As someone who often bemoans the softness of the judicial system in this country I have to confess I had something of a strange reaction to Saturday’s Sentinel splash.
There’s no doubt in my mind that sentences passed by courts in the UK are often too lenient and I’ve also criticised conditions in our prisons because they sometimes seem, to me, to be more akin to holiday camps than jails for people who have broken the laws of the land.
But when I read the story about ‘down-on-their-luck’ criminals being given food vouchers by Staffordshire Police I wasn’t outraged, unlike other readers.
Our story, which was picked up the following day by the national Press, prompted some people to claim the initiative effectively rewards or even incentivises criminal behaviour.
But are we honestly suggesting that people will start thieving on the off chance that some kindly police officer will give them emergency food vouchers?
I’m sorry but I just can’t see it.
Firstly, I looked at the figures in Saturday’s story.
Since March just seven food bank vouchers have been handed out by officers at the force’s Northern Area Custody Facility.
We’re hardly talking big numbers now, are we?
Then I read the case of the latest recipient of a copper’s goodwill.
If you believe the man (a shoplifter) – and I’ve no reason not to as the police verified his statement – he stole two items of food to eat as he’d spent his benefits on vet’s bills for his pet dog.
Wrong, certainly, but hardly crime of the century, I’m sure you’ll agree.
Having explained his actions, apologised and given the stolen items back, he was let off with a caution and the custody officer took the unusual step of offering the man a voucher which could be redeemed at Stoke-on-Trent Foodbank.
Now I’d hate for anyone to think I’ve gone soft but I would suggest that the officer in question was perfectly placed to make a judgement call that the man who received three days of ‘emergency food’.
Whether or not police officers should be making such calls is a matter of debate, of course.
Police Commissioner Matthew Ellis is quite rightly trying to re-focus our cash-strapped county force on policing rather than have officers tied up with issues he feels other agencies ought to be dealing with.
In the wake of our story he’s suspended the food vouchers scheme pending a review.
Personally, I’d like to think that there will always be a place for common sense and human decency within the police service – as exemplified by the officer who dealt so sensibly with the shoplifter.
Given that it probably took less than a minute to have a conversation and hand out the vouchers as the man was being discharged, I hardly think it can be viewed as a waste of valuable police time or resources.
I can’t, of course, excuse the behaviour of the shoplifter because there are many, many people struggling in the current climate who would never dream of stealing.
However, food banks like the one here in the Potteries wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t a need for them.
People who receive vouchers are deemed to be in extreme need by professionals such as doctors, health visitors, social workers, staff at the Citizens’ Advice Bureau and, until this story broke, local police officers.
It seems to me to be eminently sensible and reasonable for people in these professions to be the arbiters of who needs what with regard to emergency food provision and, in the absence of a better solution, I’d be more than happy for them to continue to do so.
Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel