At the beginning of May this year, the UK media took note of an unusual case in Italy’s highest court – a homeless man originally found guilty of theft, and sentenced to six months in jail and a €100 fine, was acquitted. The new verdict determined that as he had only stolen a small amount of food because he was desperately hungry, he had not committed a crime.
Compare this to a UK story that caught my eye a few years ago, when two men plead guilty in court to charges of stealing vegetables from a local allotment site. They were conditionally discharged, and ordered to pay £20 compensation and £85 costs. These two men were also living in poverty, unable to work due to injury and dependent on benefits. They had mouths to feed at home. I have no idea how they would have been able to pay their fines.
Newspaper reports made a lot of a ‘comic’ aspect of the case – the men were caught in the act, and the vegetables they had stolen were put into an ID parade so that the allotment holders could try to identify which were theirs. Which, of course, reminds us that theft is not a victimless crime. Those allotment holders had worked hard to grow their vegetables, and would have been furious to see them disappear. Although, had they been asked, many would no doubt have been happy to share their surplus with anyone in need.
We all pay the price of theft, as businesses need to charge higher prices to offset losses, and insurance premiums are raised when you make a claim. But we also all have a responsibility to care for the portion of society that – for whatever reason – is unable to care for itself. Very few of us would watch someone starve, and we all contribute, via our taxes, and our charitable donations, to feeding the hungry. Churches still collect food during harvest festivals every year, to redistribute to the needy of the parish.
In these days of austerity, that may not be enough. The Tussell Trust reported a 2% increase in foodbank use in the financial year 2015-16, with 1,109,309 three-day emergency food supplies given to people in crisis.
If any of those people were reduced to stealing food, would that be acceptable? Acceptable is the wrong word, perhaps. We are all brought up to believe that stealing is never acceptable, but we can – with compassion – understand and forgive such a theft. Hopefully we can learn to provide rather than punish; is it acceptable to fine people for whom money is already an issue?
Theft and vandalism is, unfortunately, quite common on allotments. Some of it is profit motivated, with second hand tools fetching reasonable prices at car boot sales. And, I’m told, theft of petrol from allotment sheds is also quite common, thought to be by young moped owners. But gardeners aren’t always just victims.
You would think that the clientele that visits botanic gardens and the gardens opened to the public by (e.g.) the RHS and the National Trust would have higher moral standards, but apparently they don’t. It’s quite common for gardeners there to find plants that have been chopped back by visitors taking cuttings, or to find that seeds have been collected by thrifty gardeners unwilling to pay for a plant or a packet of seeds. Apparently this is considered acceptable behaviour by some visitors, no doubt encouraged by the idea of recouping their entry fee. But in doing so they’re damaging plants and trampling the flower beds and decreasing the ability of these gardens to profit from propagating and selling their own plants.
People apparently steal the plant labels, too, which seems idiotic in these days when everyone has a smart phone and can take a photo. Or what’s wrong with taking a pencil and paper and writing it down?
The worst, of course, is the people who steal the entire plant. I don’t know why anyone would think that was acceptable. Two years ago a rare, small waterlily was stolen from Kew, which highlighted the problem that botanic gardens face. That particular specimen was critically endangered and priceless, and no doubt stolen to order by a criminal gang for a wealthy, private collector. It took years of coaxing for scientists at Kew to grow the plant from seed, and when they did someone stole it.
I suspect very few people reading this would find that theft acceptable, or be able to think of any justification for it. And perhaps motivation is the key. If you find yourself in desperate need of something, and have no other way to get it, then perhaps stealing would be acceptable – to anyone other than the rightful owner of the property. Let’s hope we never find ourselves in that situation.