Why it will be far from a Merry Christmas for many families in 2016

Christmas is a time when the whole family can come together over a delicious meal and spend time whiling away the hours, full of laughter and rich food… or at least, this is the dream. Unfortunately though, this is something that many families won’t get to experience this year.

As we at Hylton-Potts also gear up for the festive period, the clients we meet with each day remind us that not everyone can have the kind of Christmas they want. In fact, with the rising rates of shoplifting towards the end of the year, we are shown how desperate some families are to give their children the Christmas Day they deserve.

We’ve written several blog posts recently about the changes to the benefit system, such as the roll out of Universal Credit and its impact on households across the UK. However, we feel it’s important to bring to your attention that more change is needed.

When unsuspecting people are being investigated for benefit fraud and have their benefits suspended indefinitely, there is often nothing to keep them going until a decision has been reached. For weeks on end, they are put under a huge amount of emotional and financial distress, and with the added pressure of Christmas, this can often lead them to crime just so they and their children can survive.

In today’s post, we’re going to highlight just a few cases that show how harmful current legislation can be to households, and discuss why such approaches should be changed.

How are families struggling?

The number of people turning to shoplifting just to feed their families is growing each year, and it’s surprising how frequently they are punished rather than being directed to those who can help them overcome their financial problems.

It could be that you’ve found yourself in this position already and you’re on this page for advice, and if that’s the case, know that you’re not alone. There are hundreds of families and individuals across the country who will be struggling this Christmas, and some of the most recent examples prove just how archaic the legislation in place to handle these cases is.

For example, the Mirror reported on how the recent benefits cap is leaving children hungry and cold, as their parents are forced to cut the amount they spend on food and heating. In a recent study conducted by End Child Poverty, they surveyed 1,000 parents and asked how they had reacted to the benefits cap.

Shockingly, one in five claimed to have cut back on food, while a similar number had turned off the heating as a response. This is equivalent to one and a half million parents across the UK, with two and a half million children.

One mother from Yeovil can certainly sympathise with these figures; Emma Louise Booth had her benefits temporarily stopped and was unable to make ends meet. On 3rd November this year, she attended her magistrates court hearing where she was charged with shoplifting, which she claims she did so that her children could have packed lunches.

According to reports, Ms Booth was spotted by a security guard putting some items into a trolley and others into her bag as she walked around Morrisons. While she had £20 left to pay for some of her shopping, which she did at the checkout, the extra items which she says were for her children, she walked out of the shop without paying for.

Struggling after having her benefits stopped, and handling several illnesses including anxiety, depression and back problems which have left her disabled, Ms Booth pleaded guilty to stealing food items valued at £15.92. She was fined £40, and ordered to pay this as well as a £30 victim surcharge.

Why does the current system need change?

Ms Booth’s case highlights another problem with the current system, in that the money she was ordered to pay back far exceeded the value of the theft. This is something that Louise Sewell also experienced; she was caught shoplifting Mars bars worth just 75p, but was forced to pay a £330 fine for the theft.

Ms Sewell claimed she hadn’t eaten for several days due to her benefits being stopped; she hid the multi-pack inside her body-warmer at a store in Kidderminster, but was told she must pay £328.75 in damage costs – 438 times the value of the item she stole. Due to the public outrage that ensued, a crowd-funding campaign was set up to help Ms Sewell, which raised more than £9,000 in a single day.

There are many more stories like these, which you can read about here, but why is help not being offered to people? After all, many experts have suggested that the costs of providing a temporary benefit to those who have them stopped, must surely be cheaper in the long-term than the costs to the judicial system of arresting someone.

There’s the cost of going through the court process for a theft charge, additional finances required for providing them with legal aid as they cannot pay the lawyer fees themselves, and of course, these individuals will sometimes spend weeks in jail, which must also be paid for at hugely inflated rates.

In fact, the Mirror recently reported how a night at the Ritz Hotel in London cost less per night than just one night in prison. The Metropolitan Police admitted that the average cost of keeping someone in the cells for just 24 hours – which can happen simply from committing minor offences – is £418, compared to a starting price of £380 for the Ritz.

To add to this, the national government report on the cost per place, per prisoner, which was released in 2014, states that the average for an inmate to stay in a UK prison was £650 a week, which considering inflation, will be even higher this year. This makes for some shocking reading, but emphasises our point that surely helping these unfortunate families would help to save the welfare state money, as well as the lives of the individuals who are turning to crime for reasons beyond their control.

Of course, we must note that there will always be people who are intent on shoplifting regardless of their circumstances; not everyone is committing a criminal offence because they have children to feed and their benefits have been stopped. However, for those who do find themselves in these unfortunate positions, it’s clear from the handful of stories above alone that the welfare system needs to be there to help these families, rather than hinder them.

If you’ve found yourself in a similar position this Christmas and you’re worried about not being able to feed your family, we may be able to help you. The best thing to do is to seek advice from our experts as soon as possible, and you can call us on 020 7381 8111, or email us at [email protected].

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