Ministers are looking hard at how benefits, or tax credits, could be taken away to show criminals that privileges provided by the state can be temporarily withdrawn.
So, in the aftermath of riots fuelled by poverty as much as anything (on which see Seamus’ excellent post on the riots), the government are at least considering stripping the poorest of those convicted of their state benefits. Not necessarily even for their own crimes, either: from later in the article, we learn that “Number 10 actively looking at the withdrawal of child maintenance or child benefit from parents who allow children to truant, or repeatedly allow them to stay on the streets late at night.” Allow seems to me to impute a degree of involvement from the parents that isn’t necessarily there. Parents can’t watch their children every hour of the day, and children are perfectly capable of getting into trouble unassisted. Either way, making the families poorer is unlikely to make the parents more present or the children less troublesome – if anything, the opposite.
I’m willing to consider the emphasised phrase above just the Guardian’s sloppy word choice, but it’s worryingly consonant with an unpleasantly popular view that always comes up whenever benefits are being talked about – that they are ‘privileges’, a special luxury given out by the state out of the goodness of its heart, which can be revoked for bad behaviour. I find it intensely worrying that there is always, apparently, someone willing to argue that being able to eat and have a roof over your head and clothe your children are luxuries rather than the basic human rights they are. The UK sits permanently on the Security Council of the United Nations – the same United Nations which drew up and published the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Here are Articles 23 to 25:
- (1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
- (2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
- (3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
- (4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.
- Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.
- (1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
- (2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.
Emphasis, again, mine.
It’s possible to argue, I suppose, that that “circumstances beyond his control” in Article 25 would exclude convicted criminals from its provisions. Wrangling over the exact punctuation of the Article aside, it seems to me neither productive nor ethical to take the view that committing a crime* is grounds to strip you of rights beyond those which – like, perhaps, the right to free association – might directly endanger others. It harms nobody else to ensure that criminals are kept fed, housed, permitted education and healthcare and allowed to vote. Stripping such harmless rights sends only the message that criminals are nonpersons, which is both vile in itself and particularly vile when one observes the extent to which broader social inequalities are magnified by the justice system. (Convicted criminals are disproportionately poor and disproportionately nonwhite.) Further, it’s only going to reinforce the already prevalent idea that the justice system is there to punish the guilty at all costs rather than protect the innocent, and lend further ammunition to people already convinced that the government is actively out to do them down.
I can’t see an attempt to strip convicted rioters of their benefits going anywhere good at all, unless you count “placating people who think that social security is a privilege” as a win.
*Especially, in the UK as it is now, given some of the things it’s possible to be convicted for, including possessing drugs many times less lethal than alcohol or certain kinds of pornography, even if made/filmed with the full consent of all involved. And so on.