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House of Lords

Monday, 3rd April 2000.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Salisbury

Postal Services: VAT

Baroness Miller of Hendon asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What response they intend to make to the European Union proposal for VAT on postal services.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the Commission has not yet made a proposal for VAT on postal services.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, I understand from the discussion paper that the Commission is considering doing so. It has been a year since the noble Lord, Lord Simon, responded to a Question from the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart. Have the Government come to a conclusion as to what they will do if a firm proposal is put forward, as seems likely?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, we do not know what the proposal will be. If the noble Baroness is concerned that we will accept a tax on stamps, I can say that that is a decision which requires the unanimous agreement of all member states. The Government have made clear that they will not give their agreement to such a tax.

Lord Ezra: My Lords, first, is this issue linked with the proposals for the progressive opening up of the EU postal market, the next step for which is due in 2003? Secondly, can the Minister indicate the Government's attitude to that development?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, it is linked to the proposals for the opening up of the market for postal services. One of the major issues in that regard is that of monopoly which, under the Postal Services Bill now before another place, is being replaced by the licensed area proposals, whereby a licence has to be obtained by the Post Office and any other competitive body from the new Postal Services Commission. The proposals being made by the European Community are that the licensed area should be no greater than that required for the universal service obligation. As the noble Lord will know, we are committed to the universal service obligation.

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2.37 p.m.

Baroness Sharples asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they have any plans to change the law regarding the sentencing of aggressive beggars.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton): My Lords, a person convicted of begging in a public place may be sentenced to a fine of £1,000. Depending on the circumstances of the case, aggressive or intimidatory begging, or using children for begging, may lead to prosecution for offences carrying a custodial sentence. We have no plans currently to increase the sentences for offences relating to begging.

Baroness Sharples: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Am I right in thinking that the police cannot take people's fingerprints when they are accused of begging? Assuming that the beggars are also asylum seekers, is the Home Secretary likely to implement his suggestion that they should be fast-tracked?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, we should not necessarily assume that all beggars are asylum seekers. Far from it. However, the noble Baroness is right in relation to fingerprinting. The Government are giving consideration to the issue of fast-tracking those asylum seekers who beg. We will no doubt be commenting on that in the near future.

Baroness Turner of Camden: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that there is little justification for the hysteria whipped up by the tabloid press on the whole question of beggars and asylum seekers?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, my noble friend speaks with great wisdom on this matter. We must look at these issues carefully and proportionately and take appropriate and firm action if and when required. That is the sensible and humane approach.

Lord Dholakia: My Lords, does the Minister accept that the existing laws on begging are adequate and that additional sentencing provisions would not be helpful? Perhaps I may point out that begging is not restricted to asylum seekers; others beg too. Also, does the Minister consider that the voucher system meant for asylum seekers is inadequate? Will he undertake to review the system to ensure that those with children have adequate resources to buy nappies and toys? Moreover, will he ask the Home Secretary to use a balanced approach when publicly speaking on these matters?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the Home Secretary already takes a balanced view of these matters. We feel that the procedures are right in relation to asylum seekers and we have made adequate provision for those who are destitute.

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In relation to begging generally, I looked carefully at the statistics and found that in the mid-1980s 500 people a year were convicted. In the last year for which we have figures, 2,025 people were convicted. It is also the case that the law was changed in regard to the sentencing of beggars in 1982 when the party opposite downgraded the offence. The term "incorrigible rogues" was removed from the provision, plus the ability to send such people to prison. The then government felt that the offence was so minor as to warrant only a fine. That was their attitude at the time; it seems that their attitude has now changed.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords--

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes: My Lords--

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, it is the turn of this side; but I shall give way to the noble Baroness.

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord from the bottom of my heart. He displays his usual wisdom in these matters.

Can the Minister say whether, in cases of persistent begging with very young children who have unquestionably been drugged, it would be more practical, rather than giving money for nappies, to take those children into care?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble Baroness has struck a strange note. Local authorities have more than adequate powers to take children into care if they believe that they are vulnerable. In the circumstances that the noble Baroness describes, children may well be vulnerable. Under Section 4 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 it is for prosecuting authorities to proceed against such beggars if they wish to do so. They may also consider instituting care proceedings.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, will my noble friend give an assurance that as a result of recent advice by the Magistrates' Association that penalties--that is, fines--should accord with people's ability to pay, we shall not find that aggressive beggars of any kind or of any nationality are sent away with a conditional discharge while people who park on double yellow lines are fined £500?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, it is obviously not for me to determine how sentences should be passed or what the nature of those sentences might be. However, I think it must be accepted wisdom that the penalties imposed fit the nature of the crime. That is what is enshrined in law. That is the general approach. I am sure that the courts will follow that general and sensible approach. I believe that the sentence passed on someone for begging will relate to the harm, the alarm and the level of distress caused by the begging. I have been alarmed in the past by this activity, as, I am

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sure, have other Members of your Lordships' House. There are other times, however, when begging activity is entirely innocent.

Earl Russell: My Lords, does the Minister agree that beggars who are not in genuine need depend for their success on the belief of the public that there are beggars who are in genuine need? Does he agree that the best way to stop the public holding that belief is to ensure that no one falls through the safety net of social security?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, that is a wise observation. There are, of course, beggars and beggars. People beg for different reasons and they beg for different things.

Baroness Young: My Lords, one of the most disturbing forms of begging is begging with children, particularly with babies. It is not at all an uncommon occurrence. I suspect that we have all witnessed it. What instructions are given either to the police or to social services departments with regard to such beggars? It is a disturbing sight. Small children are taught to beg, usually by their mothers in the cases I have come across. That is extremely bad for the children, whatever may be said about the adults.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness that that cannot be good for the children concerned. I believe that is common cause among us. Cases must be dealt with sensitively, as they are. Carefully considered advice has been given on this matter. As I have explained, begging is a prosecutable offence. People who are convicted can be fined. If Section 4 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 is applied, offenders can be imprisoned. No doubt, guidance must be followed in those circumstances. The overriding need is to protect the interests of the child. I believe that all Members of your Lordships' House would agree with that.

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