Leading Article: Rich remarks on begging

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The Independent Online
NO DOUBT the Prime Minister thinks it very clever of him to denounce beggars as offensive eyesores who drive away tourists and shoppers. No doubt, too, he thought it clever to denounce traffic cones and to lament the lack of lavatories on motorways. He probably imagined heads nodding in agreement across the south London suburbs and congratulated himself on his instinct for the issues that concern ordinary people. But people expect more than banalities from their political leaders. Margaret Thatcher at least managed to sound as if she was harnessing popular prejudice in the service of some larger vision. John Major sounds like the whingeing bore you would try to avoid at a bus stop.

Mr Major's remarks to the Bristol Evening Post last week appear to put him somewhere to the right of Henry VIII. The latter's statute against vagrancy, though complaining that 'vacabundes and Beggers have a longe tyme increased', at least allowed that JPs should issue the genuine poor with begging licences. Mr Major insists that all begging is wrong. It is not, as he puts it, 'necessary'. One can only reflect, with J S Mill, on 'the inability of the unanalytic mind to recognise its own handiwork'.

Mr Major argues that social security safety nets should be sufficient to avoid any need for begging. So they generally were, until the Tories began punching holes in them. New rules introduced in the late 1980s cut payments to young people. Though begging began earlier in the decade, during what was then the worst post-war recession, the sharpest increase followed these cuts. Procedures for claiming benefit are specially complex for those with no fixed address. Women may have their benefit reduced if they fail to name the father of any children. The 'care in the community' policy has left hundreds who might otherwise be in mental homes wandering the streets. The Social Fund operates in the most curious fashion. It refuses loans to very poor people because they are unlikely to repay them. It rarely helps homeless people find deposits for private rented accommodation lest they distort the market - as Earl Russell, the Liberal Democrat spokesman on social security, has observed, this recalls Lenin, who banned fishing in the Moskva during the 1920s famine for fear of encouraging private enterprise.

Not all beggars are homeless, and not all (or even most) of the homeless are beggars. Nevertheless, people sleeping rough are likely to be drawn into the street culture of begging. But Mr Major has made it clear that there is no excuse for homelessness. That, too, is not necessary. 'They are not on the streets because they have to be on the streets,' he told Der Spiegel last month. 'It is a strange way of life that some of them choose to live.' And it is true that, in London at least, temporary shelters now provide greatly increased overnight accommodation for the homeless. But these are shelters, not homes. Is it so strange that many people prefer the independence, even the dignity, of sleeping in a doorway, from which they can come and go as they please, to staying in a large, impersonal institution? Perhaps, too, they wonder why they should be hoovered off the streets in this fashion, so that theatre-goers may be unimpeded on their way home, and conveniently forget them. As we reveal on page one today, a quarter of the single homeless are ex-servicemen, possibly exactly the same people praised for bravery in the Falklands or Gulf wars. Marching across the parade ground in a uniform, a man is automatically a hero; the next day, the same man, shambling down Oxford Street carrying a sleeping-bag, becomes an offence to decent people. Again, government policies have contributed - some would say wholly caused - homelessness. Council houses have been sold off and local authorities prohibited from using the proceeds to build new homes. The number of new housing starts is less than a third what it was 25 years ago. The Tories have done little more than Labour did to encourage private renting, probably the best solution for many single homeless.

It is always possible to find, as several tabloid newspapers have done, beggars who con the public - young men who rake in pounds 18,000 a year and drive away in L-registration cars. But fraud is fraud and should be prosecuted as such. Newspapers have also exposed charity frauds, but nobody proposes reporting anybody who rattles a collection tin to a police officer. Mr Major is an intelligent man and understands all this. The inescapable conclusion is that he, too, is a bit of a fraud, desperately trying to con people into voting for him.