'Wilful' Diana caught up in political row

Tory anger at plea for homeless
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The Princess of Wales was caught up in a political row yesterday after she appeared to support a strong attack on government policy on the homeless.

The Princess shared a platform with Jack Straw, the shadow Home Secretary, at a charity meeting during which she condemned the sight of young people who "resort to begging or worse, prostitution, to get money in order to eat". Mr Straw said youth homelessness was a "disgrace" which would be made worse by the Chancellor's cuts in benefit for young people.

Conservative MPs immediately condemned the Princess for breaching the tradition that members of the Royal Family do not get involved in politics. The speech was the Princess's second public engagement in the UK since her Panorama interview in which she said she wanted to become an "ambassador" for Britain, but the political furore which broke yesterday will renew doubts about what public role - if any - she should have.

John Major was forced to defend government policy when asked about the comments in the Commons. The Prime Minister said: "We are fully committed to ensuring there is no necessity for some people to sleep rough and we very much hope that the culture that has grown up among some people of doing so is a culture that can change and be broken."

There had been a "remarkable reduction" in the numbers of people sleeping rough, Mr Major said, and plans to cut the numbers to zero continued.

Tory MPs were outspoken in their condemnation of the Princess's remarks at the annual meeting of the homeless charity, Centrepoint, of which she is patron. John Marshall, MP for Hendon South, said: ""I think it is quite wrong that a member of the royal family - however semi-detached - should appear to lend credence to the views of one political party or another."

Sir Patrick Cormack, MP for Staffordshire South, called the Princess a "headstrong and wilful young lady", criticising her for going on a platform "in a pre-election period, on a highly contentious subject, with a highly partisan politician". Sir Patrick said the Princess's action was undermined the constitutional impartiality of the monarchy.

Some Tory backbenchers were furious that the Princess's remarks raised the implication that the Government had done nothing to tackle homelessness, whereas the policies were, they said, among the most effective in Europe.

In her comments the Princess revealed that she had visited volunteers and met homeless people many times, most recently at a shelter in King's Cross in October. "Each time I visit I am appalled at the dangers young people face on the streets and how vulnerable they are to exploitation -16 and 17-year-olds who resort to begging or worse, prostitution, to get money in order to eat," she said.

She described those she had met as "young people whose physical and mental health has been severely damaged by life on the streets. Young people who take drugs to provide some escape from the hardship they face ... Young people who have been attacked and abused on the streets and face the indifferent stares of passers-by who have no idea how brave they are or how much they have suffered".

"It is truly tragic to see the total waste of so many young lives - of so much potential."

Centrepoint, which has 30 per cent more bedspaces in its shelters than last year, was doing vital work, the Princess said, but "each year is a struggle to make ends meet ... when those needing help are becoming younger and more vulnerable".

Mr Straw told the conference: "Sleeping rough on the streets of Britain is no longer the appalling exception it ought to be.

"Homelessness is an affront to any society which claims to be civilised. Yet the situation of the young homeless seems set to worsen."

The Princess's "extremely powerful and moving" speech was welcomed by Chris Holmes, director of the housing charity Shelter.

"It matters because she said it extremely well and was drawing on her own experience of having seen the work of Centrepoint," he said.