A MAJOR row has erupted over controversial plans by Aberdeen City Council to become the first local authority in Scotland to outlaw begging from its streets.
• Proposals to outlaw begging in Aberdeen have been labelled “Dickensian”
• Labour councillor Willie Young wants begging ban in place by March
The council’s Labour-led administration was today accused of resorting to “Dickensian” politics after Group leaders announced proposals to drive beggars from the streets by making begging a criminal offence - punishable by a fine or imprisonment.
Seven years ago the council established a system of “begging boxes”, sited at various locations across the city, after a previous attempt to criminalise begging was blocked by the then Scottish Executive.
But Councillor Willie Young, the spokesman for the Labour group, said the coalition administration was determined to have a new bylaw in place to outlaw begging by March. And he revealed that the administration was also planning to bring in legislation to prevent travellers from setting up illegal camps anywhere in the city.
He declared: “People are telling us they want to Union Street to be reinvigorated. And the way to reinvigorate Union Street is to get the beggars off the pavements. There should be no begging in this day and age - it’s a disgrace.
“For the five years that the SNP were in the administration they did absolutely nothing about the situation. But we have the new Homelessness Act coming into force and there should be no people begging on our streets.
“We will identify the people who really need help by getting them accommodation and sorting them out properly. And those that are begging to raise money to feed their drug habits or whatever, they will become criminals and that, I believe, is what the public expects.”
Mr Young claimed: “It is not a case of us just criminalising begging and saying to hell with the beggars. We will be ensuring that those that need help are given help and those that are flouting the law will be dealt with. And we think the public are on our side on this.
“We are seeing beggars on our streets all the time and one member of the public sent me an email saying he had passed 13 beggars along Union Street in the run up to Christmas.”
He said: “We are moving apace with these proposals. We are determined to tackle the scale of the problem in our city centre head on and we will bring in a new bylaw, hopefully by March. We have the power to introduce the bylaw, provided it meets the terms of the Human Rights Act.”
And Mr Young continued: We are also planning a bylaw for travellers so that travellers cannot come to Aberdeen and park whether they want and leave us with the problem. The two areas that the public have told us they want us to do something about are travellers and beggars - and these are the two issues we are going to tackle.”
But Mark McDonald, a former SNP city councillor who is now an MSP for North east Scotland, condemned the proposals.
He said: “To me this is the sort of thing you expect to find in a Dickens novel, not a 21st Century local authority. There are many reasons why people find themselves in a situation where they beg, often these can relate to mental health issues. The people who are begging need to be offered a helping hand, not the long arm of the law.”
He claimed: “It is the classic mistake of tackling the effect not the cause, and by simply making every person who begs into a criminal, the administration will be doing nothing to address the reasons which cause people to beg.”
Mr McDonald continued: “Given the harrowing evidence from Henry Sherlock at the recent Welfare Reform Committee meeting, who was forced to beg as result of the UK Government’s welfare reforms. and the likelihood these reforms could see more people feeling forced to beg, this bylaw will punish the vulnerable for no fault of their own.
“I hope that the administration will think again about implementing such a policy, and instead look at how it can develop work around mental health, substance misuse and poverty to address the many root causes of begging. There may be one or two people who could be classed as not ‘genuinely’ begging, but to blanket ban or criminalise is simply tackling the effects not the causes.”
A council spokesman said: “Aberdeen City Council encourages people to use the begging boxes sited at various locations across the city. All donations go to help those in genuine need and are distributed to local voluntary organisations which provide support for beggars.”