Call for action on ‘aggressive beggars’
Letter to Home Office minister Norman Baker comes weeks before lifting of restrictions on Romanian and Bulgarian migrants.
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.”