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‘Privileges’

September 7, 2011

From the Guardian’s article on the government’s attempts to be seen to punish rioters:

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or tax credits, could be taken away to show criminals that privileges provided by the state can be temporarily withdrawn.

Emphasis mine.

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:

Article 23.

  • (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.

Article 24.

  • Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

Article 25.

  • (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.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 8, 2011 2:37 pm

    On top of everything else, I can’t see anyway that stripping these “privileges” from rioters won’t end up producing two-tier justice. There were undoubtedly people who rioted who received benefits or who lived in council/authority homes, but judging from the list of professions of those involved, I’d imagine not everyone did. Taking away these benefits is, as you say, in effect stripping away people’s access to the most basic services – water, heating, housing, food, transport. The simple fact is that cutting benefits effectively takes these rights from the poorest, but keeps the rights of the better off intact.

    If someone who earned enough that they didn’t need benefits was stripped of those rights just to “teach them a lesson”, especially if it was because of something their child, parent or partner did, the very same papers who are calling for this measure would be outraged. It’s as if more than being “privileges”, these rights are seen as something that can be bought. If you can afford to cover the cost of these rights then they’re yours, but if you need help then they’re not really your rights.

  2. knightofthedropdowntable permalink*
    September 8, 2011 4:54 pm

    Another thing that nobody seems to be considering is that while threatening to take away benefits might be an effective (if immoral) deterrent, it’s too late to deter the rioters as they’ve already happened! All this will do is appease some lunatic authoritarians, make the government look tough on crime, and increase crime rates. How else are these people supposed to survive if these benefits are removed? If they don’t find a job immediately (unlikely, especially with a recent conviction) they will literally have no other choice but to steal just to survive. It makes no sense at all to punish the rioters this way, and it probably won’t work as a deterrent either because people don’t think they will be caught. Capital punishment didn’t work, and this is only a tiny bit better, insofar as you only condemn them to a life of crime OR death.

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