When you put something into a bin you disown it. You’re saying that you no longer want possession of the item you have just placed into the rubbish. When someone else finds value in that item, and takes it from the bin, it is not stealing as there is not an owner to be stolen from*.
This simple sentiment has been missed by the Crown Prosecution Service who are pushing ahead with the prosecution of three men charged under an obscure section of the 1824 Vagrancy Act for taking food that had been thrown out by the supermarket Iceland.
For those of you unfamiliar with the 1824 Vagrancy Act, it is the piece of legislation that outlaws ‘Persons committing certain offences to be deemed rogues and vagabonds’ and specifically prohibits the ‘intent to insult any female’.
Hilariously, the CPS has judged this case to be ‘in the public interest’. I think it is clearly not in the public’s interest and here is why:
- The food was on its way to landfill. We have a big problem with over use of landfills. Stopping (and re-using or recycling) anything destined for landfill should be welcomed and celebrated – not prosecuted.
- In the UK alone, 5.3 million tonnes of edible food is thrown away each year. Put another way – that is about £10 billion worth of food. Anything that helps reverse this trend should be celebrated – not prosecuted.
- Prosecuting them isn’t a harmless activity – it costs me and you through our taxes to prosecute. Remember that time we splashed out £20,000 to try and prosecute someone for stealing a 25p banana? I would support a prosecution if the principle was an important one but this is the opposite – there is no clear moral case for prosecuting these men.
Perhaps most importantly there is a clear moral case for not prosecuting them – what they did was totally harmless. The only people it may harm are those who eat food past its use-by date. That’s fine, it’s their choice. As a rule of thumb, I think people should be free to do what they want as long as it doesn’t harm others (hat tip J.S. Mill).
An attack on those who seek to enjoy this free food is in actual fact an attack on our freedom. The state has no place prosecuting someone for doing something that harms no-one else.
This isn’t to say the state doesn’t have a role to play in tackling this problem of supermarket waste. Last year Labour MP, Kerry McCarthy, tabled a bill that would force supermarkets to donate excess food to charities. A great idea that should be welcomed!
In the words of Henry Smith, Conservative MP for Crawley, “Food waste is not only an environmental concern but a social problem too. It is morally right that large retailers should make available food that would be dumped anyway to those most in need or struggling.”
But as this Bill is still a long way from becoming law though let’s hope that the same MPs speak out against this preposterous proposed prosecution that is so clearly not in the public interest.
*I am fully are that the law of land says otherwise but the law of the land is often wrong – as it is in this case. I also accept that there are some cases where the ‘thrown away’ items still hold value – for example glass in recycling bins, or clothes to go to charity shops.
Good on the founder and CEO of Icelands, Malcolm Walker, who earlier today tweeted this: