Social Justice

Would you prosecute a child for stealing baby formula? Shoplifting's rise amid cost of living crisis

Shoplifting is on the rise and retailers are calling for harsher prosecution. But poverty campaigners warn the problems are deeper and poverty must be tackled first

shoplifting

Shoplifting is on the rise across the country as food prices soar. Image: Pexels

Children as young as seven taking food from shops because they are hungry. A teenager stealing formula milk for his baby sister. A mother putting extra items in her bag without paying to feed her children in the cost of living crisis. These people are shoplifters – should they be prosecuted?

Headlines this week have blasted that shoplifting is an epidemic. The British Retail Consortium said there were around eight million incidents in the 12 months to March 2023. Police recorded 339,206 cases in the same period, a 24% increase on the previous year. 

The Mirror launched a campaign calling for more to be done to prosecute shoplifters, asking readers to share pictures to “shame the culprits”. Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said a Labour government will put neighbourhood police back in town centres to ward off shoplifting gangs.

This has caused outcry among poverty campaigners, who warn that people need to be supported rather than shamed for an act of desperation. 

“I have spoken to many children, some as young as seven, who have resorted to taking food from shops because they are hungry,” said Laurence Guinness, the chief executive of the Childhood Trust.

“One young man, 15, told me he stole formula for his baby sister to help his mother out. He complained he had to go further and further away from his home because the local shops knew him. He said some of the security guards turned a blind eye because they lived on the same estate as him.”

A child stealing milk for his sister is clearly a different and far less dangerous case than other shoplifters, some of whom have been violent towards shop staff.

But there is concern that increased surveillance and harsher punishments will have a detrimental impact on those already struggling so much in the cost of living crisis

It comes after big retailers Waitrose and John Lewis started offering free coffees and other hot drinks to uniformed police officers to increase their presence and make thieves “think twice” about stealing goods. There were about 1,000 cases of crime, shoplifting and anti-social behaviour in the six months to June, the chain said. 

Campaigners fear actions like this do little to solve the deep-rooted issues which are often to blame for petty crime like shoplifting. 

“Thousands of people in poverty including disabled people and carers are struggling to make ends meet due to inadequate benefits, low incomes, high energy costs, food inflation and rising rents and mortgages,” said Dan White, policy and campaigns officer at Disability Rights UK. “This means people going without meals and not turning on the heating.

“Too often politicians want to address the symptoms, instead of looking at the root causes and tackling deep inequalities within our society. It’s too easy to focus on individual cases, when it is highly likely that deepening poverty is fuelling the majority of the increase.”



Guinness agreed, adding: “With increasing levels of hunger, homelessness and debt driven by inflation and spiralling rents, we are rapidly going backwards as a society. Whatever the causes and there are many, this government seems powerless and indifferent to the plight of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in society. 

“Those who are dispossessed and disadvantaged, along with the majority of ordinary people who are also experiencing a reduction in their quality of life, will have their opportunity for change at the next election.”

Guinness has seen the harrowing consequences of deepening poverty time and again. “I spoke to a mum of three children under the age of 12 who told me they are basically subsisting on large batches of rice and pasta that she bulk cooks to save on gas and then puts it in the fridge and they eat it cold. 

“When I asked her how she was surviving she shrugged her shoulders and smiled at me nervously. I asked her directly if she was having to take things from the supermarket without paying and she nodded. 

“She told me that at least once a week she will put things like cheese, chicken, blueberries and nuts in her bag for her children and pay for some goods while not paying for those. She said she feels bad but has no choice because she can’t go to the food bank all the time, and they often only have tinned and dry goods.”

The woman is in arrears with her rent, electricity, gas and credit cards and often only has about £10 to feed her and her family for four days. 

“She said they would all go hungry if she didn’t take things from the supermarket. I asked her about her universal credit and she said that it isn’t enough to live on in London which is why she has to shoplift. She said that many of the mums she knows are doing the same because they don’t have an option. Other parents have told me they know women who have turned to sex work to keep their families afloat.”

Charlotte White, who is the manager of Earlsfield Foodbank in London, has seen similar levels of hopelessness. “There is a general air of desperation. People are at their lowest point and they are exhausted. They have made every sacrifice they can make. It doesn’t surprise me one bit that we’re seeing some people turn to those measures.

“We had somebody recently who turned to prostitution after a long break. She feels she has no other way of coping. People are getting into debt and taking out worrying loans. 

“We’ve had a couple of people who have borrowed money from a guy on the estate and they’ll find themselves in a dangerous situation. All of that is bubbling under at the moment. These are very desperate measures that people are having to turn to.”

White does not believe that increasing the punishments for shoplifting will have any benefits. “When there is early intervention, that’s so much better,” she said. “Being harsh on people isn’t going to solve any problems. It’s only going to add to the shame they feel. 

“These are people who are so desperate that it’s not going to make a difference. We need to go much further up the chain to understand why it’s happening and give them support.”

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