You are here

Police Offences Amendment (Repeal of Begging) Bill 2019

Cassy O'Connor MP

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Tags: Begging, Homelessness, Police

Ms O'CONNOR (Clark - Leader of the Greens) - Madam Speaker, I will speak for a brief time on the second reading. It is positive to stand in this place and see legislation come before the House that was initiated by community sector leaders, by leaders in the legal community, and brought into this place by the Tasmanian Greens via an amendment bill which we initially tabled on 25 October 2016, and the second piece of legislation which we tabled and debated last year and which was voted against by Government at the time.

There is no justification for legislation that punishes people simply because they are poor. People are reduced to asking for money because they are desperate and destitute and as a society, as Ms Butler said, we need to recognise that rampant inequality is contributing towards increased begging and homelessness. As a society, we must make sure that our laws look after people, not punish them or lock them up in jail for up to six months or slug them with an $815 fine.

We have had a look at the Government's legislation and it is very clear, Ms Butler, that there is overreach in the second amendment because those provisions that allow police to move people on are already covered in the act. The wise thing to do with the second amendment is to reject it.

Ms O'CONNOR (Clark - Leader of the Greens) - Madam Deputy Speaker, on 17 October last year we brought on for debate the Greens' Police Offences Amendment (Begging) Bill of 2018 and the operative clause of the bill was, 'Section 8 of the Principal Act is amended by omitting subsections (1) and (1AA)'. This is our bill here. The then minister, Mr Ferguson, indicated that the bill would not be supported by the Government on the grounds that:

Plainly, people can see that the current section 8(1) of the act is more than about begging.

Almost 13 months later and three years after we tabled our first amendment bill to remove the crime of begging, clause 4 in the Government's bill is identical to ours. The only difference is clause 5 in this bill, which provides police with powers they already have. The only reason to do this is to come up with some point of difference from our bill to justify voting against it when the Government did. Clause 5 provides for new grounds under section 15B for which people can be dispersed 'by, or in the course of, or in connection with, begging'. These grounds are as follows:

(i) intimidated, or harassed, a person;

The existing conditions in 15B(1)(a) covers this, allowing for dispersal where a person 'has committed or is likely to commit an offence'. Similarly, paragraph (c) provides for dispersal if a person 'is endangering or likely to endanger the safety of any other person', and (d), where a person 'has committed or is likely to commit a breach of the peace'. This is comprehensively covered in the proposed new subclause (ca)(i).

The other proposed new grounds are where a person 'by, or in the course of, or in connection with, begging'

(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; or

The current 15B(1)(b) provides for dispersal where a person is 'obstructing or is likely to obstruct the movement of pedestrians or vehicles'. This covers the issue extensively. The current provisions capture this clause that has gone into the Police Offences Amendment (Repeal of Begging) Bill absolutely.

Any reading of the current provisions will tell you that they give police the powers already to move people on who are begging for money. We will not be supporting this clause in the legislation. While we warmly welcome the Government's belated response to the need to make sure we are not punishing people because they are poor, we do not accept that this second part of the bill is in any way necessary. It is not and we are very disappointed that Labor has not properly read through the second amendment in this bill and held it up against the current provisions in the Police Offences Act.

With all due respect to Shelter Tasmania, an organisation I have a huge amount of time for, this is not an area of their specific expertise, so to glibly say as you did yesterday, Ms Butler, that you have some concerns but you would like to see a review of the operation of this provision after a year and Shelter is happy with that, that is not good enough. That is not what we are supposed to do in here as legislators. We go in and we have a look at the amendments, go back to the principal act and it is very clear that it is padding at best on the part of the Government.

The Police Offences Act under 15B already provides significant powers for police to disperse persons. I will just run through that again so no-one is in any doubt. 15B - dispersal of persons, this is the current Police Offences Act 1935,

1. A police officer may direct a person in a public place to leave that place and not return for a specified period of time of not less than four hours if the police officer believes on reasonable grounds that the person,

(a) has committed or is like 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 persons; or

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

Absolutely covers the police powers to move people on should they have their hat out asking for coins. Absolutely 100 per cent.

If Labor is doing its job in this place as the Opposition it should vote against that clause. We should not be allowing duplication in legislation that is being put in there simply for a bit of face-saving, if you like, on the part of Government because they do not want to admit that the bill we brought into this place and debated last year allows for the decriminalisation of begging, which all of the House can agree is important,

Mr Ferguson - You have forgotten we were quite complimentary about your intentions and indeed the spirit of your bill.

Ms O'CONNOR - I have not forgotten that. It does not mean because you have been nice to me over the legislation that I cannot tell you there is over-reach in this bill. I understand that. I have just reread the press release, minister, but the second provision in the bill is completely unnecessary. We will not be supporting it. It is duplication, it is potentially over-reach, but at best it is duplication. It should not enter the statute. We can do better.

During our debate last October when we brought on our police offences bill I delivered a lengthy second reading speech. I want to highlight a number of points that were made at that time about the rationale for removing the crime of begging.

There continue to be people taken before the courts under the provisions in the current act and charged with the crime of begging. In the Magistrates Court late last year there was a Tasmanian person on five counts of begging. It was very clear that the law that we are moving to repeal today captures the destitute and the desperate. The fact that the offence of begging exists and is being enforced is entirely contrary to the statement that was made by the Liberals in Government.

I wonder, given Labor's apparent contentment with the repeat clause in the second amendment, whether they have gone back to the Community Legal Centres and Anglicare Tasmania who advocated for this reform and sought their advice on the second amendment, because I believe if they had taken it to someone with legal expertise even an impartial person in the Tasmania Police service, not in the minister's office, they would have been advised that the second amendment is unnecessary.

I note that in the letter Ms Butler referred to yesterday, which was written to the Premier on 16 October last year, there are some damning statistics. Justice Connect interviewed 30 people over 2016 who beg or have begged and published the following results: 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. The letter goes on -

Importantly, the research points to begging being an action of last resort, meaning that people beg rather than resorting to more serious criminal offences, such as stealing, drug dealing or prostitution.

Finally, an argument often raised for the criminalisation of begging is the need for public safety, namely that some persons that beg engage in standover tactics or threatening speech or behaviour, however, the research finds that the incidence of aggressive begging is very low. It should also be noted that there are other offences currently provided in the act that could address violent or abusive conduct.

This letter was written by Benedict Bartl, policy officer of Community Legal Centres Tasmania, and Dr Chris Jones, CEO of Anglicare Tasmania, asking members in this House to support our amendment bill. If we had a little bit more grace in this place and an ability to look at each matter that comes before the House objectively with the best interests of the Tasmanian people in mind, we would have decriminalised begging a year ago.

We welcome the move to decriminalise begging in Tasmania. We acknowledge that people who beg are reduced to that circumstance by grinding inequality in this country, the marginalisation of the poor and the dispossessed. The gap between rich and poor in this country just grows by the day. Wages are stagnating, Centrelink is sending robo-debt notices to people for debts they do not owe. It has led to suicide. Under a conservative federal Government, we have had already marginalised people shoved to the outer margins of our society. We have a Government that wants to drug test Centrelink recipients; we have a Government that just makes it so hard for people who are poor to get ahead; a Government that still regards people who are living on the margins as 'leaners', in the famous words of former cigar-smoking treasurer, Joe Hockey.

We have Government ministers that take pride federally in marginalising and 'othering' people simply because they are poor and they are reliant on what was once a strong social safety net in this country, which has been eroded by conservatives in Canberra. As a society, we all pay the price of that. We all do. We are all only ever two pay cheques away from being homeless or having to go cap in hand to Centrelink for support. More compassion please.

Mr Deputy Speaker, this amendment bill is an expression of compassion and common sense and we do commend the Government for finally bringing it in.

We will not be supporting the second amendment.