An Anglican priest based in York has warned that many people in poverty are faced with little choice but to engage in shoplifting. Tim Jones said that while theft cannot be justified, it is better to shoplift from large businesses than to engage in mugging or prostitution.
His comments have been inaccurately reported in some quarters, with his local MP and police force accusing him of justifying shoplifting.
In his sermon on Sunday (20 December 2009) at the Church of St Laurence and St Hilda, Jones expressed his outrage at a situation in which people were so poor that they turned to crime. He later made the same argument in an interview with BBC radio.
Jones emphasised that those in desperate poverty are able to make moral choices.
“The strong temptation is to burgle or rob people – family, friends, neighbours, strangers”, he said, “Others are tempted towards prostitution, a nightmare world of degradation and abuse for all concerned. Others are tempted towards suicide. Instead, I would rather that they shoplift”.
He encouraged those driven to shoplifting to take only as much as they need and to shoplift from large companies rather than small family businesses.
Jones insisted that stealing is neither good nor harmless.
“The observation that shoplifting is the best option that some people are left with is a grim indictment of who we are” he added.
A spokesperson for North Yorkshire police said, “First and foremost, shoplifting is a criminal offence and to justify this course of action under any circumstances is highly irresponsible”. Supporters of Jones point out that he is not justifying shoplifting, but giving advice to people in desperate circumstances.
Meanwhile, Jones has been attacked by Richard Dobbs of the British Retail Consortium, who said, “I would have hoped that a vicar of all people would understand that there's a plain principal difference between right and wrong”.
The Archdeacon of York, Richard Seed, said he had asked Jones to stop making this argument and would ask him again. His prospects of success seem rather limited, given that Jones has now defended his position in a number of media interviews.
Some fear that the focus on Jones' nuanced point about shoplifting is distracting attention from his main message about the extreme poverty present in Britain today.
“For many at the bottom of our social ladder, lawful, honest life can sometimes seem to be an apparent impossibility” said Jones.