Hundreds turning to crime just to survive

'At risk': Julia Hannaford of Blackpool Citizens Advice Bureau says shoplifting is linked with poverty. Below: Chief Constable Steve Finnigan
'At risk': Julia Hannaford of Blackpool Citizens Advice Bureau says shoplifting is linked with poverty. Below: Chief Constable Steve Finnigan

Food banks have today warned new figures revealing the scale of shoplifting on the Fylde coast highlight the desperate need of people surviving day-to-day.

Thousands of offences were recorded in the 12 months up to the end of August, with many more items taken from shops across Blackpool, Fylde and Wyre.

Chief constable Steve Finnigan

Chief constable Steve Finnigan

The latest figures, as part of a freedom of information request by The Gazette, showed close to 2,300 shoplifting offences took place between September 2013 and August this year.

In terms of food related thefts, more than 750 items were taken in Blackpool alone, with a further 300 stolen in Wyre and 200 in Fylde.

The latest figures serve to reinforce warnings made in October in The Gazette when it was revealed shoplifting levels on the Fylde coast are double the county average.

And today food bank organisers said the figures show it was clear some people are being forced to turn to crime to feed themselves and their families.

Chris Phillips, organiser of His Provision Food Bank in Blackpool said: “We have people coming here every week.

“We have had it where social workers are coming to us for food parcels because little children are crying because they are so hungry. We are finding that more and more.

“The other week a woman’s husband died and she lost her benefits – she has six children to feed. Things are quite desperate.

“It is either heat your home or put food on the table.

“Items like food, toiletries and clothing are everyday items – we are not saying it is right but sometimes people do not have a choice when you have to feed their families.

“I am surprised by the figures – I estimate 100 food parcels are given out a week in Blackpool.

‘Horrendous’

“But these new figures are horrendous – particularly when you consider children get fed school breakfasts and lunches.”

Neil Reid, of Blackpool Food Bank, added: “We have a situation where people’s wages, if in employment, do not reflect the living wage. Blackpool has its own issues because we have a lower wage than the regional average.

“I can see why some people think ‘what alternative do I have?’

“I think it is a sign of the times. There is a great need in the last few years in which people are resorting to food banks and need food banks to get by.”

As well as showing the number of offences, the figures reveal the number of items taken, with alcohol the second most commonly taken item ahead of toiletries and clothing.

During the 12 month period, 200 items of clothing were taken in Blackpool – a huge jump from Fylde with 14 and Wyre with 31.

Shoplifting crimes peaked across the region in March, with the lowest figures in December.

In October, figures released by the Official of National Statistics showed shoplifting figures across the Fylde coast rose by 10 per cent in the last year to June – more than double the county average of four per cent.

Ken Hayton, committee member at the SVP Food Bank in Poulton Road, Fleetwood, said: “Many of the people who come to us come because their benefits have been reduced.

“There is no doubt about it, there are a lot of people suffering. People are out of work and out of homes. People are being pushed down that route (shoplifting).

“Over the year there was a decrease in people coming to us, but certainly in the last few months that has changed and we are starting to see a rise again.

“People are having to manage day-to-day to survive.”

A spokesman for the Fylde Foodbank added: “We have noticed a gradual increase in the number of referrals.

“I know various agencies have been giving out food parcels on an ad-hoc basis in Fylde for a number of years. It (shoplifting) is always a problem. We have been giving advice out to try and help people.”

Blackpool’s Citizens Advice Bureau manager Julia Hannaford said people are using the service everyday with a range of concerns.

She added: “We have those people coming in that haven’t paid their rent so are at risk of losing their home, we have those coming in who haven’t had heating or hot water for weeks as they cant afford to top up their prepayment meters and we have those who haven’t eaten properly for days.” Rachel Baines, chairman of the Lancashire Police Federation, said levels of shoplifting and items stolen were directly linked to poverty and social issues.

She added: “I think one of the reasons for shoplifting is down to levels of unemployment, benefits being cut and coping with the rising cost of living. It suggests criminality is poverty-related.

“It sounds like the pattern is poverty-related. It does appear there is a trend.

“You have to remember we have had 700 police officers who have lost their jobs over the last few years – there is a lack of visibility and a deterrent.

“I do think that there is also a hardcore criminal element. It is not all due to poverty. There are organised criminal gangs which seek to make money. That can be a part of it.”

Chief Constable Steve Finnigan, of Lancashire Police said: “Many shoplifters seem to be first time offenders and some of them are saying they are not stealing to go and sell stuff in the pub – they are stealing to put some food on the table.”

Benefit delays ‘help fuel’ rise in shop thefts’

Lawyers and court staff say they are dealing with increasing numbers of people who are stealing goods worth just a few pounds to feed themselves after their benefits are stopped or delayed.

Now they are calling for a “common sense approach” to the benefits system saying sanctioning complainants and stopping their money can lead to worst consequences.

David Long, 46, of North Promenade, Cleveleys, said he stole because he was hungry but was unable to take the bread and milk and other basics he needed because they were too bulky to hide.

Instead he was forced to steal smaller items, valued at £5 or more, which he could conceal and later sell for money for food.

Defence solicitor Trevor Colebourne said such cases were becoming more familiar in Fylde’s courtrooms.

He said: “There is no doubt that there has been a considerable increase in people saying they have committed a crime because their benefits have been stopped.

“We deal with dozens of situations like that. These people are desperate.

“They are penniless and have nothing at all. It’s not right to steal but that’s what they see as the only way forward.”

Alan Cobain, from Cobains Solicitors on Church Street, Blackpool, said: “It’s becoming very evident to me that these rules and regulations on benefits seem to be very strictly applied with no effort to look at the wider picture and the effect of benefits being stopped.”

Brian Smith, 42, of Withnell Road, South Shore, pleaded guilty to theft after being caught stealing meat.

He told Blackpool magistrates he had no money because his benefits had been stopped.

He said he stole to feed himself and to pay for lighting and heating at home.

Solicitors have said the time between sanctions and repayments can often see people left destitute and desperate and in need of a “quick fix” solution.

Mr Colebourne added: “I think one of the major reasons is the delay, the times it takes for benefits to be granted or resumed.

“I would have thought these things could be dealt with quicker.

Intolerable

“They can be told to wait four, six or eight weeks. That’s intolerable.

“If there was a rapid, positive response, then these people could see a light at the end of the tunnel.

“But these people are told to wait weeks, so it’s a hopeless situtation”

And a conviction for shoplifting makes it even harder for people to find work and break out of the benefits cycle.

Mr Cobain said: “What chance have these people got, especially in a town like Blackpool where jobs are not always plentiful?

“If benefits were kept up, there is no doubt that some of these people 
would not end up in the system.”