Honesty or hypocrisy? The truth behind the exchanges

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The Independent Online
Yesterday, the Prime Minister accused Labour of hypocrisy following Tony Blair's ``zero tolerance'' interview on begging and street crime: Mr Major said he had said the same thing two years earlier and had then been attacked by Mr Blair for vindictiveness.

But is that true?

Here are Mr Major's words from the Bristol Evening Post in May 1994: "It is not acceptable to be out on the street. There is no justification for it. The problem about begging is as old as the hills. It is very offensive to many people. In areas of the West Country, where a good part of their prosperity depends on tourists, it is damaging to everybody if that sort of activity continues. I think the law should be used. It is there. It should be used. It is an offensive thing to beg. It is unnecessary. So I think people should be very rigorous with it."

Here is what Mr Blair said in response: "The real criticism of what the Prime Minister has done [in attacking beggars] is not only its vindictiveness against some who will be genuinely destitute; it is the notion that this is what we should be concentrating on. It is the pettiness and small-mindedness of it which will affront people."

In his Big Issue interview this week, Mr Blair himself was concentrating on the same subject. He said he did not think it ``satisfactory'' to have beggars on the streets; that it was right to be ``intolerant of people homeless on the streets''. To that extent Mr Major's counter-attack was soundly based.

There is, however, quite a difference in emphasis. Mr Major was more censorious about the beggars themselves (``offensive... unnecessary... the law should be used'') and denied the existence of a wider social problem causing begging.

Mr Blair, by contrast, said it was important to find beggars proper facilities and a roof over their heads, so that they were not ``dumped''.

Mr Major was right on the facts, but ignored one crucial difference between him and Mr Blair: the Labour leader concentrated his fire more on the social problem than the beggars themselves.