Andrew Vine: Chug off. Time to end harassment in name of charity

I SAW him coming from 20 yards away, and instinctively went into the avoidance shuffle that has become second nature to all of us who simply want to be left in peace.

Tuesday, 26th April 2016, 12:33 am
Shelter charity workers trading on the streets of Manchester as calls grow for new laws against chuggers.

But he wasn’t to be put off by my stepping sideways, avoiding eye contact and pretending to look in a shop window. Chuggers never are, and on he came, with a cheery “And how are you today, sir?”

I gave him a polite smile, and said, “No, thank you”, but it did no good. He dropped into step with me, gestured at my shopping bag and asked if I’d treated myself to anything nice.

Another “No, thank you” failed to get rid of him as he continued to walk alongside, urging me to spare just a few minutes because, “Hey, I’m a nice guy, and I can see you are too, sir”. Worse, he was now so close that he was invading my personal space and making me feel very uncomfortable.

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That did it. I told him firmly that he was harassing me, and to back off, which he did.

Others weren’t so confrontational. Half an hour later, returning along the same street in the centre of Leeds, he was badgering office workers taking advantage of a sunny lunchtime to sit outside on the benches and eat their sandwiches.

Who wants to be pushed into being borderline rude in the street by somebody who just won’t take no for an answer?

Not me, that’s for sure, but if anyone can come up with an alternative for dealing with one of the blights of the age on shopping streets, a legion of people who are sick and tired of being badgered would be glad to hear it.

Chuggers – that ugly word for charity muggers – the grinning, tabard-clad, clipboard-wielding people with a fast line in chat who spread their arms wide like a goalkeeper protecting his net as you approach disfigure too many of our streets.

Pedestrianised areas have become a gauntlet to be run, because the chuggers – schooled in high-pressure sales techniques – are so persistent that normal polite refusals to engage don’t work.

It must be a at least a decade now since I first encountered chuggers, in London, when along a hundred-yard stretch of Camden High Street, I was stopped or shadowed by a dozen of them.

I found it pretty unsettling, and remember thinking thank goodness this sort of thing didn’t happen back home in Yorkshire.

I should have guessed that wouldn’t be the case for long, and that the capital was a test-bed for a new and aggressive form of fund-raising. Soon enough, they infested our cities too.

But now, at long last, we might be seeing the start of a proper backlash. Birmingham has just become the biggest city yet to restrict the number of chuggers allowed to operate, and its decision marks the milestone of taking to 100 the number of places which have done so.

That’s a start, but it doesn’t go far enough. Let’s have rid of them altogether. Free our shopping streets of this cynical, manipulative and aggressive nuisance.

Nobody else commonly encountered comes close to being so pushy and in people’s faces, not the homeless selling The Big Issue nor vendors with carts full of toys or mobile phone cases.

The restrictions on chuggers by an increasing number of places must be in response to public disquiet at their activities and their attempts to get people to sign up for direct debits.

And because they are pestering the public on behalf of charities, they put people under psychological pressure to sign up, for to refuse is to walk away with the nagging feeling of 
having turned your back on somebody, somewhere, who needs help.

But of course the chuggers often enough don’t work – or even volunteer – for the charities whose logos they wear. They are paid sales staff from outside contractors, who tomorrow might be pushing double glazing over the phone with equal enthusiasm.

If councils who have had enough of their residents and visitors being targeted don’t sweep them away first, the major national charities that use them should cease to do so.

They protest that the income from the direct debits generated by the chuggers is vital to their work, but the giants of the charity sector ought to realise the strategy is counter-productive, because they alienate the public, most of whom want nothing to do with them.

I now won’t give a penny to the charity represented by the chugger who pursued me, as a matter of principle, and I’ll bet most of the people he was pestering as they took a lunchtime break from their desks wouldn’t either.

Chuggers have had their day, and the charities which employ them should have the sense to acknowledge that annoying the public is not a good strategy for garnering support. Give us our streets back, and get rid of this plague on them.