Giving courts greater discretion when docking benefits from those convicted of rioting is basically a sensible move. But the detail has been lost amidst a tide of rhetoric about welfare scroungers
David Cameron announced this weekend that people who are fined in court for an offence, and who have to pay this off from their benefits income, will have to do so at a rate of up to £25 per week, rather than the £5 per week under the current system. This move is, actually, a lot more sensible that the tabloid cries of victory would suggest on first reading.
Back in August there was talk that Number 10 and the Department for Work and Pensions were putting together plans to somehow automatically dock the benefits of those convicted of rioting, after a public petition calling for benefits to be removed from all convicted rioters reached the magic 100,000 signatures in a matter of days and parliament was recalled to debate the issue.
This would have been difficult to administer, but, more importantly, built on wholly perverse logic. As many pointed out at the time, the majority of those partaking in burglary and petty theft (and looting) are motivated by poverty and social disadvantage – recent statistics confirmed this to be the case, with high levels of unemployment and free school meals eligibility among those convicted. These groups are unlikely to be dissuaded from these activities if their already low incomes are reduced further.
Not only is there no conclusive evidence that a financial penalty is an effective deterrent from such crimes, but by making some of the most disadvantaged and marginalised in society more financially desperate, this could exacerbate rather than tackle the cause of the problem.
For rioters and looters with non-custodial sentences, community service to give back to the communities they damaged would be a far more appropriate and visible punishment. Nonetheless, where financial penalties are used for other crimes, the higher repayment amount may be a sensible idea. Reading the small print, what this actually means is that courts will have the discretion, when a person has to repay a fine from their benefits income, to reduce that income by up to £25 per week. Assuming the court will take a person’s financial situation into account and use this discretion wisely, then some will still only pay £5, but others may pay £7, or £10, and so on. Greater flexibility to set the repayment plan of a fine for people with different levels of benefits income seems reasonable.
But this may well be overlooked by those on both sides of the argument – primarily because the way in which the government has described the policy (Cameron said 'I am determined to see responsibility and fairness restored to the welfare system, and this policy does precisely that.') implies that it has greater political import than it actually does – that it will somehow inflict an additional punishment on benefit recipients by docking their benefits in return for the crimes they commit. In reality, the financial penalties people face will not change; they will still be handed down by the court according to sentencing guidelines. It is just the rate at which they are paid back may be faster.
But last week saw obligatory tabloid ‘outrage’ at how many rioters were claiming benefits, whilst earlier this month, Iain Duncan Smith’s party conference speech suggested that those reliant on benefits had a sense of entitlement which led to moral decay and criminality. So I predict that a fairly sensible policy, to give courts greater flexibility regarding the repayment of fines, will be buried in an avalanche of populist narrative about the ‘docking of benefits’ of criminals.
This could carry its own risks. Might the courts feel pressure to set the maximum weekly amount of £25 for everyone, regardless of personal circumstances and ability to pay? The prudent aspect of this policy is its flexibility, yet it is already being hailed by government as a way of punishing benefit claiming criminals. If it is implemented rigidly by the courts to reinforce the hype, then it could well encourage crime amongst those it sets out to deter.