CHRISTMAS always brings the beggars out.

First, because shoppers, filled with festive spirit, can be a bit more generous.

Second, because the cold, long nights can be that bit tougher on those with chaotic, hopeless lives who feel they have to turn to strangers for a bite to eat or cash to feed their habit.

This winter, however, another kind of beggar appeared on the streets of Glasgow, the barefoot variety. And when we revealed that police believed it was a scam run by gangs, we sparked a red hot debate.

Our story exposed how these so-called beggars have footwear. They just take off their shoes off for effect.

Alan Porte, the chief inspector in charge of policing the city centre, said: "I would say that this is likely to be a scam, and people might rather consider giving a donation to a registered charity where they can be sure it is going to a worthy cause."

Readers were quick to respond - their concerns ranging from poverty, public nuisance, scamming, immigration to the rights and wrongs of begging.

Many - but far from all -of the semi-permanent groups of beggars in Glasgow and other Scottish cities are Roma from south-eastern Europe, represen-tatives of the continent's most marginalised and excluded community.

Angus McKay, of Glasgow, commented on our story: "It was expected there would be an increase in begging in Glasgow during the festive/new year season and the Eastern Euro-peans/Roma certainly increased their numbers."

THE fact so many of the beggars were Roma - police believe some may be victims themselves of gangmasters - also sparked an immigration debate on our website.

Many Glaswegians contacted The Evening Times to say they had huge sympathy with the barefoot beggars.

Iain Findlay-Walsh, commenting on the story, said: "If people feel they have to endure sitting on the street with no shoes on in order to get cash in the winter, they probably need my change more than I do."

Campaigner Andrew Carnegie said: "If I could, I would change their whole lives. I feel real sympathy with them."

Mr Carnegie is also worried at the anger - often racist - directed at foreign beggars.

"I am upset by the hatred," he said. "There is real bigotry against the Roma."

James Keilt stressed there were plenty of indigenous Scots who abused the systems or took part in scams.

"We do need more immigrants and people shouldn't judge all of them by the actions of a few of the less moral ones.

"Let's also remember the worst and most common scammers in this country fall into the white Scottish category, whilst the majority of immigrants are coming here to work hard and better their lives."

As the Evening Times revealed this week, work is under way in Govanhill, where several thousand Roma live, to sooth community relations.

However, Roma have spread all over Europe, including England and Spain, and beggars, frequently from Romania, may not have anything to do with Roma in Govanhill, who are often from Slovakia.

OUR story also sparked debate about whether laws should be changed to ban begging.

Glasgow City Council - as well as Aberdeen - have asked for powers to impose a bylaw outlawing begging.

Right now police can only detain beggars if they are being aggressive or causing a nuisance.

Mr McKay doesn't believe more powers are needed. He said: "Glasgow councillors do not need to lobby the Scottish Government to outlaw begging using bylaws. GCC state on their website: Street begging is not tolerated and may result, in certain circumstances, in being arrested by the police.

"The council has the way but not the will to decrease begging."

Begging is illegal in England and legal in Scotland, except in railway stations.

Rob Farrington, from Sheffield, said: "This is a blight in most major cities and towns, and obviously needs to be addressed and as soon as possible.

"Here in Sheffield, there is no such problem with street begging and on the odd occasion I have witnessed it the local police have been quick to move them on!"

Readers have also written to describe beggars they have seen - and aren't convinced they are needy.

Stewart Douglas, from Bearsden, said: "I saw this happening in Buchanan Street just before Christmas - the guy sitting on the pavement with bare feet and a man and woman quite well dressed, putting the guy's shoes in their rucksack and calmly walking away.

THE rucksack was bulging which implied this was not the only pair of shoes in it."

Tony Shields, from Glasgow, added: "Or the guy in Shawlands who tries to hide his mobile phone under his T-shirt. Not easy to beg and text at the same time."