Food-Related Violence Rises in the capital
Violent crimes involving the theft of food in London have become more savage and much more numerous over the last decade. The number of violent incidents where theft of a foodstuff was cited as a factor in the crime has risen from 92 in 2004 to 471 in 2013, while the number of violent crimes classified as GBH rose from 3 to 38 during the same period.
Cases of Common Assault rose by a similar degree, from 27 to 207.
This is in contrast to the overall decrease in violent crime in London during the same period: Last year the number of violent crimes in the capital fell to the lowest recorded levels in decades.
There has been a similar rise in the number of crimes involving the theft of food from shops. Over the decade 2004 – 2013 the number of incidences of food theft rose by over 3,000 to 9,195. This compares with the overall decrease in theft numbers in the capital which fell by over 100,000 during the same time-span.
The figures, obtained via a Freedom of Information request to the Metropolitan Police, show that the amount of food-related crime has largely remained static over the past decade despite an overall decrease in the amount of crime.
More startling, however, is the overall increase in more ‘immediate’ crimes such as violence and theft, which fly in the face of both the government’s efforts to reduce crime and their claims that food poverty in the UK is unrelated to its benefit reforms. That the greatest year-on-year increase in food-related violence took place in 2007, a period in which the financial crisis is considered to have peaked, suggests that, at the very least, both the rise in violence and the welfare reforms have a common cause even if they are not themselves correlated.
Masking the Effect of Benefit Reduction
The rise in violent crime and theft coincides with the reduction in welfare which has seen a dramatic increase in the number of hungry British families using food banks. Figures from the Trussell Trust, a charitable organisation set up to combat the ‘hidden hunger’ in Britain, show that 913,318 people were given aid by food banks in 2013 alone compared to 364,922 the year before.
The crime statistics can be seen as independent verification of the Trust’s claims that there is a growing food poverty crisis in Britain using metrics other than those directly related to food bank use. In 2013 a consortium of charities called for a formal UN investigation into poverty in Britain with the view to intervention. The situation has become so pronounced that the Red Cross has begun distributing food aid, a task it has not been forced to perform since the Second World War.
The statistics can also serve as a counterpoint to the Mail on Sunday’s maligned claims that many food bank users are ‘scroungers’ who enjoy the trappings of a rich lifestyle but prefer to ‘take advantage’ of food banks: Such a huge rise in food-related crime suggests that food poverty is endemic in Britain and that food banks genuinely do provide a much-needed service to tens of thousands of people.
Indeed, the figures also add a new dimension to the claims that food banks do more harm than good in the long-term: Graham Riches, director of the UBC School of Social Work and Family Studies, argues that food banks
“permit the state to neglect its obligation to protect vulnerable and powerless people. They encourage the view that food poverty is not a critical public policy issue”.
But if, even with the enormous rise in the use of food banks there is still a rise in food-related theft and violence, how bad might the latter be without any food banks at all?
Data on the real-world effects of benefit reduction is usually hard to come by, by design: In April 2013 the Department of Work and Pensions removed a text box on a form that allowed Job Centre workers to identify benefit reduction as the reason they were referring somebody to a food bank. This was widely seen as an attempt to prevent any hard, Government-backed data about the negative effects of benefit reform being easily obtained.
The figures released by the Metropolitan Police, while not conclusive on their own, can certainly support the idea that a reduction in benefits can have a negative effect on the population, whether it’s driving them to the extremes of violent crime, or onto the mercies of the food banks.