GANGSTERS are running begging rings in Glasgow this Christmas.
Police believe organised criminals are bussing panhandlers into the city centre to target soft-touch shoppers over the festive season.
They say the gangs – and those they exploit – are now competing with people such as drug addicts who have fallen through the cracks in the welfare system.
Chief Inspector Alan Porte, area commander for Glasgow city centre, said: "Street begging can be by individuals who have found themselves down on their luck, but it is often carried out by those who are part of an organised criminal gang who beg for profit.
"We have received information to suggest that some 'beggars' are driven into the city centre on a daily basis, given a patch in which to beg and profits are pooled at the end of the day.
"I spoke recently to a man who had been begging on the street. He told me that he had five children who had no food.
"I patted his large stomach, noting how well fed he looked, and he laughed.
"There are people out there who are taking advantage of the goodwill of the public, particularly at this time of the year, for their own profit.
"They are often also involved in distraction thefts, pickpocketing and other antisocial behaviour which has a detrimental impact on the city centre and on the image of the wider city."
Gangmasters who exploit Roma gypsies have already been tackled in England.
The Metropolitan Police worked with law enforcement agencies in Romania two years ago to arrest 26 people believed to be smuggling Roma children to Britain, Spain and other countries to work as beggars.
Described as modern-day Fagins – after the character in Charles Dicken's Oliver Twist who exploits urchins as street criminals – these gangsters have plagued many European cities.
Those who beg – or help the gangs in other businesses – don't get to keep all the money they raise.
However, tight-knit Roma communities rarely complain to the police about being exploited.
One Romanian familiar with the begging scene said he did not believe the authorities could show wrongdoing in Glasgow. "How would they prove it?" he said.
As we revealed yesterday, Glasgow City Council this year once again tried and failed to obtain powers to make begging illegal.
The local authority has been lobbying for such powers for some years, mostly because businesses believe begging puts off shoppers.
Mr Porte stressed that begging was lawful in Scotland.
He said: "We are working with a range of partner agencies in Glasgow to make the city a safer place to visit for shopping, work or leisure.
"Seeing people begging on the streets can have a negative impact on the public perception of their safety.
"With the provision of services available within Glasgow to homeless people, there should be no need for anyone to beg for money."
British Transport Police, meanwhile, is able to use English-style powers of arrest to lift beggars who stray too close to city railway stations.
And any beggar who makes a nuisance of him or herself can be detained for breach of the peace.
Stuart Patrick, chief executive of the Chamber of Commerce, has been backing council calls for action to change the law.
He said: "The city centre is our front room, our showcase and we are letting ourselves down.
"We know that there are problems in dealing with general begging and we'd like the Government to look at how legislation can help deal more successfully with it - especially as there may be links to organised crime."
Other sources, however, say they believe a rule change would just move the problem out of sight.
Beggars spoken to by the Evening Times this week complained that competition meant Christmas pickings were slim.
Most we asked said they were raising money for food or accomodation.
Several were from Romania or Poland but most appeared to be Scots with drug or alcohol problems.
An increasing number of Scots and foreigners, approach Christmas shoppers with a sorry tale, but such "aggressive" begging can be a breach of the peace.