"I am writing to confirm to you my decision to retire as Clerk of the House on 31st October of this year.
While not immune from the general reluctance to leave the House of Commons voluntarily, I feel that after 41 years' service, 17 as a Clerk at the Table and seven as Clerk of the House, it is now time to move on.
During my service there has been a constant need to adjust the House's procedures and patterns of work in response to increased demands, and to constitutional change. In addition, the House has taken control of its own finances and administration, through the House of Commons Commission.
I believe that the House staff at all levels have responded well to these demands, and I should like to express my personal gratitude to them for all they have done. In particular, I wish to say how much I have appreciated the support and friendship of successive Speakers, and of Members in all parts of the House. The House of Commons is one of the most resilient and effective Parliamentary Chambers in the world. It is a great honour to have been its principal servant."
The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Tony Newton) : Madam Speaker, your announcement has beeheard with very real regret, as was clear from the murmurs in the House, in every part of the House as it signals the departure of someone who has given outstanding service to the House as a whole. Many will wish to pay tribute to that service when the time of Sir Clifford's retirement comes. However, in accordance with past custom, I suggest that that would be the appropriate time for our thanks to be more fully expressed.
Mr. David Hinchliffe, supported by Mr. Ian McCartney, Mr. Gary Waller, Mrs. Elizabeth Peacock, Mr. Allan
Column 126Rogers, Mr. Terry Rooney, Mr. Neil Gerrard, Dr. Norman Godman, Ms Liz Lynne, Mr. Alan Williams, Ms Kate Hoey and Mr. Tom Pendry, presented a Bill to make it unlawful for any rule-making body for a sport to discriminate against persons who have participated, are participating or are expected to participate in any other lawful sport, and for connected purposes : And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 1 July, and to be printed. [Bill 129.]
Motion made, and Question put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 101(3) (Standing Committees on Statutory Instruments, &c.)
That the draft Pesticides (Maximum Residue Levels in Crops, Food and Feeding Stuffs) Regulations 1994 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.
That the draft Betting and Lotteries (Northern Ireland) Order 1994 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c. That the draft Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Northern Ireland) Order 1994 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.
That the draft Local Authorities (Charges for Land Searches) Regulations 1994 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.
That the draft Weights and Measures (Cosmetic Products) Order 1994 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c. That the draft Weights and Measures (Intoxicating Liquor) (Amendment) Order 1994 be referred to a Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.-- [Mr. Conway.]
Question agreed to.
Mr. Peter Butler (Milton Keynes, North-East) : I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Vagrancy Act 1824 and to create a new offence of intimidatory begging. The Bill is aimed at a mischief which is growing--that of violence and disorder on our streets. The solution which the Bill would propose is both straightforward and urgently needed. I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister identified the problem so accurately recently and defined it as aggressive begging. There is a cancer eating away at our society--the fear of crime and the fear of becoming a victim of crime. We always assume that that relates only to burglaries, robberies and major crimes. That assumption is false ; few people will actually witness a bank robbery. There is an even more destructive fear--the simple fear of disorder which arises in daily experience when people walk along a street to the shops, to school, to work or to visit friends. Increasingly, that experience is of a disorderly street, which is the source of distasteful and frightening experiences.
Our streets have changed in nature in far too many of our towns and cities, and they have become nasty places. They are no longer somewhere to dawdle and chat, enjoy the occasional sunshine, window shop and talk to neighbours. They now represent a gauntlet of fear to be run daily, especially by the more vulnerable members of our society. The right to walk safely in our streets is being taken away from our law-abiding citizens. I want to return that right to them. Let me be clear : the problem that I am seeking to tackle is not begging but violence. Aggressive, frightening, violent and intimidatory begging would be made illegal and the police would have the power to arrest an offender immediately. I am not talking about people who are down on their luck asking for charity. My Bill would restore to them the basic human right of seeking help from others by repealing that section of the Vagrancy Act 1824.
I am talking about people who are destroying the community in the centres of our great universal and cathedral cities, our seaside and tourist resorts and our towns and cities up and down the land by terrorising decent people. Often organised in gangs, these people are not unfortunates deserving of sympathy but criminals calling out for condemnation.
The 1824 Act says :
"Every person wandering abroad, or placing himself or herself in any public place . . . to beg or gather alms . . . shall be deemed an idle and disorderly person . . . and it shall be lawful for any justice of the peace to commit such offender . . . to the house of correction."
There have been times when I have considered that "house of correction" is another expression for where I am standing now. The Act does not create an arrestable offence of itself, and it is applicable only in a random and arbitrary way. It is an unfair and ineffectual piece of legislation. Apparently, it was necessary to control the wandering bands of veterans who had returned from the Napoleonic wars. I am reasonably confident that all of them are now dead.
When the legislation was debated in 1823-24, the main concern seemed to be that it went too far in liberalising the law. I refer to a debate on 10 February 1824--which,
Column 128Madam Speaker, neither you nor I will recall --in which it was said in column ll2 of the Hansard Parliamentary Debate :
of the Bill
"had been to mitigate the severity of the former vagrant act . . . Formerly, the magistrates had the power of sentencing to transportation for seven years ; at present, they could not sentence to more than two years' imprisonment. Formerly, whipping could be inflicted by the order of one magistrate ; now, it could not be inflicted, except by an order of a bench of magistrates at the quarter sessions."
That was a liberal approach indeed, even in those days. Surely we have matured as a society since those pre-Victorian days.
Begging has taken place in every society and in every age. The Opposition parties, devoid of anything else to say on the subject, attempted recently to suggest that begging was invented in 1979 and has existed only under this Conservative Government. It is only necessary to state that view clearly for it to be seen to be palpably absurd. I refer the Opposition parties to the Bible, which has many examples of the existence of beggars-- long before the Conservatives took power. It is as pathetic to talk about that and take that view as it is to talk about being tough on crime and the causes of crime while voting to be soft on criminals.
More recently, the Public Order Act 1986 was brought in as a change to the Public Order Act 1936, but that does not cover the problem adequately either. Sections 4 and 5 of the 1986 Act make the use of threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour an offence in certain circumstances, but it applies only if it can be shown that the person either intends his behaviour to be threatening, or he is aware that it may be threatening. Even then, under section 5, a policeman cannot make an arrest unless the offender repeats his conduct after a warning from the officer. In other words, if he frightens someone, he cannot be arrested unless he does it again. That is simply no longer satisfactory.
I am not concerned with the intention or the awareness of the violent offender ; I am concerned about the effect that it has on the innocent passer-by who has become the victim. That is the person whose rights I stand here today to seek to protect.
The Public Order Act 1986 was not intended to deal with aggressive and violent beggars and it does not do so satisfactorily. Intimidatory begging is directed at an individual and should be considered as both a public order issue and an offence against the person. It targets a citizen and applies fear to that person. All citizens, but especially the vulnerable-- the elderly, youngsters and mothers with young children--are entitled to be protected. If I were to be given leave to introduce the Bill, it would approach the problem in two ways. First, it would create a new offence of intimidatory begging, which would be committed when someone begging in a public place behaved in such a way as to intimidate a person of reasonable firmness so that he or she felt compelled to give. Examples would include physical touching or obstructing the person solicited, following that person, using directly obscene or abusive language or violent and threatening gestures, or harassment, consisting of persisting in begging after the person solicited had declined to give, or had given a sum that the beggar did not consider adequate, as was the case in many of the examples reported to me.
Column 129My descriptions may have sounded like simple words, but the actions are not merely frightening ; they can be terrifying. Cases have been reported to me from all sorts of towns and cities throughout the land, involving all sorts of members of society. I was especially affected by the examples of such begging that were directed against the elderly. It also seems to be persistently directed at young mothers, often with toddlers or children in prams. It is not acceptable in Britain in 1994 for a mother with young children, or an elderly person, who declines to give to a beggar or gives an insufficient sum to be verbally assaulted with language that they are not accustomed to hear, or followed, only to receive a continuing harangue of foul and abusive language. We should act quickly to make it illegal and should not delay introducing a Bill to control such behaviour.
Examples have been reported to me from all parts of the country, but I need look no further than my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan), who was accosted by an aggressive and intimidatory beggar and pursued before she became a Member of this honourable House, when she was without the benefit of a parliamentary salary and unable to donate.
The Bill would criminalise violent begging, but, as I said, violence is my target, not begging. It follows that I want to repeal that part of the Vagrancy Act that criminalises what one might term traditional or polite begging, which is a basic human right. I want to criminalise violence, but decriminalise the unfortunates who find themselves in such a desperate position that they genuinely have to ask for charity. The Bill would restore some dignity to those people who are down on their luck by removing the stigma of criminality from their instinctive action in simply asking for help.
I hope that the two measures, taken together, will command the support of the House. Any hon. Member who opposes the Bill will have to explain why he or she wants to continue to make criminal the simple and time-honoured act of asking for charity, and to continue to allow violent disorder on our streets. The Bill would give our police what they do not have at present--a clear, concise and straightforward offence, with a power of arrest attached, which would enable them to remove some of the violence from our streets. Law-abiding citizens demand the protection of their right to use the streets of Britain without fear. We should meet that demand and do so now. I ask the House to give me leave to bring in this Bill. 3.42 pm
Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West) : I agree with that part of the motion of the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Mr. Butler) that would change the law regarding begging by amending the Vagrancy Act 1824, but I do not think that he needs to introduce a new offence of intimidatory begging. All the actions that he described are covered by existing law--for example, threatening
Column 130behaviour and behaviour likely to cause a breach of the peace. Touching people can be dealt with by using the offence of common assault.
We know what the hon. Gentleman is really talking about. Suddenly it has become the thing for Tories to pick a group of people or a very small problem, inflate it out of all proportion and use it as a smoke screen to cover their failure to deal with the many social problems afflicting this country.
The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East mentioned the "cancer" that was eating away at our society. I will tell him some of those cancers : mass unemployment, growing homelessness, the enormous gap between rich and poor, which is greater than it has been for 100 years, and the trade gap, which has become a gulf judging by the figures announced today. The hon. Gentleman could have mentioned all those issues, but he has come up with the problem of intimidatory begging, taking his lead from his fairly useless Prime Minister, when he launched his Euro-campaign.
We know a bit about intimidatory begging and about money being demanded from us with menaces. That occurs usually when some overweight guy looking rather like an unmade double bed comes up and demands money with menaces. He says, "If you do not pay, you will end up either shivering in your home or you will go to gaol." We know all about that, because that is what the Chancellor of the Exchequer does every year.
That is intimidatory begging. The ordinary people of this country are told to put their hands in their pockets or purses and hand over large amounts of dosh ; if not, the Government will go for them. That is intimidatory begging which is covering up the total economic incompetence of the Government and the failure of their policies. I can tell the House one thing : one might be able to walk away from a beggar, but one cannot walk away from a pot-bellied old soak called the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Mr. Banks : I have looked at early-day motion 1247 on intimidatory begging put down by the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East in which he congratulates the Daily Express on exposing what he said was a case of somebody making a large amount of money from begging on the streets.
What has the hon. Gentleman ever done to expose the causes of begging on the streets of London or any other city ? When has he ever talked about the real reason why people beg on the streets ? There are thousands of people who are sleeping homeless on the streets of London at the moment.
The hon. Gentleman said that begging did not start in 1979. Madam Speaker, you see what goes on in the streets of London, and we all know. We have never seen so many beggars on the streets of London as there have been since 1979. It is one of our great growth industries, and the
Column 131causes are fairly obvious to anyone who wants to see them--mass unemployment caused by the Government's economic policies, particularly among young people.
The Prime Minister is responsible by altering social security regulations with regard to 16 and 17-year-olds. People are on the streets who have been turned out of long-stay mental institutions and who are suffering from alcoholism. It is estimated that 25 per cent. of people on the streets have been discharged from the armed services. The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East said that the Vagrancy Act 1824 related to the Napoleonic wars, and that there is no one left alive from those wars--that was observant-- but the fact is that 25 per cent. of people sleeping rough on the streets have been discharged from the armed services.
Homelessness is another great cause of begging and of people sleeping out on the street. Shelter estimates that 1.7 million people could be considered homeless in this country. What has happened since 1979 ? Homelessness has trebled in this country, and the number of people in poverty has doubled since 1979.
The Duke of Edinburgh said that there is no such thing as absolute poverty ; but he is not the best person to talk about poverty and about people in need. Indeed, he might follow the example of Princess Diana who, I noticed, went the other day with her son to the Passage night shelter in Westminster on the first day of Royal Ascot. While the Tories and all of their friends were at Royal Ascot, someone at least was going out to see what was happening on the streets of London.
The Prime Minister should come out of No. 10 Downing street and walk down to the Embankment, into the Strand and into Red Lion square and see the casualties of the economic and social incompetence and the injustices of the Government. That is the sort of thing that the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East should have been talking about, and not trying to raise yet another spurious argument about an object for his hatred and distaste.
It is typical of this bankrupt Government that they blame the electorate for failing the Government. They have created social and economic chaos, poverty and disruption in this country, and now they seek to blame the victims. There is no need for this proposal today. Existing laws already cover everything that the hon. Gentleman said. In those circumstances, I beg leave to oppose the motion.
Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No.19 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business) :
The House divided : Ayes 76, Noes 148.
Division No. 268] [3.50 pm
Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey)
Banks, Matthew (Southport)
Beresford, Sir Paul
Boyson, Rt Hon Sir Rhodes
Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thorpes)
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)
Coombs, Anthony (Wyre For'st)
Deva, Nirj Joseph
Evans, David (Welwyn Hatfield)
Fenner, Dame Peggy
Fox, Sir Marcus (Shipley)
Gorman, Mrs Teresa
Grant, Sir A. (Cambs SW)
Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth, N)
Hannam, Sir John
Column 132Harris, David
Hill, James (Southampton Test)
Jackson, Robert (Wantage)
Jopling, Rt Hon Michael
Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine
King, Rt Hon Tom
Lawrence, Sir Ivan
Maitland, Lady Olga
Mitchell, Sir David (Hants NW)
Moate, Sir Roger
Montgomery, Sir Fergus
Neubert, Sir Michael
Onslow, Rt Hon Sir Cranley
Porter, David (Waveney)
Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)
Shaw, David (Dover)
Skeet, Sir Trevor
Speed, Sir Keith
Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)
Spink, Dr Robert
Taylor, Sir Teddy (Southend, E)
Thompson, Sir Donald (C'er V)
Townend, John (Bridlington)
Walker, Bill (N Tayside)
Tellers for the Ayes :
Mr. John Sykes and
Mr. Jonathan Evans.
Abbott, Ms Diane
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)
Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale)
Banks, Tony (Newham NW)
Beith, Rt Hon A. J.
Benn, Rt Hon Tony
Bottomley, Peter (Eltham)
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)
Carlile, Alexander (Montgomry)
Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)
Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE)
Davies, Bryan (Oldham C'tral)
Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)
Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'dge H'l)
Ewing, Mrs Margaret
Foster, Rt Hon Derek
Godman, Dr Norman A.
Grant, Bernie (Tottenham)
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Harman, Ms Harriet
Hill, Keith (Streatham)
Home Robertson, John
Howarth, George (Knowsley N)
Howells, Dr. Kim (Pontypridd)
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Jackson, Helen (Shef'ld, H)
Jones, Barry (Alyn and D'side)
Jones, Lynne (B'ham S O)
Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)
Kennedy, Jane (Lpool Brdgn)
Khabra, Piara S.
Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Marshall, Jim (Leicester, S)
Martin, Michael J. (Springburn)
Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)
Morris, Rt Hon A. (Wy'nshawe)
Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon
O'Brien, William (Normanton)
Pike, Peter L.