13 Jan 2014

Rise in shoplifting ‘linked to welfare cuts’ – police chief

Northumbria’s police and crime commissioner is the latest police chief to link welfare cuts to a rise in shoplifting, with one force revealing it is treating the crime with a “soft touch”.

In the past two years, the number of women committing their first offence has risen for the first time in Northumbria.

The area’s police and crime commissioner Vera Baird QC put the rise down to poverty brought about by the government’s welfare reforms. The coalition’s welfare cap was introduced last April, and means that no family on benefits can receive more than £500 a week, or £26,000 a year from welfare.

Alcohol was the item stolen most by all shoplifters, making up 19 per cent of the total. But personal toiletries and clothing made up 18 per cent of items stolen in the area, meat, poultry and fish came in at 11 per cent, while other foodstuffs made up 17 per cent of total items stolen.

Shoplifting trend?

But the Northumbria police chief, formerly solicitor general under Labour, is not the only police chief to link a rise in shoplifting with increased poverty.

Police forces in Lancashire, Cleveland, Greater Manchester, Derbyshire and Durham have all reported a rise in theft of basic food items.

The trend has led Durham’s police commissioner to announce last December that his officers were adopting a “humane” approach to crimes such as shop lifting, bike theft and shed burglaries. Ron Hogg said that as well as people shoplifting items that they then sell on, mothers were turning to shoplifting “just to live” and that a softer approach was more likely to stop the offending. He recommended that offenders were put on a course rather than being given a jail sentence.

In Derbyshire, the police chief said in November that crime was on the rise for the first time in 10 years, with food theft showing the biggest increase of 8 per cent. He put it down to what he called “poverty crime”.

Female offenders

Speaking about Northumbria’s crime rise, Ms Baird said: “At the end of last year it was apparent that people were starting to steal items they could once afford.

“There’s been growing evidence to suggest this is due to the impact of both poverty and welfare reform, with people stealing what they were once able to take for granted and just go out and buy.

“The growth in the number of first time women shoplifting offenders would suggest it’s affecting the poorer women in our communities, those who are experiencing the impact of the welfare reforms.”

However not everyone is sympathetic. Tory MP Jake Berry, a solicitor, said Ms Baird’s comments sent out an “appalling message” and that she was “appearing to find excuses for criminal behaviour”.

In December, the British Retail Consortium said that failure to pay on-the-spot shoplifting fines was resulting in “soft justice”.

“Fixed penalties for first time shoplifting offences can be effective, but failing to challenge unpaid fines risks them being viewed as a ‘soft option’ and instantly dilutes their capacity to deter repeat offences,” said the BRC’s Tom Ironside.