02/12/2013 02:58 GMT

Call For Tougher Penalties For Beggars, 'Stigmatising' Romanians And Bulgaians

Ministers are being urged to impose stricter laws around begging, to stop what they call "professionalised, aggressive begging", in a controversial letter from council chiefs.

Five council executives, from Westminster, Slough, Southampton, Birmingham and Nottingham, have told Home Office Minister Norman Baker that beggars are emerging who displays signs "inconveniently, or perhaps conveniently, between high-level anti-social behaviour and low-level criminality."

The letter is timed to coincide with one month to go before Romanians and Bulgarians are allowed full immigration rights to Britain.

beggar london

Street beggar on the Embankment, London

The Government’s Antisocial Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill mentions that beggars face arrest if they repeatedly ignore a new order known as an Injunction to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance, which replace Antisocial Behaviour Orders.

"Effectively, the ipna will bark but won't bite," the councils warn in their letter to Baker, which is also backed by business and property interests focused on central London.

"[Aggressive begging] has been addressed in a variety of ways over the years, but none have really resolved the issue.

"An overly burdensome process together with an increasingly pressurised judicial system and the existence of legal 'grey areas' have meant that antisocial individuals and groups have been able to slip through the net, causing havoc in urban areas."

The letter was also backed by West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner Bob Jones.

Westminster councillor Nickie Aitken told the Guardian: ‘We are not concerned about working people from Romania and Bulgaria.

"We are worried about begging gangs coming here to get money. They will start in central London, then they will spread out to Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, and other cities. They will go further afield."

The letter has been criticised by human rights groups for a "Dickensian" letter stigmatising begging.

Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, said on a statement: "Haven't children and the poor been marginalised enough without nasty demands to arrest the vulnerable?

"So-called 'aggressive begging' is already an offence, as is any aggression. This Dickensian pre-Christmas wish is to detain offenders against our consciences, not criminal law."