We are delighted to have managed to host such an interesting and successful event at the University of Birmingham, with over 50 attendees from the academia, charities and government institutions. The main purpose of this event was to bring together people working in different sectors and get them talking, planning and strategising on how to use their respective skills and expertise towards the main goal of ending the criminalisation of poverty. The event was chaired by Naima Sakande (APPEAL), Danny Shaw and Charlie Weinberg (Safe Ground).
The day started with a panel discussion – Paula dialled in and talked about her lived experiences of poverty, and the stigma and difficulties it brings to daily life, which everyone found interesting and moving. Panellists then presented and discussed their topics about the non-payment of council tax and TV licensing (Rona Epstein and Tara Casey) – what successes have been gained in this area and what remains to be done – followed by a talk about school exclusions (Carl Parsons) and links to future outcomes for those being excluded. The final talk addressed diversion programmes and their effectiveness (Juste Abramovaite).
During the second part of the day, attendees were split into smaller groups and discussed our three main questions – what are the principal drivers of the criminalisation of poverty; what are the best ways to stop the criminalisation of poverty; and what should be our next steps to achieve that – in the short, medium and long term. Here is a short summary of the discussion that was held at the end of the workshop when participants shared what they have discussed:
What are the principal drivers of the criminalisation of poverty?
A few important causes were mentioned by most groups:
Media perception and ‘othering’ of those in poverty and those who are criminalised. The view that, when custodial sentences are completed, the punishment must continue, as offenders are ‘othered’. Also, ‘othering’ of those who are not ‘contributing’ and perceptions of ‘bad choices’ – criminalisation of poverty driven by deep seated beliefs that people are poor because of bad choices they have made and what happens to them as a consequence is their own fault. Also, that punishment is an effective deterrent from poverty-related crimes like non-payment of TV licence. No real evidence to back this up but strong beliefs nonetheless.
There were a lot of discussions about individualism and lack of class analysis, individual blame and issues not seen as being social or systemic. For example, shifting of responsibility – those with needs for additional support in education settings being presented as an ‘individual’ issue and not a social responsibility.
Other ‘causes’ mentioned were the austerity agenda, increasing anti-social behaviour legislation, laws such as public space protection orders which, combined with less spending on facilities like youth clubs/activity centres for young people, leave young people with nowhere to go.
Lack of defence and resources for marginalised and vulnerable people when they first enter the criminal justice system. Some examples were mentioned in the panel discussion about the TV licences fees and the fact that a large percentage of those ‘guilty’ of the ‘crime’ were not even aware that they are being taken to court for this. All political parties needing to appear ‘tough on crime’.
What are the best ways to stop the criminalisation of poverty?
A thorough discussion considered the perceptions and language used and how these could be changed:
Personalising those who are living in poverty to make them more relatable, for example, ‘people who work in healthcare, schools, public transport’. You meet people in these circumstances every day.
Changing the perceptions – for example, reframing questions such as – ‘would you agree with an indefinite detention to anyone related with terrorism’ vs ‘would you agree that the state should be able to detain indefinitely’.
More balanced reporting or counter narratives in the press. Challenging social media and perpetuating of similar and extreme opinion. Somehow forefronting the discrimination and negative perceptions towards people in poverty, and the ways poverty can drive crime, at key points in the decision-making process, for example, in sentencing guidelines.
Poverty is created/perpetuated by design, for example through austerity policies. More compassionate policy-making should be a solution. Electoral reform – PR – counter narratives from elsewhere on the political spectrum.
Some discussions addressed the criminalisation of poverty by addressing poverty itself – through education and employment possibilities and giving more people more chances to escape poverty.
What should be our main goals – short, medium and long term?
One of the main suggestions mentioned by most groups was to push for the redistribution of funding through progressive taxation. Also, law reform on tax collection, for example, simple changes that could lead to a consistent system whereby council tax or TV licence could be treated like others taxes (e.g. income tax). Currently, there are only a few steps to punish when it comes to the non-payment of the council tax or TV licence but far more steps to punish for non-payment of income or capital gain tax – that should be challenged and changed as is disproportionally affects people in poverty.
Changing the perceptions and countering myths were also identified as the most important goals. By influencing the policy, language used and raising the awareness of how badly poverty has been criminalised and also highlighting the concept of social harm and proportionality.
Targeting school exclusions – good example of the External Exclusion Panels in Derby, which could be followed and encouraged elsewhere. More research and evidence about school exclusions and how they link to poverty and criminalisation would also be beneficial to help to push for the change.
In order to end the criminalisation of poverty, in the long run, you need people in power to come from more diverse experiences in order to be able to influence and make decisions. That could be achieved through lower school exclusions – short-term goals and better access to education and training (for example, for magistrates) – medium term goal.
Long terms goals discussed included structural economic change and a revolution!
The criminalisation of poverty is a huge problem and it would be naïve to think we could solve it all in a few hours’ time, but we hope this event started the conversation about what could be done, what modest interventions we could all attempt to raise the awareness of the question and then target specific issues that contribute to the problem.
My own personal takings from the day were to prioritise tackling perceptions of poverty and the language which is surrounded by it (‘othering’ and ‘bad choices’), targeting school exclusions in the short term, to open up more opportunities for training, education and employment in the medium term and pushing for law reform on tax collection, where situations such as non-payment of the council tax or TV licence fees are not treated like criminal offences.
Thank you once again for everyone who has attended. We encourage you to keep this conversation going – please send your comments, ideas and suggestions below (in comments) or get in touch with us directly.
Dr Juste Abramovaite
University of Birmingham