Letter: Benefits changes compel Jason to beg or steal

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The Independent Online
I WOULD like to congratulate you on Carol Sarler's article ('Why Jason Runs Away', Review, 20 December). It was not only a vivid portrait of a real person, but also a demonstration of how much more complicated life is than the categories to which administration tends to reduce it.

However, she has left out one of the elements which have 'conspired' to put Jason where he is. That is the social security benefit system. Between their 16th and 18th birthdays, people have no right to Income Support. They must register for Youth Training, in which they are 'guaranteed' a place, and receive nothing until that place is taken up. There is a discretionary possibility of Severe Hardship Payments, but not all applications are successful.

It is difficult to imagine persuading Jason to register for Youth Training. He would probably have replied, quite truly, that he was unlikely to get a place for weeks, and in any case, he needed to eat while waiting. That immediate need to eat is pressing 16- and 17-year-olds towards crime.

We cannot know whether a right to social security benefits would have helped Jason, but it would have provided the time during which he could have been helped without being forced to beg or steal in order to eat. As it is, we must wonder how far we are justified in imprisoning people, to whom, in the words of the Social Security Advisory Committee, we have provided 'no visible, legal means of support'.

Earl Russell

Liberal Democrat Spokesman

on Social Security

House of Lords