Child beggars as young as four earn up to £100,000 each for gypsy gangs, a shocking investigation has revealed. The children work in teams on London's streets, wheedling money out of tourists in snow and rain. Some of the children make £500 a day - and hand it all over to their Romany 'minders', the BBC's Panorama programme found.
Reporter John Sweeney called it 'a 21st-century version of Oliver Twist' - the Charles Dickens novel in which the villain Fagin forces a group of young children to extract cash from rich Londoners for him. The documentary, screened on BBC1 on Wednesday, followed the children - all of them gypsies from Romania - over the course of a year. A girl of about four, who the programme-makers called 'Alice', used a phone box as a toilet and scavenged for food at McDonald's as she begged on the streets.
The programme found that police generally just take the beggars' details and let them go. They fear the people on the streets are being exploited by other members of their community. Last year, detectives launched Operation Golf in an effort to crack down on those running the scam. Many of the criminals were traced back to Romania, where they own numerous luxury properties and cars.
Bernie Gravett, the former Metropolitan Police Supt who led the operation, said: 'This is modern-day slavery. How does a four-year-old child consent to be exploited? 'They won't know that it's criminal to beg on the streets of the UK. They are kids.'
The joint British-Romanian police operation arrested 26 alleged child traffickers from Tandarei in the south of Romania. The accused were imprisoned for months but denied any wrongdoing and have since been released. The case continues as two judges in Romania have sent the case back to the prosecution and in the meantime, the accused cannot leave the country.
A nine-bedroomed house in Tandarei, Romania - typical
of the extravagant properties found in the area
where many of those found to be
exploiting youngsters come from
Romanians are not ordinarily entitled to UK state benefits, but police told Panorama that gangs produced forged documents. Chief Inspector Colin Carswell, who was also part of Operation Golf, said one gang put the earning potential of a single child in London at close to £100,000 a year - from begging, stealing and being used for benefit fraud.
Mr Sweeney met one of the men arrested during Operation Golf in Tandarei, a town dotted with luxury villas. The man blamed Britain for the tricksters' actions. 'The blame is with the British state, which gives them a lot of money,' he said.
'They have lots of children, seven, eight or ten children, and if they have many children they build a villa.' Some collect £10,000, £12,000, £13,000 a month - they have three or four or five sets of benefits.'