Beggars `ruining Edinburgh'

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The Independent Online
Homeless people should be cleared from the centre of Edinburgh, the Edinburgh Book Festival was told last night.

The first real controversy to strike the Edinburgh Festival as a whole came from the perhaps predictable source of Andrew Neil, editor-in-chief of the Scotsman and former editor of the Sunday Times.

In forthright language, Mr Neil said that "vagabonds" in the centre of the city had turned the Royal Scottish Academy into "the biggest public urinal in the United Kingdom".

He said to some applause: "I should have the right to walk down Princes Street without being manhandled and abused by beggars.

"What is the council doing to get them proper homes and back on their feet again? I have a memory of Edinburgh as one of the most beautiful capital cities in Europe.

"I think it is an outrage that vagabonds are allowed to abuse people, and turn the Royal Scottish Academy into the biggest public urinal in the United Kingdom."

Incidents of petty crime and begging have been alluded to in editorials in the Scottish press. Princes Street, the city's main thoroughfare, was the main cause for concern.

Festival organisers are always reluctant to discuss the problems of the homeless and the possibility of crime in the architecturally beautiful city centre. With festival events, particularly stand-up comedy, going on well past midnight, festival goers often walk back to their hotels and lodgings in the early hours of the morning, when those living on the streets cannot be missed.

The controversy about Scottish begging is not new, although it is usually concentrated further south. Earlier this year, David Maclean, who was then a Home Office minister, caused outrage when he said that most beggars in London were Scots living on the streets out of choice.

Mr Maclean, who was born in Scotland, said there were "no genuine beggars" and that people sleeping rough on the streets were doing so "because they find it more pleasant" than living in houses.

Foreshadowing Mr Neil's comments, the Tory MP said beggars were a "disgrace" and an "embarrassment" who frightened visitors with their aggressive attitude. "Most of the them are Scottish and I've never met one yet who politely and gently asked for money. I always give them something. I give them a piece of my mind."

However, once Mr Neil had vented his spleen about beggars, he was happy to talk about his plans for the Scotsman, saying that a lot of broadsheet newspapers were "dumbing down into the middle of the market". The Scotsman, he pledged, would "take events seriously and cover them seriously".

Looking back on his career as editor of the Sunday Times, he said of the Wapping dispute with the print unions, which ushered in new technology: "I was lucky to survive and stay alive. Everywhere I went I had two bodyguards with me, even when I took a woman to the cinema."

He said he was "of the view that the Princess of Wales corrected the proofs" of the Andrew Morton book about Princess Diana which he serialised, adding: "Though she did not correct them for spelling or grammar."

Ben Okri, the former Booker Prize winner, gave the inaugural Scotsman Towards The Millennium Lecture at the Book Festival last night.

He said the millennium was humanity "making a ritual, a drama, a tear on eternity. It is a time when humanity contemplates time, death, new beginnings, regeneration, cycles, the unknown."