That the bill be now read a second time.
The Greens are committed to a fair and just society where the human rights of everyone are respected and social inclusion is a priority. Laws that criminalise begging are contrary to fundamental human rights.
The offence of 'begging or gathering alms' in the Summary Offences Act 1966, discriminates against people who are poor or experiencing homelessness.
The offence of begging originated from vagrancy laws which Australia inherited from the UK model under the Vagrancy Act 1824 (UK). In 2005, the Vagrancy Act 1966 (Vic) was repealed and the offence of 'begging or gathering alms' was re-enacted under section 49A(1) of the Summary Offences Act 1966.
It carries the maximum penalty of 12 months imprisonment.
NSW decriminalised begging in 1979. The then Attorney-General, Frank Walker, said:
The offence of begging or gathering alms contained in section 26 is objectionable. To send a person to prison or penalise him financially for being destitute, which will usually be the case when someone is begging, is a totally unacceptable way of dealing with what is basically a social problem.
In Western Australia, criminal laws against begging were repealed in 2004, and it is only penalised under the Public Transport Authority Regulation 2003.
Begging remains an offence in Tasmania; however, the Greens have introduced a private members bill, the Police Offences Amendment (Begging) Bill 2016, to repeal the offence of begging in that state.
In the United States, anti-begging provisions have been struck down as constitutionally invalid and incompatible with international human rights law. Begging is not illegal in Sweden nor in Finland.
With this bill Victoria has the opportunity to be amongst the leading jurisdictions in repealing anti-begging laws.
The connection between begging, poverty and homelessness
Evidence and research by organisations such as Hanover Welfare Services (now Launch Housing) and PILCH (now Justice Connect) over a 15-year period has consistently shown that most people who beg will also be experiencing homelessness, mental illness, substance dependence, family violence, trauma and poverty.
A recent two-year study by Homeless Law found that of 30 people who begged or have begged, 77 per cent were experiencing homelessness, 87 per cent had a mental illness, 33 per cent had experienced family violence, 37 per cent reported childhood trauma or abuse, 77 per cent were experiencing drug or alcohol dependence, and 80 per cent had been unemployed for 12 months or more.
Every homeless shelter in Victoria is at full capacity, and almost 100 people a day are being turned away from Victorian homeless agencies according to the Council to Homeless Persons.
There are more than 33 000 applicants on the public housing waiting list.
The research clearly shows that the majority of people who beg do so as a last resort because they have little or no income, and often so that they need not engage in more hazardous alternatives such as prostitution, drug dealing or theft. In addition, most people who beg feel ashamed and humiliated, and have reported that begging puts them at risk of violence from members of the public and/or other people who beg.
It is not the easy or lazy option that some people may think or claim.
Research also shows that public fears about people who beg are not well founded as aggressive behaviour is extremely rare. People tend to sit in a place with a sign, or hold a cup or ask for money from passers-by.
Where there is aggressive behaviour, there are laws to deal with this such as the offences of obscene or threatening language or behaviour, and common assault under the Summary Offences Act 1966.
Furthermore, simply being annoyed by people asking for money is not sufficient grounds to make it a crime.
Enforcement of the law against begging
We know that the police are enforcing the current offence of 'begging or gathering alms'. According to Homeless Law at Justice Connect, in the last five years more than 800 charges have been laid against people for begging. In 2016 alone, 26 people were charged and referred to the 'begging list' at the Melbourne Magistrates Court.
While some people who have been charged with begging are diverted to assistance programs, there are others who end up with fines that they cannot pay and criminal records or arrest warrants for failing to appear.
Examples include one homeless man who was charged with the offence of begging when in his cap was only 15 cents. After his court appearance he was placed on a diversion program for three months, but after completing the program he was still unable to find accommodation.
A homeless woman who fled from family violence now has a conviction for begging, when prior to this she had no criminal record. As she stated to the media: "this is going to make life difficult”. Clearly, her life is already extremely difficult.
It is the experience of Homeless Law and that of other experts in the field, that through using the justice system to respond to begging, we:
1. impose a significant burden on police and the courts;
2. cause highly vulnerable people to be caught up in the justice system as a result of homelessness and poverty; and
3. fail to reduce the number of people who beg.
The Greens are of the view that begging should not be treated as a crime but as a social problem that requires more investment in public housing and support services. It requires a compassionate response rather than one which entrenches injustice and creates more suffering for those who are already marginalised.
Asking for help should not be a crime.
I commend the bill to the house.