24 December 2002

Giving beggars the Bird.

Conflicting reports came out regarding comments made by John Bird reported in the press. His comments were in an article by rightwing thinktank Politeia. The thinktanks advisory group includes notable liberal thinkers Michael Howard, Francis Maude and David Willets.

Bird, the founder of the Big Issue, is said to have argued that giving money to people who beg perpetuates the problem, and cannot offer it a solution. Instead he argued for the resources to be made available to address the problem and, when required, coercion be used to prevent people rough sleeping and begging.

John Bird rose to his current position, some would argue, through the legitimised giving that is the Big Issue. And with the Big Issue's lack of move on provision, some would also argue that the Big Issue serves much the same pupose as begging - and with the same problem of entrapping people in a lifestyle.

A few people might even have the timerity to note that staff at the Big Issue enjoy sick leave and paid holidays unlike the vendors, on whose endeavours the Big Issue is propped.

But only the truly cynical would note that with sales in decline, the failure of the Big Issue in LA, and staff redundancies at the Issue, driving people off begging and onto the issue could be the sales boost that they need.

Readers should also remember similar statements made by, amongst others Louise Casey. This heralded the start of the "Begging for Change" campaign, where people could give to charities rather than people who beg. And again the same arguments were used about how people would spend the money on drink and other drugs.

In an ideal world, people would not beg to buy heroin. But with restrictive prescribing practices, people punitively excluded from services, and lack of access for people who are homeless, it is more than understandable that some people will spend some of what they earn on substances.

People are more than entitled to choose to give to people who beg, or choose to give to charities. And, especially at this time of year, I'd rather give to the person on the street than the one in the office.

So happy humbug to you all.

Staffordshire Police and their amazing drug testing computer

It has been widely reported in the press that Staffordshire Police have been using a new drug testing computer to identify people who have been in contact with drugs. Rather than rely on the tried and tested approach of using sniffer dogs, passive or otherwise, Staffs Police wanted to go one better and use Communities Against Drugs (CAD) Money to buy £40,000 of computer equipment to search for people who use drugs.

The big difference between the dogs and the computer is that the computer cannot run around, sniff, and sit down when it smells drugs. Normally, such canine action would give the police the reasonable grounds for a stop and search.

Instead, the police need to ask for permission to swab with you. While a dog sticking it's nose in your crotch has held not to be assault, unwanted swabbing by the police in this situation would not be acceptable.

The twist here is that, while the police cannot force anyone to consent to a swab test, they are suggesting that unwillingness to do so would be considered grounds for suspicion, and so would mean that you may be questioned further.

Liberty has condemned the scheme, but, strangely, old comrades at Release have been strangely silent on the subject.

The following information may be of use too:

1) You are not obliged to give a swab test to the police. Any attempt in this situation to get a swab test result without your consent would constitute assault.
2) Simply refusing to give a swab test would not, itself, constitute grounds for searching on the basis on the grounds of suspicion. While a person could consent to being searched, it seems probable that the police would be exceeding their powers if they attempted to enforce a search based on a refusal to be swabbed.
3) The article says that the machine tests for a range of drugs and includes heroin and rohypnol. It seems likely that the machine, which gives very simple answers, would be unable to differentiate between various benzopidiazepines or opiates; hence there is a high risk of false positives for people who have used or come into contact with lawful substances. We would therefore be concerned that the presence of a positive result would still not in itself be grounds for a search.
4) Landlords in this situation are being put in an intolerable position. The licensing regulations require them to act reasonably to stop use and supply on their premises, and failure to do so could jeopardise a license. But what the police are doing here is coercive and the Institute of Inkeepers should make representations.
5) A positive test can not be used in this situation to prove past possession. But a statement admitting to past possession could be used to convict. So anyone submitting to a test and testing positive should make no statement and should not admit to past-possession.
6) Please pass this on to other people in the area, so that they know their rights.