The UK must do more to stand up for democracy in Egypt

All existing British and EU aid and support for Egypt should be placed under urgent review.

The world has watched the rising death toll in Egypt this week with horror and foreboding. The UN Security Council has already met and EU foreign ministers are due to meet next week but the question remains what practical steps the international community can take to help stop the killing and secure stability and democracy.

In my view, it is vital that the international community does more to demonstrate to the Egyptian generals that they cannot act with impunity.
Although it is true that the UK's influence on the situation is limited, the fact that we can't do everything does not mean we shouldn't do anything.

First, the UK government must review all existing arms export licenses that have been issued to Egypt. The UK Consolidated Criteria prevent the UK from granting licenses in cases where goods exported could be used for internal repression. Given recent developments in Cairo, in particular in the last 72 hours, the UK government now has a responsibility to make clear that all export licences previously granted continue to meet this criteria and review existing licences with this standard in mind.

Second, all existing British and EU aid and support for Egypt must be placed under urgent review. This week I urged the UK government to seek an immediate meeting of EU foreign ministers and I welcome the decision to hold such a meeting next Monday. I hope foreign ministers gathered there will agree to review all existing support provided directly to the Egyptian authorities. European co-operation with Egypt should not continue as normal when civilians are being killed and basic rights are being undermined.

Third, the UK government must - of course - keep travel advice for Egypt under constant review given the dangerous and deadly scenes in Cairo. I have seen for myself, when I was an FCO Minister, the skill and care with which the department's officials conduct such reviews and that system needs to be fully operational in light of the potential risks for British citizens in the country in the coming days.

The US administration remains a key player in the region. Earlier this week I made clear my view that the time has now come for the UK government to encourage the US administration to suspend its $1.3bn military aid package to Egypt as the US government's review of its relationship with Egypt continues. So I welcome the news that President Obama has now announced that the US will cancel the joint military exercise with Egypt "Operation Bright Star".

The primary responsibility for restoring calm and stability within Egypt rests, however, with the interim Egyptian government. The UK government should continue to urge them to suspend the State of Emergency and commit now to a fixed timetable for holding new elections.

For a better future - not just for Egypt but for the whole Middle East - it is vital that those people who want to express their political support for Islamic parties continue to believe there is a viable democratic path open to them. That democratic path rejects the hateful ideology of Al-Qaeda that claims only violence can achieve change. So the stakes are high. The risks remain real. And the responsibility on the international community to speak up for stability and democracy is clear.

Egyptian military armored vehicles stand guard at a checkpoint on the edge of Tahrir Square by the Egyptian Museum on August 16, 2013 in Cairo. Photograph: Getty Images.

Douglas Alexander is the shadow foreign secretary and Labour MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South.

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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.