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Monday, 13 March, 2000, 17:48 GMT
Street of shame

Is the capital besieged by "gypsy scroungers"?
By BBC News Online's Ryan Dilley

In London, no-one is safe from having an "unwashed" infant and a paper cup half-full of copper coins thrust under their nose, according to many recent press reports.

The prospect of, what The Sun calls "gypsy scroungers" claiming asylum in the UK, accepting benefit payments and then earning an additional "20 an hour" from begging has enraged many.

Evening Standard headline
Panic on the streets of London
Press scorn at "soft-touch" Britain prompted stern words from Home Office minister Paul Boateng.

He said "aggressive" begging by east European gypsies was "unacceptable" in the UK, and he would "bring that message home to them".

He may find that an uphill struggle. On a random tour of the capital, I found it virtually free of what Mirror columnist Tony Parsons calls "baby-toting Romanian beggars".

The Mall, the South Bank, Leicester Square, Covent Garden, Charing Cross Station, Oxford Street, Waterloo and Whitehall, all rich pickings for any beggar, could boast not one "gypsy" between them on Monday morning.

Police officers, yes. Street cleaners, admittedly. A depressing number of homeless people, definitely. Bona fide, pan-handling "gypsies", no.

The criteria are exacting. Parsons demands "colourful ethnic dress", "a floral headscarf, a sob story and an unwashed baby".

Covent Garden flower seller
More Eliza Doolittle than "gypsy scrounger"
Combing central London for five hours proved fruitless.

In Covent Garden, one does risk enduring the attentions of "colourful" gypsies of the old school, intent on off-loading their bushels of lucky heather.

In the hubbub of Oxford Street, shoppers must dodge the persistent demands of other sorts.

Having your path blocked by a grinning individual in bright, flowing fabric means only one thing - a short lecture on the merits of Krishna.

With the streets of this retail district choked from dawn to dusk, a "headscarf" bobbing in the crowd may be the only warning of an approaching "gypsy beggar".

Sadly, the Roma women demonised in this most recent round of press hysteria, share their taste for bandannas with a good many others.

London shop window
Filling the streets: The gypsy look
A number of Muslim women sport headscarves. As do an increasing band of fashion conscious young women.

The Daily Mail predicts the "gypsy look" will be all the rage, thanks to the efforts of Victoria Beckham.

This High Street fad will add to the woes of those keen to identify authentic "gypsy scroungers".

A woman almost matching Parsons' exacting description can be found in Piccadilly.

Huddled on the pavement, perilously close to the tramping feet of passers-by, she clutches her son to her.

A ragged cup is waved listlessly. Her eyes are downcast.

She neither talks to nor accosts those who stride past. Her cup becomes no heavier.

Piccadilly beggar
A "gypsy scrounger"?
The sleeping child, hardly visible beneath a blanket, seems less beggar's prop than tired mite.

Is this woman, headscarfed and olive-skinned, a genuine "gypsy"? That is for Fleet Street to decide.

Does she need to have the message that begging is unacceptable "brought home" to her? Ask the Home Office.

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25 Jan 00 | UK
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