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The BBC's Sanchia Berg
"For travellers it is uncomfortable"
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Barbara Roche, Home Office Minister
"I do not think it is the women or the children who get any benefit"
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The BBC's Catherine Marston
"Motorists are often the target"
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Ann Widdecombe, Shadow Home Secretary
"Get control of the numbers"
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Thursday, 9 March, 2000, 18:38 GMT
Asylum seekers 'linked to begging'
woman and child
Women often beg with children, say police
Shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe is calling on the government to lock up asylum seekers after police in London accused some of being involved in organised begging.

Police say the number of beggars on the London Underground has increased massively over the last six months and arrests of aggressive beggars are up as well.

We have had a lot of complaints from passengers who find it socially offensive, especially when there is a baby or young child involved

Chief Supt Steve Hotston
Miss Widdecombe told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "The asylum seekers should be detained before they get a chance to go on to the streets to beg."

Chief Superintendent Steve Hotston of London Transport Police told BBC News Online many beggars were from Eastern European families - not necessarily asylum seekers - who acted in orchestrated groups.

"They divide up into small groups - often a mother with a young child, even a baby on the breast - and take up different patches around London, meeting up at the end of the day to divide the spoils.

"The men stay very much in the background."

Problem spreading

Mr Hotston said: "We have had a lot of complaints from passengers who find it socially offensive, especially when there is a baby or young child involved."

The problem is also moving out of London with beggars travelling to target other British cities and places as far away as Gloucestershire and Cambridgeshire.

Mr Hotston urged the public to donate to charities which support disadvantaged groups or the homeless - but not to give to beggars.

Ann Widdecombe
Ann Widdecombe wants asylum seekers locked up
Miss Widdecombe said begging could get out of control if the people involved were not detained: "Other countries practise very wide use of reception centres with very strict conditions for people who leave reception centres.

"We know that about 80% of claims in a normal year prove to be unfounded, but when people reach the end of the line they don't go home."

Home Office Minister Barbara Roche said she shared the police's anxieties and knew the begging was "highly organised" and "distressing" to Londoners.

barbara Roche
Barbara Roche says it is not a government matter
But she said it was not a government matter. "The key thing is to make sure that the courts deal with it.

"The very clear message should go out that nobody is allowed to break the law in this way."

The problem was highlighted on Wednesday after a magistrate threatened to jail women who beg with their babies.

Roger Davies at Horseferry magistrates court told a a refugee who had been begging with children that it would not be tolerated in the UK.

He warned Elena Barbu if she or her friends ever came before him again they would be jailed.

Earlier this week Brindusa Calugareanu, from Romania, was sentenced to two months in jail after throwing an elderly woman to the ground outside Harrods.

She had demanded money from the woman and threatened to slit her throat.

'Immoral attitude'

The 25-year-old mother had been begging with her four-year-old child.

But Reverend Audrey Shilling, of the Kent-based Detainee Support Group, said detention centres containing asylum seekers were already full to overflowing and locking people up was not the answer.

She told BBC News Online she was "horrified" by Miss Widdecombe's comments and said she found it a deeply immoral and un-Christian attitude.

Rev Shilling said: "The fact is that the income these people are given is only 75% of normal benefits and under the new system they receive vouchers and 10 in cash. How can you live in this society on 10 in cash?"

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