Heated exchange as John Leech (Lib Dem) and John Blundell (Lab) clash over homelessness and begging in Manchester

Labour’s John Blundell has hit back at a Lib Dem councillor who criticised him over proposals to tackle begging.

In an article published on Confidential on Monday 4 December (‘Manchester’s aggressive beggars should be fined’), Blundell argued that the only way to deal with the threat of aggressive beggars in Manchester was to ‘crack down’ through fines and arrests.

Blundell, a cabinet member for Rochdale council, quoted police figures, which suggest that fewer than one in five people arrested for begging are in fact homeless. He said many of those found begging on the streets are often forced to by criminal gangs or doing so ‘because begging is profitable’. 

He wrote: ‘If the incentive is great enough people will do virtually anything. This is why aggressive begging is rife in our city centre… The authorities should endeavour to make it unprofitable for aggressive beggars to operate in our city… Remove the incentive to beg aggressively and the problem will subside.’ 

Blundell proposed one way to tackle the issue was through the use of Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs), which he says have been affective in Salford and Rochdale. 

John Blundell John Leech
The two Johnnies: Blundell (left) and Leech have clashed over begging in Manchester

However, Liberal Democrat John Leech - the only non-Labour councillor on Manchester City Council – criticised Blundell, calling his comments ‘dehumanising, divisive and frankly ignorant’, and suggesting his views ‘only expose a lack of knowledge and experience on the issue.’ 

Leech said: "The solution to begging, rough sleeping and homelessness isn’t fines, intimidation and social cleansing - the typical Labour way. It is fixing our broken housing system once and for all, ending luxury developments, guaranteeing genuinely affordable housing, getting people off the streets and preventing the initial causes. 

“I will never understand why the Labour party seems to have such a problem with rough sleepers and homelessness - it’s just baffling." 

Manchester's aggressive beggars should be fined - John Blundell

Fining Manchester's beggars is not the answer - Sam Wheeler

Responding to Leech’s criticism, Blundell told Confidential that it was time Leech looked at the evidence and stopped using the debate to boost his own profile. 

He said: “By confusing homelessness and begging John Leech is protecting the criminal gangs and individuals who are taking money out of the hands of people who really need it. 

“He is effectively defending the street pimps whose only motivation is to make money and feed this black market. Instead he should be facing up to the problem and working to find a solution that helps people in genuine crisis. 

"It’s time Mr Leech faced up to the reality of this extremely complex challenge"

“He is also ignoring the evidence of the police, professionals, charities, the media, and ordinary members of the public who can see for themselves that not everyone begging for money is homeless or vulnerable. 

“What does he have to say about the study which showed that fewer than one in five people arrested for begging in England and Wales were actually homeless? It’s time Mr Leech faced up to the reality of this extremely complex challenge and stopped using the homeless to boost his own sagging profile.”

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Recent police figures revealed that fewer than one in five people arrested for begging were actually homeless

The row follows controversial comments by Manchester City Council leader, Sir Richard Leese, who described Christmas on his blog as 'peak begging season'. Leese wrote that many of beggars 'ready to prey on the kindness and generosity of Manchester people... will be neither homeless nor rough sleepers'.

He wrote: 'Of the homeless and rough sleepers many will have mental health and/or addiction problems for which they need help - help they can only get if we can get them off the street.

'Giving to people on the street, money, food, clothes, just helps keep them there. Most of the money given just ends up in drugs or alcohol.'

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''Giving to people on the street, money, food, clothes, just helps keep them there' - Sir Richard Leese

Whether genuinely destitute or not, numbers are on the rise, and as Labour Party activist Sam Wheeler, in response to Mr Blundell's article, wrote in Confidential ('Fining Manchester's beggars is not the answer'), the capacity of the authorities to deal with the situation is waning.

''Who will be doing the enforcement?' writes Wheeler. 'Greater Manchester Police had around 8,000 officers in 2010. At the time it projected it needed 10,000 across the conurbation to keep up with population increases. Instead that figure has collapsed to around 6,000.'

No matter what position you take on the issue, what all sides do agree upon is that the current situation is untenable. Cuts in government funding and an increasingly confusing housing system have driven more and more people to the streets, services are overwhelmed, and dropping a few coins into a tatty paper cup, no matter how well-meaning, can only lock people into a cycle of dependency. A cycle from which, sadly, unscrupulous opportunists will look to benefit.

Want to help? The Big Change Manchester pools donations to get rough sleepers into housing, rather than just helping them to survive on the streets.