Stealing to eat: FOI request finds the poorest in society continue to be criminalised

In April 2000, I read the extraordinary story of hungry American, Kenneth Payne, who was given a 16 year jail term for stealing a one dollar Snickers bar. The American legal system saw him as a serial food thief. The American District Attorney tried Payne as a habitual offender, increasing the severity of a shoplifting charge, which should, in the usual process of law, been seen as a misdemeanour, to felony theft, making him eligible for up to 20 years in jail. Shockingly, at no point were his personal circumstances taken into account; that he had no money or income and stole food due to his hunger being so great he felt physically sick.

As what happens in America usually also happens in the UK, I just Googled people jailed for stealing in the UK to see what would come up, and it was not long before I discovered  the case of Michael McNally ,28 years old, from Belfast who got two months jail plus a £25 fine in October 2015 for stealing chocolate from Poundland in Belfast. His defence that he had no money and that his benefits had been delayed was not accepted as he had previous for stealing bacon and cheese to eat on a separate occasion. In the same month, 26 year old Macirj Jakub Swierdza ,from Dartford in Kent, was jailed for 30 days, fined £150 plus £15 compensation and a further £80 amount for “ Victim Support “ after stealing chocolate.

My first enquiry in 2015 under the freedom of information request was to seek to discover how many people in the United Kingdom had been criminalised and jailed stealing to eat in that year. The results that came back were truly shocking with a staggering 12, 400 people criminalised and many jailed in 2015 alone. The average value of food stolen, often from the bins of supermarket yards, was £15 with  typical jail term of two weeks and a £150 fine .The  costs of jailing these people and taking them through the courts was not a figure I was able to attain on grounds it would cost more than the £600 FOIR limit.

In 2016, I again requested the same information in the public interest but was refused, on the grounds that to secure the total UK figure would cost more than the £600 which the freedom of information request allows. However, I could try a separate area, so I requested London. At this time Camden Town was the area of London in which you were most likely to be charged for stealing food with 340 cases. The London wide figure from 1st January 2016 to 31 December 2016 was 2,823 criminalised, including the case of one hungry young man who stole a chocolate bar and was fined £150 and received a two week jail term.

Securing the figures for 2017 was no less easy and yet my writing about this issue was drawing huge attention to a subject most of which the public was totally unaware. The usual periods and excuses were sent to me to avoid disclosing this information, despite its legal obligation to do so. My articles exposed the scandal of hungry people often criminalised for stealing food from supermarket bins that had been dumped by the stores themselves. It should be the dumping of food which should be the crime, not the hungry looking to eat. My perspective was clear and a few news papers, radio and TV stations picked up on from my article in The London Economic. The police found my articles to “Not be helpful”. I was told this on more than one occasion and yet it seems the upside of my writing exposing this has been a welcome huge drop in the number of people criminalised. The public outcry over the man jailed for stealing a chocolate bar was so great that today you could be jailed for stealing a banana, but not a box of Milk Tray or a Walnut Whip.

Failure to direct the hungry to the nearest food bank, or seeking to help with the hungry person’s financial situation has led to them being so desperate that many will steal a discarded sandwich from a supermarket bin.The police in 2017 have taken a far more hard line approach, despite pledges to the contrary. Whilst the numbers of people arrested in London and charged has dropped in 2017 from 2,823 to 1,206 in 2017, this figure of 1, 206 is the number of people charged, summonsed and sent for prosecution through the courts .However, the 2016 figures included people  arrested but not  necessarily sent through the courts.

While I welcome the continued fall in the numbers of hungry people so desperate they steal to eat, as a direct result of my articles exposing this and the genuine outrage it commands, I will continue every year lodging my freedom of information request until the system stops this practise  and looks at more radical  proposals to address a growing national problem of those too poor to eat.

In 2018, the criminalisation of the poor, the hungry and the homeless shames us all.  Should we, with all its costs, be sending such people through our clogged- up legal court system and then on to our over-flowing prisons? Should we be fining hungry people money that if they had, would keep them away from the bins of your local supermarket seeking others’ discarded lunch to stave off their hunger? .

Ray Barron Woolford book Food Bank Britain is available to buy from Amazon.

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