Martyn McLaughlin: Survey demonises Glasgow beggars

Those in Glasgow in most need of the citys help are unlikely to get the chance to give their views on the survey of attitudes to begging. Picture: Greg Macvean
Those in Glasgow in most need of the citys help are unlikely to get the chance to give their views on the survey of attitudes to begging. Picture: Greg Macvean
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GROUP’S online questionnaire is slanted towards demonising begging and beggars, writes Martyn McLaughlin

If the decision by Community Safety Glasgow to explore new ways of addressing the issue of begging is sound in principle, the means by which it intends to do so is laughably inadequate.

The arms length company of Glasgow City Council this week launched a drive to establish the extent of the problem on the streets of Scotland’s largest city and, it hopes, offer the public the opportunity to “contribute their ideas on how it might be addressed”.

So far, so good. There is no more potent symbol of social exclusion than begging. If the council and its offshoots are sincere in their wish to solve it, they should be encouraged. Unfortunately, it does not require prophetic powers to pre-empt the results of its consultation.

The exercise takes the form of a questionnaire on SurveyMonkey, a free online software and tool that has previously served as the conduit for considered empirical studies such as the “Favourite X Factor Contestants Survey” and the “How Hot Is Your Bieber Survey” (tepid, for the record).

The limitations of this medium are obvious. Unlike a closed population survey, these kind of polls cannot hope to produce representative findings, with no control over who completes it or how many times they do so. With emotive subjects in particular, self-selection bias further obscures an already unreliable sample.

The legitimacy of CSG’s survey is also undermined by the way in which it is worded. With questions such as “Do you report problems associated with begging?” and “What types of problems have you witnessed?” it has fallen into the trap of posing leading queries, inviting respondents towards a particular answer. Its most glaring shortfall is the fact that the technology involved precludes those people begging – the Simon Community estimates there around 60 people a week doing so on the city’s streets – from having their say. Surely their voice is the most important?

Those who work with Glasgow’s vulnerable on a daily basis have already warned the survey risks confusing the issues of begging and homeless, in doing so stigmatising a demographic that is already persecuted and suffers from deep-rooted problems such as trauma, abuse and substance misuse.

“Begging is a response to homelessness and poverty, not a lifestyle choice,” Frank Hardie, a street pastor, has pointed out. “I’m not sure why the public is being asked about how they feel towards begging.

“Why doesn’t the council just ask about people’s attitudes to homelessness, to poverty? Few filling out such a survey will be doing so for positive reasons. People inspired to go online will be doing so to complain about begging. It’s skewed and simply wrong.”

The repercussions of this are potentially damaging. CSG says the survey responses will “help shape future strategies” to assist those involved in begging, but if a consensus emerges that they are a scourge best exiled from the streets, it might well encourage the city’s civic fathers to toe a punitive line.

The issue of how to clamp down on begging – which is not an offence under Scots law – has reared its head time and again in City Chambers.

Back in 2005, the former council leader Charlie Gordon called for amendments to the Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982, a piece of legislation which replaced the Vagrancy Act, a Victorian curio still in force in England and, effectively, on Scotland’s railways. Doing so, Mr Gordon argued, would allow his administration to take “tougher” action. “The law is not strong enough,” he insisted. “Begging is not an offence – it should be.”

However, the then Scottish Executive rejected the idea out of hand. When the council revisited the issue in 2012, seeking to introduce a by-law that would prohibit begging, the Scottish Government again dismissed its appeal.

Describing the idea of a by-law as unnecessary, it said the behaviour to be addressed by those who engage in aggressive begging – mainly breach of the peace offences – was already covered by common law, the 1982 Act and the Antisocial Behaviour (Scotland) Act 2004.

Quite why CSG has decided now is an opportune time to release its survey is unclear, but it certain that the subject of by-laws will rear its head once more as a consequence. Indeed, those of a cynical inclination might well view the survey as a means of building public support for any future attempt to secure increased legislative powers.

It is to be hoped that is not the case, but even if CSG genuinely hopes to “identify the type of people involved” in begging and “the problems they have” it cannot depend on the survey and on-street interviews with tourists.

The existing body of research throws up searching questions over how the local authority can best direct its services and highlights that it will likely require the assistance of surrounding councils if any strategy is to prove successful. Research by the alcohol and drug death prevention and city alcohol licensing and drugs sub-groups of the Glasgow City Alcohol and Drug Partnership has found that around half of those begging come from outside the Glasgow City area.

According to a contact at Police Scotland, meanwhile, the force has been deploying plain clothed officers to the streets of Merchant City to “build evidence” on the issue.

In an area where the level of research is sorely lacking, building on such initiatives is of far greater use than a survey.