Criminalising the poor takes another stride

Tony Gosling tony at
Tue Dec 3 01:31:23 GMT 2013

Councils call for tougher laws to police 'aggressive beggars'

Letter to Home Office minister Norman Baker comes 
weeks before lifting of restrictions on Romanian and Bulgarian migrants
Jamie Doward - The Observer, Saturday 30 November 2013 18.40 GMT

Councils including Westminster, Southampton and 
Birmingham wrote an open letter to Home Office 
minister Norman Baker. Photograph: London News Pictures/Rex

Councils across Britain have controversially 
called for new measures to deal with antisocial 
behaviour as they prepare for an influx of Romanian and Bulgarian migrants.

Local authorities in areas with high numbers of 
eastern European migrants have written an open 
letter to Home Office minister Norman Baker 
calling for an amendment to a bill going through 
parliament that would make it easier for police 
to arrest "aggressive beggars". The move will be 
seen as a sign that local authorities fear they 
will struggle to police the arrival of migrants 
from 1 January, when restrictions on Romanian and 
Bulgarian workers will be lifted. But it is 
likely to alarm pro-migration groups, who will 
see it as an overreaction to an issue whipped up for political purposes.

Mounting concerns about the impact of further 
immigration on the UK's benefits and health 
systems resulted in David Cameron pledging last 
week that "if people are not here to work – if 
they are begging or sleeping rough – they will be removed".

However, councils including Westminster, Slough, 
Southampton, Birmingham and Nottingham say that 
the government's antisocial behaviour, crime and 
policing bill, which becomes law next spring, 
will make this task more difficult by weakening 
existing powers to tackle the problem.

Under the proposals set out in the bill, 
antisocial behaviour orders (asbos) will be 
replaced by what are to be called ipnas 
(injunctions to prevent nuisance and annoyance). 
But, unlike asbos, these carry no automatic 
arrest trigger if they are breached. Instead 
local authorities, housing associations and 
police chiefs will have to apply separately for 
an ipna arrest warrant, a lengthy bureaucratic process.

"Effectively, the ipna will bark but won't bite," 
the councils warn in their letter to Baker, which 
is also backed by business and property interests focused on central London.

"[Aggressive begging] has been addressed in a 
variety of ways over the years, but none have 
really resolved the issue," the letter states. 
"An overly burdensome process together with an 
increasingly pressurised judicial system and the 
existence of legal 'grey areas' have meant that 
antisocial individuals and groups have been able 
to slip through the net, causing havoc in urban areas."

The councils propose that the bill should ensure 
that an automatic power of arrest is attached to 
an ipna when "antisocial behaviour is 
intentional, deliberate and persistent". The 
letter states: "We believe that, if we don't get 
this legislation right now, the repercussions 
could have far-reaching and significant consequences."

In a sign of growing concern over the issue 
within government, the Home Office has agreed to 
"stress-test" the proposals by conducting an 
analysis on whether they will help to curb aggressive begging.

Councillor Nickie Aiken, who has responsibility 
for community safety in Westminster, said that 
Romanian migrants were already costing the 
council £500,000 a year. She said that in the 
past week police had arrested 21 Romanians, 15 of 
whom were already known to them. "I'm a great 
believer in freedom of movement, but not freedom 
to be antisocial," she added. "When you are 
dealing with the transient and ever-evolving 
population that we are having to deal with here 
in central London, then you need the ability to 
arrest them if they breach the orders."

Five years ago the council counted 21 rough 
sleepers in Westminster, 18 of whom were 
Romanian. This year it has counted 324 rough 
sleepers, of whom 297 were Romanian.

Thinktanks and human rights groups have expressed 
concerns at the demand, branding it a "Dickensian 
pre-Christmas wish" that would have to be 
countered by strict rules to prevent it from straying into racial profiling.

Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, said that 
the councils' proposal was unnecessary: "Haven't 
children and the poor been marginalised enough 
without nasty demands to arrest the vulnerable?

"So-called 'aggressive begging' is already an 
offence, as is any aggression. This Dickensian 
pre-Christmas wish is to detain offenders against 
our consciences, not criminal law."

But Phoebe Griffith, associate director at the 
Institute for Public Policy Research, said 
councils were right to raise concerns about such 
issues. "They are the most visible manifestation 
of the general unease about the scale of 
immigration into the UK," Griffith said.

"Dealing with them is important in order to 
reassure the wider public that measures are being 
put in place to address behaviours that, even if 
not criminal, cause anxiety and disruption to 
everyday life. However, antisocial behaviour 
measures should only be used as a final recourse 
and only within a framework that guarantees 
racial profiling is not tolerated and that other 
steps are put in place to shore up community relations."
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