Let's call a bigot a bigot

Some people need offending.

Things have reached a slightly ludicrous situation when a gay rights group can be patronised for labelling as "bigots" those individuals who have gone most out of their way not only to prevent gay rights becoming a reality but also to viciously insult and ostracise the entire homosexual community.

Nelson Jones tells Stonewall to “grow up” and calls its Bigot Of The Year award “offensive and out of date”. To whom could the award be construed as offensive? The bigots it describes? That is unfortunate but something with which they will have to live. They will continue having to live with it if they insist on calling gay marriage “a grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right” or, in pathetic attempts to attract sympathy, comparing their objection to gay marriage to the persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany. If they cease to make such crass and ignorant statements they may find themselves not being described as bigots. Nick Griffin is probably offended when people call him a racist; he's still a racist.

Nelson Jones is also mistaken when he describes as “abuse” what Stonewall are doing through their Bigot Of The Year award. It seems immediately apparent that – much like the New Humanist's Bad Faith awards – Stonewall are with an ironic smile and a sense of humour highlighting the people who have done most to retard the gay rights situation. If you want a glimpse into what abuse is, read Martin Robbins' Guardian article "Gay marriage "Nazis" and the disgrace of Lord Carey". In staging its award Stonewall are fighting against a society that has been intolerant of homosexuals for thousands of years, and they are doing so with great dignity and wit. They are also, I'm happy to see, yet to apologise for the award despite hysterical outcries from clerical spokespeople.

Let's look at the word 'bigot' and see whether or not it can be accurately applied in this instance. A bigot is someone who “regards or treats the members of a group … with hatred and intolerance”. He has attempted to raise £100,000 in order to oppose same-sex marriage and compared it to slavery: if 'bigot' doesn't accurately encapsulate Stonewall's victor, Cardinal Keith O'Brien, I don't know who else it could. Nelson Jones seems perfectly happy to describe as a bigot a Chief Constable from over 25 years ago – and rightly so – but why is he afraid of being consistent in this case? A large reason is of course the religious element of the condemnation. If we were to take religion out of the equation, thereby confining to the closet the kid gloves with which it is handled, O'Brien would not be receiving the same level of support and excuse-making. Given that he is in a position of religious authority, many – including, it seems, Nelson Jones – wish to turn down the volume on criticism of O'Brien and interpret his statements in a peculiarly neutral light. This does not advance the gay rights position and encases O'Brien in the cushions in which he has been cocooned for 74 years.

A spokesman for the Catholic Church said that Stonewall “promoted terms like "bigot" and "homophobe" relentlessly in order to intimidate and vilify anyone who dares oppose their agenda”. Given that Stonewall's agenda is the battle to secure equal rights for gay people, I don't think that they can be criticised for responding passionately and with wonderful irony towards the very people keenest to see gay rights suppressed and gay behaviour demonised. If you want a discussion on language, note here its slithery usage – anyone who "dares" oppose the laudable agenda of a group representing a persecuted minority. A homophobe is someone who fears or hates homosexuals; if the word cannot be used in instances like these, when can it possibly be used? Try being told for thousands of years that loving a member of the same sex means that you are an "abomination" and should be killed, and see if "bigot" or "homophobe" are the strongest terms that spring to your lips.

Religious figures like Keith O'Brien cannot expect to be ignored for expressing hateful and outdated opinions. He is perfectly entitled to speak his mind concerning the legal recognition of the love shared between two members of the same sex; and he is perfectly entitled to be called a bigot if what emanates from his mind is extremely bigoted.

Stonewall's award may be offensive but it offends all of the people who most urgently need offending.

A flag at a gay pride festival. Photograph: Getty Images
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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.