York parish priest Father Tim Jones has ignited a furious controversy by saying that, if someone is desperate and destitute enough, it is okay for them to shoplift in order to survive. But is it? STEPHEN LEWIS reports.

Yes...says Father Tim Jones

JUST to set the record straight, Father Tim Jones doesn’t think shoplifting is a good thing. But in certain circumstances, he thinks it might be the only thing left for someone to do. His passionate sermon at St Lawrence’s Church on Sunday was sparked by a former prisoner with learning difficulties who came to him for help.

“What advice should one give, for example, to an ex- prisoner who was released in mid-November with a release grant of less than £50 and a crisis loan, also of less than £50, who applies immediately for benefits but is, with less than a week to go before Christmas, still to receive any financial support?” Father Jones said.

“One might tell them to see their social worker, but they are on a waiting list for a social worker. Tell them to see their probation officer, perhaps, but the probation officer can only enquire of the benefits agency, and be told that benefits will eventually be forthcoming. One might tell them to get a job, but it is at the very best of times extremely difficult for an ex prisoner to find work.

“One might wish that they could be supported and cared for by their family, but many people’s family life is altogether dysfunctional... One might give them some money oneself, but when week after week after week goes by, and benefits still do not arrive, the hard reality is that a vicar’s salary is not designed to meet the needs of everyone whom the benefits agency has failed. What else might one advise? They could beg. But how many of us, good Christian people that we are, give constantly and generously to ex prisoners waiting for benefits? And the likelihood is that, found begging, they will quickly be in trouble with the police. They could perhaps get cereal and toast every morning from a local charity. Then could perhaps apply… for some limited help from the Salvation Army or other such body. But in the meantime, having had only £100 in six weeks, what would you do, every legal avenue having been exhausted?

“The strong temptation is to burgle or rob people. Others are tempted towards prostitution. Instead, I would rather that they shoplift. My advice, as a Christian priest, is to shoplift. I would offer this advice with a heavy heart, wishing that our society recognised that bureaucratic ineptitude and systemic delay constitutes a dreadful invitation and incentive to crime for people struggling to cope at the very bottom of our social order.”

No... say Allan Charlesworth, former deputy chief constable of West Yorkshire, and York MP Hugh Bayley

THERE may well be some people who do fall through the safety net, said Mr Charlesworth. If so, we have a responsibility, as individuals and as a society, to help them. In one sense, the former top cop said, Father Jones has done us all a service.

“Especially at this time of year it is a good idea to remind those of us who have money and property that there are people who are dispossessed, disenfranchised, and dysfunctional,” he said.

“So I understand some of his sentiments. But I think he has taken the wrong approach.”

Father Jones should have raised his concerns about the former prisoner with agencies that could have helped. And he would have been quite justified in raising wider concerns about the way society fails some of the most vulnerable people, through the media or with MPs or councillors, Mr Charlesworth said.

“But it can never, ever be acceptable for anybody to tell someone else to disobey the law, otherwise there would be total anarchy. We would have a totally lawless society.”

York MP Hugh Bayley said there was a social welfare system in place to support those in need, supplemented by excellent charitable organisations. There may be some people who are alienated from society who find it hard to deal with the bureaucracy of the state welfare system, the MP admitted – but they may well find it easier to access help from organisations like Arclight, or the Salvation Army, or Carecent.

He said: “I have had people who have presented themselves to me as destitute and I have been able to find overnight accommodation for them and social security help the following morning.”

What others had to say

THE way the benefits system treats newly-released prisoners is an “absolute disgrace” and effectively forces them back into re-offending, says former prisoner-turned-journalist Mark Leech.

Mr Leech, who now edits The Prisons Handbook and Converse, the national newspaper for prisoners, said benefits are paid two weeks in arrears.

Mr Leech said when prisoners are discharged, they are given a £46 discharge grant.

This will have to last them a fortnight at the very least, because even if they apply for benefits straight away, the benefit will not be paid for two weeks.

He said in practice, because of delays in processing applications, prisoners often have to wait longer.

Mr Leech said it was a national scandal which almost forces ex-prisoners to re-offend because they have nowhere else to turn.

He said: “I cannot go along with what the vicar is saying, because I cannot be seen to endorse that, but I understand where he is coming from”.

Beryl Holliday, of the Salvation Army Citadel at Gillygate, York, said there had been cases where she had been asked to give people a food parcel because their benefits had not come through.

Meanwhile, a Prison Service spokesman said: “Our first priority is protecting the public, by providing offenders with support and information which will aid their resettlement in the community.

“We reduce the risk that they will re-offend.

“Crime has fallen by more than a third since 1997, and the chances of being a victim of crime are the lowest since records began.”