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Rogues and vagabonds

This week, three young men were charged under the Vagrancy Act 1824 for taking food from a rubbish skip at the back of an Iceland store. NICK MATTHEWS wonders how crazy the capitalist state can become

The Tories and their Liberal Democrat allies have been accused of wanting to turn the clock back to Victorian times.

They seem to want to get us to know our place, to respect those with wealth and to be upstanding for the Queen and the Union Jack.

Victorian life is well known to us mainly through the novels of Charles Dickens.

In 1824 Dickens was working for six shillings a week at Warrens blacking factory labelling pots of bootblack.

The whole of that six shillings went to cover his board and lodging.

His father had been arrested for a debt of £40 and was sentenced to serve in Marshalsea Prison. On weekends Charles would visit the family in prison.

In that year London was besieged by soldiers returning from the Napoleonic wars to no homes and no jobs (it was ever thus).

The government responded with the Vagrancy Act, which in effect made it an offence to sleep on the streets or to beg.

This week three young men - Paul May, Jason Chan and William James, all residents of a squat in north London - were charged under the 1824 Vagrancy Act, though the charges were dropped on Wednesday.

Their crime was of a profoundly Dickensian nature. We all know how obsessed many of Dickens's characters where with food, how Pip stole food for Magwitch or how Oliver Twist wanted more.

The modern trio's crime is that they stole food from a skip at the rear of an Iceland store.

According to reports they stole mushrooms, tomatoes, cheese and Mr Kipling cakes.

Under the Act, "persons committing certain offences were to be deemed as rogues and vagabonds."

Some parts of the original Act have been subsumed in newer legislation but the rest of it remains on the statute book.

The Londoners were charged under the following part of the Act: "Every person being found in or upon any dwelling house, warehouse, coach-house, stable, or outhouse, or in any inclosed yard, garden, or area, for any unlawful purpose."

If the charges had been upheld they would have faced months in prison, where presumably they would at least have been fed.

I understand that the police have returned the mushrooms, tomatoes, cheese and Mr Kipling Cakes - now very well past their sell-by dates - to Iceland.

Presumably it will put them back into the skip.

They can then be collected with the 890,000 tons of food waste picked up by the London boroughs each year and added to the 1.6 million tons of food waste thrown out by stores across Britain and Ireland.

What sort of world have we created where every day, dustbin lorries make rounds of the streets of London and take their cargo either to be incinerated or shipped up the Thames on barges to have it dumped in the sea or into landfill?

In north London just 23 per cent is recycled.

Landfill sites already cover 109 square miles of our country and an extra 16 million tons of rubbish is being added each year.

And we prosecute three lads for nicking some out-of-date mushrooms.


Of course the apologists for capitalism tell us that the system may not be that fair, but it is efficient.

The free flow of market forces ensures, nay guarantees, the most efficient allocation of produce.

Well, this case demonstrates that it is neither fair nor efficient.

What is fair about the need for foodbanks?

And what kind of efficiency has farmers across the globe overworking their land, depleting the soil and over-using chemical inputs to produce food we then put into landfill while people go hungry?

Sometimes it is good to be reminded why you are a socialist and why the trade union struggle for a fair deal at work, the co-operators' struggle for pure food at fair prices and the political struggle for working class representation are all part of the same fight.

It reminds me of the words of that great Wobblie Fred Thompson.

In his memoir Fellow Worker he explains why he was both engaged in his union and in the Socialist Party.

"Perhaps my attitude towards the Industrial Workers of the World and the Socialist Party would be clearer if I added that if there were a food co-op store nearby, I would feel I should buy there.

"If there were a daily labour paper here, that I should subscribe to it even if I quarrelled with the editor.

"If there were labour cultural institutions in which I could participate and I had the time, I would do that too."

Remember the Vagrancy Act in 1824 did not work.

It paved the way for the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, which led to huge expansion of the workhouse system.

It meant that instead of outdoor relief, rejected on the basis it was unsustainable - have we not heard that one before too? - the destitute had to enter the workhouse.

The National Trust has a workhouse at Southwell in Nottinghamshire, coincidentally built in 1824.

Visitors think they are looking into the past.

But if we do not get this dreadful government off our country's back it just might be their vision of the future.


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