Inside Parliament: Begging Bill short of support

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Indy Politics
Not content with having taken a legislative stick this session to New Age travellers and gypsies, Tory backbenchers yesterday mobilised against those celebrated pawns of the European election campaign, the so-called 'aggressive' beggars.

Taking his cue from John Major, who lit the fuse on begging last month, Peter Butler, MP for Milton Keynes NE, tried to introduce a Bill to create a new offence of intimidatory begging. Police would have the power to arrest a beggar who touched or obstructed a passer-by or used threatening behaviour or abusive language.

'There is a cancer eating away at our society, and that is fear of crime, fear of becoming a victim of crime,' Mr Butler said. Even more destructive was the fear of simple disorder on the streets.

'Our streets in far too many towns and cities have become nasty places.' They were no longer somewhere to dawdle, window-shop and chat to neighbours. 'They now represent a gauntlet of fear to be run daily.'

Lest he be accused of kicking the beggar, Mr Butler, a solicitor who drives a vintage Bentley tourer, offered a trade-off by amending the Vagrancy Act 1824 to decriminalise simple begging. 'I'm not talking about somebody down on their luck asking for charity. My Bill would restore to them a basic human right of seeking help from others.'

But Mr Butler's beggars Bill is not going anywhere. After an angry speech by Tony Banks, Labour MP for Newham NW, who said picking on beggars was just a smokescreen to cover Government incompetence, the Bill was rejected by 148 votes to 76.

Real cancers eating at the heart of society were mass unemployment, homelessness and the enormous gap between the rich and poor, Mr Banks said. Rounding on the Duke of Edinburgh's remark that 'absolute poverty' no longer existed, he said the Duke was not the best person to talk about people in need.

'He might follow the example of Princess Diana, who went with her sons to a night shelter in Westminster on the first day of Royal Ascot. While the Tories and all their friends were at Royal Ascot, someone was at least going out to see what was happening on the streets of London.

'The Prime Minister should come out of 10 Downing Street and just go walking down on the Embankment, into the Strand and into Red Lion Square and see the casualties of the economic and social incompetence and injustices of this Government.'

Sitting alongside Mr Butler was an actual victim of aggressive begging. Cheryl Gillan, MP for Chesham and Amersham, had been accosted and pursued, Mr Butler said. 'This was before she became an MP and without the benefit of a parliamentary salary she was unable to donate.'

Ms Gillan has since become a soft touch for government whips seeking someone to ask toady questions of the Prime Minister. Yesterday at Question Time she commended the 'wise' decision to 'crack down on bail bandits' in the Criminal Justice Bill.

Since three out of five burglaries were committed by under-21s, why did Labour consistently oppose measures against juvenile offenders, she asked. 'Isn't it right that the party opposite are Fagin's friends?'

Could Ms Gillan's question have come from the same gag-writer as Mr Major's denunciation minutes earlier of Margaret Beckett as 'the striker's friend', in the dispute between Railtrack and their signal operators? Mrs Beckett, bidding to make permanent her job as interim leader, said it stood out a mile that the dispute would not be happening if the negotiations had not been 'sabotaged'. The Department of Transport and the Prime Minister's office had 'meddled' in the talks despite saying that they would not.

In a gutsy performance, Mrs Beckett said no one wanted a strike, except perhaps Tory MPs. 'Least of all do rail staff or commuters want this strike. Isn't it crystal clear that it is only happening because the Government interfered . . . Yet again the Government say one thing and do another. Isn't that why nobody can believe a word they say?'

An equally robust Mr Major thumped his notes on the Despatch Box and said that 'by implication' Mrs Beckett would accept the RMT's 11 per cent wage claim for the signal operators.

'Even now her condemnation is to limply say 'nobody wants this strike' . . . She would presumably end it by meeting the demand . . . How would she pay for settling it? By raising taxes? By increasing public expenditure?'

Robert Hicks, Conservative MP for Cornwall SE, seemed more a friend of water consumers - and his electors - in the South-west than of the Prime Minister. Their 'inherent reticence and tolerance' was being stretched by the 'inability or refusal' of the Government to do anything about rising water charges. Cheered on by Labour MPs, Mr Hicks added: 'Does the Prime Minister recall that it was now 12 months ago that he personally said he would look into this situation. When can we expect some positive action?'

Mr Major said it was for the Director General of Ofwat to determine the new price limits. He was in the process of doing so. Government advice on water quality matters would assist him and further ways were being examined to reduce the impact of European directives in the West Country.