Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 3 December 2014
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality
Aggressive Begging from a Public Order Perspective: Discussion
Apologies have been received from Deputy Anne Ferris and Senator Tony Mulcahy. I wish to advise members that Deputy Corcoran Kennedy has been discharged from the committee. Deputy Gabrielle McFadden is her replacement and I am sure she will join me in thanking Deputy Corcoran Kennedy for her service to the committee, in particular her work on compiling an important report on sexual and domestic violence. I welcome Deputy McFadden here today and look forward to working with her for the next while.
The purpose of this meeting is to have an engagement with representatives from the Licensed Vintners Association and other groups on the topic of aggressive begging on the streets. I understand a briefing has been circulated to members. I welcome Ms Deirdre Devitt, the Licensed Vintners Association, Mr. Richard Guiney, DublinTown, Mr. David Brennan, Dublin City Business Association, Mr. Tim Fenn, Irish Hotels Federation, Mr. Adrian Cummins, Restaurants Association of Ireland and Mr. Martin Harte, Temple Bar Company.
I will invite witnesses to make opening remarks of approximately five minutes which will be followed by a question-and-answer session with members. We will have a follow-up meeting on this topic with other organisations in the new year. As this is the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality we are interested in public order but are anxious not to stray into other areas such as health and housing which are under the remit of other committees.
By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act, 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members should also be aware that under salient rules of the Chair they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I call on Ms Devitt to make her opening remarks.
Ms Deirdre Devitt:
We thank the Chairman and members of this committee for the opportunity to raise the issues of aggressive begging in Dublin city centre and the need for greater policing resources for Dublin. Our group consists of the CEOs of six business associations which are as follows: Richard Guiney, DublinTown; David Brennan, Dublin City Business Association; Tim Fenn, Irish Hotels Federation; Adrian Cummins, the Restaurants Association of Ireland; Martin Harte, Temple Bar Company and myself, a representative of the Licensed Vintners Association.
From the outset we wish to make clear that the business sectors we collectively represent recognise the complexity of the societal issues involved in the interrelated areas of aggressive begging, homelessness and alcohol and drug addiction, that we fully support Government investment via the HSE, the Departments of Social Protection and the Environment, Community and Local Government and Dublin City Council in treatment services and social housing programmes, and that people in these very difficult circumstances must be treated with compassion and dignity. There is a clear responsibility on the State to assist its citizens in need and we strongly support that. The importance of co-ordinated action in that regard has been underlined by the tragic death this week of Jonathan Corrie on our city streets. This was a terrible tragedy and as a group we extend our sympathy to Mr. Corrie's family and friends. We understand a forum on homelessness is taking place tomorrow and we hope the forum will produce a plan of action to tackle homelessness in the city. This is a very sensitive issue but it is important to state that it is a separate issue to that which is the agenda of today's meeting.
For the purposes of today’s meeting we want to focus our comments on the issue of aggressive begging and the serious implications that has on citizens living and doing business in the city as well as on people visiting the city. We are here today to provide the committee with a first-hand perspective from city centre businesses that encounter this issue on a daily basis. Aggressive begging has intensified over the past 12 months and is now at an unacceptable level. We believe the general public deserves the right to frequent our city centre without harassment or intimidation and our research indicates they are concerned about aggressive begging in this regard. Whether they are involved in the day or night-time economy, across retail, hospitality or offices, the business community in Dublin is united in its view that the current level of repeated, aggressive begging is negatively impacting on Dublin’s citizens and visitors with serious knock-on implications for local businesses. We will now set out a framework and context to consider this issue.
As the capital city, and by sheer weight of numbers, Dublin is the most important socio-economic urban area in the country. Some context can be gleaned from following statistics. Dublin city and county have a population of 1.27 million people. Economic activity in the Dublin region accounts for 47% of national GDP. A total of 840,000 people work in the Dublin region, representing over 40% of total employment in the State. Dublin attracted 3.9 million overseas visitors last year, generating €1.4 billion in revenue.
Our group commissioned the research agency, Behaviour & Attitudes, to carry out a survey of Dubliners’ views on the aggressive begging issue in Dublin city centre. The survey’s objective was to determine the level of concern people feel about aggressive begging in town and to measure its impact on visit likelihood and frequency. Some 524 adults over the age of 18 were surveyed online in the last week of October 2014. The key findings were as follows. Nine out of ten, 98%, would categorise aggressive begging as having a substantially negative impact on the attractiveness of the city. A total of 58% of people feel intimated by people who look for money and beg on the street. Some 60% feel that aggressive begging has some effect on them visiting town in general. Two in five people agree that it affects their likelihood of shopping during the day in town, and over half claim that it affects their likelihood of socialising in town at night. A total of 87% feel there could be greater levels of visible policing in town and the vast majority would like an increased Garda presence. Up to 70% feel the Garda should be tasked with preventing aggressive begging. More than two thirds agree that they do not see enough gardaí patrolling the streets of Dublin city centre.
We recognise the critical role played by the Garda in making Dublin an attractive place in which to live, work and visit and we want to acknowledge its outstanding performance in that regard. All the business organisations represented today have very positive relationships with the Garda and recognise its substantial contribution to the ongoing development of Dublin. We also recognise the pressure on public finances and the pressure for severe reduction in Government expenditure in recent years. However, we believe there is now an overwhelming case for substantial additional resources to be made available to the Garda for policing in Dublin, and in Dublin city centre in particular.
According to the annual report of An Garda Síochána, the total number of gardaí has fallen from 14,835 in 2009 to 13,093 in 2013, a drop of 1,742 gardaí, or 12%, in three years. Dublin city centre is the public face of the Dublin region and this area has suffered significantly from a reduction in Garda numbers. In the south inner city alone, one Garda division has seen its numbers drop by over 160 gardaí. In addition to this reduction in numbers, the overtime budget for the same division station has been cut by 61% since 2008. This means that not only are numbers down but existing numbers cannot be maximised because there simply is not enough overtime budget available. This issue is further compounded by the introduction of the new Garda roster which in effect means that Garda resources will be targeted at times of peak demand, namely, Friday and Saturday nights. However, it also means that there are fewer gardaí available at other times. This system may in theory be effective in other parts of the State, but a major urban centre like Dublin city operates on a 24-hour basis and demand for on-the-ground policing is required on a daily basis, not just at the weekend.
The attractiveness of Dublin as a city in which to live, do business, or visit would be directly boosted by virtue of higher profile policing presence across both the day and night-time economies. While the Garda performs exceptionally well with limited resources, there is no doubt the force would benefit from extra resources in Dublin. We are calling for a three-year strategy, with the required resources, to boost Garda numbers in Dublin back to 2009 levels. Consideration must be given to deploying the majority of new Garda recruits in Dublin and, as an immediate step, to boosting the overtime budget to facilitate additional on-street policing. In addition, we believe that a specific, resourced strategy to deal with the aggressive begging issue in the city centre must be developed. Specific targets should be in place, and increased visibility of Garda patrols across the night-time economy from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. There is no doubt that both the public and the business community would like to see a greater Garda presence on our city centre streets. As the population of Dublin grows and the economic recovery takes hold, there is a pressing need for additional Garda resources to be devoted to Dublin city.
The Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act of 2011 was introduced after the High Court found that section 3 of the Vagrancy (Ireland) Act 1847 was unconstitutional due to its vagueness and lack of certainty. It was also held to represent a disproportionate interference with the Constitution’s provisions on freedom of expression and freedom to communicate. The Constitution guarantees that one has a right to liberty and freedom, except in accordance with the law. This means that, in general, one is entitled to one's own personal freedom but legislation may provide for one's arrest and detention in certain circumstances like aggressive begging.
While the Vagrancy (Ireland) Act was found to be unconstitutional, the judgment did note that it is undoubtedly so that the right to communicate and the right to freedom of expression can be limited in the interests of common good. Nothing in this judgment should be construed as preventing the Oireachtas from making laws prohibiting aggressive and intimidating begging. The 2011 Act provided new statutory measures to deal with begging. It is fair to say that this 2011 Act never functioned properly in terms of dealing with the begging issue. The High Court found that the Garda was obliged to establish a prima faciecase that the begging took place without legal authorisation. While the law does provide that a person guilty of the offence of aggressive, intimidating or aggressive begging could be fined or jailed, the Minister of Justice and Equality has observed that convicting people engaged in begging is not a readily workable solution to the problem.
We note the Garda has the power to direct people away from certain places where they are causing a nuisance but that requires a significant, ongoing Garda presence on our streets to provide an effective solution. As I previously stated, the issue of aggressive begging has greatly intensified in Dublin over the past 12 months and is now at an unacceptable level. We are calling for a review of begging legislation in light of recent experience, to draw on the views of business sectors, voluntary bodies and the public and to redraft legislation to deal with this issue more effectively.
There are clear concerns among the public and business community about the level and nature of aggressive begging in Dublin. The solution to this complex issue involves high levels of State support services, an effective legislative framework and increased resources for the Garda. We trust the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality recognises our concerns and will support our calls for greater legal clarity and increased Garda resources for our capital city. I thank members for their attention.
I thank the witnesses for their submission to the committee.
It was acknowledged in the opening statements that the issue of begging is a complex one. Given that acknowledgement, why the focus on a policing solution to it? The term "aggressive begging", was mentioned. Most of the people we see begging on the streets are sitting passively in a sleeping bag with a cup in their hands. Perhaps the delegates would define what is considered to be aggressive begging. It is acknowledged that begging is a complex problem and that those who beg often have issues around alcohol and mental health, yet a policing solution is called for. Is there not a contradiction in that?
As this committee deals with justice issues, that is perhaps the reason for the focus of the submissions on policing solutions. As there are other committees that focus on health and social protection issues we have been asked not to stray into those areas too much.
Mr. Adrian Cummins:
Where a business owner provides a seating area outside his or her premises where people can sit and have a drink or food and those people are approached every 15 to 20 minutes by a person with a cup looking for money, that in my opinion is aggressive begging. If as described by Deputy McGrath a person is sitting begging with a cup on front of him or her, that is passive begging. In a particular geographical location within the city centre in Dublin, there are people continually approaching people asking for money. If these people do not get money they act in an aggressive manner. That is my definition of aggressive begging. Others may define it differently.
That is fair enough. I pose the question because earlier this morning I heard an interview on radio with a gentleman who said that two weeks ago he had offered support to Jonathan Corrie, the man who died across the road from the Dáil, but that he had turned it down and wanted only to talk to him. He also said he was not in any way aggressive. The point I am making is that the perception is that most homeless people are aggressive. Many of the homeless people on our streets are afraid to go into the hostels because they are afraid of being attacked or of having any money they have taken. The type of begging to which Mr. Cummins referred is harassment, which is a different ball game.
Ms Devitt referred to an online survey of 524 members of the public. Why was the survey conducted online and why was it not much broader than that? In my opinion this issue requires a greater focus than those who have access to the Internet. As a backbencher I know that this issue is regularly highlighted by people who have pubs and restaurants. Why was the base narrowed?
Mr. Richard Guiney:
We have received a great deal of feedback. Dublin City Council conducted a survey in 2012, entitled Your Dublin, Your Voice. In that survey 36% of people said that these types of issues were the least attractive part of Dublin city centre. We have conducted our own research. It was a face-to-face survey carried out in conjunction with another research company and involved 1,028 people. In that survey, 30% of the respondents said that they choose not to come to Dublin city centre because of a fear factor. In preparation for this meeting we felt it was necessary to conduct similar research and to make known the results in that regard. The results of that survey are very much in line with previous surveys. There have been many surveys of public opinion on this issue. The responses are what is said to our staff on the street. Fear and intimidation is a factor in people not coming to Dublin city centre. This is what we are discussing today. The feedback from people who live in Dublin to the many surveys conducted has been fairly consistent in terms of the fear factor that exists. There is a perception that Dublin is not as safe as it should be.
In regard to the three-year strategy in relation to An Garda Síochána, I accept the need for an increase in the number of gardaí into the future. The current complement is in the region of 13,000 and as announced last week by the Minister a further 200 gardaí are due to come on stream. The delegates have called for an increase in the number of gardaí on the beat implementing current legislation.
Ms Deirdre Devitt:
The Deputy is correct that we would like to see more gardaí on the streets. The people of Dublin would like the visible presence of the gardaí. We are also asking for a review of the legislation to allow gardaí to do the work they should be able to do in dealing with aggressive begging.
In regard to a review of the legislation, are all of the organisations prepared to work with other organisations in making detailed submissions in that regard, in particular with the homeless agencies and An Garda Síochána?
Like everybody here today I find the issue of begging deeply troubling. On the way to the hotel where I stay when I am in Dublin on Dáil duty, I come across a plethora of people who are begging, some of whom are aggressive and others who are passive. Every now and again I feel obliged to help because that is what a person would want for their brother or sister if in that situation. At other times my thinking is that if a person were to give to every begging person, they could quickly become homeless themselves. That is the scale of the problem on our streets. Everything that has been said by the delegates resonates with my own experience of this issue. It is a complex and troubling issue but it is also not unique to Ireland. As this is obviously an issue in other cities, have the organisations researched international experience in this area?
Mr. Martin Harte:
As stated by Deputy Mac Lochlainn this is not an issue specific to Dublin or Ireland. We have looked at models in other countries and in this regard have been in regular contact with the City of Westminster in London where begging is also a significant issue. It is actively considering the use of ASBOs in addressing particularly aggressive behaviour in this area. It has commissioned a range of studies on the issue over the past ten or 15 years and tried a whole range of initiatives, including diverted giving and so on. The belief is that it has worked to some degree and discussions on re-introducing it next year are ongoing. We are working closely with the City of Westminster, its associations and police around the introduction here of the use of ASBOs in relation to those persistently involved in aggressive begging, which is a behaviour.
This issue has been ignored for too long. It is a difficult issue to which the response must by its nature take a multi-agency approach. Policing obviously is one aspect of it, but consideration also must be given to social services, housing services and all of that. In addition, one must be realistic in this regard. I would argue that some of those who are involved in begging, albeit in a minority of cases, are engaged in a criminal enterprise and that warrants a policing response, not a social response. Some of the begging I have witnessed has been criminal behaviour. I have seen women being pursued up Grafton Street aggressively and intimidation would be a gentle description of some of those scenes. I must state such incidents are in a minority, as the majority of begging involves people with a cup, which I always find really disturbing. The witnesses have appeared before this committee today, the ambit of which includes policing and legislation. I commend the witnesses on their good and constructive presentation. Are they willing to work with the different agencies? Would they be willing to be part of a task force to consider how this matter might be addressed? This issue has been neglected for far too long and must be addressed. It is not fair to the majority of people who find themselves in that position and is unfair to citizens who are faced with this difficult challenge to their conscience. People are decent and experience a terrible feeling that they have failed someone when they walk past him or her without giving something.
Mr. Richard Guiney:
I agree fully with the Deputy and it is that kind of aggressive begging, as described by the Deputy on Grafton Street, that we are here to discuss. As for working with other groups, in 2012 we were part of a group looking at perceptions of Dublin that consisted of ourselves, the Garda, Dublin City Council and homeless and drug charities. It is important to note that much of the time, one is talking about perceptions. Dublin is a very safe city, its crime rates are good relative to other cities but yet there is this fear factor. To put it in context, in the Your Dublin, Your Voice survey of 2012 to which I referred, 74% of people indicated they felt safe in Dublin by day, while 35% stated they felt safe in Dublin by night. I attended a meeting with colleagues in Liverpool who told me their statistics showed that 99% of people there felt safe by day and 70% by night, and this is the kind of range into which we must get.
I believe all the business groups would be happy to work with people in homeless charities and with those who are providing drug services because there should be a holistic approach to this issue. Mr. Martin Harte has mentioned ASBOs and, in general, that is how this issue is dealt with in the United Kingdom, particularly the aggressive type of begging about which the Deputy spoke. Some interesting research was conducted by a lady called Dr. Susan Fitzgerald, who is with the University of York, on people who had been served with ASBOs. She found that in the majority of cases in which people were in genuine need such as, for example, people who had been engaging in certain anti-social behaviour on foot of addiction difficulties or whatever, they were very well served when, on being served with an ASBO, they were put in touch with social services. Such people got a caseworker who would meet them and note how they found themselves in such difficult circumstances. The caseworker would outline the services available to them and could help to organise them, fix the appointments and so on. Dr. Fitzgerald found that in a significant majority of cases, this was highly beneficial for the individual concerned. In addition, as an ASBO is not a criminal sanction, one is not giving people a criminal sanction when in fact they have social issues with which they must deal. There certainly is great scope for considering all those issues together.
I thank the witnesses for their presentation. Do they have statistics or data available on the issue of on-street begging they could provide to members that would break down the percentage of those who are begging and genuinely are so doing to survive and those who engage in begging as part of a criminal racket? It is known that some quantity of begging arises from people being forced onto the streets. Do the witnesses have information in this regard?
Mr. Adrian Cummins:
We do not, or at least I do not, and it is hard to get that information unless the Deputy talks directly to the social services in this regard. A point I wished to make was that where we have seen an increase in Garda deployment for a limited time, whereby the Garda may put in place a number of additional gardaí on a street over a short space of time, one will see those involved in aggressive begging moving to another area. Consequently, one is moving them on to another area. When the Garda conducts an operation in a certain part of the city, one will see movement of aggressive begging to another part of the city. However, the gist of our call is that greater visibility of gardaí on the streets will lead to a decrease in such activity. Moreover, if that is coupled with giving the Garda additional powers to tackle aggressive begging, then the problem will be sorted out.
In response to Deputy Mac Lochlainn's point about businesses getting involved, we would be delighted to so do but there must be actions on this issue within a fairly brief timescale as we cannot be here in three years' time talking about the same issue.
I seek a comment or a viewpoint from the witnesses on the proposition being given to members as public representatives that behind many of the issues of concern to the witnesses is the fact that people who are engaged in begging also have drug addiction and other problems. It is indicated or alleged to members, either anecdotally or factually, that there is an issue with methadone treatment centres for these people in or near the city centre. Is this the view of the witnesses? In addition, how would the witnesses deal with such an issue? What is their view on the location of treatment centres for people with such addictions?
Mr. Martin Harte:
Again, there is no evidence or detailed information available. One point that is coming out clearly in this discussion is the need for a proper assessment of the needs of people who are involved. I refer in particular to aggressive begging and repeat that this is not a begging issue but concerns aggressive begging, which is a behavioural piece. We have no evidence and while there may be anecdotal views on certain things, it is not evidence. Consequently, I would not like to draw a link between one and the other, for clarity.
I refer to the position of the witnesses as ratepayers. As public representatives, we receive many complaints from business people regarding the amounts they must pay in rates and on what they receive in return from local authorities. Are the witnesses satisfied with the service they are getting from their local authorities? Are they satisfied that the local authorities also recognise the issues they are raising today are part of a wider issue with which they must become involved? I could link that question back to the homeless situation, for example.
Mr. Adrian Cummins:
I believe there is a recognition by Dublin City Council that there is a problem. We are on the same wavelength that it is a complex problem between a social and a judicial issue. We have a business forum at which we meet the city officials and the Garda to discuss a range of issues, of which this is one. As that has just been initiated, we must find out how it will progress. Ratepayers across the city would like to see a more fast-tracked solution to the issues by which they are affected. It is one of the top items on the agendas of ratepayers. In my association and perhaps also in the other associations, this is an issue they want to have resolved.
Mr. Tim Fenn:
From our perspective, it is the people who use Dublin, that is, those who live, work and visit the city, who are the people we must look after. There are complex issues in this regard. We cannot really define who and what are involved in this aggressive begging but we must have a structure to deal with it. People should not be obliged to deal with aggressive, menacing and fear-creating behaviour.
When people go about their business in the streets, they should be able to enjoy facilities in the same way as everybody else.
It is great to see such a broad church of groups coming together. The fact that Oireachtas Members know many of the witnesses means that they are effective in lobbying. I am glad that they defined aggressive begging because I wondered what it was. It is a phenomenon in most cities, but it is difficult to find best practice in dealing with it. I suggest the best way of dealing with it is a summit similar to what is being proposed tomorrow to deal with homelessness. This has to be dealt with head on. It is not good for the city and is certainly not good for those who are begging. If such a summit or task force, to which Deputy Mac Lochlainn referred, were established, it should include representatives of the groups appearing here today, together with NGOs, local authorities and An Garda Síochána. That would push this matter forward.
Although technically it may not be considered begging, I would also include people constantly selling lines with buckets. They can be extremely aggressive. Would the witnesses consider that to be aggressive begging, albeit by well-dressed people?
Ms Deirdre Devitt:
It is certainly something that can pester people but we are talking about people being followed up the street, their way being blocked, or having people in their face with threatening behaviour because they will not hand over a few euro. I agree with the Senator that it can be a menace, but the issue we are here to talk about is aggressive begging.
I would like to hear Mr. Cummins's view on this because I experienced it myself in one of his association's restaurants on Dame Street. On two occasions, somebody came in to the outside area of the restaurant selling lines to people who were having a meal. I see Ms Devitt's point but one cannot really divide the two. In my view, it really is aggressive begging.
Mr. Adrian Cummins:
The owner of the business will determine what happens inside his or her premises. In the Senator's perspective, it was aggressive. There have been debates here before about introducing a protocol for charities with buckets on the street. To answer the question, if somebody is upsetting or annoying patrons in a restaurant, it is not on.
The biggest challenge for Mr. Cummin's members is that there are outside areas, be they for smoking or during the summer. The business owners tend not to have the same control outside for whatever reason. However, I would like Mr. Cummins to factor it into his future deliberations.
This is my first meeting with this committee but I do not have a lot of experience of the Dublin situation as I am a country Deputy. I have no problem with passive begging, although it bothers my conscience and I feel bad for the people. My worry about aggressive begging comes from my constituency - I presume it is the same in Dublin - where people are transported into the area in an organised fashion by a group or by the "boss". They are dropped off, left to beg and are then collected in the evening. They must collect a certain amount of money by the time they return. Quite often in those situations, women carrying young children are used. It is often alleged that the children are given something to keep them passive and sleeping during the day so that the parents can beg. Do the organisations represented here today have any experience of this or is it a prevalent issue for them?
Ms Deirdre Devitt:
My family has two pubs in the city and I have experienced that and have seen it. I am very concerned about it. However, a full study needs to be done into the whole area because that is more than likely part of it. It is absolutely horrendous that children would be treated in that manner. We do not have any proof but I have seen it on our premises. I have had to ask people to leave where my customers are at risk. It is part and parcel of it but it all needs to be explored as to how much aggressive begging is going on, as the Deputy has described.
Mr. David Brennan:
Some of the points raised by the members explain why we are here today. In our own jobs, we continually deal with our members who are dealing with the general public. I am quite happy to speak for all of my colleagues. We are engaging but we are happy to engage even more. As regards the question, however, we do not have facts. This is one of the reasons we are here before the committee. It has been suggested by two members of the committee that a forum should be set up and empirical research undertaken.
As businesses dealing with clients, we know there are views that our city has deteriorated in the past year and, hence, we are appearing before the committee today. Deputy McFadden and Deputy Finian McGrath have asked for fact-based evidence and we would like to see this brought forward. We would all assist in that. It would be marvellous if this subject were to be taken out and aired. That is why we are here today.
I thank the group for their presentation. I agree with the opening statement that the issue is inter-related with homelessness, as well as alcohol and drug addiction. Before 2011, I was a member of Dublin City Council's city development board. I remember this issue being discussed and some of the witnesses here might have been at those meetings. The question of begging in the city centre was discussed then. We invited the chief superintendent from Store Street Garda station to that meeting because we felt the problem was not being dealt with. I recall the chief superintendent saying that gardaí were reluctant to bring these cases to court because the courts themselves were reluctant to deal with them. That may have concerned the Vagrancy Act, but since then we have seen the Public Order Act 2011, although the witnesses say that has not made much difference either. This is not a new problem.
Have any of the witnesses met senior members of the Garda Síochána at Store Street or Pearse Street? If so, what result did they get from them?
Mr. David Brennan:
All the witnesses here in their own daily lives as CEOs would engage regularly with the Garda Síochána. There are four of us sitting here who attend meetings together and we deal with the Garda Síochána on an ongoing basis. As the Chairman so rightly said, this issue has been going on for a number of years. We are here today because we have seen an escalation of the problem and wish to put our concerns to the fore concerning our city and its citizens.
Perhaps that is something the committee can take up, Chairman.
I wish to raise the question of the congregation of people in the centre of the city because that is where the majority of the addiction-treatment centres are located. That is a criticism of the fact that many of these centres should be out in the suburbs where people could get the services they require in their communities rather than having to come to the centre of the city to congregate. Often they are begging in order to get their bus fare home. Do the witnesses have a view on that?
I welcome our guests. This issue has arisen a number of times in my constituency, particularly in Malahide and Swords. The witnesses all have a great deal of experience of the issue based on their submission that I have just flicked through. I missed the contributions from some of my colleagues. However, based on the references made, there is a clear need for an evidence-based approach to this. Perhaps at tomorrow's forum we will see some empirical data placed into the public domain and hopefully this committee will get an opportunity to weigh in on the matter. We can talk about providing housing all we like, but at the end of the day a number of individuals will be involved in progressive begging, including a number in my constituency.
I am a keen observer of people; given the career path I have chosen it is a fairly obvious trait of a politician. One of the attributes of progressive begging I have observed in the city centre is the organised nature of it. Travelling home or into this building in the morning it is fairly obvious when I see a spotter standing off in the distance with a group of other individuals approaching people in a forthright fashion. I would not necessarily determine that it would be aggressive, because in my experience that tends to happen when the streets are quieter, perhaps at night when there is less footfall and when a person is isolated, chased and hounded for cash. It has happened to me and I have had reports from other people.
The submission refers to the need for legal clarity regarding the 2011 Act. This committee is always looking at legislation that might need to be rethought, reformed or created if there is a gap. Deputy Kenny spoke about the reluctance of the courts to proceed with cases. I firmly believe it is the law of the land and therefore they are obliged. However, I understand the Garda's issue with providing the necessary evidence. What is the witnesses' view of the 2011 Act? What parts of that Act require clarity? The courts have suggested it so I wonder if the witnesses have a view.
Mr. Richard Guiney:
The perception of organised begging has been mentioned on a few occasions. That matter is dealt with in section 5 of 2011 Act. I understand the Garda prepared what it considered to be a very detailed file for the DPP, but the DPP did not proceed with it. I understand there is vagueness around that section and there is a view that it would be almost impossible to get a conviction under section 5, and it needs to be looked at.
Deputy McFadden spoke about children. Section 247 of the Children Act 2001 is used extensively to deal with children brought into the begging equation and that has been quite successful.
On general begging, as some of my colleagues have mentioned, there is vagueness on the implementation of that and whether the gardaí need to verify that someone has a permit to collect money, perhaps involving asking questions in languages other than English. There are certainly aspects of the legislation that need to be clarified.
Mr. Adrian Cummins:
I wish to clarify another point. On the organisation of it, there is no hierarchy with, for example, one person organising four or five from a business perspective. However, from an organisational point of view an aggressive beggar might have his own patch. So he is going from one business to another, doing his route. These businesses have a density of customers or visitors outside their premises. They go in and 20 minutes later another person will come around to the same patch again. That is the organisational level of it. If we give the Garda the powers to stop that activity, we will solve the problem.
One of my frustrations is the reluctance of gardaí to do anything. Over the past almost four years I have had perhaps half a dozen complaints specific to my constituency - I have had others over the operation of what are commonly known as "chuggers". The aggressive element I came across on Mountjoy Square in August 2011 was a particularly difficult set of circumstances, involving a young woman with a child and an individual - I referred to him as a spotter - who was organising and harassing people, including me, walking down the street. It was after rush hour but before nightfall. That experience left its mark on me. I can imagine how upsetting and off-putting that would be for a tourist. That is why it is necessary to have the data that have been mentioned.
My last question is on the lack of enforcement of legislation. I thank Mr. Guiney for bringing to my attention section 5, which I will certainly look at. My major issue is with the number of gardaí available. Clearly when there is an increased presence the problem tends to go elsewhere. Even if they are not aggressively begging, if gardaí are going to question them, they may not show up in the same location, which may undo the sort of area Mr. Cummins mentioned.
If the opportunity was presented to the various organisations represented here to weigh in on a discussion on the 2011 Act, I presume they would participate in that-----
----- if the Chairman and the Government would allow it. As part of any alteration to existing legislation, would the witnesses propose any additional items not contained in the 2011 Act which could be introduced to assist businesses, particularly pubs and restaurants, which at the end of the day, are the ones suffering most?
Mr. Adrian Cummins:
The Deputy described the woman and the child. We have come across examples of a woman and a child outside premises. As that is a social care issue, the advice to the business-owner is to inform social care straightaway that this is happening because they cannot have patrons coming in the door of their premises constantly being asked. However, when children are involved, it is automatically a social care issue and that is the first port of call. We would be delighted to get involved in any further discussion on improving the legislation.
What was the other question?
This has been a very informative and helpful exchange and the unification of intent is impressive. I have two questions. If there was only begging and not aggressive begging, would that be considered a solution?
Mr. Martin Harte:
I do not think anybody has an issue with begging. It has existed for a very long period of time and, unfortunately, it will continue to exist for a very long period to come. Aggressive begging is a behavioural issue. People feel menaced, intimidated and threatened. It is that behavioural element we wish to tackle and not begging itself.
Yes. In light of the various comments about a task force or a forum, is it the case that there is no evidence or research which could be of assistance in terms of the problem of aggressive begging? If that is the case, does responsibility for that lie with Government, business, civil society groups or elsewhere? When we review legislation, which is one of the key calls made to us, different groups provide evidence but research is often available that assists the review process and makes it more effective.
Mr. Adrian Cummins:
This is more of a suggestion than an answer, because I do not know the answer. However, there is a line item on the Garda PULSE system to record instances of aggressive begging which the gardaí come across or which are reported to them. It is a specific category. That is one way to assimilate relevant data. Currently, there does not appear to be any research or data which we can hand to someone to say these are the facts and figures relating to specific aggressive begging incidences in the city; that is how many people are engaged in it and the frequency of it in the capital city.
A number of issues have been raised. One is the need for quantitative and qualitative research in the area. Another concerns legislation and the need to strengthen and take the vagueness out of the Act. I invite the group, if it wishes, to revert to us on what it would like changed and how, for example, to specify sections which should be removed or inserted in the Act or how they should be worded. The committee can then engage with the two Houses to have it done, urgently and quickly if necessary. This is something we could do and we could include the amendments in a criminal law Bill, if necessary, in some shape or form. If the group wished to do that, it would be very helpful. The other issue concerns the Garda Síochána and, as Deputy McGrath has pointed out, there are extra gardaí coming on the scene as we speak and hopefully many more in the not too distant future.
I wish to draw the witnesses' attention to some work we did ourselves some time ago. Mr. Guiney mentioned anti-social behaviour orders, ASBOs, and quite insightfully pointed out the fact that, as part of the ASBO regime, there are other supports which are given to people who may have personal and other problems. We did some work earlier in the year on community courts. An integral part of this is the support structure that would be in place. Dublin City Business Association was involved in that at the time also. In cities such as New York, the community courts appear to have worked extremely well, effectively and quickly with the support structures that were tied to them. The committee proposed that one would be established in Dublin on a pilot basis. It might be another way of dealing with the issue. They work by having the person who caused the offence before the court almost the next day and he or she is almost invariably asked to do some community service. However, the person is also supported in other ways, such as socially, psychologically and sometimes financially. I note the penal reform report recently issued by the Department is in agreement with the committee on this issue and states it is something that should be done. That is hopefully being worked on as we speak.
Mr. Martin Harte:
There is one concluding point I wish to make. I know it has already been made here today, but I wish to reiterate it. It is on the issue of policing resources. Gardaí have been getting substantial press currently, and over the last year or so. I have been working with them for 15 years and, from my perspective, they do a tremendous job. I wish to reiterate that. They take abuse not only from the media and ourselves, but from people on the streets. That has to be recognised. They do a very good job and we fully support them.
The issue of resources is key. The south inner city has had 161 gardaí since 2009. I appreciate the significant economic constraints over the last number of years, but the additional police, while it will increase the numbers, will not deal with the issue of resources. As part of our submission, we are seeking additional attention to be given to Dublin city. We would say that because we are based in Dublin city, but it is important. Issues such as rostering, which can be dealt with in a non-resource way, could also be examined. From our conversations with the police, we believe that could assist in freeing up resources to deal with other issues. I wish to put that on the record.
The problem is the guards are not a huge issue in the lives of these people and the system does not really want to deal with the issue because it has other issues with which to deal. This is part of the problem. Therefore, we need someone who will deal with this particular issue. The community courts would be a part of the solution.
I am not sure if anyone has any information on this but there were reports in the not too distant past in which it was indicated that this kind of begging can be quite lucrative. Some indications are that it is very lucrative. I am not sure if there is any information on how much a person might hope to earn in the course of a day.
Only anecdotal information is available. I have seen reports where it appears it can be quite lucrative and organised.
I thank the witnesses for being here today and giving their valuable time to help us in this work. We will continue to work on this issue. I invite the witnesses to keep in contact with us and to come back to us with any written proposals they might have, for example, to make any particular changes to the Act. Is it agreed that we will go into private session to deal with some housekeeping matters? Agreed.