Reposted from The Guardian – Comment is free
What would you do to keep your baby from starving? Perhaps the same as Lucy Hill. At the start of October, the 35-year-old mother from Kidderminster was broke. After missing an interview at the jobcentre, her disability benefits had been stopped – which left her, her partner and her toddler of 18 months without anything to live on. So she went to the local Spar and stole a chicken and some soap powder.
Two weeks later, Hill was up before the magistrate. Her police interview noted that she said “sorry to the shop … but had no money … and was in a desperate situation”. She was ordered to pay compensation, a fine, costs and a surcharge: a total of over £200 to be taken off someone who’d only committed a crime because she had no money. Her solicitor John Rogers remembers that the mother’s chief worry was that the social services might find out and take away her baby.
After running me through the details, Rogers sighs. Cases like this keep coming his way, he says: “They miss an appointment so their benefits are sanctioned [docked or stopped altogether], so they have no money, so they steal.” His local office now handles “at least half a dozen” such cases each month – up from almost nothing a year ago.
He’s just one lawyer in one post-industrial town, describing a national policy: of starving the poor into committing crime. Nothing is accidental about this regime.
Iain Duncan Smith has denied setting staff targets for sanctioning benefits claimants; but this paper has found evidence, not only of targets but even league tables for job centres to compete against each other in keeping claimants away from their money. Do that on a big enough scale and some are bound to choose to steal rather than starve.
Because, rest assured, Hill’s not the only one. Last week, Ian Mulholland of Darlington was in court. After having his benefits “sanctioned” and spending nine weeks with nothing to live on, the 43-year-old had stolen some meat from the local Sainsbury’s. That crime got him six weeks in prison. A theft worth £12.60 means the taxpayer will spend over two grand to keep Mulholland behind bars.
When you read of such sentences, remember that this is the same country in which – just a few years ago – over 300 parliamentarians were found to have claimed expenses to which they weren’t entitled; hundreds of thousands handed over to some of the richest people in the country for duck houses, moat repairs and heating their stables.
A mere handful were sent to prison. For others, the punishment was just a career break.
David Laws, an architect of the cuts we are living through, resigned after it was discovered that he had funnelled over £40,000 of public money as rent to his landlord, who was also his lover. He was back as a minister within two years and is in charge of drafting the Lib Dem election manifesto. When Laws began his cabinet sabbatical, the broadsheets wept as bitterly as if it were a scene from Les Mis.
This newspaper ran a column raging against the exile of “a man of quite exceptional nobility”. No ink so purple will be spilled for the likes of Hill and Mulholland, of course. But then, these people aren’t powerful and their crimes are merely prosaic. They’re the pensioner caught by police in Glasgow with three stolen cans. The asylum seeker nicking a sarnie from Sainsbury’s.
And all the other instances that police from Lancashire to south London cite as one of their growing crime areas: of people stealing to eat because they can’t afford basics.
If this sounds humdrum, that’s what austerity Britain is: humdrum, run-of-the-mill immiseration. Greece gets austerity imposed upon it by Brussels and Berlin, and Athens goes up in flames. But the British choose a government that imposes cuts – and then the poorest are forced either to steal, or to beg from this decade’s other great phenomenon: food banks.
And sometimes, they try other tactics to keep fed and warm. Ask Mark Frankland, who runs a food bank in Dumfries. He used to dispense 100 food parcels a month; now it’s more like 500.
He’s noticed another trend: people who’ve had their benefits sanctioned stealing televisions or other items sufficiently expensive to guarantee they’re sent down. That way, they get up to four months in a heated cell, with three meals a day. He says: “For them, it’s ten times better than spending a hungry winter in a cold flat.”
Put that way, it sounds quite rational. And certainly the driving forces could have been spotted way off. Food and energy prices have been rising since the crash; real wages and benefits have been sliding. The upshot was always going to be: families in work having to go without, and much worse for those not in work.
But if they couldn’t do the arithmetic, ministers could have listened to the dozens of Anglican bishops and hundreds of church leaders warning that hunger was becoming “a national crisis”. They could have read the letters from researchers in the British Medical Journal warning that the rise in food poverty has “all the signs of a public health emergency”. They could have looked over the hospital admissions statistics showing a rise in malnutrition.
Instead Lord Freud, a welfare minister, pretended that the spread of hundreds of food banks was because people like a free meal. When the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs received a report on food banks that showed Freud’s argument was “not based on robust evidence”, it sat on it for as long as possible.
Whatever intentions you ascribe to Freud and IDS and Cameron, there can be no doubt they have engineered Britain’s crisis of hunger, simply by blocking their ears to all the evidence and pressing ahead. Whether food banks or shoplifting or the devaluation of wages for British workers, the effect has been the same. And it’s best summed up by Joseph Townsend, an 18th-century vicar – and a precursor to IDS in his plans to scrap poor relief.
“Hunger will tame the fiercest animals,” wrote Townsend in support of his welfare reforms. “It will teach decency and civility, obedience and subjection … it is only hunger which can spur and goad the poor on to labour.”