Martyn McLaughlin: Punishment is ineffective deterrent for those mired in poverty

A new scheme in North Lanarkshire will see so-called 'destitute' shoplifters, who steal everyday items in order to live, be referred to social services rather than the courts. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
A new scheme in North Lanarkshire will see so-called 'destitute' shoplifters, who steal everyday items in order to live, be referred to social services rather than the courts. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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Angie would have backed this subtle but sensible shift in how to police ‘destitute’ shoplifting, writes Martyn McLaughlin

When I was 18, and working part time in a DIY store in my home town, a colleague called Angie asked a favour. Her plans for a small aperitif the previous evening had snowballed into a dawn swally session, and as the store shutters were about to come up, Angie, her shock of red curls swathed in a fug of Regal king size, cut a decidedly delicate appearance

“Could you keep the edgy on the door?” she asked. “I’ll do your shift in the warehouse. I need to sweat this hangover out.” .

Angie’s rationale was sound, and I, like everyone else, held her in great affection. She called a spade a spade. Or, to be more precise, she called a spade a ******* spade. But her charm ensured she seldom caused offence. That and the fact she stood 6’2” in her socks.

It was this winning combination of bluntness and imposing physicality which set her apart as one of the few female security guards in Greenock. By contrast, I was a harmless big lump. But Angie, forever flattering, reassured me I’d be up to the task.

“Just watch out for the booster pram, she’s in her every Saturday morning,” she advised. “And remember, if it’s a two pound pack of wallplugs, it’s not worth getting chibbed over.”

It did not take long for the first part of Angie’s premonition to come true. During a mid-morning lull, a rangy woman with a Silver Cross pram came careering through the automatic doors.

She looked like any other harassed young mother, with bags slung over each arm, and a frantic, shoogling stride which seemed to plead with her baby to find sleep. The thing is, the baby never cried, and for good reason.

The shapeless mound of shawls and blankets sat on an empty pram, the sides and bottom of which were layered in aluminium foil – an old trick designed to stop the security panels at the exit registering electronic security tags.

It was only after her fourth visit that Angie had cottoned on to the ruse. The perpetrator was reduced to tears and apologetic, explaining that she was trying to sell stolen tools to help feed her family. Her two bedraggled kids, the eldest barely a day over five, stood outside waiting on their mother.

After getting out the store, she would take her haul up to Chaplins, a nearby howf, where she would flog them on a fraction of their real value – anything to keep her head above water.

Having wised up to her shopping habits, Angie gave her a stern talking to and confiscated what she had taken, but she never called the police. She knew fine well her kindness would be abused. Equally, she knew that following procedure would likely cause more harm.

Over the course of a few years, working on and off on the security shift, I lost track of those who tried their luck. The vast majority were driven by addiction, but a surprisingly sizeable minority were compelled by nothing more than crippling desperation.

It is for that reason that the arrest referral scheme being rolled out in North Lanarkshire is as welcome as it is overdue. From now on, so-called “destitute” shoplifters – those who steal small quantities of basic, daily essentials – will no longer face prosecution.

Instead, they will be referred to social services and other agencies in an attempt to provide them with the necessary support.

The initiative by North Lanarkshire Council and Police Scotland will assess each incident on a case by case basis, but the emphasis is on assisting those people who “have not previously come to the attention of the police.”

The genesis of the idea is a candid admission that the current approach is not working. Between April and June, there were 523 shoplifting incidents in the area, compared with just 372 over the same period last year.

That rise, say authorities, is largely down to a “significant increase” in people stealing “essentials”. It includes mothers who have been caught taking nappies and baby powder.

Whereas before they would have faced a day in court, they may now be given a police warning, with a social worker-led review to follow.

While there are clear safeguards that must be put in place – such as ensured organised criminal groups do not exploit the new processes – its reasoning is sound.

Punishment is no deterrent for those mired in poverty, and this proportionate new policy will free up the time of both police and procurators.

Let us hope that the example set by North Lanarkshire – an area with no less than 21 food banks – is followed nationwide. Over the past decade, the number of shoplifting offences across Scotland has remained stable, hovering around the 28,000 mark. But figures published by Police Scotland show a spike of almost 10 per cent in the past year, with 31,321 crimes between April 2017 and the end of March.

Not all of those crimes are the consequence of destitution, but I would not bet against this sudden spike being the direct result of a cruel and incompetent welfare system, one which leaves those in the greatest need no choice but to seek out the most extreme solutions.

There would be political opposition to such a nationwide rethink in how we tackle destitute shoplifting, not to mention well-intentioned grievances from the business community, but responding to the rise in crime with increased prosecutions seems a misstep.

I know what big Angie would have thought.