Mr. Dermot Ahern TD, Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, announced today that he is to introduce new laws which will crackdown on begging.
The Minister said the Government had approved proposals which will see the first reform in laws on begging since the famine.
Mr Ahern said: "There are various reasons why the law on begging needs to be reformed, not least the fact that some vulnerable members of the public are often fearful when approached on the street by individuals begging.
Intimidation and threats of violence are sometimes used by these people and women and the elderly are often fearful for their own personal safety. In addition, it is very distressing to witness young children effectively forced on to the streets to beg by sinister adults.
Business and tourist interests are damaged by begging on the streets of our cities and towns. The current law does not provide An Garda Síochána with the powers to effectively police this problem."
The reform comes in the wake of the High Court’s judgement that the current law is unconstitutional. In the case Niall Dillon-v-the DPP the High Court found that section 3 of the Vagrancy (Ireland) Act 1847 was too vague and was incompatible with the Constitution’s provisions on freedom of expression and freedom to communicate. However, the Court stated clearly that there was nothing in its decision that would prevent the Oireachtas from enacting new laws to control begging. Mr Ahern added that he is satisfied the new legislation will meet the constitutional concerns identified by the High Court.
The Minister said that, under the new public order offence, begging will be an offence where it is accompanied by unacceptable behaviours such as harassment, obstruction or intimidation. He went on to highlight a new power that will enable the Gardaí to direct persons who are begging to desist: a failure to comply may result in an arrest and charge. He feels this new power will prove to be an effective addition to the Gardaí’s enforcement options.
On conviction, an offender could face a maximum penalty of €700 fine or a one month prison term.
However, Minister Ahern said the law will recognise that circumstances can arise where asking for help is not to be regarded as begging. An example would be a young person not having money to pay a bus fare late at night. The Minister said most people would accept that it would be wrong to criminalise a person who asks for assistance in instances such as that, provided there is no harassment or intimidation of those from whom help is sought.
The Minister said: "I know that aggressive begging is an issue that gives rise to a lot of difficulty for traders and local communities. I am satisfied we are dealing with it in an effective manner. The existing law is completely out of date."
The Minister expects to publish a Bill within the next few months which will give effect to the proposals approved today by the Government. Meanwhile, the general scheme of the Bill is available on the Department’s website www.justice.ie.
24th November 2008