Thou shalt not steal…at least not from the corner shop.

Father Tim Jones, a parish priest from a Church in York, raised a bit of a rumpus recently by suggesting that if you were desperately needy it was OK to shoplift – at least form the larger stores, where the impact would be passed on ‘en masse’ to the rest of us by increased prices, rather than theft from smaller stores where the impact is effectively borne by the shop owners.  Unsurprisingly, this has attracted some flack from senior Churchmen….

This reminded me of the line in the classic Ealing Comedy ‘The Ladykillers’, where a bunch of crooks lying low in a boarding house run by a little old lady tell her that reporting the money that they claim to have found to the police would cause the poor policemen a lot of paperwork and, anyway, the loss of the money would only put a farthing on the price of each insurance policy.

I have to say, though, I’ve a sneaking admiration for Father Tim’s rather forthright suggestion to the needy to shoplift, but it’s still theft and as such I can’t condone it.  So I thought when I first read the story, but then I started thinking about the actual impact of shoplifting in the UK.  In 2008, a total of 1.5 billion pounds worth of losses were reported as shoplifting losses.  It’s believed to be an underestimation, as some stores don’t bother reporting, but it includes the ‘high end’ good like electronic equipment, video games, etc. that are stolen that no one could ever accept as being needed for existence.  So, let’s say that 2 billion a year gets shoplifted – I think this is probably an overestimate, but let’s run with it.  This is about 0.7% or so of total turnover for the retail business.

Sounds a lot of money, doesn’t it?  Well, in 2008/9 Tesco turned a 3 billion profit.  Asda managed around half a billion, Morrisons nearly a billion.  According to a recent report in the Independent, the cost of supporting the banks through their recent difficulties is around £850 billions.   Even this year, UK Bankers bonuses come in at £7.6 billions (OK…lower than the previous year when it was £13 billions).

Does that £2 billions still feel like a lot? 

Don’t get me wrong – theft from stores is wrong, but for those people who genuinely steal to survive – and they do exist – the alternatives such as prostitution and more direct street robberies must be worse.  Let’s not forget that the Supermarkets have made quite a bit of profit by screwing their suppliers in to the ground to get prices for things like milk, meat and vegetables as low as possible.  Bankers have acquired their bonuses after the taxpayer has bailed them out. 

I regard the antics of these groups to be legalised theft of a magnitude that puts the amounts stolen by shoplifters into perspective.  But tell me,  who do you think we’re more likely to see in court for theft?  Someone who’s stolen a tenner’s worth of good from the local supermarket or a merchant banker who’s managed to walk off with a couple of hundred grand of tax-payer’s money?

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