John Major was immediately accused of using down-and-outs as scapegoats for his own failures. Urging people to report beggars to the police, Mr Major said the benefits system made it unnecessary for people to resort to begging and there was no excuse for it. It was an 'eyesore', he said.
His remarks were aimed at Conservative supporters on whose votes the Tories are depending in the European elections. But opponents said it was a huge political miscalculation for a prime minister who once pledged to create 'a nation at ease with itself'.
'He is trying to turn on another group of people as scapegoats to try to deflect responsibility from himself. It is the action of a desperate man who sees his party in desperate trouble and his own position under threat,' Nick Raynsford, a Labour MP and former director of Shac, the housing charity, said on Sky TV.
Shelter, the charity for the homeless, said the Prime Minister was wrong to suggest that there were sufficient welfare benefits and hostel places to stop begging and sleeping rough. Shelter had been unable to find places for 190 people last month.
Mr Major launched his attack in an interview in the West Country, where Tory supporters have been protesting about beggars and travellers, who are also the subject of tough curbs by the Home Office.
Mr Major told the Bristol Evening Post: 'If people are in desperately straitened circumstances, we have a social security safety net in this country which they can use . . . . We have rigorous penalties against it (begging) and I think we should not shrink from using those penalties.'
Beggars could be fined up to pounds 1,000 and could be jailed for up to three years if they turned to violence, Mr Major said . '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.'
The sight of beggars was an eyesore which could drive tourists and shoppers away.
The Prime Minister encouraged people to report beggars, but resisted demands for tougher laws on begging. 'The police don't think anything more is needed. They feel the law is adequate. I'm prepared to accept that advice.'
Shelter said it also wanted to see an end to begging, but the way to do that was to ensure people had adequate welfare benefits and homes. 'If he really wants to solve the problem, the Prime Minister needs to go back and address the reasons why people are begging. We have seen an increase in 16- to 17-year-olds begging. If they don't have a training place, they are not necessarily able to claim benefit. There are also people with mental health problems.'
Sir George Young, the Minister for Housing, has led the Government drive to clear London's streets of down-and-outs, with rough sleepers' initiatives to deal with homelessness. MPs also slept rough in cardboard boxes to support charitable action for homeless people.
However, public sympathy has been undermined by reports of professional beggars who make a living on the street and return to their homes at night.
Beggars hit back, page 2
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