Nottingham City Council have been banned by the ASA from using posters which reinforce negative stereotypes.

If you haven’t seen them, the posters effectively portray anyone who is begging as criminals, drug users and frauds. They carry slogans such as the following;

Begging; watch your money go to a fraud

Begging; watch your money go up in smoke (implying drug use, cannabis)

Begging; watch your money go down the drain (pictures lager can)

People who beg often have serious drug or alcohol problems

The posters have a note at the end suggesting that instead of giving to beggars, you should give money to charities that help the homeless.

Now the ASA are right of course, these posters do reinforce negative stereotypes and I’m pleased that they have banned the posters. But actually there is far more going  on here.

Ignoring inequality

First up is to say that Nottingham City Council have completely ignored the inequality that leads to a situation of begging. Particularly the steeply rising inequality we have seen since 2010. Let’s face it, there isn’t a single person out there who said “do you know what, instead of going about my average, ordinary life and going to my decent office job today, I think I’ll start using drugs and begging on the street”.

With sweeping cuts to public services through ideological austerity, at the same time as tax breaks and incentives to the richest people and companies, we have seen an enormous increase in inequality in our country. Every day more people are struggling to make ends meet. Over a million people relied on food banks in 2015/2016.

Add to that the linked impact of the housing crisis and can we be surprised if we see people on the streets begging for money? Can we be surprised then if we see people relying on drugs and alcohol as a crutch to cope with this horrible situation?

All of this in the 5th richest economy in the world.

What is very sad is that Nottingham City Council is Labour-led and if you would have thought it’d be their business to recognise these issues and stand up for people baring the brunt.

They’re frauds

I think the reference to fraud is implying that some of the beggars we see aren’t homeless. I’ve worked in and managed complex needs accommodation for people who have been street homeless or have drug and alcohol issues. In my experience I would say that it is true that some of the people begging are not homeless.

But it baffles me that some people are somehow alarmed and scandalised by this. Just because someone is not homeless, why does that mean they are less likely to need to beg than someone who is? It is perfectly possible to have no money left after expenses and still have accommodation. I can assure you that there is no-one on the street begging who is simultaneously living a life of luxury; using your extra 50p donation to go towards that Ben Sherman shirt they desperately want.

No. If someone is begging they are living a pretty bleak existence. Most of the people who will read this will never have to beg for money and can’t imagine anything that would drive them to need to do it. They (we) are very lucky.

This language of ‘frauds’ just feeds into that tired right wing idea that poor people are just feckless layabouts who bring these situations on themselves. We need get away from assuming everyone has equal opportunity because they clearly don’t.

They’ll spend it on drugs or alcohol

Yes they might. But so what? If someone has a serious problem and is not ready, or able, to change then they will need to get drugs or alcohol somehow. My opinion is that it can be better for me to give money willingly than to leave someone, with a serious condition like addiction, to get desperate and perhaps resort to crime. (I do draw a line where I am working with someone in a professional capacity so as not to blur the boundary by giving someone money from my own pocket).

Having worked in addiction related areas for years, being aware of the strength of addiction and being aware of the enormous trauma that an individual with addiction issues has often been through; I know that thinking that withholding money will make a difference is pretty ridiculous. Again, it ingores the massive societal inequalities that have contributed to the addiction issue; which  will not be tackled by you keeping your 50p.

In addition, drug and alcohol services across the country are experiencing massive cuts as money to local governments has been slashed. Getting access to relevant treatment and support is getting harder and harder. 

Give money to a homeless charity instead

I’m sure this made councillors feel better when they tacked this on to the end of the poster but it’s a nonsense isn’t it? Yes of course if you do give to a homelessness charity that is fantastic. But the reality is that when I’ve got spare £1 in my pocket and I think about giving it to the woman sat in the shop doorway, it is a whim, it is in the moment.

I very much doubt that people are going to pat their pocket for that £1 when they see the begging woman and think “ah, I’ll save this £1 and invest it in a charity later”.

Furthermore, homelessness charities (brilliant though their work is) are ultimately picking up the pieces caused by very poor decisions by government.

Doing something about begging

Nottingham City Council undoubtedly looked at the situation they have with begging and decided they needed to do something. None of us want to have a situation where there is begging, least of all a local authority who might look bad because of it.

But tackling begging is tackling a symptom, not the problem itself.

So if you really want to stop begging you must look to the government and our elected leaders to do something about it, in addition to showing compassion and supporting charities. You must apply pressure to our local and national governments to tackle the causes of inequality, lack of services and poor housing. You should stop voting for politicians who penalise the poor whilst giving advantage to the already very wealthy.

I’m not saying that you have to give money to every person begging that you see. It is a personal choice. But when you make that choice, make sure it’s not based on stigmatising stereotypes and make that decision whilst informed about the wider context of inequality.

We all should be concerned about this type of inequality, it’s ripple effects are felt throughout our society no matter if you’re rich or poor