Leading article: Soup and sleeping-bags are no long-term answer for Britain's homeless

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"DON'T GIVE money to beggars; it only encourages them." That is advice that really divides people. It is perhaps the fundamental emotional and philosophical divide between right and left in politics. For the right, you have to be cruel to be kind: if you gave them good-quality sleeping- bags, the homeless would rather sleep rough than in a crummy hostel. For the left, you have to respond morally to the need in front of you: as long as there are people out on the streets, for whatever reasons, they should be helped.

As winter approaches, the annual debate about homelessness has been kicked off, if that is not too harsh an expression, by Louise Casey, head of the Government's Rough Sleepers' Unit. "With soup runs and other kinds of charity help, well-meaning people are spending money servicing the problem on the streets and keeping it there," she declared. To make sure of causing maximum offence to the "left" side of the argument, she then threw in an attack on charities, for handing out better sleeping-bags than those available from the best camping-shops, before taking a sideswipe at The Big Issue, the self-help initiative run by homeless people.

Ms Casey should be congratulated, not least for the plainness of her speaking. Usually when a government, and this one especially, sets up a unit to deal with a difficult problem, it tends to come up with platitudes and anodyne consensus-speak. However, Ms Casey has not tried to appease both sides of the argument, which would only have resulted in an inconsistent fudge. She has come down decisively on the "right" side of the debate, which must be to try to tackle the causes of the problem, rather than attempting to cure the symptoms that, in turn, can create perverse incentives that make the problem worse.

Of course, the ultimate causes of increased homelessness do not admit of easy solutions, family breakdown and drug and alcohol dependency being the main ones. But all the emphasis of public policy should be on providing basic shelter rather than soup and sleeping-bags. And, of course, we must enter the caveat that until there are enough places available in hostels and shelters some help must be given to those who are still sleeping rough. We should also both acknowledge the progress that has been made in recent years, especially in London, and praise the efforts of charities in launching an initiative called Millennium Plus, which aims to provide shelters in cities across the country in time for the new year.

Ms Casey will inevitably be misinterpreted, just as Tony Blair was when he was interviewed - by The Big Issue - in January 1997. He said: "It is right to be intolerant of people homeless on the streets." (It was, however, an important example of faulty grammar, missing the "being" before "homeless".)

Homelessness should not be tolerated in any rich, civilised society. Nor should begging. Of course social security benefits are inadequate, but that argues for collective action, in order to further social justice for all, rather than individual acts of pointless or self-defeating charity.

And the work of the Rough Sleepers' Unit is encouraging in this respect. We should be working towards a society in which everyone is confident that no one else needs to beg or sleep rough.

Too much of Mr Blair's rhetoric of social morality seemed fresh and appealing before he became Prime Minister. As we predicted, it has had disappointingly little impact on public policy. But, on this issue at least, the Government seems to have made a bold, unsentimental start to tackling a difficult social problem.