“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”
(from Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll)
I don’t often defend Labour MPs or their policies on here. But this morning as I travelled in to work my twitter feed was filled with people harrumphing about the apparent idiocy of a pronouncement by David Lammy MP that we should “give shoplifters softer sentences if they steal from top stores” or that “Stealing from Fortnum & Mason less serious than pilfering corner shop“. It sounded like just the sort of inane class war thing a left wing Labour MP might say – instead of let them eat cake, let them steal posh cakes!
However, in a fit of generosity, I went to have a look at what the story was really about. The reason Lammy was on the news this morning was that he had published for the think tank, Policy Exchange, a report about property crime in the aftermath of the riots that had started in his Tottenham constituency in 2011. As think tanks go, Policy Exchange is not really on the bleeding heart liberal end of the spectrum – a few years ago it provocatively recommended that instead of “wasting” money and effort on regenerating places like Sunderland it would be better if people in such benighted places got up and went to booming places like Oxford and Cambridge. The interesting and that context unsurprising thing about this report is that what it actually says is almost the diametric opposite of what it was being reported to have said.
True, it does state in one of its recommendations (number 17) that “The impact of a £150 theft, for example, would be far greater on an independent corner shop than on Fortnum and Mason”. But, the recommendation this is there to support is not, as the Mail and Telegraph reports would have you assume, to reduce the sentences for shoplifting from Fortnum and Mason or other high end shops. What it is actually looking at is the way in which the replacement for ASBOs seems to have effectively decriminalised shoplifting where the value of goods taken is less than £200. At pages 29-30 the report explains in more detail how low value shoplifters are able to repeatedly target small shops and receive no real punishment. What it proposes is to increase the penalties and enforcement resource for lower value thefts rather than to decrease them for higher value ones. There may be a resource implication to this but that is a different matter.
As I said earlier, it would have been easy and predictable for Lammy to have concluded that punishment for low value shoplifting was too severe. Particularly as some of those who had stolen no more than a bottle of water or a pair of trainers during the 2011 riots got custodial sentences when ten UKUncut protestors got conditional discharges for the aggravated trespass of “occupying” Fortnum & Mason. It would have been easy for a Labour MP for a relatively poor area to conclude that people nicking food or nappies from a corner shop were victims of austerity and poverty so they shouldn’t be treated harshly. Instead, the report takes a much more aggressive stance against such criminality.
I know there’s an election on, but it does seem rather strange to find apparently “right wing” media outlets criticising proposals to get tougher on crime just because they come from someone of the Left. Or to find them unsympathetic to moves to protect small businesses, preferring outrage at the suggestion that a luxury food emporium owned by a multi-billion pound private investment fund might be able to mitigate and bear the costs of shoplifters than a corner shop run by a hardworking family taking up most of their waking hours for relatively modest profits. Perhaps it is all just about who, as Humpty said, is to be master. It does seem a bit of a waste when there are so many better targets for ridicule in Labour’s official policies.