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 thousand pounds to keep Mulholland behind bars.
Solicitor John Rogers explains cases like this keep coming his way, he says: “They miss an appointment so their benefits are sanctioned , 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. 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. The poorest are forced either to steal, or to beg from this decade’s other great phenomenon: food banks.
Mark Frankland, who runs a food bank in Dumfries 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.”
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.
Remember 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.
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. There can be no doubt Freud and IDS and Cameron that they have engineered Britain’s crisis of hunger. 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.”