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Belfast police need to be given power to seize alcohol, says city centre chief

By Claire McNeilly

Published 04/04/2016

Belfast's city centre manager has called for an urgent change in the law so that police and council officers can confiscate alcohol from street drinkers
Belfast's city centre manager has called for an urgent change in the law so that police and council officers can confiscate alcohol from street drinkers

Belfast's city centre manager has called for an urgent change in the law so that police and council officers can confiscate alcohol from street drinkers.

Andrew Irvine also said immediate action is needed to address the rough-sleeping crisis where some 40 people are now effectively living on Belfast's streets.

Already, five homeless individuals have died this year alone and, in an interview with the Belfast Telegraph published today, Mr Irvine said the issue is a huge challenge for Northern Ireland society as a whole.

"Most of these people have somewhere to go with a roof over their heads so they are not roofless," he said. "The vast majority have addiction issues: alcohol or drugs. Some of these clients don't want to be alone in a hostel so they will default back to being with their friends on the street. As a city, we must find a solution."

Mr Irvine says local businesses believe voluntary groups providing soup, sandwiches and sleeping bags for the 40 or so rough-sleepers occupying the city's main retail area are inadvertently exacerbating the situation.

"They are less likely to accept that help if they're being put in a sleeping bag and they're already being well fed," he said.

"The businesses know that, and it's the businesses which are left to pick up the sandwich wrappers, and the sleeping bags- which can be full of needles.

"So you've got a member of retail staff arriving to open a store at 7.30am with not just a sleeping bag but human faeces, urine, needles and all sorts of stuff."

Mr Irvine admitted he was concerned there was a growing problem with individuals drinking alcohol in broad daylight on the city's main shopping streets.

But he said, at present, police can only take alcohol off people they suspect to be under 18, and a civic by-law only allows for people to be reported to the courts for drinking alcohol.

"We need police officers and council officers to have the power to seize that alcohol," he said. "At the minute our hands are tied because of a lack of legislation. Is it not unfair that the retail community is having to pay a bill for the policing around it?"

He added: "In the absence of legislation, our city safe officer has got all of the city centre off licences on a scheme where they will not sell alcohol to known street drinkers - so they can't buy it in the city centre. That's how we attempt to cut off the supply to those who we know will drink it on the street."

Mr Irvine said that, over the last decade, the retailers themselves have spent £660,000 on the City Centre Beat Police Team to keep the main retail area safe.

"For the last 11 years we've raised £60,000 a year of private sector money for an initiative with Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce that delivers two police officers into the city centre every day," he added.

"Funding these officers means we have our own dedicated team. The businesses have their mobile numbers and if they have any issues the officers go to see them."

Mr Irvine also revealed that 3,000 shoplifters have gone through the Restorative Justice Scheme for retail criminals in the last nine years.

"If someone is caught shoplifting in the city the retailer will offer them a choice of getting prosecuted (criminal record) or volunteering to join the city centre management retail crimewatch scheme," he said.

"They volunteer to their photograph being taken and shared with 200-plus retailers and they are excluded from those stores between six months and a year.

"We've now got to a stage that while retail crime has been rising in every other UK city, it has been declining here every year. We're bucking the national trend."

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