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Society, Politics & Law

Criminal Justice in the United Kingdom, 2010 to 2015: 'Criminalising' Poverty

Updated Friday 3rd July 2015

Lisa Whittaker, Research officer in The Poverty Alliance, writes about benefits sanctions and society's treatment of people living in poverty in general.

Stick your labels! Challenge the stigma of poverty Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: The Poverty Alliance The Poverty Alliance is a network of community, voluntary, statutory and other organisations whose vision is of a sustainable Scotland based on social and economic justice, with dignity for all, where poverty and inequalities are not tolerated and are challenged. Negative public representations of the poor have always been used by governments to legitimise their actions. In recent years we have seen the re-emergence of negative public representations of the poor, shedding new light on the relationships between economic crisis, austerity and the criminalisation of poverty in our society. Research by Rob MacDonald and colleagues have dispelled the myth that ‘worklessness’ is passed down the generations (Shildrick, MacDonald, Furlong, Roden and Crow, 2012) and shed light on what it’s like to live in low-pay, no-pay Britain (Shildrick, MacDonald, Webster and Garthwaite, 2012). 

In Tory Britain we treat the unemployed worse than criminals and tell them that we’re ‘helping’ them as we do it. Benefit sanctions are a core part of the UK Coalition Government’s welfare reforms. They were used 898,000 times in Scotland in 2013-2014. The result has been poverty and hardship on a scale and intensity unseen for more than half a century. Three quarters of referrals to food banks have been related to benefit sanctions or delays. Sanctions have increased in frequency, duration and severity, are triggered more easily, accelerate rapidly and apply to wider groups

Individuals in communities speak to us frequently at the Poverty Alliance about the impacts of increased conditionality and sanctions. A lone parent had a mobility car because of her child's hidden disability. A neighbour spoke to the parent about how unfair they felt it was that they got a ‘new car’ and how they worked hard but couldn’t afford a new car and they weren't claiming benefits like she was. The parent was forced to explain that it was because of their child condition that they received a mobility car. The impact of the stigma has far reaching consequences – people are reporting increased stress and anxiety at dealing with the job centre and medical assessments centres.

We know that things are tough for many people, but imagine the challenges facing people with a criminal record who are trying to go straight. We conducted research with a small group of ex-offenders in partnership with the Routes out of Prison project and produced the report Out of Jail But Still Not Free. We found that - among many other challenges - unsuitable or poor temporary accommodation impacts negatively on reintegration and rehabilitation. Our research is in line with other research which states that failed desistance is often the fault of a lack of opportunities at the right time.

Good words about stigma and poverty are not enough - we need action to support those words. We first launched Stick Your Labels in 2010 and we are in the process of re-launching this campaign, it is now more needed than ever. In 2011, leaders from the Scottish National Party, the Scottish Labour Party, the Scottish Liberal Democrats, the Conservative Party and the Scottish Green Party all signed up to a set of anti-stigma statements, committing themselves to  take the action required to address stigma. We are in the process of revising these statements and producing a set of recommendations and asking civic and political leaders across Scotland to sign up to these statements and reaffirm their pledge to reject stigma and demonisation of people living in poverty. It is crucial that poverty, inequality, impact of stigma, sanctions and welfare reform stay part of the discussion about criminal justice and offending behaviour.

Next: Some Observations from Scotland

 

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