Going home

After spending several weeks on the road supporting Runrig Malachy starts the long journey home from

Having been in England touring for the past three weeks, it felt good to be on the way home again.

I took the nine o’clock train on Wednesday morning from London King’s Cross and gazed out of the window as we rolled northwards towards Edinburgh. The clutter and bustle of the city soon gave way to green, and the urban interventions grew increasingly infrequent the closer to Scotland we became.

A dense haze lay over much of the country, covering fields and towns, and cloaking Durham cathedral in a strange half-light which made that city seem hardly real at all. And when the sea finally appeared, just south of the border, the horizon too was disguised, so it was hard to discern where the water ended and the sky began. It was a relief though to have it there – the cold North Sea – alongside the train, and I felt somehow more relaxed to see it, and to feel the space open up beyond the shore.

From Edinburgh I took a second train, continuing onwards to Aberdeen. The route follows the east coast, passing small seaside towns and villages on its way, as well as the cities of Perth and Dundee. It is a pleasant journey, and one which I have taken dozens of times over the years. Here the air was clearer and the sky blue. The horizon was now sharp as a knife edge.

Getting to Shetland can be done quickly or slowly – by air or by land and sea. I prefer the slow route. For one thing it is more comfortable; the hours spent on the train from London were relaxing, if not exactly luxurious, and the ferry journey north from Aberdeen can be enjoyable if the weather behaves, as it did this night.

It is good, also, to be reminded of just how far away from things we really are – from the noise and the dirt and the chaos of London in particular. Seven hours on a train, then 12 on a ferry, are enough to give a real sense of distance and, I think, of perspective. Travelling by plane makes it all seem too easy, and too close.

The boat arrived in Lerwick at 7.30 on Thursday morning, just as light was beginning to descend on the town. A pale sky of pink and blue in the southeast was just fading towards daylight as I walked from the ferry terminal towards the town centre.

At this time of year there is no way of getting to Fair Isle on a Thursday, which meant I had a day’s wait in Lerwick before my Friday morning flight. Or, at least, that was the plan. But Friday dawned grey and dark, with a south-westerly gale still raging from the previous night, and all plans were suddenly worthless.

Phoning the airport at regular intervals during the day for updates on the weather situation, I could hear an infectious lack of optimism in the voice of the woman I spoke to. And though the wind did ease during the morning, the change was accompanied by clouds descending and rain increasing. So when I was finally told at three o’clock to get myself to the airport as quickly as possible, I could hardly believe we would be getting home after all.

I was right. We didn’t. The clouds lifted briefly, and then descended once again. The flight was cancelled.

So I’m sitting writing this in a friend’s living room in Lerwick, with the rain still battering the window. The next flight will be Monday morning; though, again, the weather doesn’t look promising. On days like these, distance can suddenly lose its appeal.

Malachy Tallack is 26 and lives in Fair Isle. He is a singer-songwriter, journalist, and editor of the magazine Shetland Life.
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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.