Mev Brown: Give money to beggars? You deserve to be fined

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After almost a decade working with Edinburgh’s homeless, Mev Brown has a radical answer to the problem of begging on our streets

When the Edinburgh Corporate Order was repealed in 1982, begging on the city’s streets became legal. And it wasn’t too long before the streets were lined with those wanting to make extra cash.

Since then, the debate about begging in the Capital has bumped along and gone nowhere fast.

Begging is a sensitive issue for a number of reasons. For most, if not all, of the religious faiths, giving to those less fortunate is a principle, if not a duty.

Having worked with the homeless for nine years, I am painfully familiar with the realities of begging.

The fact is, good beggars can make good money.

A common sight on an Edinburgh street is a sign stating “hungry & homeless”.

Firstly, British and most EU beggars are entitled to benefits.

Those EU nationals that aren’t entitled to benefits can always ask their local consul for assistance.

But begging is about money, and while things aren’t as good as they were before the credit crunch, beggars can easily double the money they get from benefits.

The highest earnings typically go to young women begging around popular venues on a Friday and Saturday night. When teenage revellers see their peers begging rather than out having fun they can be sympathetic, drunk and very generous. And this can generate earnings in excess of £100.

Secondly, the term “homeless” is misunderstood by the public. Homeless means you don’t have a home, and councils have a duty of care to the homeless. It doesn’t mean they have nowhere to live.

Councils, and many charities, run hostels which are funded by local and central government. However, technically, residents of these hostels are still homeless until they are rehoused.

And it is this technicality that beggars employ on public sympathies.

Those EU nationals that have “no recourse to public funds” are still entitled to temporary accommodation by the council under EU regulations.

Another common sight on the streets of Edinburgh is a beggar with a dog.

Britain is a nation of animal lovers and while many would never give to a beggar, they will give to a dog.

A more recent sight is the Romanian beggars. Romania joined the EU in 2007, and within weeks were on the streets of Edinburgh. Even today, very little is known about them.

What is known is they are dropped off in the morning by van, are mostly female, “work” all day and live locally. It is believed many are trafficked here by crime gangs on the promise of work. But because, officially, no offence is committed the authorities find they are faced with a wall of silence.

However, my concern is that the next sight on Edinburgh’s streets will be child beggars.

The recent BBC documentary The Secret Lives of Britain’s Child Beggars was truly chilling.

It showed Britain’s child beggars plying their trade on the streets of Britain, day in, day out, walking mile after mile in all weathers, from the morning rush hour until one or two in the morning. One beggar was just three years old.

Many of the minders were the children’s own mothers, many of whom were begging themselves. Some were pregnant with the next generation, while others were using babies as a begging prop.

The documentary followed the trail from the streets of Britain to the plush villas and mansions in Romania. In one police operation against a gang which had trafficked 200 children, 34 mansions were raided. Machine guns, cash and 11kg of gold were recovered. Child begging is big business.

The police reported that gang members themselves had put the earnings potential for a child at £100,000 from stealing, begging and benefits fraud, per year. One gang boss stated: “You can’t stop anybody from begging. For 2000 years we have been living off begging”.

The documentary asked the question: “Who is going to save those born into begging?”

The better question is “how”. Existing legislation is simply ineffective. Those minders taken into custody were quickly back on the streets, working with their child beggars. For the crime gangs themselves, sentences are simply not long enough to stem the tide.

With the incredible profits to be made, I don’t think we can arrest our way out of this problem.

We simply don’t have enough prisons, we don’t have enough social workers and we don’t have enough foster parents to take these exploited children into care.

The public’s generosity is being ruthlessly exploited, and this is the key issue.

The obvious answer would be to confiscate all monies. But with the huge profits involved, I suspect that the gangs would view anything they lost as an acceptable cost of doing business.

The only effective solution I can see is on-the-spot fines for those giving money to beggars. It may be the “nuclear option”, but I fear it is the only effective way to stop child begging.

I have started a campaign to stop child exploitation and set up a petition on my website.

I think the public knows that most money given to UK beggars is spent on drugs or alcohol – that’s one thing. But child exploitation is something else. We must draw a line. Please sign the petition.

The emphasis must be to direct those in genuine need to the proper services.