Two months ago, after benefits sanctions left Louisa Sewell with no money for food, she shoplifted a pack of four Mars bars. It was the cheapest food in the shop, at 75 pence for the packet. She hadn’t eaten in days.
Sewell was caught stealing on the Kidderminster convenience store’s CCTV camera, and then fined £328.75 by the magistrates’ court. This fine was the sum of £73 for the theft, £150 in court charges, £85 for prosecution costs, a £20 victim surcharge – and 75p in compensation to the store for the Mars bars.
The fine is over 438 times the value of the theft.
Sewell’s solicitor told the court: “She fully accepts this offence of theft. She said she was really hungry. She had no money. She took the lowest value item she could find.” She also informed the court that Sewell’s benefits had been sanctioned.
This case is a symptom of the government’s increasingly severe welfare reforms. Using the proportion of all those penalised over the course of a year (rather than in each month, which is how the government presents data on benefits sanctions) shows that annually, one in six of all jobseekers have had their payments temporarily stopped. The Department for Work and Pensions has itself admitted that one in five benefit-related deaths have involved sanctions.
Reverend Stuart Campbell, who runs a website on Scottish politics, spotted Sewell’s story online, and decided to begin a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for her to be able to pay her fine. His aim was to raise £500 – but in four days, he has raised nearly £14,000.
“You see stuff like this every day,” Campbell tells me. But the “straw that broke the camel’s back” for him was that he had recently read a news story about a young investment banker who glassed someone in a nightclub and was let off punishment by the judge, who noted that the man had “a lot going for him”.
“It was quite hard to ignore the contrast between justice for the poor and justice for the well-off,” Campbell adds.
“This is a drop in the ocean,” Campbell says about his campaign, the surplus funds of which he is donating to various foodbanks and poverty charities, and a school uniform bank for the children of poor families who are unable to afford clothing for school. “I can’t imagine how many similar cases there have been in the last couple of weeks that we don’t know anything about – just by sheer chance we stumbled across this one and decided to do something about it.”
Campbell is going through Sewell’s solicitor, and has not spoken to Sewell herself – “I don’t know anything about her; I don’t know the woman from Adam!” – but he sees her case as an example of the many injustices in “the hideous, heartless society the UK has become”, as he describes it on his fundraising page.
“I think it’s absolutely appalling,” he tells me. “I don’t know what was going through the heads of everyone involved in this.
“This woman was failed so many times down the line; the shop that’s pressing charges over pennies, a prosecutor that decides that this is a good use of court time and resources, and a magistrate that goes ‘oh this woman hasn’t got 75 pence, so let’s fine her 328 quid even though she’s got no income whatsoever’. I can’t begin to explain what any of those people are thinking.”