By Ray Barron Woolford
A Freedom of Information request has revealed there has been a massive rise in the number of London’s hungry who have been criminalised and jailed for stealing in order to eat, with the majority of cases pertain to the hungry and homeless taking waste food from supermarket bins.
Where will this end?
It is only a matter of time before the homeless are jailed and criminalised for their failure to find a home and for causing an offence by sleeping on London’s streets. The way the legal system in the UK is moving and the way in which the poorest and the most in need are being criminalised and jailed, quietly without a thought or political comment or even a murmur of public concern, is an outrage.
When I wrote my book Food Bank Britain I was appalled to learn of the staggering number of hungry people who had been jailed for stealing food to eat. Through the freedom of information act, I was able to ascertain that in 2016 two million people had been sanctioned and criminalised for stealing food in order to feed themselves. How is this justifiable when our prisons are full to bursting? Government cuts have resulted in vastly reduced budgets for those services and support services that help the poorest in our society. The knock-on effect, as demonstrated above, has led to people being driven to steal rather than starve and consequently arrested and incarcerated. Hence there has been a rise in the prison population, for which the cuts are directly responsible. The sad fact of the matter is, it is the most vulnerable in our society who suffer and end up behind bars, not the bankers who caused the financial crisis (which resulted in the cuts) in the first place. The initial public anger regarding these matters did lead to some comment but sadly, going by my latest results via the freedom of information request route, little has changed.
This January I tried to secure the figures for the number of hungry who were jailed for stealing to eat. This was no easy task because I came up against a wall of silence. I ultimately had to accept the police’s position that the cost of responding to my freedom of information request would be greater than £600, which is the budget allocated to each request. However, thanks to one helpful official, I was fortunate enough to be able to secure the London figures, borough by borough, which are referred to in this article.
I am sure many people think that it is just criminals who are locked up for stealing. However, our society will lock people up for two weeks and fine them on average £150 for “stealing” the equivalent of a £15 food shop from supermarket waste bins. The obvious irony here is that if they had £150 they would not need to be looking for food in bins in the first place. Thus our society perpetuates its own problem. The further irony is that the waste food which the supermarkets dispose of only has to be taken to land-fill sites at the supermarkets’ expense. Therefore the reality is that those who take the discarded food are actually doing the supermarkets a favour and yet they are criminalised for doing so. Surely the most economic solution would be for the police to issue the offender with a caution and direct them to the nearest food bank. Is it not a waste of the tax-payer’s money to arrest and charge the most vulnerable in our society? Would it not be a better solution to find these people help rather than putting them through the courts and ultimately into our over crowded prisons? Yet a further freedom of information request informed me that between 1st January and 31st December 2016, 2,823 people had been “proceeded against with a charge or summons where food property was stolen.”
The position in which London finds itself, with vast numbers arrested for stealing food, clearly shows a lack of understanding of the issues or any sense of cohesion or consistency when it comes to dealing with them. For example, Camden is the number one borough for criminalising its poor with 134 souls suffering in 2016. Compare this with the least affected area, Kingston-upon-Thames, where just 36 people were charged in 2016. We should all ask why the police and local authorities have still failed to put into place any policy or procedure (other than to increase the numbers who proceed from waste bins to jail) a year after these issues were exposed in my book.
The poor pay a terrible price. Everything costs so much more when you are poor; your options are far fewer and poverty is NOT cool, and it is something we do not talk about. Our attitude is that poverty is something that happens to someone else. Is it not time to start thinking about what we can do to end the causes of poverty and the consequent arrests and create a better system to dispose of food waste? Surely we can find a more fair and humane way to insure the poorest amongst us have access to decent food. After all, the system of arrest, court and jail, costs we tax-payers huge sums of money we do not have. Furthermore, expecting the poor to live on cheap junk food costs us again, because a poor diet will inevitably lead to poor health and consequently have an impact on our over stretched NHS.
Ray Barron Woolford is the author of Food Bank Britain.