Begging Row: Care plan 'put people on street': Police leader attacks government policy on the mentally ill

THE ROW over John Major's attack on beggars intensified yesterday as a police leader blamed the Government's care in the community programme for putting more people on the streets.

The accusation by Mike Bennett, chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation, representing police officers in the capital, will further embarrass the Government over Mr Major's comments.

Mr Bennett said he was 'totally convinced' the care in the community programme - which transferred the mentally ill from out-of-date institutions to more normal homes - had 'put people on the streets'.

He said the police would support the creation of a new offence of intimidatory begging. But he made it clear that the police believed they were less able to deal sensitively with the problem of beggars and the homeless since responsibility for prosecution had been passed to the Crown Prosecution Service.

Mr Bennett also questioned whether any more prosecutions would take place. 'If the Crown Prosecution Service are going to caution a burglar, are they going to prosecute a beggar? I cannot see it myself,' he said.

The Government tried to counter-attack by accusing Labour of being in disarray over a commitment at the weekend by Jack Straw, the party's environment spokesman, to restore the benefits to school-leavers aged 16 and 17.

Sir Norman Fowler, Tory party chairman, told a campaign press conference that Labour would have to put young people on the dole, or cut social security benefits to pay for its commitment.

Gordon Brown, Labour's treasury spokesman, said earlier on BBC Radio that the money would come from existing budgets. But he emphasised that it would be part of the review of the structure of social security under the party's social justice commission.

'Mr Brown has now made clear Labour intend to spend not one extra penny. The only way that can be done would be for young people to be denied training opportunities and be put on the dole or something else in social security will have to be cut,' Sir Norman said.

Sir George Young, the housing minister, said school- leavers were still able to claim income support. 'I don't accept these changes are responsible for children going begging,' he said.

Sir George also denied that the closure of hostel places after the 'rough sleepers' initiative would lead to more people sleeping rough in the capital. He said: 'Everyone in a short-term hostel will be offered suitable short-term accommodation before the hospital closes.'

The three principal charities dealing with homeless people yesterday issued a three-point plan which they say would help clear the streets of beggars.

The directors of Centrepoint, Shelter and Char said the steps were needed to 'eradicate the scenes of destitution and poverty on our streets'.

They asked the Government to:

Restore benefits to 16- and 17-year-olds and the adult rate to young people under 24 who are unable to obtain jobs or training.

Extend the rough sleepers initiative to the rest of London and nationally in order to increase the supply of affordable accommodation.

Provide more resources for the Children's Act 1989 and community care to enable councils to meet local need.