Dáil debates

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Criminal Justice (Public Order) Bill 2010: Second Stage (Resumed)


Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

10:30 am

Photo of Brendan KenneallyBrendan Kenneally (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak on the Bill, which addresses the outcome of the previous High Court judgment that held that part of the Vagrancy Act was unconstitutional. In view of that decision we cannot outlaw begging entirely. I am not sure we would want to do it anyway. The legislation is necessary because begging has become a problem. People are being intimidated by some of those begging. At times, one would wonder why some of them are doing it because in some cases no great need is apparent.

A number of shopkeepers have remarked on the fact that certain gangs of beggars tend to gather outside some retail establishments. The gangs are intimidating by virtue of just being there and are preventing people from going into the shops in question for that reason. I know of cases where the owners of such establishments have tried to move such people on. They might succeed for a short time but then the gangs come back again. There is nothing such people can do about it because the law in the area is not strong enough. The Bill, which is welcome, intends to provide for the deficiencies in the legislation as it has been harming business.

When I left Waterford yesterday to come to Dublin I drove past the GPO in Waterford where I saw a lady outside the front door with a begging cup in her hand. That in itself is intimidating to people who are going in and out of an establishment because the intent is to shame them into giving something to the person begging. I have no way of knowing whether the person needs such support. I have seen the lady in question in that location on more than one occasion which indicates that her activity is almost a job for her at this stage. It is important that we can deal with such situations.

Reference is made in the Bill to the fact that it will be possible to move people on from shop-fronts and also vending machines. One can ask whether a vending machine includes a parking meter. I do not know. There is no definition of "vending machine" in the legislation but I assume parking meters are included. One only has to go out the Merrion Street exit of Leinster House to see people sitting under parking meters staring at people putting money into them to park their cars. That is intimidating in itself. I hope parking meters are covered by the legislation.

Perhaps we are all fault for subscribing to people who beg on the streets. I am sure many Deputies remember that a number of years ago there was a proliferation of children begging on the streets of this city and other cities and towns throughout the country. At the time, the ISPCC asked people not to give money to children begging on the streets. In many cases, vanloads of children were being distributed by adults in various places throughout Dublin and other urban areas. They were being exploited. The ISPCC's plea was heeded at that time. One no longer sees children begging on the street, by and large, although there will always be exceptions. It is not as common as it was a number of years ago because people have listened to what the ISPCC said about not giving them money and thereby brought an end to the practice. We could do the same in this instance, if we were to follow the advice we were given on that occasion.

Many of those who are involved in begging are foreigners. Although some of them are Irish, in my experience most of them are foreigners. Many of them come from countries that have a culture of begging. They are bringing that culture to Ireland by continuing to beg here. It is not part of our culture. We need to stamp it out as much as we can. The more money we contribute in these circumstances, the more people we will attract to Ireland to engage in this activity. We will probably be seen as a soft touch. I am not being uncharitable. I am as charitable as the next person. When I subscribe to various charities, as I am quite sure every Member of this House does, I know it will go to a particular cause and be used in the right way. That is how we should contribute in the future.

There is no great need to beg in this country. We have a very good welfare state here. People who might be down on their luck can fall back on jobseeker's allowance or some other social welfare payment. They may be entitled to medical cards or local authority housing. If they are on a housing waiting list, they can get the rent supplement allowance from the HSE. Plenty of supports are available to people. Many people who beg on the streets do not have a real need to do so, because we look after people fairly well in this country. Some genuine people may be involved in this activity because they are not aware of their entitlements. A girl who came to my constituency office earlier this week had no money. She has applied for jobseeker's allowance but, naturally, it will take a couple of weeks for that claim to be processed. She did not know what to do in the meantime. She was not aware that she could apply to her local community welfare officer to get some support in the meantime. I directed her to that service. I am sure many other people are not aware of their entitlements. They should get in touch with their local citizens information bureau, which can provide information and support.

No matter what one does, certain people will always abuse the supports that are available within the system. Community welfare officers do a wonderful job, by and large. They sometimes make payments to people who need to furnish local authority houses, for example. If one speaks to those who supply furniture and similar commodities, one will learn that some people refuse certain products or want more money for something better. They could probably have provided for what they needed in the first place. There will be abuses in every situation, regardless of what we do.

I am not sure if door-to-door begging, which was mentioned by Deputy Connaughton earlier in this debate, is covered in the Bill. While it does not happen as much as it used to, that does not mean it will not happen again in the future. A specific sector of our society was very much involved in this activity at one time. It does not generally happen in urban areas. I am afraid that if it is not covered in this legislation, it will return. This form of begging sometimes takes place in rural areas for a particular reason. Those involved in it may want to discover who lives in a particular dwelling, or how that building is laid out. In such circumstances, their ulterior motive may be to return to the location at a later date to commit a robbery. I would like some clarification on the question of whether door-to-door begging, which can be very intimidatory, is covered in this Bill.

The Irish Human Rights Commission has suggested that the levying of fines is ineffective. While it may be right in that regard, there has to be some sort of deterrent. As I argued earlier, the public can act as the biggest deterrent of all. Begging can cause great difficulties in tourism areas, for example. The new Waterford Crystal facility in my home city will open late next month. We hope the Viking triangle development in the old part of the city will become a big tourist attraction. If this legislation cannot deal with any vagrants or beggars who might come into that area, it will not be very helpful. When this legislation is finally passed, I hope it will give the Garda the tools it needs to allow these issues and problems to be addressed.

Photo of John PerryJohn Perry (Sligo-North Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak on Second Stage of this Bill. This short measure is designed to deal effectively with harassment and pressure on the public by persons engaged in begging. Many aspects of begging represent an unacceptable public nuisance. Begging can entail trespass, give rise to a general breach of the peace and threaten the maintenance of order. The unacceptable aspects of begging must be regulated and controlled by a specific and adequate law. The present gap in the legal powers available to the Garda must be closed. While it may be somewhat sad that we have to consider the measures set out in the Bill to curb this form of anti-social behaviour, the measures in the Bill are necessary and justified.

By any measure, Irish people are individually generous, caring and sympathetic to those in need. We are especially charitable in giving considerable financial resources to the Third World and the underprivileged. Such empathy and compassion is crucial to our sense of community and the maintenance of the social fabric. It is important that Irish people are especially generous in volunteering their time and energy to charitable bodies that work to help the deserving and the underprivileged. Now that we are in the middle of a massive economic downturn, the need for everyone to pull together is greater than ever. Many families are enduring uncertainly about their incomes and must adjust to lower income levels. Many others are fearful about the future. It is a very difficult time for many people. It is at a crisis time like this that the benefits of a strong family life and strong voluntary work show the strength of community. The empowerment of community and the voluntary sector must be further acclaimed. Citizens want a society that is compassionate, caring and supportive. In my experience, this time of difficulty is bringing out the best in local communities. Many still give generously to those in need and I acknowledge their generosity and giving of their financial resources and time.

One notable charity in this regard is the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. It helps fill the gaps in the income of many families in need in a dignified, compassionate and discreet way.

Most who give to charity prefer to do so on terms of their own choosing. We are perfectly entitled to decide at what time, in what circumstances and in what manner we will give support to worthwhile and charitable causes. We do not wish to be obstructed while we go about our ordinary everyday activities. Most certainly, we do not wish to be hustled and harassed with in-your-face type of demands into giving charity while we are going about our normal day-to-day activities.

There is a fine line between begging and those on the streets with alcohol or drug problems who have no family or social supports but who depend on people's generosity. An evaluation should be made of those with genuine needs who, through no fault of their own, are forced to beg. Categorising them as beggars needs to be examined in a different light as they should be considered more a social case. Many of those on the streets with alcohol problems have no other supports available to them and find it impossible to access medical services to help deal with their alcohol dependency. It is a real social problem that this legislation may need to consider differently.

I welcome the Bill's provisions that will end the practice of beggars obstructing access to and from business premises, being about a business premises, public amenity areas and openly begging for money and goods. For many involved in such practices, it is almost a professional activity.

The ending of unacceptable begging behaviour in the vicinity of business premises, cash points, parking meter payment points, retail outlets, restaurants, places of entertainment, tourism and sporting locations will have a positive effect.

Regrettably, there is some evidence that not all begging is closely linked to real need. For some it may be a lifestyle choice, while for others a means to supplement State-provided benefits and supports. There are some examples of what can only be described as professional begging. There is a clear danger that this particular form of begging will become associated with certain social or ethnic groups, leading to damage to the sense of community in the country.

The sensible use of the Bill's provisions will certainly help deal with this particular practice to everyone's long-term benefit. In the same way that the media and public education programmes of charitable and voluntary groups keep the need to help others in the public consciousness, the presence of beggars and begging reminds us in a practical way that there are people in need in society, that there is poverty and that there are people without the means to look after themselves.

The Charities Bill 2007, the legislation governing the start-up and running of charitable bodies, updated and strengthened existing legislation. One aspect of the Bill that merits particular attention in the context of the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Bill is that public donations to registered charities are now subject to much better control than in the past. A greater proportion of funds raised will in future go to the direct provision of charitable activities and services.

Charity has become a large business with many costs and the benefit of tax exemptions for donors. It is important that all the accounts of a charity are open and subject to due diligence to show how the recipients have benefited. Furthermore, I suggest the percentage of the total gross take of a charity that should be allowed for administrative costs should be 20% with 80% going to the charity's cause, beneficiaries and recipients. If any administrative costs go over this percentage, questions must be asked immediately.

I encourage people to continue to give generously to registered charities as the best way to help the needy. This Dáil is preoccupied with introduction of new legislation but often it does not check their outturns. A strict assessment should be carried out on the effectiveness of the Charities Bill's provisions, its transposition, implementation and successful outcomes.

Regrettably, a good deal of legislation is enacted in Dáil Éireann but there is never any follow through to establish its effectiveness. The outturn should be checked in this case. There should be a report to the House on the success of the Charities Act, the level of compliance, the amount of money collected through it and the amount in the public domain. This should be carried out by the relevant controlling office.

I refer to the enforcement of the provisions of this Bill. I trust the Garda will see it as part of its humanitarian service to advise beggars of the official and voluntary supports and services available to the poor and needy as a practical alternative to begging activities. There is a difference between certain groups and we are aware a significant number of people have fallen on hard times. It can be very intimidating if one is at a low and people are constantly in the vicinity of pay machines. I prefer not to pass anyone on the street because one could be looking at anyone from one's own family.

It is important the relevant State supports are in place. The Department of Social Protection and other Departments which award benefits should provide information leaflets advising people of their entitlements. For example, such leaflets could advise people of a drop-in service where they could get lunch or overnight accommodation. People should be made aware of their entitlements in a friendly way. The Garda could make available a printed leaflet to apprise people of the alternatives rather than use the heavy hand of the law. If people were educated about the benefits and alternatives available and the supports available and encouraged to avail of them progress could be made.

There are certain people with alcohol addiction on the streets through no fault of their own. They should be given the support of the State and should not be turned away from accident and emergency departments. They should be given supports to deal with their addiction rather than pick up money for drugs or alcohol to feed the need of the habit on the street. If a person has an alcohol addiction it should be treated.

The Bill is very important but there is also a matter of rights and responsibilities as well on behalf of the State. It must ensure people at their most vulnerable time are helped and we must recognise the role of the voluntary sector, which does outstanding work. The charities in this country are outstanding. I refer to the recent earthquake tragedy. The generosity of the people is legendary and we could never be accused of not helping to address the need that arose.

There is a need for certain controls in regard to this Bill but also for a certain education. More important, the State should recognise the role of voluntary organisations in the community which give of their time. Their work, which does not necessarily involve fund-raising all the time, includes people giving of their time to encourage participation in sporting activities and encourage people to come into social halls for other activities.

There was 12 years of boom in the economy and people lost a sense of community. People in housing estates did not know their neighbours two or three doors down. This may change because of the new social charter. A sense of community is very important and education through schools is also very important. It is very important that the younger generation of children are educated. In the past ten or 12 years there was so much money everywhere that a three-tier society was created. It is important that as part of the education system, people are educated about the value of money and how to save it. Unfortunately, that has not emerged from homes. Every possible request was satisfied on demand. There is an obligation on all of us in this regard, but especially through schooling.

One of the most important issues concerns social obligation and responsibility to society. A certain level of anti-social behaviour stems from and eventually ends up in alcohol abuse and associated problems. There is a degree of anti-social behaviour from younger people in housing estates and this can create a sense of nuisance. I refer to the public order laws in this regard. Sometimes people can congregate outside supermarkets intimidating customers who come in. This can take place in hotels and elsewhere where there are people with nothing to do. Such people can intimidate not only from a begging point of view, but by going into a business establishment simply because it is in a particular location. It is important that a sense of obligation should be brought through the school network and the importance of respect should be imparted. This could help to address the issue of anti-social behaviour.

I do not consider begging to be a problem in rural areas or in the small towns of Ireland. I have seldom experienced the problem in the Sligo-Leitrim constituency. It is not what one could term a major, widespread problem but it is important that it should be regulated.

This debate opens up the nature of the social difficulties that exist and the sense of isolation for people who seem so helpless. Things must be very low for anyone to stand on a street or sit in a footpath to beg. The integrity of such a person should be borne in mind and such people may need a lift. Some very good charitable services are in operation and this is predominately an issue for large urban areas. I refer to the need for information, support, encouragement and dedicated personnel from the State to encourage people to use other means. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul should inform people that support is available.

I am very pleased to speak on this Bill. It is important legislation. There should be a sense of corporate responsibility. We witnessed the time of boom when there was a great deal of money. Unfortunately, the wealthy became wealthier and the poor did not. There is much talk of a recession at the moment but there is a cohort of people who never benefited from the boom and for whom its disappearance has made no difference to their lifestyle. I refer to the 80:20 principle. As we speak, there is a significant number of people on whom the recession has had no effect because there are so wealthy that it makes no difference. However, there are others including people in the poverty trap, on lower incomes, people who are under-privileged people, people who rear big families and single parent families. All such people are affected by the difficulties associated with poverty.

I refer to the need for a sense of community. I am a great believer in the voluntary community ethic. I started my political career working with a community based organisation involved in providing services to the community, including playgrounds, public amenities and job creation. There is a significant entitlement in this regard and the Government must attempt in every sense and at every opportunity to encourage community development. I refer to entrepreneurs in society who give of their time. A significant amount of people have been successful in recent years. They should be encouraged to help in some way. A sense of acknowledgement by the State is very important.

Photo of Séamus KirkSéamus Kirk (Ceann Comhairle; Louth, Ceann Comhairle)
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In the next slot we have Deputies Darragh O'Brien and Mattie McGrath who may speak for ten minutes each.

Photo of Darragh O'BrienDarragh O'Brien (Dublin North, Fianna Fail)
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The previous Deputy mentioned one of the most important points in respect of begging. It is not a question of trying to criminalise people who are in genuine need. Only three weeks ago in Donabate, Fr. Peter McVerry gave a presentation to Donabate Community Council in my constituency. He was discussing the issue of homelessness, especially in respect of younger people and the issue of begging came up. People asked about the best thing to do and whether one should one give money to a person begging. Interestingly, Fr. McVerry said the best thing one can do is to say "Hello" and talk and engage with that person. It is important to remember a person's dignity and desperation at such times. For the vast majority of people, it must be the case that they are at their lowest ebb to feel it necessary to go on the streets. I get off the train each morning at Pearse Street Station and I then walk past the same three people begging every morning as I walk up to the Dáil. When dealing with legislation such as this, which is important in controlling the intimidatory aspects of begging and the professional begging industry, we should not forget the genuine people who have, through no fault of their own, fallen on hard times. It is important to remember that those who are on the streets are people like all of us. They have families and feelings and deserve a small bit of recognition from us as we walk past. We can say "hello", ask how they are and see if assistance can be given in other ways.

The Bill is sensible legislation. I have heard complaints in my constituency about begging outside shops and houses and on our main streets and about people feeling intimidated by it. It is important that the gardaí are given powers to deal with this. The legislation will prohibit begging within ten metres of an ATM, a dwelling or the entrance to a business premises. The gardaí will have the power to move people on from those locations if they consider the begging and the manner it is being done to be intimidating people. That does happen from time to time.

It did not surprise me to learn that the previous Act governing this activity is the Vagrancy (Ireland) Act 1847, enacted in probably one of the worst times in the history of the country during the great famine. It was probably introduced by the powers that be to sweep the problems of the country under the carpet and get starving people off the streets. Thankfully, we are not in that position, or anything close to it, today. I was not surprised that, in the case of Dillon v DPP, the 1847 Act was judged unconstitutional. This presented the Government with the need to bring forward the Bill.

The Bill takes a commonsense approach. It brings balance between those who are genuinely needy and those who are not. There are organised gangs of beggars, because begging can be a lucrative industry. Children are sent by their fathers and mothers to beg in our cities and throughout the country. This must be dealt with, and I know this matter falls within the remit of social services. Children should not be made to sit on the street in all kinds of weather and collect money, sometimes to feed their parents' habits or to raise money for them. I would like to see this problem addressed. I hope it is within the powers of the Bill to allow the gardaí more leeway in dealing with this issue.

The Bill does not criminalise any individual. Penalties under the Bill are capped at a fine of €300 for someone who refuses to move on if requested by a member of the Garda. The fine for a person who refuses to give a name or address or gives false information to the gardaí is capped at €200. We are dealing with a sad reality of life that goes back to the beginning of time. That is, that people sometimes feel it necessary, because of the situation in which they find themselves, to seek assistance from others.

Although State and voluntary agencies do magnificent work throughout the country and we have made massive strides in the area of homelessness, this issue needs to be addressed constantly. People who are living on the streets must be given proper information about their entitlements and where they can seek assistance. I refer to Father Peter McVerry, who is an expert in this field and who has established hostels for young homeless people. Hostels are not the best place for young adults aged between 16 and 18, particularly as they can be a gateway to drug misuse and alcohol abuse. Some of the centres are in such bad shape that it would be difficult to send young people to them, where they could be led down a road they would not otherwise have taken.

While talking about the Bill and what it might do, we cannot forget our responsibility to look at the causes of this problem and to provide early intervention, ideally at a family level and in the family unit. It is a symptom of modern society in the last ten or 15 years that the family unit has broken down somewhat. Parental guidance and time spent with children seem to have lost their importance. I know it is difficult to gauge how successful early intervention will be but the fewer homeless people who are begging on the streets the better. Broader society needs to be educated about the people who are on the streets. No one makes a conscious choice to be in that situation. It is up to us, as Government and Opposition legislators together, to make sure this is always at the top of the agenda. This is a battle we will never win, but child poverty and homelessness must remain a priority for all of us.

The Bill takes a sensible approach and the penalties are clearly outlined. There is a feeling among the public that there are criminal elements behind some begging rings. This is true. Deputy Kenneally referred to sections of our community who are receiving State assistance or seeking refuge in the country. Someone who is being supported by the State and is receiving State benefit and housing has no need to beg. Is it possible that such a person is handing the proceeds of begging to someone above them? That area must be criminalised. It is akin to slavery, and I do not use that term lightly. People are running gangs of children and young men women who are made to sit out for 12 or 14 hours a day and hand up what they get to someone who controls them.

I welcome the Bill. It represents a sensible approach and I am glad to hear there is broad support for it.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary South, Fianna Fail)
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I too am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on this Bill. Begging is a sensitive issue, especially in the hard times we face at present. It is important to balance the need for law and order with an appropriate response to a human and societal problem. The Bill achieves this balance, in that it does not criminalise begging itself but leaves only aggressive begging as a crime. It is important to distinguish between both. The offence of begging arises only where it is accompanied by threats, intimidation, violence or obstruction. The offence carries a penalty of one month imprisonment and/or a fine of up to €400. The Bill also proposes a new power that would permit a member of the Garda to direct persons who are begging to move on from key public places, for example, the vicinity of an ATM or the entrance to a home or business premises.

I totally understand that when an individual or family are forced go out to beg their self worth and lives are at a very low pitch. They would not do it unless they had hit very hard times, fallen off the wagon and were forced into the situation. We must differentiate this activity from organised begging, often involving small children accompanying adults on the streets in all kinds of weather. It is very hard for passers by to see them in such circumstances. I accept totally that if people want to contribute in such cases, they are free to do so. However, I would be very concerned if I thought the begging was organised and that children were being misused or abused in this regard. They are normally found in very sensitive areas and I am delighted, therefore, that the Garda has the power to move them a certain distance from such areas.

Most Irish people want to share because of their history. In Penal and Famine times, people did not have enough to eat and were forced to flee the land in awful circumstances to foreign shores. Many died all over the country, in workhouses, poorhouses and God knows where else. Since then, many organisations, some voluntary, have been providing shelter, sustenance and basic requirements. They were overrun during the dark period in our history to which I refer. Since then, the Irish have been caring and interested in the livelihoods of their neighbours, friends and newcomers to our shores. Over recent decades, there have been many newcomers and we welcome them with open arms. It reflects badly on us all if there is an abuse of generosity and if begging is carried out in a business-like fashion that forces people to solicit money, food or other goods, including through activities on the streets or by calling to houses or businesses.

It is important that we legislate for the greater good and, in so doing, eliminate opportunities for a tiny minority to tarnish the reputation of the vast majority. Unfortunately, it is hard to legislate for everybody at once because a one-size-fits-all solution never can be applied easily.

The provisions in the Bill are valid and are to protect the public from intimidation and harassment. They will have an effect on related on-street activities, including drinking and drug taking, that represent a danger or threat to the public. While this aspect of the law is beneficial to society at large, it should not be seen in any way as brushing the problems of homelessness and begging under the carpet. It is very important all Members respect the fact that the legislation is not intended to do so in any way.

On a human level, I am sympathetic to those forced into the circumstances I have described. The Government should be considering preventive policies, such as family support and community intervention, that might provide a longer-term solution required by individuals and the broader community.

After the tsunami and other desperate events such as earthquakes and serious famines, from which, we are glad, our little country is protected, the Irish, both young and old, proved to be very generous. Moneys have been raised through no-uniform days in schools, arts initiatives and other means. Considerable sums of money and other goods are collected to be sent abroad. People mobilise and demonstrate their goodness when tragedies are beamed into their homes by the media. While we condemn the media at times, their bringing of such pictures into our sitting rooms reminds us of the plight of less-fortunate mortals. We have come to the aid of many all over the world and have been pioneering. We have missionaries all over the world.

I am glad the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs responsible for overseas aid, Deputy Peter Power, has joined us, along with the Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Mary White. The Minister of State, Deputy Power, has witnessed some of the circumstances I describe. I have not although the pictures I have seen are enough to move anybody, unless one has a heart of stone.

The public will accept this Bill as an effort to eliminate malpractice and the misuse of people, including by gangs. People will understand it and will not have reasons to criticise or oppose it.

The failure to comply with a direction of the Garda will result in a fine of €300. It is a lot of money to the destitute or if one is begging. However, the fine is not aimed at the destitute but at those who are begging as a business. The provision will protect members of the public in locations where begging activity can be particularly intimidating and compromise one's privacy. It is very important that there be free movement and that people have a right to contribute in whatever way they want to charity without being coerced or having their arms twisted.

It will be an offence to fail to give a name or address to a garda, or to give false details to a garda, and this offence will attract a fine of up to €200. This is important. Every citizen should be traceable. I believe and want to believe, as is right, that all people have certain entitlements.

I thank the charities combating homelessness. In this regard, I must mention the work of my neighbour and friend from Tipperary, Alice Leahy, in Dublin. I am involved in many charities, some very closely. I do not want to be critical of charities because they are set up for the best of reasons. If I have any criticism, it is that they sometimes become so immersed in what they are doing that they do not see the wood for the trees and lose sight of their objectives. Bureaucracy can creep in and have an effect. Sometimes too much of the money donated freely by the people is spent on administration and meeting costs. We should not be afraid to say this and examine it. It can happen all committees and organisations. Most of our voluntary bodies are limited by guarantee but sometimes can get caught up in bureaucracy and lose sight of their objectives.

I referred to Ms Alice Leahy because her organisation is very small and local and meets the homeless in the morning and at times of great vulnerability. In saying this, I am not taking from any of the other charities. When walking to work, I normally meet people in the street and usually feel I want to give them something. Having listened to other speakers today, I may stop for a cúpla focal with the homeless with a view to understanding them better. Perhaps I will learn something tomorrow, in spite of my being a little afraid of the language barrier, for example. It is a bad day on which we do not learn something.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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I am glad to have the opportunity to speak on this Bill, the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Bill 2010. I am not so sure this is the title I would give to a Bill if the intention were to discourage people from begging in certain sensitive areas. They are to be discouraged for very good reasons in many cases. For example, it can be very intimidating to those at an ATM machine or at a facility on a public thoroughfare if they are surrounded by people who seem to be organised. One may be intimidating unwittingly. It is important that we have legislation to deal with that.

When people are begging, I always want to know whether they are in receipt of their due entitlements under the social welfare code. I am not so certain they are in all cases. We must be conscious, particularly at present, that some people may be driven to extremes to supplement their income, particularly if they have been the victim of an application on which a decision has been delayed for a considerable time. I had a call from a constituent in my office a few minutes ago about a person who had waited almost nine months for a decision on a social welfare claim. That should not be but, in certain vulnerable cases, people may be forced to beg on the street. It is humiliating and it is an awful drop down for the unfortunate person who finds himself or herself in that position. I do not wish to justify begging or those who upset or intimidate the public but it is important to ensure we balance the way we apply our laws and that we have a reasonable indication that social welfare entitlements are being made available to applicants.

In the past I have asked people who were begging what were their circumstances and, in some cases, they had given up on obtaining a social welfare payment because they were turned down for one reason or another, including failure to make an application from their normal address or to qualify under another heading. I am a little worried that we are being encouraged to introduce legislation of this nature, which is draconian, to deal with this issue.

In the current economic climate, more people find themselves being squeezed on a daily basis. They have fewer resources and they are desperate and find themselves having to resort to extraordinary means to generate an income. Before the terms of the legislation are enforced and a crime is determined by the authorities, it would be helpful if it were possible to ascertain from the individuals concerned whether, for example, they have an income, a social welfare entitlement, where they normally live and their history. In certain circumstances it may be possible to give further attention to the person's case. Members should not forget the justifiable furore over the past few days about children in care. Some people in care have been on the streets begging. That is a fact of life, regardless of whether we like it. There are implications for society if the only action we can take is to outlaw something that happens by virtue of circumstances outside the control of the individuals involved, many of whom are vulnerable and have had no opportunity to do anything other than the nearest thing to come to hand in trying to eke out an existence.

In those circumstances, we need to be compassionate in the application of the law and this has been echoed by previous speakers. It is extraordinary in the times in which we live that so much appears to be in need of rectification and there is a such a need for retribution by the State regarding people who failed to do their job or did it improperly. It is sad that in our society no retribution will be taken against them while, at the same time, the Government has quickly taken action against the weak and the vulnerable. There are circumstances that need to be investigated but the arbitrary tone of the legislation is a little worrying. I hope its remit is not extended beyond what is suggested but even what is suggested could be intimidatory in certain circumstances, given we cannot be expected to know, on the introduction of the legislation, what the circumstances are in individual cases of people who might be fined or subject to other sanction under it.

Section 1(2) states:

For the purposes of this Act, a person begs if—

(a) without lawful authority, he or she requests or solicits money or goods from another person or other persons, and does not offer any money, goods or services in consideration therefor, or

(b) while in a private place without the consent of the owner or occupier of the private place, he or she requests or solicits money or goods from another person or other persons, and does not offer any money, goods or services...

The person thereby commits an offence. I hope there are no circumstances - reference has been made to this - where a legitimate charity might fall foul of the legislation by not having a lawful authority. I presume a "lawful authority" means a permit from the Garda. One does not know what would be the likely interpretation of that but that is my presumption.

Section 2(a) states: "A person who, while begging in any place harasses, intimidates, assaults or threatens any other person or persons,". Intimidation, harassment and assault can take place for no reason at all near vending or ATM machines or other facilities, which have nothing to do with begging. We have all come across these incidents in our constituencies and it is not always determined that an offence was committed. I would like this provision to be applied in a way that has due regard not only for the incident, but also the circumstances surrounding it, which may be maliciously intended or may be the result of necessity.

Section 2(b) provides that a person who "obstructs the passage of persons or vehicles, is guilty of an offence and is liable, on summary conviction, to a fine not exceeding €400 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding one month or both". I am not sure what this means but it could have wide implications and it is a harsh sanction. Serious offences have been committed in this State with huge implications for large cohorts of the population but no action will be taken for one reason or another. The section is arbitrary and I am a little concerned. I would like the Minister to elaborate on this in his closing contribution, as that is a wide definition of an offence. Does "obstruction" mean hovering in the vicinity, deliberating walking in front of someone, intercepting or holding out a hat for coins? For example, does it mean a person playing a musical instrument on the footpath would be deemed to be obstructing the passage of persons or vehicles? I would again like to hear what the Minister of State has to say about this aspect.

I would again like to hear what the Minister of State has to say about this aspect. All our towns have people who sit on street corners and who have traditionally done this for years. Buskers make a profession of it and I do not believe they do any damage. The definition here has serious implications and could be much more far-reaching than it would appear. It says "or" rather than "and" as regards a person who "harasses, intimidates, assaults or threatens". I would like to hear the Minister of State's evaluation of that proposal and the interpretation and definition of the offence. It would be a sorry day if we were to put people in prison for allegedly obstructing the footpath because of the introduction of this legislation.

In some cases there are people of no nationality, without a passport, even from within the European Union. I have had great difficulty in trying to find out what exactly the Minister intends to do in such cases. There are such people from within the European Union who do not qualify for a passport, and they may have lived here for several years. I wonder what the interpretation of the law will be in so far as they are concerned because there seems to be an undercurrent at present to the effect that such people have no right to exist anywhere and should be somewhere else. This is not a good side to society at any time, and is potentially very dangerous, particularly at present.

Section 3(1) states:

A member of the Garda Síochána may direct a person who is begging in any place and whom the member believes, upon reasonable grounds, to be acting or to have acted in a manner that-

(a) constitutes an offence under section 2, or

(b) gives rise to a reasonable apprehension for the safety of persons or property or for the maintenance of the public peace,

to desist from acting in such manner and to leave the vicinity of that place in a peaceable and orderly manner.

The section goes on to deal with begging within 10 m of the entrance to a business premises. Any obstruction in the vicinity of a business premises may cause problems in some cases but it all comes down to the degree to which the offence is determined and defined and the extent of the penalty being proposed. Again, I ask that this be borne in mind in these circumstances. That is as regards the power of a member of the Garda Síochána.

With regard to the power of arrest the Bill states in section 4(1): "A member of the Garda Síochána may arrest without warrant any person whom he or she suspects, upon reasonable ground, of having committed an offence under section 2 or 3." This is the section about which I have the most concern. There are many people in this country about whom it is well known they have committed offences, or who may be suspected of committing serious offences and nobody has the power to arrest them. Is that not an extraordinary contradiction in our modern society? There are such people, well-known organised criminals. I congratulate the Garda and the international police forces who combined in the recent sting to bring some of these people to justice, and I hope that continues, but it is extraordinary that we have to be very careful how we deal with such people who are well-versed in the law. They are well-versed in crime and make it their business. They go out on a daily basis to make money from crime and succeed in this, evading justice interminably it seems. They tend to know the law better than the law itself, the courts and the law enforcers. It appears we as a society are afraid to arrest them.

We have had several incidences, for example, where criminal legislation was introduced in this House in 2009, some elements of which were never written into law because of lack of direction and regulations for whatever reasons. I can never understand that because if the real intention was to come to grips with the hardened criminals that now roam the land in this country then there should have been no backing off.

At least the same resolution and force that is being proposed to apply to people begging should be applied to those involved in organised crime and criminal gangs who are responsible for murder, rape and pillage, often committing such crimes while on bail, sometimes more than once. We need to rearrange our sense of perspective. While on the one hand it is a nuisance to have people begging, obstructing the footpath or where someone steps in front of the car to wash the windscreen or whatever, it is a far greater nuisance if people can intimidate society and thumb their noses at the Garda and the courts, where they can walk in one door and out the other, coming back again and again, using and abusing the State's time, money and resources in a continuous maze focused on pursuing their own lucrative careers, showing contempt for the law and society and everything it stands for.

I and others have raised these issues, as the Ceann Comhairle is aware, over a number of years. When legislation of this nature is introduced into this House where there is a clear intention to, perhaps correctly, apply the law in particular circumstances, it is relatively easy to find groups to intimidate. However, when it comes to applying that law to those who are not so easily intimidated we are shallow in our response and how we go about our business. By saying "we", I mean whoever introduces the legislation and brings it before the House. It should be well known in advance that members of the public are aware of the way the law seems to apply to protect, or fail to protect them, as the case may be.

How many times have we seen blatant lawlessness, abuse, threatening behaviour, intimidation, violence, stabbing, shooting on a regular basis over the last ten years by people who are organised, almost an alternative army? They arm and suit themselves to achieve their ends at any given time and we are very slow to come to grips with that, notwithstanding the success achieved through the co-operation of the international police forces over the past number of days.

I would like to hear a response from the Minister of State to the points that I raised. I hope other Members will, as has previously been indicated, express some concerns as well.

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Meath East, Fianna Fail)
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Tá áthas orm labhairt ar son an Bille seo inniu, the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Bill 2010. It is an important Bill and sends the right signal from the Oireachtas that it wants to act in a constitutional manner and that it wants to show its disapproval of begging where this is accompanied by disruptive behaviour such as harassment, intimidation or any type of public order assaults or threats on the individual. This is very important because all too often when one queues at an ATM machine, one sees someone begging adjacent to it. I do not mind, normally, and often I drop in some money, as we all do from time to time but it is, nonetheless, intimidating, particularly for women, at night and for younger people as well. However, it is intimidating - particularly for women and younger people and at night - and something must be done about it. As a more learned person than me said, "The poor you will always have with you." That certainly applies, and many beggars are very poor. However, there are also professional beggars who make a living from begging. I am not saying these are a majority - they are not - but there is an element of this. These people are the most aggressive, threatening and demanding.

The previous legislation, the Vagrancy (Ireland) Act 1847, simply banned begging. Nowadays, because we have a social welfare system and what should be a system of protection for homeless people, although we do not always measure up in this respect, there should be no reason for begging. Again, however, the biblical phrase applies. The Vagrancy (Ireland) Act was passed by the Parliament in Westminster in 1847, or "Black '47", one of the most terrible years in our history. The intention was to clamp down on Irish people ag lorg déirce, or asking for alms. This was found unconstitutional, but I am glad it will now be off the Statute Book because of the intentions behind the Act and the history of our country around that time. It was not just a public order issue but a clampdown on poor Irish people. The High Court found the Act unconstitutional and the Government has reacted in a measured and appropriate way. While we are often accused here of doing things that are unconstitutional, the Government is doing something worthwhile.

This is a short Bill and does not ban begging altogether, which is appropriate. People should be allowed to go out ag lorg déirce. However, it does prohibit begging in certain cases, such as where there is intimidation, violence, obstruction or threats; this is appropriate. We cannot ban begging because of the right to free expression and communication in Article 40 of the Constitution. Citizens can go around and talk to other people if they want to, and it is important that we uphold this, even though it means begging must be allowed under the Constitution. However, begging cannot be allowed where it goes beyond this. The Minister made it clear when he spoke yesterday that the High Court decision does allow begging to be regulated. The Government can regulate almost anything, in fact. However, there must be certainty to the law, and in this case begging must be accompanied by something else in order to be prohibited. That is what is provided for in the Bill, which I support.

The legislation does not change the position whereby it is unlawful to force a child to beg under section 247 of the Children Act 2001. Begging by children is a particular problem around the city of Dublin and, it must be said, among certain ethnic groups. That is a controversial thing to say, but it is a fact. Children are being abused, day in day out, by being forced to go out and beg on the streets, and their plight is pitiful. There is no doubt those children are living in considerable distress. I am sure the last place they want to be is out begging. The only way in which we can show societal disapproval of this practice is to criminalise the people responsible for it, but in addition, we can personally refuse to give money. That is a terrible thing to say and to do, but there is no other way of preventing this abuse of children. They are certainly not begging for themselves, and they should not be.

Under the Bill, members of the Garda are given the power to move people on, and a garda is entitled to give a direction to a person who is begging if he or she believes the person is acting in a manner which constitutes an offence or gives rise to a reasonable apprehension about the safety of persons or property or the maintenance of public order. This can include begging at junctions or on roadways, which is a feature of life in the city of Dublin, although I do not see it as a particular problem in my own constituency of Meath East. Begging at roadways and roundabouts poses a danger to the beggars, to the vehicles and drivers and to general public safety.

The Garda will also have new powers under section 3 of the Bill to move a person along where he or she is begging within 10 m of a dwelling, an ATM or a vending machine. This is appropriate and necessary for the maintenance of public order. People can beg on the street when they are not outside the entrance to a house or business premises or near an ATM or parking meter, which is reasonable, because they are less likely to be intimidating or threatening or to make people fearful if they are not at those locations.

The Bill is reasonable and does not go too far and, because of this, I am assuming it has the support of all sides of the House. Concerns were raised by the Irish Human Rights Commission and Barnardos in their submissions as the Bill was going through a regulatory impact analysis. Barnardos published an observation paper on the general scheme of the Bill, while the IHRC published an observation paper in December 2008. These organisations had some concerns, but they were marginal. Given that the poor are with us always, a social response is demanded from the State, and this necessitates our large welfare state, which should be able to cover the basic requirements of all people.

We must regulate begging, yet at the same time we must consider the reasons people go out to beg. For some it is a profession; for children, it is because they are forced to, and there is separate legislation to ban child begging. However, for many, the cause is poverty, which is being addressed through another Department in the form of the national anti-poverty strategy.

Although it is not directly relevant to the legislation, I must point out that while various groups were asked to put forward their views on this Bill, including tourism and business interests, Barnardos and the IHRC, no such consultation process has taken place with regard to the Wildlife (Amendment) Bill, which was published recently. The Government would do well to engage in such a process for the Wildlife (Amendment) Bill, as it has done with the Bill under discussion. All stakeholders, for and against, should be asked their views on the legislation; if this had been done, such mistakes as have been noted in the Bill might not have arisen. I encourage the Government to send the Wildlife (Amendment) Bill out for consultation to the various stakeholders in the community in County Meath, as was done with the Bill before the House.

Photo of Charlie O'ConnorCharlie O'Connor (Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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I ask the Ceann Comhairle to allow me to preface my remarks by expressing my sadness at the passing this morning of my colleague, Senator Kieran Phelan, who has been a friend of mine for a long time. It is a little-known fact that he used to live in Newcastle, near the Naas Road, when it was part of my constituency, and we have known each other for many years. I feel the need to express my sympathy and state how sorry I am at his passing. I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to do this.

I am pleased to make a brief contribution on this important Bill, the Criminal Justice (Public Order) (Amendment) Bill 2010, which creates a new public order offence of begging, but only when it takes place in a particularly sensitive location or is accompanied by particularly intimidating or offensive behaviour. The Bill seeks to address the situation which arose following the 2007 High Court judgment in Dillon v. the Director of Public Prosecutions, which found that the law on begging, as it stood, was unconstitutional.

Like my colleagues, I started out with mixed views about this Bill. This is no criticism of the Minister, but I wonder about its Title. However, that is its Title and I certainly support the Bill. The presence of the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Power, and my friend and colleague from Clare, Deputy Pat Breen, reminds me of a few remarks that were made earlier on.

I am sorry; the Minister of State is also my friend. I thought that was a given.

Photo of Peter PowerPeter Power (Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Deputy.

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
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I thought he was Deputy Peter Power.

Photo of Charlie O'ConnorCharlie O'Connor (Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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I heard my colleague from Tipperary, Deputy Mattie McGrath, referring to Africa. I have visited that continent on a few occasions as a representative of AWEPA and as an interested person.

Deputy Breen and I were on a mission in March on the invitation of the AIDS organisation, IAVI, to visit Entebbe in Uganda and Nairobi in Kenya. One comes home from that type of trip with a different perspective on poverty and a greater understanding of the issues. That experience colours my view of this Bill which I welcome as an attempt to deal with those who take advantage of the law and of their community. On the other hand, it should not penalise those in genuine need.

I was stopped some time ago on the street by a person asking for money to buy a sandwich. After giving him whatever coins I had in my pocket, he looked at them and asked whether I was the local Deputy. When I confirmed that I was he asked if I did not have any notes. I sometimes find myself challenged when people approach me in this way because it is difficult to know whether one is doing good or bad by giving. I am always pleased to give but I have had plenty of experiences in the past of giving money to people only for them to go to the nearest pub.

I did not hear his interview on "Morning Ireland" this morning but I understand Fr. Peter McVerry, for whom I have great respect, made the simple but important point that there are different categories of people begging, including professional beggars, those who beg because their social welfare payment is delayed and they have no money and those who are homeless and will not go into a hostel because of the drug culture.

I hope the Garda and the civil authorities will implement this legislation in a common sense way. We must target the professional beggars who make a business out of begging and upset and intimidate people at ATMs and so on, but we must be careful that we do not stop giving to those who are fully deserving.

One of the organisations in which I am involved in my local constituency is the Tallaght Homeless Advice Unit where we try hard to look after those who find themselves homeless and in genuine need of support. It is often the case that those in greatest need are not the ones standing on the street begging, for all sorts of reasons. I was born in Dublin's inner city and I remember as a small child seeing people who had no choice but to beg. Their need was far more genuine than that of some of the people I see on the streets today. One must be careful in talking about these issues. At a meeting some weeks ago in Buswell's Hotel with fellow members of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, the chairman of the group, a Conservative MP, told me that on a short walk in the vicinity of the hotel that Sunday afternoon he was surprised to be approached by 12 people begging. He was not convinced these people were not genuine. Nor am I and that is the basis of my view on the Bill.

Like other colleagues, I noted that in the case of Dillon v. the DPP, the High Court held that section 3 of the Vagrancy (Ireland) Act 1847 was unconstitutional due to its vagueness and lack of imprecision and that it interfered to too great an extent with the freedom to communicate which is encompassed by the freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution. My constituency colleague, Deputy Rabbitte, made an excellent contribution on this matter last night. I understand the general scheme of this Bill was approved by the Government in November 2008. It takes account of several suggestions made by the Irish Human Rights Commission, such as taking into account that some who are begging do not have a permanent address.

The Bill applies to both adults and children. However, it does not alter section 247 of the Children Act 2001 which makes it an offence to cause a child to beg or to procure or to have charge of a child for that purpose. I was born and bred in this city and I know all the streets very well. I am honoured to represent my constituency in the Dáil, which requires me to spend three days per week in the city. I would be just as happy to spend all my time in Tallaght but I take my parliamentary responsibilities seriously. Whenever I have an opportunity, depending on Dáil business, I like to ramble around the city streets to clear my head. One sees many people, including children, begging and it is a question of trying to judge whether they are in genuine need or are part of a business. That is the quandary.

The Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, is right to grasp the nettle. There have been suggestions that at a time when a great deal of legislation on many different issues is required, this should not be a priority. However, I support the Minister and am an admirer of his work in all justice matters. I would be delighted if he could persuade the Office of Public Works to build a new Garda station in Tallaght, but that is for another day. Every week the Minister makes a significant contribution in regard to law, public order and the entire criminal justice agenda. Although this is not a lengthy Bill, having only five sections, it contains important provisions. I am pleased it is receiving support from Members. I never object when colleagues across the floor attempt to dot the i's and cross the t's.

This is legislation that will be welcomed in communities throughout the State, by people who find themselves challenged at ATMs, going to church on Sundays, coming out of supermarkets and so on. I hope those charged with policing its provisions will do so in a common sense way. I look forward to supporting the Bill.

Photo of Pat BreenPat Breen (Clare, Fine Gael)
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I begin by joining Deputy O'Connor in expressing my sadness on the sudden death of Senator Phelan. For several years now he and I have stayed in the same hotel in Dublin and I found him a very decent, honourable and hard-working Senator. I offer my sympathies to his family. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

I take this opportunity, as we are dealing with a criminal justice Bill, to congratulate the Garda Commissioner, his team of detectives and the relevant members of the force, together with their counterparts in Spain and the United Kingdom, on their excellent work on Operation Shovel. I hope it will help alleviate the hardship caused by the menace of drugs affecting this country.

I welcome an opportunity to speak in the debate on the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Bill 2010. The name of the Bill would suggest we are debating a different issue but it is an important Bill in that it creates a new public order offence of begging when it takes place in a particularly sensitive location or is accompanied by intimidating or offensive behaviour. As other speakers have said, the Bill seeks to address the position which arose following the 2007 High Court judgment in Dylan v. the DPP which found that the law on begging as it stood was unconstitutional.

The object of the Bill is to crack down on begging gangs and associated anti-social behaviour. Previous speakers mentioned professional begging and people who need to beg, and it is important that we distinguish between both. There has been a broad welcome for the legislation from the retail community, newsagents, the Garda Síochána in particular, shopkeepers, business people and, more important, tourism interests. Tourist numbers have fallen dramatically but many of us who have travelled to foreign countries have been plagued by people begging on the streets which is offputting, offensive and intimidating. It would make one decide not to return to particular countries.

I am aware the Dublin Chamber of Commerce and the various other tourism groups throughout the country are very concerned about the high number of incidents of begging, particularly in the capital city but also in urban areas, which puts people off and is a real problem.

Persistent begging is a major cause of concern. People do not mind the genuine cases, as other speakers have said, but the problem arises when people going about their daily business are constantly harassed. This legislation is designed to deal with that problem.

We have all heard stories and have seen examples of people who were intimidated by people begging. I was talking to a man in Limerick during the week, a Clare man, who needed to get money from an ATM. It was 8 o'clock at night. Three times during the process of making the transaction a beggar came up behind him and started tapping him looking for money. He was fearful that he might be attacked or that the beggar may have had accomplices and he left without finishing the transaction. He was frightened.

I am aware of another case where a young woman in a similar situation got so frightened that she left the money, which was about €100, in the machine. It had not come out of the ATM and she left it behind it because she was so fearful of the situation.

I have heard of other cases of people going into funeral homes being pestered by beggars on a number of occasions. People can be very upset by those type of incidents. They must be stamped out because there are many people caught in the poverty trap who have no alternative but to look for help on the streets. That is a sad reflection on society.

Penalties are imposed for this offence. Section 3 of the Bill provides for a member of the Garda Síochána to direct persons who are begging to desist and move on from the certain locations, the obvious one being 10 m from an ATM or vending machine but also 10 m from the entrance to a dwelling or a business premises that is open for trade or transaction with members of the public or if the Garda Síochána have reasonable grounds for believing that due to the person's behaviour and the number of persons begging at or near those premises, a member of the public is likely to be deterred from entering this premises. That is important and it is the reason many of the business groups have welcomed this legislation.

We have all noticed the increase in the number of people begging on our streets since the recession. In particular we see people begging in and around churches and cathedrals. It is a common place for people to beg and can be intimidating, particularly for elderly people who go to the church to pray but find these people are around the church looking for money and harassing people. It is important we have legislation in place to stop that type of activity.

It is unfortunate that a consequence of the downturn in the economy is that more people find themselves with nowhere to go other than to try to survive on the streets. Every night when I walk back to my hotel I notice people sleeping on the streets and people begging for money. Those are genuine people and it is a sad reflection on society that despite the number of houses we built during the Celtic tiger years, many people found it difficult to get on the property ladder. The waiting list for social housing has doubled and to compound the problem many people have lost their jobs and find it impossible to pay their mortgages. For many people the sad reality is that they are losing their homes. At any one time approximately 5,000 people are homeless in this country and there are almost 100,000 people on local authority social housing waiting lists, with 93,000 households in receipt of rent supplements.

In my own constituency of County Clare there are 2,464 families and individuals on the social housing list. It is a pity the Government does not show the necessary commitment to deal with poverty in this country. That is important. My colleague, Deputy Flanagan, outlined that in his contribution when he said that we cannot deal with the problem of vagrancy through the criminal justice system alone because begging is inextricably linked to poverty, homelessness and access to social services. He further stated that the Government needs to address the reasons we have a begging issue. That is an important statement and this problem is something all of us in this House should be addressing.

The words of the founder of Focus Ireland, Sr. Stanislaus Kennedy, reflect the position very well. She stated: "How can it be that Ireland managed to build in the region of 250,000 homes that were not needed during the boom years, yet we have still failed to provide enough homes for those who need them most?"

In general terms, and other speakers referred to this, Irish people are very disposed towards contributing to charity organisations. A recent survey compiled by the Irish Charity Engagement Monitor shows that three out of every four people in this country donate to charity but levels are falling because of the recession. For example, the number of Irish people donating to charity fell by 75% in November 2009 compared to 83% in March 2008. Of course, charities are very dependent on on-street cash fundraising and it is important that they can continue to raise funds in this manner without any disruption.

The Irish Human Rights Commission expects that the number of people who are forced onto the streets with no alternative but to beg is likely to increase over the next number of years because of the economic situation. The commission is very critical of the fact that this legislation will not be effective in addressing the root cause of this problem. The need to tackle poverty in this country is something about which many have spoken in this House.

That is also supported by Barnardos. It claims that this legislation alone will not address the problem of begging, which stems from the societal failure to care for and protect vulnerable people, including children. We all will be aware that children are often used by beggars on the streets. It is a sad reflection on society, considering what has been happening over the past number of days, to see our children forced onto the streets to beg, accompanied by their mothers.

Approximately 400 children have gone missing in this country from the care of the HSE. Yesterday, we heard from the Minister of State with responsibility for children and youth affairs, who was frustrated at the failure of the HSE to confirm the number of children who died in its care over the past decade. The official figure is 23 but, unfortunately, this figure could be much higher. We must wait and see when we get the exact figure at the end of June.

Many children have gone missing and nobody has an idea where they are. This country has an appalling record of taking care of children under its care. Many of these children end up on our streets and they have no choice but to go out to beg to survive. Barnardos also points out that the imprisonment powers under this Bill will disproportionately impact on very vulnerable groups, particularly children.

The international experience shows that when similar legislation was introduced in the UK, for example, to deal with aggressive begging, and when it became a recordable or summary offence, areas in Nottingham and Birmingham credited the sanctions with a drop in the number of such incidents. However, some academics strongly opposed the measures taken by the Labour Government. In Australia, for example, begging in many areas is completely banned and in the State of Victoria the question of aggravated begging does not apply as people who beg at all face a 12 month prison sentence.

In this country, between 2003 and 2007, some 793 adults prosecuted for begging were convicted and the average number of convictions during this period was 176. Based on these figures, it is estimated that the average cost of keeping a prisoner in custody was approximately €91,700 in 2006 and €97,700 in 2007. Taking 176 as the average number of convictions per year and the 2007 figure in terms of the cost of imprisonment, and given that the courts would hand down the maximum custodial sentence of one month's imprisonment in each case, it would cost approximately €1,432,816. That is a great deal of money, which would go a long way in helping those entrapped in real poverty.

As I stated earlier, there is a broad welcome among the business groups and tourism interests for this legislation and I very much support the need to stamp out aggressive begging, particularly of tourists. It is something that would turn one off, as is evident from our own experience of visiting other countries. I am concerned that there is no real commitment to deal with the underlying problem of poverty which is driving ever more people on to our streets for help.

The famous Indian politician, Mahatma Gandi, stated: "Poverty is the worst form of violence." There is a great deal in those words. There is a growing culture in this country of violence which has child poverty at its roots. In 2007, a UNICEF report highlighted a study that showed Ireland is one of three countries where child poverty is still at 15%. Children who grow up in poverty are much more vulnerable and the Government needs to show the same urgency in dealing with poverty as it shows in dealing with the beggars on our streets.

I wonder how effective the fines imposed in the Bill will be. The financial penalties proposed originally in the heads of the Bill have been reduced by more than half in the Bill itself. Originally, the fine was €700 and it has now been reduced to €300 or one month in jail. I do not know how somebody who is begging will find €300 when he or she does not have the money and, as I stated previously, the cost of keeping somebody like that in jail is high, even for a period of one month. That is why it is extremely important that the Government deals with the root cause of begging, namely poverty, which might prevent much of what is happening on our streets.

Some of my colleagues raised a number of issues on the area of obstruction on the streets and the fact that it carries a penalty of one month's imprisonment or a fine of €400. A matter that needs to be looked at is how one defines obstruction, threats and intimidation.

Overall, let us hope that this Bill will address the problem of begging. It gives additional powers to the Garda Síochána. However, it is extremely important that we deal with the problem of poverty in this country because it is a real problem.

Photo of Cyprian BradyCyprian Brady (Dublin Central, Fianna Fail)
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I wish to share my time with Deputy Peter Kelly.

I very much welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate on this particularly timely and important piece of legislation. From my own bitter experience in the constituency of Dublin Central, begging has been for a long time an issue in certain parts and on certain streets in the city centre.

I spend a lot of time around the business district and on numerous occasions I have observed very aggressive begging which is very intimidating for the elderly, young people and even adults. I welcome the introduction of this legislation because for too long there has been confusion and frustration regarding this matter. The confusion arose because over time the nature of begging has changed. Different elements of begging, in particular the use of children, has been dealt with over time. The Children Act 2001 made it illegal to use a child for the purpose of begging or to force a child to beg.

I remember the time when young Traveller children used to sit on O'Connell Bridge in the depths of winter. This issue was dealt with sensitively and effectively. This Bill will ensure the changes in begging will be dealt with adequately, sensitively and fairly. It is not making begging illegal but rather ensuring that where there is an element of intimidation and aggression, the Garda Síochána has the ability to deal with such situations immediately. In my experience, many cases of intimidation are not being reported to the Garda. People may have an element of sympathy for the person begging or it may be a case of intimidation or assault which prevents them from reporting. Underreporting is significant in my experience.

Gardaí, members of the public, business people and shopkeepers were frustrated because there was no method or mechanism for dealing with difficult situations such as persistent begging. This Bill will ensure a fair way of dealing with the situation and it strikes a balance between passive begging, something that has always existed in this country with the previous legislation dating from the 1800s, and dealing with a very aggressive approach. Previous speakers have referred to organised begging rings using women and children, teenagers and adults on a semi-professional basis, to procure money at various locations around the city. This is not confined to being an urban problem. There is an issue in the suburbs of people calling to doors sometimes pretending to be from a charity but who are begging. It is not a uniquely urban problem.

Previous speakers have also referred to the underlying reasons a person is forced to beg. I was a member of the Joint Committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government which met the representatives of the agency dealing with the homeless on a number of occasions. There is a myriad of reasons people find themselves homeless and are unable to afford basic food or accommodation and find themselves forced to beg. Drug and alcohol addiction play a significant part as do psychological disorders.

There has been significant progress in dealing with homelessness because this was an issue in the late 1990s and early 2000s, both in Dublin city and in the country in general. This issue was tackled comprehensively over the following years. Progress has been made in dealing with the underlying causes of homelessness and begging. This momentum must be continued. Addiction to alcohol or drugs leads to chaos in people's lives, for the victims, their immediate families and their communities and it is extremely damaging. Within a relatively short period of time, an individual can find him or her self without recourse to their families or to services, purely as a result of addiction. This legislation is only one element in tackling those conditions and situations in which people find themselves begging.

The Bill provides that the offence of begging arises where begging is accompanied by threats, intimidation, violence or obstruction. I have witnessed incidents where violence and intimidation are being used. It is a serious and worrying situation for anyone going about his or her daily business to be intimidated when shopping or using an ATM. People working in town in shops have been intimidated and assaulted. The Garda Síochána finds its hands are tied to a certain extent but this Bill will ensure it will have the power to act immediately.

I refer to the issue of begging in the vicinity of ATMs and the scams that are used to part people from their money, ranging from hidden cameras to looking over a person's shoulder to get the person's PIN. Begging or coercion may happen at the end of a transaction. The Bill provides that the Garda Síochána can ensure the areas surrounding ATMs are kept clear. It provides to keep clear from begging an area of 10 m in the vicinity of a private dwelling and from any point within 10 m of the entrance of a business premises where a member of the public may, due to the person's behaviour and the number of persons begging at or near those premises and where a member of the public is being or is likely to be deterred from entering the premises. Deputy O'Connor said he hoped the Garda Síochána will ensure enforcement of the provisions of this Bill will be done with a degree of common sense. From having spoken to Garda management as well as gardaí on the beat, I know that an element of common sense is always used when it comes to dealing with such incidents involving people who are begging. Gardaí tend to give such people the benefit of the doubt.

The Bill also gives gardaí the power to direct a person who is begging to move on, when their presence or behaviour gives rise to a reasonable apprehension for the safety of persons or property, or for the maintenance of public peace. Regardless of whether they involve violence, such incidents tend to have a wider effect on people, and not just on the individual at the centre of an incident. People passing by, including school children can also be affected, so the Bill takes that into account.

Other speakers have referred to the nature of the fines involved and how they will be collected. If someone is begging on the street it is safe to assume that, in the vast majority of cases, they do not have access to funds. As the Minister said earlier, a situation like that will be dealt with in the Fines Bill, which is currently going through the House.

I welcome the Bill before us, which will clear up some of the fears and apprehensions of the wider public. It will also ensure that homeless people who have to beg will be afforded some kind of recognition.

Photo of Peter KellyPeter Kelly (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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The purpose of the Bill is to reform the law on begging. Many members of the public have complained about begging and will welcome this measure. The current law dates back to 1847 and was deemed to be unconstitutional by the High Court. The Bill before us will outlaw begging accompanied by threats, intimidation, violence or obstruction. It makes begging an offence and carries a penalty of a fine or imprisonment. However, we hope that common sense will prevail and that, apart from extreme circumstances, a custodial sentence will not be necessary.

The Garda Síochána are being given new powers to direct persons who are begging to desist and move on from certain key locations, including ATM machines. Nobody has a surplus of money nowadays and it is wrong that people cannot visit an ATM machine without being interrupted. The specified locations will also include entrances to houses or business premises.

The Bill will protect members of the public from begging activity both by adults and children. There have been some reports of children begging from other children with threats being used. The current law is not clear enough in this regard and its provisions are too general.

Some local areas have gone to a lot of effort to create facilities for the general good of the community. If people are begging in these locations, however, it puts people off, so they shy away from such places. It is wrong for adults to use children to beg. It is sad to see people begging. It is bad for the beggar and the public. It is hard to know if people would stop begging if they were not supported, but why do people beg? Begging should be controlled by law, but should only be an offence when it is carried out in a threatening manner. Begging interferes with people who are doing their best to go about their normal lives while minding their own business.

Charity collections are not affected by the legislation. The provisions of the Bill will be applied to public and private places. People must be allowed to go about their business and live their lives without undue interference.

While the Bible asserts that the world will always include poor people, it has relatively little to say about beggars. Most of the stories about beggars are to be found in the New Testament. The Old Testament's verses about begging are mostly philosophical in nature. The Old Testament considers begging to be bad. Jesus told a story about a beggar called Lazarus and a rich man. Lazarus had begged daily in front of a rich man's house, but the latter never gave him anything. When both men died, the beggar found himself in comfort with Abraham, but the rich man was in agony in a burning fire. He was thirsty so he asked Abraham to send the beggar to give him a drop of water to cool his tongue. Abraham reminded the rich man that he was reaping what he had sown in the way he had treated the beggar when they were both alive. He refused his request.

Like all human beings, beggars should be treated with dignity and respect. Just because they beg it does not mean that we can dismiss them or fail to treat them with dignity. Beggars who threaten, abuse or intimidate, however, should never be tolerated.

We have good social services at the moment and community welfare officers do a good job in every county. People should be informed that this is their port of call. Many voluntary organisations, such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and the Simon Community are doing Trojan work in helping people out. Genuine beggars should be spoken to, helped and encouraged to give it up. Begging is bad for a person's morale and their general health. Beggars who threaten, however, should be stamped out.

I do not have too many details about those who beg in a menacing way, but they are out there and the Bill aims to stop their activities. They should be moved on by members of the Garda Síochána.

Photo of Michael D HigginsMichael D Higgins (Galway West, Labour)
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It is interesting that we are spending this time, late on a Wednesday afternoon, making arrangements to fine people who beg in a adverse fashion, or if they do not pay their fine they will be imprisoned. This is happening at a time when our economy and financial system have been brought into what is regarded as daily peril by a group of well-heeled people who probably never walked past a beggar.

I note that previous speakers paid tribute to our social services and to the Minister. However, there was no reference to the calls that students received from banks, in the midst of our greatest excess, to tell them that they were under-borrowed. There was no reference either to those poor families now in negative equity who, when they went to borrow the price of a house, were asked "Are you sure you don't want to take an extra €15,000 or €20,000 for a car?" People are still illegally ringing up to undertake cold selling on the telephone, asking people to get into debt. All of that is regarded as respectable.

It is also acceptable and respectable to lurk abroad while people are looking for one and looking for one's accounts to establish if one had been putting false information on the balance sheet of one's company and arranging with another person to accommodate one by shifting money between the month of November and the month of January. All of that will no doubt be discussed in time and with great respectability. I am not in favour of people being intimidated for contributions in the street or anywhere else but it is quite extraordinary that due to the absence of any response by way of urgency to those who have been guilty of fraud, those who have absconded while the allegation of fraud hangs around them or those who have put pressure on people to enter into debt in an intimidatory way are walking free.

I know a bit about the Vagrancy (Ireland) Act 1847. Its origin is not in 1847; vagrancy legislation goes back to the 17th century and earlier. It is closely associated with the enclosure movement in Britain, for example, which drove hundreds of thousands of people from their smallholdings towards London. That is the origin of the term "vagrant". I do not have time to develop the point but the rounding up of vagrants was a major source of manpower for the colonies in the Caribbean for the sugar industry, for example. People were picked up from the prisons, as were those who were ill or vagrant and they were shipped off to the Caribbean often without knowing where they were going. That is the origin of vagrancy.

The idea of vagrancy is that one is not insulated by having property. Thus in this Bill, for example, one will be at risk if one is not able to say where one lives - if one does not have an address. At present, a number of State institutions refuse to deal with a person who has an address at a hostel for immigrants or refugees. Likewise, some State agencies do not regard Simon hostels as an acceptable address. Many people who are on the street are homeless. I have listened to two contributions that suggested what wonderful social services we have. If that is the case, why then in July 2008 did the Health Service Executive retreat from providing two houses that were looking after young people aged between 12 and 18? The Labour Party will seek to change the Bill on Committee Stage, but the legislation applies to children. The congratulatory group who rise late in the afternoon and talk about what a wonderful country it is, how we have done so much and who say we are looking after everyone so well, these are the people associated with the missing bankers and the disgraceful record of fraud. These are the people whom they supported and who then suggest that it is wonderful that we are cleaning up all of this now. Are they not heroic?

I do not want anyone to intimidate anyone, not only within 10 m of an ATM machine or adjacent to a place of business, but I would like to think we have a sense of proportion in terms of what we regard as urgent. I worked as a sociologist for more than 30 years. I am curiously in the area of the sociology of criminal law and deviant behaviour. In those days we used to look for evidence. I have looked at the report of the Law Reform Commission and other reports. Where is the empirical evidence that this is a serious criminal issue or even that it is in the top rank of the ten most serious issues? We are told it was urgent to deal with the matter because the Vagrancy (Ireland) Act 1847 was struck down so we must do something. I am sure the legislation will be regarded as a real achievement.

The previous two speakers stressed the social services we have and what a wonderful country it is. Contributions get more pompous as one gets closer to the evening. There is no 24-hour nationwide social work service for children. I referred to the two residential centres for children between 12 years and 18 years. The Health Service Executive announced a funding freeze on services dealing with homelessness in July 2008. What can one say to those people? The deconstruction of the language of the Bill is that if one is begging and homeless, or if no services are available, then one should just remember to be polite. The important thing is not to upset anyone. That is where the law is at its worst.

There is a history of child abuse in this country. The practice was to press a coin into the hands of children who were not being looked after by their parents so that they could be accused of begging and then they could be rammed into an institution. They were in then out of the rain and the cold but they needed the coin pressed into their hands to get them inside the door.

I have listened to debate in this area for a long time. I was on the MacBride commission on prisons. After that came the Whittaker commission and several other commissions on prisons. How can one justify such a process in 2010? If a person who may be suffering from drug abuse, is intoxicated or is in the withdrawal stages of intoxication, strays within the forbidden 10 m zone, he or she is already in line for a likely fine of €200 unless he or she gives a name and address when requested to do so. Next, the person is brought to the Garda station and he or she is told there may be a €400 fine. This is a person begging in the circumstances I have described. Then the person faces a month in prison. In spite of debating other legislation in which it was agreed by all sides of the House that one should not have people in prison for whom it is not the best option, it is being suggested that it is socially progressive in 2010 to introduce the Bill before the House. Now we are creating the opportunity to send people to prison in this way.

My colleague, Deputy Pat Rabbitte, suggested that the Labour Party will not oppose the legislation on Second Stage but that we will have amendments to offer on Committee Stage. Indeed we will. I would go a bit further. I find the assumptions made in the speeches to which I listened quite extraordinary. Deputy Grealish, who was on holidays in the United States, ran into an FBI man and he had dinner with him in the evening. They discovered that there was a millionaire with one leg who was earning $500,000 a year. All I can say is that is wonderful. At least he did not ask him to contribute to the Progressive Democrats because it was bereft. Perhaps he should have gone on his holidays earlier. That is the kind of facetious comment that is made in the context of the Bill.

The notion as well is that people begging are a blot on the landscape and get in the way of tourism. The next stage is that when one has all of those attitudes oneself, one can then say there are wonderful organisations that do great things. Simon provides soup. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul offers good quality second-hand clothes and does great work. When I was working as a sociologist, I found it interesting how few people ever stopped to talk to the people involved. That is a clue to what I have to say next. How can one conclude what is the intention of the person who is accused of begging, such as the one-legged man in America to whom Deputy Grealish referred in his extraordinary speech, who is driving an enormously expensive car with his one leg, apart from the €500,000 house he owns? When one reads the speech one will know why the Progressive Democrats came and went. That is all I have to say on the matter.

I hope people will look carefully at Deputy Grealish's speech and what he has to say. Following the jurisprudence section of his speech, in which he referred to the Dillon case, Deputy Grealish argued that "a key aspect of the new legislation is clarity" and suggested that gardaí may have problems in ascertaining whether a person is 10 m or 11 m from an ATM. What if a person staggered within the forbidden area? Is it not marvellous?

I believe that intimidation is wrong, particularly in the circumstances to which people have referred. People should be free to use the public space. All of us in the public space should show a certain degree of compassion. If a child is begging, that is an indictment of the society in which we live. In such a case, there should be a referral service to which the child can be sent. If there is no 24-hour referral service, that is an indictment of the state of the Government. If one believes somebody is being manipulated or forced to beg - it has been suggested that some groups engage in such activity - one should identify the source of that pressure and address it. One does not need to drag an address out of the person in question, or to send them to jail, in order to address the matter.

I wish to refer to another issue that arises in the Bill, purely as a piece of law. I recently attended a meeting of the community policing initiative committee in Galway. I find that a couple of councillors make it a specialty. One of Deputy Grealish's colleagues does not like to talk about legislation, or anything like that, but prefers to talk about those who are present and those who are not. During the course of the meeting, I asked a question about an interesting aspect of the issue of begging. The decent superintendent who was in attendance said that it was in a bit of a limbo at the present time. Deputy Grealish spoke about clarity earlier in this debate. If a garda suggests to a person that he or she should move on, then asks the person for his or her address, and on it goes, how is that clear? None of this is clear. None of it is reasonably operable for a garda who is trying to do his or her best. Issues of discretion are being left entirely unbalanced. How can one reasonably defend oneself from an accusation of begging in a way that contravenes this law? I cannot see it. I suggest that the Bill is drafted in a manner that takes refuge in the fact that such a person is unlikely seek to vindicate before the courts his or her right to beg properly. Deputy Grealish made the interesting suggestion that these restrictions should apply to "the surrounds of churches". Perhaps the suggestion can be linked to the departure of the Progressive Democrats, in so far as it would ensure we are relieved from Progressive Democrat collections, at least, if such collections continue after the winding-up of that party.

There is another interesting point to be made about the country in which we are living. I do not want to comment on the other pillars of our State. I remember when the President said we no longer needed to be second to anybody. She suggested that we were up there with the best of them. Were we not wonderful? There are hungry people begging and sleeping rough on our streets because there is no place for them to go. There was a time when we used to go around the world asking other countries if they would like to know how we did it. Those who used to ask people to come here and find out how we did it are the kind of people who would not be happy with one house, or 12 houses. They would have to have 14 houses in Ireland and a few more abroad and to be travelling regularly. We had more than a fake tan society; we had a fake moral society. Our first response to the demise of that society - at a time when many bankers are on the run and many people are slowly trying to search for documents in banks - is to go after the people who are embarrassingly begging. It tells us a great deal.

This Bill raises a serious issue with regard to children, in the context of Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. One cannot haul a child into a station, but that is what this legislation would do. My views about youngsters who are in trouble might be very unfashionable at the moment. When I was a student at Manchester University, Barbara Castle published a magnificent document, Children in Trouble, for the British Labour Party. A great deal of children are in trouble or are offending many people, for example, by drinking in bushes or in the open, but there is nowhere else for them to go. These youngsters may have all sorts of personal difficulties. If they could walk into some kind of centre to talk to someone, their needs might be identified at an early stage. If squad cars brought children home, if they have homes, or to some place where they feel safe, it would be better than introducing them to the criminal process, as this legislation proposes.

According to section 2(b) of the Bill before the House, a person who, while begging in any place, "obstructs the passage of persons or vehicles, is guilty of an offence and is liable, on summary conviction, to a fine not exceeding €400 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding one month or both". Another human rights issue - the notion of imposing a sanction which cannot be met - arises in that context. In the old-fashioned jurisprudence, the thinking was that one should not impose a fine without there being a capacity to pay it. In this case, it is proposed to impose a fine of €400 on a person who is begging. If they cannot pay it, they will face a month in jail. There seems to be a belief that if we look after someone for a month in jail, we will cure them of their impertinence for life. I suppose everything will go on happily, as before. No one will be slowed down. No four wheel drives will even have to slow down either. Everything will be just as it always was.

When I attended an international conference on economic development in Brazil, all the youngsters on the streets were rounded up. They used to be called the rats of the street. They were all moved out of the way so the dignitaries and the television cameras would not have to see them. It was the usual old thing we have had here, with helicopters everywhere. It is interesting that Ireland had the biggest waiting list for helicopters. We had more Mercedes cars, per head of population, than Germany. Although we have the highest number of golf courses in the world, we are terribly worried about people begging on the streets. I hope sanity will break out on Committee Stage. The Second Stage debate on this Bill has been useful because it has revealed the assumptions of many of the speakers on the Government side. We know who they will not go after as a matter of urgency in the short term, and we know who they regard as easy targets for a cheap piece of populism.

Photo of Ulick BurkeUlick Burke (Galway East, Fine Gael)
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I am delighted to have an opportunity to speak on this Bill, as it has been proposed. However, it is leading us into a great deal of confusion, in certain ways. We need to try to reconcile the creation in this legislation of a new public order offence of begging with the suggestion that begging, of itself, will not necessarily be deemed to be an offence under the Bill.

It is an offence only if it takes place in a particular location accompanied by offensive or intimidating behaviour. While this is fine, we have been told this legislation is a result of the High Court judgment in the Niall Dillon case. Until now, begging has been dealt with by the Vagrancy (Ireland) Act 1847. Deputy Michael D. Higgins outlined the historical background to this, namely that in 1847 Ireland was in the depths of famine with homeless and hungry people forced to beg out of necessity for food, clothing and cover.

I welcome this legislation as it deals with those beggars who intimidate people. Such intimidation not only happens in urban environments but across rural areas. Some groups are intent on terrorising people in rural areas to get money; they are not begging in the same way as those simply and quietly sitting on sidewalks or in doorways in urban areas.

One does not have to walk far from this House to see homeless persons and children begging on the streets. Our society has turned its back on them. Homelessness in Dublin city alone must be the highest comparatively among all European capital cities. Children are often sent out by parents or older siblings to beg for money. No sooner have they a few coins in their begging bowls than their elders take the proceeds.

Various Departments have failed to recognise these children are being pushed into begging. These problems would be much greater if it were not for groups like the Simon Community and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul which have eliminated the need for some disadvantaged people to go out to beg. This legislation will only be effective, however, if the Government also makes a genuine effort to respond to the needs of those forced to beg.

The media has made much publicity out of attacks of individuals by beggars besides ATMs and so forth. This is a horrible experience for those affected, particularly the elderly. However, not many in the media have taken up the case of those who are homeless in Dublin and other towns and cities.

Remedying the reasons why people resort to begging will only make this legislation effective. It is widely reported that more people than ever are begging on the streets even after the economic boom. While many commentators point to those who have run into trouble by being misled by banking institutions, at least they had choice. Those forced to beg never had a choice or the opportunity of getting credit. It is the social deprivation of this group that we need to remedy.

In the past in rural areas it was regular for certain sections of the community to go door to door to request food, clothing or otherwise. They always received willingly from many families which shared what they had to relieve hunger and lack of clothing. The Travelling community, for example, of the past were responded to positively. They were no hindrance, never intimidating anyone or causing disturbances then. This is unlike some of the behaviour these days where people purport to be collecting for a charity with false documentation asking for money.

It is far more important that this practice is eliminated by the Garda rather than it asking a child or homeless person to move on. The Bill provides for the Garda, which will have to implement the legislation, to ask people to move on. However, the vagueness of many of the Bill's provisions leaves it open for the heavy hand of the law to be used. This could lead to overreaction to, say, a person reported as a regular nuisance in a particular area when it is not the case.

Gardaí can use their judgment in a discretionary way to ask these people to move on. How can they do so on a frosty, cold, winter night, as they pass along Molesworth Street, Kildare Street or any other street? How can they ask the people in cardboard boxes to get up, get on and move away. This is an example of where our system has failed in so far as other Departments or agencies of Government have certain responsibilities. The responsibility and blame should be placed firmly in their place and they have a responsibility to do something for those people, but this has not happened.

I refer to the list of begging statistics from 2003 to 2007. In 2003, there were 729 proceedings, 274 convictions and some 76 non-convictions. The figures from that point up to 2006 were largely within the same statistical range. However, in 2007 the figures decreased substantially to 64 proceedings, 14 convictions with 20 cases pending and 11 non-convictions. That was as a result of the High Court decision. Let us lead on from there to determine what the situation will be as a result of this legislation and the response to it.

In his summing up on Second Stage, I call on the Minister to indicate what he believes might be the result of this legislation. I refer to the greater number of people in the current climate seeking help by begging deemed not of the intimidatory kind. Will they simply be asked to move on and will no legal action be taken? I refer to the remarks of Deputy Michael D. Higgins earlier. Would it not be a serious situation and totally against human rights if the Garda were to take a child and bring him or her into a Garda station? It is unthinkable that such an event or occurrence could happen in Ireland in 2010 and beyond.

The Minister stated in respect of the proposed legislation that under the new public order offence, begging will be an offence where it is accompanied by unacceptable behaviour such as harassment, obstruction or intimidation. He further stated that the law will recognise that circumstances can arise where asking for help is not to be regarded as begging. This could lead to an apparent contradiction because begging of itself is not an offence unless it is accompanied by these activities. I refer to the example of a young person who does not have money to pay for his or her bus fare late at night. It would be wrong to criminalise a person who asked for assistance in such a case, providing there is no harassment or intimidation for those from whom help is sought. Cases may have arisen for a person where, late at night in the city of Dublin or any other city in the country, he or she missed the last bus and sought a fare for a taxi out of the city. While there might be a genuine aspect in some cases, the reality is, in parallel, the majority of cases involve people who will approach, usually from a crowd, rush along, ask quickly and maybe disappear if he or she believes there will not be a positive response. However, there are legitimate cases which do not constitute begging. If a person requests or pleads the need to get from O'Connell Street to Dundalk or somewhere else, it may not fit into the begging bowl attitude which has been mentioned. However, the provision is peculiar and it forms part of the contradiction I observe in the legislation.

What constitutes a good or service is not defined in the Bill. Will the Minister explain or clarify this? This could, potentially, lead to exploitation by a beggar, who may offer a token good or service in return for money received, thereby evading the provisions of the Bill. The legislation refers to the removal of buskers, hawkers or magazine sellers from the ambit of legislation. There was a time in recent years when, at the notorious intersection near the Red Cow Inn, magazine sellers and windscreen washers worked. That was an example not only of intimidation, but of a situation where the lives of those involved and the safety of traffic coming and going in the area were under threat. I have never seen a garda or member of the traffic corps asking such people to move on or to change location even if there is a suggestion of their causing intimidation at such a junction. These are examples of begging which do not fit into the usual idea of begging we have held in the past.

Section 3 permits a garda who has reasonable apprehension for the safety of others or of properly maintaining public peace to move a beggar on. This is an example of where the safety of others as well as the safety of the person in question is involved. If the legislation involves eliminating such a situation it would be welcome. I refer to a situation in which a garda may direct a person begging in a private place or within 10 m of an entrance to a dwelling, an ATM or a vending machine to desist and leave the vicinity, regardless of whether his or her conduct falls within the category of intimidation or otherwise. A garda may also direct a person begging to desist and leave the area. I am unsure whether such language may be fully interpreted by a garda presented with a difficulty or who suspects a person of begging in a given area. It is very vague.

I believe many amendments will be introduced on Committee Stage and I trust the Minister will respond in a very meaningful, understanding and sympathetic way to what is about us in society today. I refer in particular to children forced to beg by peers or parents. Such children are sent out to earn money. I trust the Minister's colleagues in Government will respond to the needs of people who are homeless and hungry. Poverty is a key factor in many of these cases and I trust the Government and responsible agencies will respond positively to such situations.

Photo of Seymour CrawfordSeymour Crawford (Cavan-Monaghan, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Bill this evening. Public order is very important. While I appreciate that an important aspect of the Bill is to rectify the legislation on begging, I would like to mention a number of other public order issues, at least in passing.

If it were not for the Simon communities, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and people like them we would have many more beggars on the streets in our current situation. There are often delays in social welfare payments and people can have difficulty getting social welfare payments although they are entitled to them. A situation now exists which has not done for many years.

The legal action taken regarding the Dillon case made it essential to update the law, but it is important that we not only update the law, but make sure we give the gardaí the personnel and wherewithal to deal with what is happening.

The previous speaker mentioned magazine sellers and people collecting at dangerous junctions. That is something I would like to see controlled and curtailed. If the law is not already sufficient to deal with it, I hope this Bill will do so.

The purpose of the Bill is to provide a legal mechanism to control and deter begging. Businesses and tourism interests have welcomed the Bill, particularly citing the evidence of the visible increase in the number of people begging on our streets since the decision in the Dillon case. The Minister heralded the Bill as a modern and reasonable solution to a problem we cannot ignore. However, it is important that we recognise that problems such as this are often caused by poverty. We cannot ignore that either. The Bill will give the Garda a new direction. Gardaí will be able to make sure people move on from ATM points, dwellings and business premises. Begging near to business premises can be very annoying and wrong. It is extremely important that people, especially the elderly, can move about the streets freely when they are shopping in towns and do not feel under pressure, intimidated or forced to give money they cannot afford.

When I saw the Bill on the Clár, I seized the opportunity to mention an issue which was raised at a joint policing committee in Clones, a place where I went to school and which I know extremely well. Clones is normally a quiet wee place but it now has a major social problem. People are gathering in the Diamond, drinking and begging at the same time. This is not acceptable and cannot be allowed to continue. I hope the Bill has sufficient power to see it does not happen. We held a public meeting of the joint policing group in Clones some weeks ago. It was difficult to listen to some of the stories told by local people who had been the victims of the situation. Problems are arising not just late at night, but during the day and at weekends. There is a public order problem and we need to ensure it is controlled.

I wish to speak about another important issue. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform lives close to the Border, as I do. Public order can be affected by what is happening among dissidents. Today, we heard a report from the national monitoring committee that groups are actively recruiting young people. They are making bombs. We had proof of that outside Dundalk this week, if we did not know it before. In this context, I congratulate the gardaí who, working with the PSNI and others, ensured that two of the people involved are now behind bars. This may send out a message that this sort of public order offence will not be allowed to continue. I emphasise to the Minister the need to ensure that there are sufficient gardaí, whether to enforce public order in Clones or to deal with the curtailment of dissidents.

We have had major problems with public order on the roads around Clones and on the road between Clones and Cavan, which runs north and south of the Border. Again, I congratulate the Garda and the PSNI, who have done tremendous work in bringing that area under some control. It is not an easy situation. I know the area extremely well, as my uncle lived there until his death a short time ago and I still have family members there. Moving in the district, one is in and out of the North like a yo-yo. People from all over the country got to know about it as an area they could use for all sorts of wrong behaviour. I congratulate the Garda and PSNI on their work there.

When we go out onto the streets of this city at night, it is difficult to understand why so many people are lying in doorways, begging and unable to look after themselves. Having come through ten or 15 years of reasonable wealth, it is unacceptable that this situation persists. I think of my own home town of Monaghan. Many years ago, we had a busy St. Davnet's hospital which had a unit for the treatment of alcoholics. It was run by the county council and later inherited by the health board, which kept it going for a long time. The unit dealt successfully with people who had difficulties with alcohol. We must go to the source of the problem. There is no point in simply arresting beggars and throwing them into jail. We must find out why they are there and what is causing them to beg. If their difficulties stem from the abuse of alcohol or drugs, it is in our best interest to ensure the facilities exist to deal with those problems. I urge that this be looked at by the Government, because the Bill, in itself, will not solve these issues.

The use of children for begging is the most distasteful thing possible. I know Barnados and other organisations are extremely worried about how children will be treated under the Bill. Children are being put out to act as beggars while their parents and their colleagues collect the children's takings to spend on alcohol, drugs or whatever else. We must ensure that children are not the victims, either of the Bill or of the situation.

Begging will not go away because of this Bill. It has been there since the start of the world. An earlier speaker remarked that it is mentioned several times in the Bible. The Lord was quicker to forgive the beggar than the wealthy man. We need not think we will do away with begging. What we need to do is control it and do our very best to deal with it in a structured and proper way.

It is not just in Dublin that there are homeless people because they are all over the country. There have never been more houses lying vacant. The Government has clearly failed to utilise these houses, which are of extremely fine quality, and to ensure people are housed in the best possible way.

I welcome the Bill and the laws in place to ensure the Garda has the power to control begging. There was a barracks in Clones when I was at school there. The Garda barracks was replaced with a brand new building. Unfortunately, there is a green box on the door of it every night. If we are to control the problems in the town and many similar towns, we will have to re-examine how we deploy gardaí and provide them with the services needed to protect citizens and ensure begging and more serious crimes are controlled.

I ask the Minister to consider how the system is working or, in some cases, not working. I know the gardaí in Monaghan better than most and talk to them regularly. They certainly want to do their best but are curtailed by the structures now in place. We need to see them on the beat as much as possible. There is no point in having this law in place if there are no gardaí to prevent a beggar who is in the wrong place at the wrong time from remaining there for as long as he likes because he has no need to worry that a garda will appear.

I support the Minister on this Bill but beg him to ensure that, irrespective of the other problems in the country, the gardaí will be plentiful on the Border considering the current circumstances. Those gardaí who are not needed for administrative purposes should be on the ground such that we will see a very visible Garda force working with the people to ensure those who commit themselves to it are safe and sound.

Photo of Deirdre CluneDeirdre Clune (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I am glad to have the opportunity to speak on this Bill. It is a small Bill but has led to much discussion. I have been following the debate. The purpose of the Bill is to control begging and make a new public order offence of begging, but only when it takes place within a particularly sensitive location or where it is accompanied by particularly intimidating or offensive behaviour. Most people accept that, where begging is accompanied by harassment or intimidation, it is right that it be controlled. If begging is intimidating at ATMs or places of business, gardaí will have the power to move the beggars on.

It is interesting to note that begging in Ireland was outlawed from 1847 to 2007 by the Vagrancy (Ireland) Act 1847. It was introduced at the time of the Famine, at which time many people were begging on the streets. Ten days ago, on a Sunday afternoon, there were a number of Famine commemoration events across the country. I was in the small Famine plot in St. Joseph's graveyard in Cork. The plot is classified as a paupers' grave. There is one cross to mark the plot but it is reckoned there are approximately 8,000 bodies buried there without headstones. A local historian speaking at the event quoted an eyewitness of the Famine who counted 130 beggars one day while walking down Princes Street. Not all of them could have been dealt with by the Vagrancy (Ireland) Act 1847.

There has been much commentary on the Law Reform Commission's recommendation that begging should be punishable by a fine and by imprisonment. The recommendations were mostly ignored, except for some provisions introduced under the Children Act 2001. The case of Dillon v. the DPP, taken in the High Court in 2007, has left us with virtually no control over begging. It found that the Vagrancy (Ireland) Act would be unconstitutional in that it represented a disproportionate interference with the right to freedom of expression. At the time, Mr. Justice de Valera made a statement that it did not rule out future anti-begging legislation. Since 2007, there has been a lack of legislation to control begging.

This Bill states begging will be legal if it is not accompanied by aggravating factors, and that if harassment, obstruction or intimidation occur, a fine of €400 or a prison sentence of up to one month will be imposed. It is acknowledged that if one offers a token service in return for money, one can avoid the provisions of the Bill. This recognises the existence of buskers, hawkers and others. These are part of our culture and if they operate in a non-intimidating way, such that individuals can refuse to make a donation or avail of the service on offer, they are free to do so. Most people accept this. It is part of street culture and street life.

A very useful service was once offered at the Luas stop at Heuston Station. The ticket purchase machine was quite difficult to operate if one was not used to it. Those who were not used to it included people coming from the country by train. A very innovative beggar helped individuals to purchase their tickets on the system and gratefully received any contributions in return, such as change from the machine. The service was very worthwhile and useful.

Photo of Dermot AhernDermot Ahern (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Louth, Fianna Fail)
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He was an entrepreneur.

Photo of Deirdre CluneDeirdre Clune (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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He was an innovator. He certainly provided a very useful service and therefore does not fall under the provisions of the Act.

I listened to many comments on the reasons for begging. Some excellent research supports our discussions on this Bill. It concludes that most begging is carried out by people who need to supplement their incomes. They need to do so for various reasons. The homeless are such people. They are in a vicious circle and it becomes difficult to gain access to welfare payments. Children or young people may be sent out to beg by parents.