PLATFORM: The real shame on Scotland's streets

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The Independent Online
A few weeks ago Murray Combe died of a suspected drugs overdose at the age of 22. Murray was one of the first homeless people to sell The Big Issue in Scotland. He was an active member of the homeless campaign group Speak Out and once took part in a BBC programme on the homeless with Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh.

Mel Young and Tricia Hughes, co-directors of Big Issue Scotland, penned a joint obituary for Murray, in which they observed: "At the end he had become depressed. He couldn't understand the Evening News and Scotsman campaigns against the homeless. "Why do they blame us all the time?" he used to ask.

That question can now be addressed directly to Andrew Neil, Editor-in- Chief of The Scotsman Publications Ltd. If there was an award for the Most Obnoxious Newspaper Campaign of the Year it would have to go to Neil, whose ill-considered ramblings have seeped from the pages of The Scotsman and sister paper the Edinburgh Evening News.

Readers south of the border recently had the benefit of Neil's analysis when he reworked a couple of his Scotsman columns for The Spectator. His theme was the decline of Edinburgh's city centre, which the former Sunday Times editor found to be soiled by "human refuse," overrun by "aggressive beggars," "vagrants" and "vagabonds." He contrasts this with a vision of Edinburgh from his childhood - "a magical place" which included the Castle, Scott monument and the zoo - reminiscent of John Major's image of a Britain of warm beer, red pillar boxes and old maids on bicycles.

Councillor Brian Cavanagh, convenor of the Social Work Committee on Edinburgh City Council, believes Neil is simply indifferent to people who survive on the streets. "He has debased the whole debate about people on the streets and failed to recognise that some have complex needs due to alcohol or drug dependency or mental health problems. They have no other place to go. He should condemn less and understand more."

Neil's hounding of the homeless was also condemned on Friday in a leader in the Scottish Daily Express, which has started to appear liberal and progressive in comparison with The Scotsman and its sister title. The Evening News' campaign descended into hubristic farce in August when it instructed its lawyers to draft a by-law banning all begging in Edinburgh. Reporters then passed this to the council. Concerned at the prospect of a new law, a group of beggars formed "the right to beg peacefully," putting their case to a full council meeting in September. The council then set up a working party to look at social exclusion in Edinburgh. Its remit included homelessness, poverty and unemployment.

Then The Scotsman effectively accused the council of side-stepping the beggars issue. It published the names, addresses and home phone numbers of the councillors who had supported the social exclusion move, inviting readers to contact their elected representatives to let them know exactly what they thought of such a classic liberal cop-out. "Scotland's national newspaper" has yet to publish the results, perhaps because the few calls which councillors received were overwhelmingly in support of the beggars. So much for Neil's attempt to capture the public mood. One wonders if his observations of "beggars" are based on research which took him any further than Market Street, below the Scotsman offices, through Waverley Station and into Princes Street. He omits to mention that he has been installed in a plush suite at the Balmoral Hotel for his weekly trips to Edinburgh. Had Neil bothered to ask any homeless people, they would have told him aggressive begging is rare and is not condoned by those who live on the streets. Life can be violent enough without courting trouble. And it confuses the issue: not all beggars are homeless and not all homeless people beg.

The paucity of his suggestions reveal his ideological leanings. Initiatives to combat homelessness and anti-social behaviour need long-term measures involving central and local government, voluntary groups and sustained public pressure. But that would reek too much of Scotland's "Stone Age collectivism" for the man who turned the Sunday Times into a cheerleader for Thatcherism.

His calls for punitive action against a small group of "aggressive beggars" misplaces the public sense of decency and their dislike of simplistic sloganeering. Edinburgh's shame is not the anti-social behaviour of some of its beggars, but that some of its inhabitants have to beg at all.

Patrick Small is a freelance journalist based

in Edinburgh.