The Insecurity of Public Interest: Criminal Law and Dumpster Diving

Henrique Carvalho casts a critical eye over the Crown Prosecution Service's claim that prosecuting so-called 'dumpster diving' was in the public interest.

Paul May outside Iceland

Paul May outside Iceland

The idea of insecurity seems to have an ever increasing hold on our contemporary social imaginary, a tendency which is now regularly used by the authorities in order to legitimise a specific notion of public interest. Last week, this notion came to the fore when the Guardian newspaper revealed that three men were arrested, detained and very briefly charged for taking food from a dustbin behind one of the Iceland supermarkets.

Paul May, Jason Chan and William James were arrested on 25 October last year, just before midnight, for climbing over a wall at the back of Iceland in Kentish town and taking some tomatoes, mushrooms, cheese and Mr Kipling cakes that were destined for a landfill. Initially arrested for burglary, the three men were detained in a police cell for 19 hours before being released, the items they took returned to the Iceland store. They were finally charged by the Crown Prosecution Service under what the Guardian has properly described as ‘an obscure section of the 1824 Vagrancy Act, after being discovered in “an enclosed area, namely Iceland, for an unlawful purpose, namely stealing food”.’ When asked by the three men’s lawyers to drop the case, the CPS confidently responded last month that there was “significant public interest in prosecuting these individuals”.1

Such confidence in the public interest supporting the prosecution of these three men was only abated after the decision to prosecute was hugely criticised on the social media, which among other things led the chief executive of Iceland to contact the CPS and ask that the case be dropped, in order for Iceland to distance itself from the case and thus avoid a public relations disaster.2 Although the CPS claimed they were drawn by these repercussions to reassess the case on its own merits, Baljit Ubhey, the chief crown prosecutor for the CPS in London, was clear that the representation made by Iceland had directly affected the CPS’ assessment. Given that this case shed light upon many issues of social relevance linked to its context, from the declining quality of life for a significant portion of the population in London and England in general to the problematic nature of the high levels of spoilage of food perpetuated by the food market, it is not too difficult to imagine why the CPS, influenced by Iceland, might have quickly questioned and shifted its initial judgment.

Nevertheless, we should resist the temptation to focus on the power dynamics expressed in this case, for we might too easily consider its outcome as a victory of civil society over the concerns of an authoritarian state. For while the three men were “saved by public awareness” from being prosecuted on the basis of a nearly-200 year-old law, the fact that they were still seen as criminals by a member of the public who called the police, treated as criminals by the police, kept in jail for 19 hours and nearly prosecuted out of ‘significant public interest’ deserves deeper examination.

There are two other recent developments that may help illustrate how the events narrated above may be seen as a reflection of a broader paradigm. The first is a victory in the House of Commons in support of an amendment to the Immigration Bill which allows the Home Office to strip naturalised citizens of their nationality whenever their conduct is deemed ‘seriously prejudicial’, even if this leaves the individual stateless as a result. This measure was surprisingly defended as an attempt to appease a rebellion by Conservative backbenchers, which had the aim of advancing even more repressive and authoritarian changes to the bill.3 The second is the progress of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill through the Houses. Although the House of Lords has recently dealt a blow to one of the most controversial aspects of the bill, namely its attempt to redefine anti-social behaviour around the broad terms ‘nuisance’ and ‘annoyance’,4 the bill has many other concerning elements which have remained intact, most relevantly the changes to the landlords’ powers of recovery of possession of dwelling-houses on anti-social behaviour grounds, which are aimed at making such evictions faster, easier and broader in scope.5 The bill is currently on its last stages of debate before approval.

Taken together, these developments can be seen as a reflection of how an ideology of insecurity has taken hold of the social imaginary which is sustained and promoted by the public authorities, and as a consequence has significantly conditioned the idea of public interest prevalent in political discourse. In this context, what could have been interpreted as an isolated incident of a misconceived judgment on the part of the CPS reveals itself as a disturbing manifestation of the extent to which our contemporary society is letting its sense of vulnerability twist the idea of public interest into an anxious insecurity which is itself problematic in its banality and dangerous in its repercussions.

What can be said about our political community, when the public administration claims that it is in the public interest to deprive anyone who appears not to be acting in conformity with its idea of citizenship of the basic means for their subsistence — from their access to food, to their homes, to their nationality? Above all, it must be in our interest to rethink our conception of the public sphere, if we aim to remain — or, better, to become — a community.

Show 5 footnotes

  1. ‘Three charged with stealing food from skip behind Iceland supermarket’, The Guardian, 28 January 2014. Accessed in 30/01/2014 at http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/jan/28/three-charged-vagrancy-act-food-skip-iceland
  2. ‘Prosecutors drop case against men caught taking food from Iceland bins’, The Guardian, 29 January 2014. Accessed in 30/01/2014 at http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/jan/29/prosecutors-drop-case-men-food-iceland-bins
  3. ‘Immigration Bill: Terror suspects may lose citizenship’, BBC News, 30 January 2014. Accessed in 30/01/2014 at <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-25953053> ; ‘MPs reject Tory rebels’ immigration amendment’, BBC News, 30 January 2014. Accessed in 30 January 2014 at <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-25953053>.
  4. ‘Lords reject government’s antisocial, crime and policing bill’, The Guardian, 9 January 2014. Accessed in 30/01/2014 at <http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/jan/09/lords-reject-antisocial-asbo-ipna-bill
  5. ‘Fact sheet: Recovery of possession of dwelling-houses on anti-social behaviour grounds (Part 5)’. Accessed in 30/01/2014 at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/201075/Fact_sheet_Eviction.pdf. Thanks to Sarah Lamble for highlighting this point in her presentation ‘A Tale of Two Protests: Surveying the Legal Aftermath of London’s 2011 Riots and Occupy LSX’.
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