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Police Offences Amendment (Begging Repeal) Bill 2023

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP  -  Wednesday, 15 November 2023

Tags: Begging, Legislation

Dr WOODRUFF (Franklin - Leader of the Greens) - I will require a vote, thank you Mr Deputy Speaker. The cost-of-living crisis has been extremely serious in Tasmania for many years now, but it is deepening every day and the increased interest rate has pushed people on mortgages to have even more unbearable pressure on their capacity to pay bills. We are seeing food relief organisations pushed beyond limits they did not think they were able to stretch past in order to meet the community's needs. Whole new demographics are now needing to access support, people who have never had to ask for help in the past.

There has been a 45 per cent increase in homelessness in Tasmania in the last five years, and we are hearing stories of mothers and children escaping family violence, living in the back of a car for indefinite periods of time. With more and more Tasmanians being pushed into extreme poverty, they are being forced to resort to begging just so they can afford to pay for a meal. It is a terrible situation, but it is made far worse by the fact that under the current laws people in such hardship can be sent to jail or cop a hefty fine if they beg for money to put food on the table or cover their bills.

Shamefully, begging remains an offence in five Australian jurisdictions: Queensland, Victoria, the Northern Territory, South Australia and unfortunately Tasmania. It is an antiquated offence that has no place in a contemporary, informed and just society. The introduction of begging crimes has traditionally been justified as a mechanism to prevent more serious crime. Historically, begging has been suggested to be associated with laziness and moral shortcomings which would inevitably lead to criminal behaviour, or so the thinking was at the time.

This legal provision is rife with the judgement of a classist society. It clearly is no longer relevant in our society and it is clearly no longer a prevalent view in our society that begging leads to other criminal behaviours. Further arguments such as the 'broken window theory' have also been put forward. The theory suggests that begging contributes to a place's disorderly appearance. This signals, some people say, to potential offenders that law enforcement has weak control and, therefore, would lead to crimes. That theory has also been widely debunked.

Historically, it has been suggested that begging is a public nuisance. That is an unfortunate, selfish and in our view elitist attitude. It also, most importantly, holds no empathy for people who are so destitute that they feel they have no choice but to as strangers for money. I have yet to meet a person begging who seems to feel comfortable with having to take that course. It is worth noting that the provision this begging offence falls under is titled Drunkenness, Vagrancy, Indecency and other Public Annoyances in the Police Offences Act.

In the last couple of decades, offences relating to vagrancy, public drunkenness, prostitution and games of hazard have been struck from the act. Disadvantaged people are decidedly more vulnerable to being unduly caught up in the legal system. They are more prone to profiling, which is the police tracking and recording of a person's appearance and making assumptions about future behaviour on the basis of past appearance or behaviour. That is more likely to occur in situations that passively expose a person to criminal activities such as sleeping rough in public places. People in that situation are less equipped to provide a legal defence.

Being jailed for minor offences such as begging increases the risk of reoffending in a more serious manner. The inclusion of this offence in statute is a relic of an unjust society. There is no public safety, no moral or practical justification for begging to remain an offence. As the law currently stands, someone who is found guilty of begging faces a fine of up to $975 or six months in prison. The lack of logic there is quite breathtaking. If a person is so destitute that they are asking strangers for money, how are they going to find $975? Are we not saying then, to that person, 'if you cannot find the money, you can spend some time in Risdon Prison?' That is no response to poverty.

The Police Offences Amendment (Begging Repeal) Bill 2023 will amend the Police Offences Act 1935 to ensure that begging is no longer an offence in Tasmania. This bill is straightforward and simply removes subsections (1) and (1aa) in section A from the Police Offences Act 1935. Sections (1) and (1aa) set out the specifics of the offence and penalty respectively. In 2017, the Homeless Persons Legal Clinic Law Right published a paper on the crime of begging in Australia, which found that the criminalisation of begging has a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable people in society. There is a strong correlation, they found, between the practice of begging and several complex and interrelated individual factors. People who commit the crime of begging do so out of desperation and because their basic needs are not being met. The failure of government services to meet people's basic needs contributes to them being forced to take the approach of putting their hand out and asking for help. Those failures include inadequately funding welfare services, healthcare, housing and social security.

Fraudulent or aggressive begging is rare and can be more appropriately prosecuted in Tasmania under our existing criminal offences and individuals charged in that way are often poorly equipped to defend themselves. That is the evidence of legal experts and we should heed it, take it seriously and deal with this anachronistic law. Of these points that were put forward by Law Right, the failure of government services to provide for the financially and socially disadvantaged should resonate strongly with us in Tasmania in the current situation. There are currently 4598 applicants on the housing register and the rolling average to house priority applicants has now reached 80 weeks. That is moving up to two years. We can all agree that housing is a foundation of contemporary society and critical for mental wellbeing. It is critical for acquiring or maintaining work and also for being able to earn a living wage. Right now, we have a situation where the government has categorically failed to ensure there is enough residential affordable housing both public and private that is available to house the people of Tasmania.

I want to read into Hansard now a letter that was sent to all members of the parliament and it is a very important list of signatories. They were Anglicare Tasmania, the Australia Lawyers Alliance, Community Legal Centres Tasmania, JusTas, St Vincent de Paul Society Tasmania, Shelter Tasmania, Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, TasCOSS and the Prisoner Legal Service. They start by saying in the 2019 debate of the bill that we have before us, the history is that this bill has been introduced and passed before. The then minister for police, fire, and emergency management Mark Shelton acknowledged that -

Begging often stems from homelessness. Chronic poverty and disadvantage. In these situations, it is usually a last resort to meet immediate needs. The criminal law is not the appropriate response. (TBC)

As well in that debate, the then human services minister, the Roger Jaensch, noted -

Over recent years, we have seen more evidence of people in our streets sleeping rough and seeking help and support from their fellow Tasmanians. I do not like the term begging. That is not what they do, they are simply asking for help. (TBC)

The organisations continue:

Criminalising begging is criminalising poverty. By abolishing the criminalisation of begging, we pave the way for a more compassionate societal approach, safeguarding the rights of individuals to seek assistance without fear of legal repercussion. The Police Offences Amendment (Begging Repeal) Bill 2023 to be debated will provide members of the House of Assembly with an opportunity to recognize that people begging need help and that poverty cannot be addressed through a criminal justice response. The Police Offences Act 1935 currently Section 8 of this Act makes it an offence to beg relevantly providing:

(8) Begging imposition etc. (1)

A person shall not: a.

In a public place, beg or expose wounds or deformities or place himself or herself or otherwise act so as to induce or attempt to induce the giving of money or other financial advantage or instigate or insight another person to do any of those things. The penalty for begging is a fine up to $875 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months. (TBC)

I continue with the letter from those organisations and they say:

The case for abolition: criminal sanctions for begging including fines and imprisonment fails to address the underlying cause of a behaviour and in many cases simply exacerbates pressures such as financial stress as a result of responses such as the imposition of punitive fines. Research from Justice Connect and similar organisations highlights the grim reality faced by those compelled to beg.

Their findings encapsulating the blight of our societies most disenfranchised paint a stack portrait - 77 per cent were experiencing homelessness; 87 per cent had a mental illness; 80 per cent had been unemployed for 12 months or more; 33 per cent had experienced family violence; and 37 per cent reported childhood trauma or abuse. More recently, a review by Queensland Police found that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are disproportionately represented with 64 per cent of people charged with begging in 2021 identifying as being indigenous.

Finally, they say a 2019 study of 101 persons who were in receipt of food from charities living in Perth, Western Australia, found that while charitable services were the main source of food in the previous week, a significant proportion also begged for money for food, 36 per cent, or begged for food, 32 per cent. Interestingly, only 4 in 10 of those people, 38 per cent of them, reported being homeless, highlighting that begging is most often borne of necessity rather than homelessness. They say the research reinforces the conclusion that begging is usually an action of last resort, meaning that people beg out of necessity rather than resorting to more serious criminal offences such as stealing, drug dealing or prostitution.

The sector organisations go on to say:

An argument often raised with the criminalisation of begging is the need for public safety, namely, that some persons that beg engage in stand over tactics or threatening speech or behavior. However, the research finds that the incidence of this aggressive begging is rare. It should also be noted that there are other offences currently provided for in the act that could address violent or abusive conduct and that provide Tasmanian police with the power to request that persons move on.

Section 15(b) of the act provides that persons can be moved on if the police believe, on reasonable grounds, that a person:

(a) has committed or is likely to commit an offence, or

(b) is obstructing or is likely to obstruct the movement of pedestrians or vehicles, or

(c) is endangering or likely to endanger the safety of any other person, or

(d) has committed or is likely to commit a breach of the peace.

Repealing the offence of begging will ensure that the Tasmanian Parliament meets a commitment it first made in 2019 as well as bring Tasmania into line with Western Australia, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory, where begging is not an offence.

They continue:

It is also worth noting that other Australian jurisdictions are moving in this direction with a 2022 parliamentary review in Queensland of public intoxication, begging and public urination offences, recommending that all those offences be decriminalised, subject to appropriate community-based health and social welfare responses being in place.

In Victoria, a 2020 review of the criminal justice system recommended a review of all offences linked to homelessness, including begging.

Victoria has also recently abolished the offence of public intoxication in recognition of the disproportionate impact this offence has had on Aboriginal people and following the recommendations from the coronial inquest into the death of Ms Tanya Day.

In summary, the organisations say:

With the majority of Australian jurisdictions having already passed laws that begging should not be an offence or having recommended decriminalisation, there is a clear national trend toward embracing policies that confront socioeconomic challenges with evidence-based solutions and compassion. We urge you to support the bill and repeal the offence of begging. A reminder House that the signatories of that letter were Anglicare Tasmania, Australian Lawyers Alliance, Community Legal Centres Tasmania, Just Tas, Prisoners Legal Service, St Vincent de Paul Society Tasmania, Shelter Tasmania, Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre and TasCoss.

Today, as we did in 2018, the Greens and the community and justice sectors ask the parliament to send a message that we do not victim-blame, we do not consider begging an immoral or criminal activity and we care about people living in extremely difficult circumstances. Today we ask that a message be sent that we will tackle poverty instead of attacking people who are impoverished. The Government has had ample opportunity to act on this matter.

When the Greens brought on this bill for debate in 2018, then-minister for Police, Mr Ferguson, rejected our bill but committed on the Floor to bringing on a bill himself at a later date.

A year later, the government tabled the Police Offences Amendment (Repeal of Begging Bill 2019). That was a similar bill, but it also contained an additional clause that provided for new grounds under section 15(b) for which people can be dispersed:

… by, or in the course of, or in connection with begging.

Those additional circumstances included subsections: (i)

intimidated or harassed a person (ii)

prevented or deterred persons from entering, or the conduct of a business that is in or in the vicinity of the place; or (iii)

prevented or deterred persons from using a public facility that is in, or in the vicinity, of the place.

That bill passed the House of Assembly but the clause that the government added was quite rightly removed by the Legislative Council. At that point the government then refused to bring the bill back on for debate in this House. It was a bill that subsequently lapsed when the parliament was prorogued ahead of the 2021 state election.

We are here today in light of the cost-of-living crisis to finish the business of the House, and the clear intention of the House. The Greens' position, on the advice we have received from numerous legal and policing experts and also which I have read to the House as outlined by the justice and communities sectors, is that the proposed new provisions the Government added to the previous bill, and the minister for Police has foreshadowed an amendment he will be proposing for this bill today, are unwarranted.

The Police Offences Act 1935 has an extensive array of general police powers. The current section 15B(1)(a) allows for dispersal where a person has quote 'committed or is likely to commit an offence'. As well, paragraph (c) of 15B(1) provides for dispersal if a person is 'endangering, or likely to endanger the safety of any other person' and (d) provides 'where a person has committed, or is likely to commit a breach of the peace'.

The current 15(1)(b) also provides for dispersal where a person is 'obstructing or likely to obstruct the movement of pedestrians or vehicles'. Our view is that the Government's amendment, which seems substantially similar to the one that was introduced in their bill in 2019 and that was subsequently amended to be removed in the Legislative Council, is not necessary, was not necessary and is an unnecessary confusion of what is a simple matter.

I want to leave time for other members to make a contribution. We have been pushing for this change for so long because the Greens believe that if someone is in a situation where they are so desperate that they need to beg, they clearly need help and support, but not the punitive hand of this outdated and harsh law.

There is obviously a noticeable increase in the number of Tasmanians who are struggling with cost of living. With people who are begging, the importance of removing begging as a crime is greater than ever. We welcome the support of the community and justice sectors. It underscores the widespread view in the Tasmanian community that this should no longer be a crime. It is a move towards compassion, which is spreading across the nation in this area and is welcome.

We commend the bill to the House and look forward to the comments of members.