce serious regulatory commitments. But the Obama administration had no interest in genuine multilateralism, advocating instead that countries should come up with their own plans (or not) and hope for the best - much like its reckless climate-change plan. Sarkozy, needless to say, did not walk anywhere but to the photo session, to have his picture taken with Obama.

In the Times, Lord Owen urges the Liberal Democrats to campaign for a place in a government of national unity:

The Liberal Democrats, from now until the election, should repeatedly assert not that they are going to form the next government -- which is not plausible -- but that they intend to be part of the next government. They should also establish a principled position that they intend to negotiate with whichever party has the largest number of MPs after the election.

The Financial Times's Philip Stephens argues that the financial crisis has done little to alter Anglo-Saxon capitalism:

What is missing is anything resembling a fundamental challenge to the status quo. The market system, of course, is being made a little bit safer; and, for a time at least, governments and regulators will intervene more directly to restrain some of capitalism's animal spirits. The bankers will find that the price of stuffing their pockets is to be about as popular as politicians. I doubt they much care. You would be sorely stretched to describe any of this as a new settlement.

The Independent's Johann Hari says that a pioneering model in North Carolina should encourage the UK to embrace genuinely comprehensive education:

We allocate school places according to how close you live to a school. This immediately creates a social apartheid where middle-class children have successful schools in leafy suburbs, while poorer children are ring-fenced in sink schools and end up at Tesco at 16 with few useable skills. (Rich children are creamed off entirely into private schools.) Comprehensivisation didn't fail; it didn't happen.

In the Times, the former editor of the Economist, Bill Emmott, says that Obama needs support, not condemnation, from liberals:

A president who pushes forward on so many issues at once is either delusional, or unusually brave, determined and talented. Saving his effort to bring the Olympic Games to Chicago, there is no sign that President Obama suffers from delusions. Rather than passing premature judgment or garlanding him with premature prizes, what we should be giving him is support.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

There is nothing compassionate about Britain’s Dickensian tolerance of begging

I was called “heartless” for urging police to refer beggars to support services. But funding drug habits to salve a liberal conscience is the truly cruel approach.

In Rochdale, like many other towns across the country, we’re working hard to support small businesses and make our high streets inviting places for people to visit. So it doesn’t help when growing numbers of aggressive street beggars are becoming a regular fixture on the streets, accosting shoppers.

I’ve raised this with the police on several occasions now and when I tweeted that they needed to enforce laws preventing begging and refer them to appropriate services, all hell broke loose on social media. I was condemned as heartless, evil and, of course, the favourite insult of all left-wing trolls, “a Tory”.

An article in the Guardian supported this knee-jerk consensus that I was a typically out-of-touch politician who didn’t understand the underlying reasons for begging and accused me of being “misguided” and showing “open disdain” for the poor. 

The problem is, this isn’t true, as I know plenty about begging.

Before I became an MP, I worked as a researcher for The Big Issue and went on to set up a social research company that carried out significant research on street begging, including a major report that was published by the homeless charity, Crisis.

When I worked at The Big Issue, the strapline on the magazine used to say: “Working not Begging”. This encapsulated its philosophy of dignity in work and empowering people to help themselves. I’ve seen many people’s lives transformed through the work of The Big Issue, but I’ve never seen one person’s life transformed by thrusting small change at them as they beg in the street.

The Big Issue’s founder, John Bird, has argued this position very eloquently over the years. Giving to beggars helps no one, he says. “On the contrary, it locks the beggar in a downward spiral of abject dependency and victimhood, where all self-respect, honesty and hope are lost.”

Even though he’s now doing great work in the House of Lords, much of Bird’s transformative zeal is lost on politicians. Too many on the right have no interest in helping the poor, while too many on the left are more interested in easing their conscience than grappling with the hard solutions required to turn chaotic lives around.

But a good starting point is always to examine the facts.

The Labour leader of Manchester City Council, Richard Leese, has cited evidence that suggests that 80 per cent of street beggars in Manchester are not homeless. And national police figures have shown that fewer than one in five people arrested for begging are homeless.

Further research overwhelmingly shows the most powerful motivating force behind begging is to fund drug addiction. The homeless charity, Thames Reach, estimates that 80 per cent of beggars in London do so to support a drug habit, particularly crack cocaine and heroin, while drug-testing figures by the Metropolitan Police on beggars indicated that between 70 and 80 per cent tested positive for Class A drugs.

It’s important to distinguish that homelessness and begging can be very different sets of circumstances. As Thames Reach puts it, “most rough sleepers don’t beg and most beggars aren’t rough sleepers”.

And this is why they often require different solutions.

In the case of begging, breaking a chaotic drug dependency is hard and the important first step is arrest referral – ie. the police referring beggars on to specialised support services.  The police approach to begging is inconsistent – with action often only coming after local pressure. For example, when West Midlands Police received over 1,000 complaints about street begging, a crackdown was launched. This is not the case everywhere, but only the police have the power to pick beggars up and start a process that can turn their lives around.

With drug-related deaths hitting record levels in England and Wales in recent years, combined with cuts to drug addiction services and a nine per cent cut to local authority health budgets over the next three years, all the conditions are in place for things to get a lot worse.

This week there will be an important homelessness debate in Parliament, as Bob Blackman MP's Homelessness Reduction Bill is due to come back before the House of Commons for report stage. This is welcome legislation, but until we start to properly distinguish the unique set of problems and needs that beggars have, I fear begging on the streets will increase.

Eighteen years ago, I was involved in a report called Drugs at the Sharp End, which called on the government to urgently review its drug strategy. Its findings were presented to the government’s drugs czar Keith Hellawell on Newsnight and there was a sense that the penny was finally dropping.

I feel we’ve gone backwards since then. Not just in the progress that has been undone through services being cut, but also in terms of general attitudes towards begging.

A Dickensian tolerance of begging demonstrates an appalling Victorian attitude that has no place in 21st century Britain. Do we really think it’s acceptable for our fellow citizens to live as beggars with no real way out? And well-meaning displays of “compassion” are losing touch with pragmatic policy. This well-intentioned approach is starting to become symptomatic of the shallow, placard-waving gesture politics of the left, which helps no one and has no connection to meaningful action.

If we’re going make sure begging has no place in modern Britain, then we can’t let misguided sentiment get in the way of a genuine drive to transform lives through evidenced-based effective policy.

Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale.