Shop Workers (Criminal Attacks)

– in the House of Commons at 8:20 pm on 14th May 2003.

Alert me about debates like this

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Dan Norris.]

Photo of Tom Watson Tom Watson Labour, West Bromwich East 8:21 pm, 14th May 2003

I am pleased to have secured this Adjournment debate to raise the worrying and growing issue of criminal attacks on shop staff. Thousands of workers in my constituency and some 2.7 million people across the country are employed in the retail sector. So it is right that we address the risks and abuse that they face.

I know that the Home Office does not collect specific statistics on attacks on shop workers, but the number of thefts from shops is on the rise. In the West Midlands police force area, the number of recorded offences rose by 12 per cent. in the past two years, from 17,891 incidents in 1999–2000 to just over 20,000 thefts in 2001–02.

The retail crime survey published by the British Retail Consortium gives an idea of the number of attacks on shop staff. Last year, it found that 20,000 staff were physically assaulted in 2001—a 40 per cent. increase in just over a year. Some 28,000 staff were threatened, 68,000 were verbally abused and many more incidents go unreported. Staff in small and medium-sized retail outlets such as garages, newsagents and off-licences continue to be more susceptible to attack. The BRC found that 12 in every 1,000 staff in the small and medium-sized enterprise sector were subject to physical violence compared with seven per 1,000 staff for larger retailers. Small stores are less likely to have security measures, such as CCTV and in-store guards, but more likely to have staff working on their own, often late at night.

Last year, a young manager at the Lidl supermarket in the Hamstead area of my constituency was viciously and violently attacked by a man with a baseball bat. Like thousands of shop staff across the country, he was working late at night with no security or support.

Photo of Mark Tami Mark Tami Labour, Alyn and Deeside

Although I obviously accept that employers need to do much more to protect staff, does my hon. Friend agree that they also need to put more resources into training staff, especially in conflict management techniques, so that they can defuse such situations before they become violent?

Photo of Tom Watson Tom Watson Labour, West Bromwich East

I agree. Retailers have to take responsibility not just for the security of the store, its goods and the contents of the tills but for their staff, who are often vulnerable and to whom they owe a clear duty of care. Obviously, training is a key element of that.

Under section 2 of the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974, employers are obliged to protect their staff against foreseeable risks. While many employers are good at undertaking such duties, some do not take staff safety seriously and many cannot afford to do so. Small, ill-protected businesses are vulnerable, but large stores are targets for serious criminals. The Safeway superstore at the heart of West Bromwich town centre, for example, was recently the victim of an armed robbery.

We have to dispel some myths about retail crime. First, it is not a victimless or faceless crime. Shoplifting is not a harmless or inoffensive pastime, but is often a clear indicator of serial criminality. Furthermore, two thirds of violence against shop staff is committed by shoplifters caught in the act. A 45-year-old shop assistant, for instance, was injured trying to stop a heroin addict taking less than £100 from a till. Shoplifting is increasingly linked to violence, substance abuse, street crime and truancy. It costs £2.4 billion every year and is a crime not just against businesses but against communities and ordinary shop staff who go to work every day to earn a living and who often feel let down by judges and magistrates. Retail crime has become an occupational hazard. Violent thieves, aggressive shoppers and abusive customers are making life a misery for retail staff. For too long, shop workers and companies have accepted that behaviour as part and parcel of the job.

That should not be the case. Staff should be free to go to work without fear of being attacked or abused. Under the leadership of Bill Connor, the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, which represents 320,000 retailers in the UK, has highlighted the problems and risks faced by its members day in, day out. Its "Freedom from Fear" campaign, masterminded by deputy general secretary John Hannett, rightly called for a zero tolerance approach to violence and abuse in the workplace. Its charter of respect for shop workers, which aims to provide safety and dignity at work, has already been signed by some of Britain's leading retailers, including Sainsbury's, the Co-operative Group, Littlewoods, Morrisons and Iceland, as well as the British Retail Consortium itself. Its national petition has attracted thousands of petitions in support of the campaign.

On 17 September, USDAW will hold a national respect day, which I hope will become an annual event. It is designed both to celebrate the vital role that millions of shop workers play in the community and the UK economy and remind the shopping public that shop staff are parents, friends, sons, daughters, wives and husbands, not just faceless individuals on a till. Shop workers are sometimes literally at the front line of the retail industry. They keep our economy going and politicians, employers and customers should recognise and respect that on 17 September. Will the Under-Secretary back the national day of respect, and will he join me in paying tribute to the union for fighting such a strong campaign on behalf of its members and all retail staff?

Has the Minister had a chance to read USDAW's report on shop workers' experiences of work-related violence and abuse entitled "Voices from the Frontline"? It does not make for easy reading. Julie Banks, an USDAW rep from Walsall, recalls:

"One Sunday a manager ran out and took a female member of security from the precinct. There was a bunch of young lads pinching alcohol. They actually dragged the security guard round the street and the female manager that came from our store was helpless. She couldn't do anything, because if she had tried to intervene they would have got her as well."

Julie goes on to say:

"To do your job to the best of your ability is to please the customer, but some are so unreasonable that you can't do that. And it upsets you if they start becoming abusive, especially if there's no manager around. Usually if you answer back or if you say anything, then they'll report you and you're liable to get into trouble for it."

Julie also tells of a 16-year-old trainee who was slapped in the face by a customer because she was a bit slow on the till.

Sadly, that old motto in the retail profession, "The customer is always right", is no longer true. On average, at least one shop worker is attacked every hour of the working day. Almost half of those surveyed by USDAW reported physical attacks or assaults on staff in the past 12 months, like the security guards at a Tesco store in Oxford who were bitten by a shoplifter who was HIV-positive, and had to spend months taking a cocktail of anti-HIV drugs, or the 70-year-old newsagent's assistant who suffered head injuries after he was beaten up during a raid in Wolverhampton.

Nearly three quarters of staff have been threatened with violence, like the cashier at a Thresher's off-licence in Walsall, who was pulled over a counter and threatened with a screwdriver by masked robbers, who made off with a haul of cash, cigarettes and cans of beer. At one in four stores, threats are made every week. Verbal abuse is a daily event in more than a third of stores, most commonly when young people are refused alcohol, but also when refunds cannot be given without proof of purchase, and if there are queues at the checkouts or even stock shortages. The legal duty to refuse alcohol sales after licensing hours in 24-hour stores is also a common flashpoint.

Not surprisingly, the daily onslaught of verbal abuse and the fear of violence is taking its toll on the UK's shop workers. Stress-related problems are common and include sickness and nausea, insomnia, headaches, stomach upsets and clinical depression. Almost half of staff have taken time off as a result of violence. The trauma and stress can last a lifetime, and many staff are leaving the retail sector altogether because of fear of violence and abuse.

The Home Office's British crime survey shows that shop workers are three times more likely to be assaulted or threatened than the average British worker. In its list of jobs with the highest risk, retail sales managers came fifth and retail cash desk or checkout operators came 13th. However, the picture is not entirely gloomy. The way forward is collaboration between unions, retailers, police, local authorities and Government. Partnership has been proven to work on the ground.

Birmingham's retail crime reduction partnership is one good example. Eight hundred retailers are signed up to the scheme, with local police and the city council. By working together, having safety in numbers and sharing information and intelligence, small shops and large retailers alike have greater strength in partnership than when acting alone. With the help of a shared database of photographs, once an offender has been banned from one shop, they can be banned from every store in the scheme, so through a network and a system of support for local shops, criminal activity can be deterred and town centres made more secure. Since Birmingham's retail crime operation was set up in 1999, shop crime in the city centre has fallen by a fifth and there are now fewer than 2,000 incidents a year. That is still too many, but it is a huge step forward in making the city centre safe and a more attractive place for both shoppers and staff.

Retail crime reduction partnerships certainly make a difference, but is my hon. Friend aware of the business intelligence crime system? The BICS computer database is a key weapon against persistent offenders. It collects, disseminates and uses retail crime intelligence in an entirely new way to allow crime analysis by type of store attacked, type of merchandise stolen and its value, particulars of the offender's modus operandi, details of the day and time of attack, and the name and aliases of the offender, together with circulation of a CCTV or police photograph and any previous retail crime history.

The BICS database has been installed or is about to be installed in up 250 town or shopping centres that have established retail crime reduction partnerships. I understand that there has recently been a bid to the Home Office from the British Retail Consortium to establish the BICS scheme nationwide at a cost of just over £1 million over three years. Such a database could link up information from tens of thousands of stores, and allow intelligence on travelling offenders to be shared across the country. The long-term benefits of extending BICS would undoubtedly outweigh the initial outlay. Businesses would save money, shoplifting and theft would be reduced and, as a result, shop workers would face fewer assaults and attacks. I hope that the Minister and his Department will have an early opportunity to look at the bid and perhaps talk to the British Retail Consortium and USDAW about the project.

Will the Minister also give a commitment to continue providing sustained funding for retail crime reduction partnerships and other local schemes to prevent retail crime? Simple though often expensive deterrents such as CCTV cameras and security guards improve safety and security, deterring shoplifters and protecting staff. Not leaving staff to work alone further reduces the risk of danger. Retailers spent £750 million last year on crime prevention strategies such as CCTV, alarm systems and product tagging.

Together with local authorities, the Government have also helped to increase the network of CCTV cameras on our high streets and key trouble spots. For instance, the £15 million CCTV funding for small retailers in deprived areas announced by the Home Secretary in June 2001 was very welcome. Improved security lighting, locks and gating schemes are also making a big difference. I hope that the Minister can give an assurance today that such financial support can be maintained and built upon in years to come.

Retail crime is not an isolated issue and it cannot be tackled in isolation. Since many of the thugs who abuse, assault and threaten shop staff also commit other offences, tackling retail violence will help in the battle against other forms of crime too. The measures that the Government are already taking to reduce crime, including street crime and antisocial behaviour, should have a positive impact on cutting attacks on shops and their staff.

A survey of experiences of crime among residents in the Hamstead and Great Barr areas of my constituency found, perhaps not all that surprisingly, that local people want to see more police on the streets. That is a traditional solution to cutting crime, but a visible police presence can often be the best deterrent of all. In West Bromwich, East, we welcome the Government's commitment to increase police numbers. We now have more than 7,800 police officers in the west midlands area, and if current levels of funding and recruitment continue, we can keep on expanding the strength of the force. We are looking forward to the appointment of the first 40 community support officers in the west midlands. Let us hope that they will be the first of many, as they will help to provide that very important visible presence on the streets and free up regular officers for front-line tasks.

Partnerships, computer databases, CCTV and more police on the beat are all key parts of the battle against retail crime, yet we must not lose sight of how long-term planning can make a difference too. When town centres are regenerated, local stakeholders must work to ensure that tackling retail crime and antisocial behaviour is a prime consideration.

My borough, Sandwell, is gearing up for a transformation over the next decade. The centrepiece is the exciting redevelopment of West Bromwich town centre—a project that includes the recently opened bus station, the c/Plex arts centre, a new Tesco superstore, a police station and a one-stop health centre. We are trying to build so that the shopping centre and surrounding areas are safer for those who live, shop and work there. Will the Minister, together with his colleagues in other Departments, look at collating best practice from those who are involved in the redevelopment of town centres, so that innovative ways of reducing crime through planning and good design can be shared?

This year's retail crime survey is due to be published in less than a month's time. Indications suggest that it will show that most injury is caused to staff who are trying to detain shop thieves, that violent robberies are also on the increase and that drug and alcohol-induced crime is on the rise. That can only make more urgent the need to fund drug prevention and treatment programmes. The figures will certainly make for interesting reading, and I hope that the Minister will have a chance to examine and reflect on the findings of the report when it is published. Without doubt, it will show that Britain's shop staff continue to face attacks, assaults, threats and abuse in the course of their working day. To their credit, USDAW and the British Retail Consortium are taking action on behalf of their members at a local level and raising the issue with policy makers at a national level.

With the Government's support tonight, we can say no to retail crime, abusive customers and drunken and drug-fuelled attacks, and put a stop to the escalating criminal attacks made on millions of our hard-working shop staff.

Photo of Bob Ainsworth Bob Ainsworth The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department 8:40 pm, 14th May 2003

I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Watson not only on securing the debate, but on the work that he has done locally and in association with USDAW—the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers—on the issue of retail crime. Any form of violence is totally unacceptable and should not be tolerated, and everybody has a right to go about their work without fear of physical assault or intimidation or verbal abuse. One cannot underestimate the detrimental effect throughout the community of crime against business and the damaging effect on people's lives, businesses and families. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out that it is not a victimless crime. Retail crime costs us all as customers—we pay for the costs to business—and there is a hugely disproportionate cost for those who face situations such as those described by my hon. Friend in dealing with violent and abusive customers and others.

My hon. Friend is right to stress the importance of the need to protect shop workers from criminal attack. He highlighted USDAW's "Freedom from Fear" campaign, which is meant to raise awareness of this issue. I have recently corresponded with the deputy general secretary of USDAW, John Hannett, on the matter and in response to specific concerns that he has raised. I know that my hon. Friend tabled an early-day motion on the issue.

Under the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974, all employers have a legal duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of their employees. That duty includes risks arising from violence at work. The Health and Safety Executive encourages employers to manage work-related violence. It has published a general guidance, "Violence at work: a guide for employers", to help them tackle work-related violence in accordance with their duties under the law. The HSE has also published specific guidance for the retail sector, "Preventing violence to retail staff", which provides practical guidance for retailers and their staff on how the problems and causes of violence might be tackled, setting out an approach that can be adopted as everyday practice.

Under the three-year programme to help employers tackle workplace violence, the HSE has published new guidance entitled, "Work-related violence: managing the risk in smaller businesses", which is designed to help smaller businesses manage the risk of work-related violence. It has commissioned research to find examples of good practice in preventing and managing violence to lone workers—my hon. Friend pointed out how vulnerable people often are in smaller establishments—and funded the development of the new occupational standards in managing work-related violence to provide employers with a sound framework on which to develop detailed policies on work-related violence. The HSE held a major joint conference with the TUC last December to raise awareness of violence in the workplace and to share good practice. The deputy general secretary of USDAW, John Hannett, spoke at that event.

My hon. Friend mentioned the scheme that was announced by the Home Secretary and the allocation of £15 million to improve security for small retailers in deprived areas. That funding has been provided to make security improvements to individual shops and shopping parades and to help local shops tackle crime and disorder problems on their doorstep. We helped more than 3,000 shops in the first year and 4,500 shops in the second year. With the £6 million that we shall allocate in this financial year, we hope to provide help for a further 5,500 shops.

We also continue to support retail crime reduction partnerships, which we helped to establish. Several regional Home Office directors have provided specific support in their regions to help them play their full part in crime reduction work. It is understandable that those partnerships have tended to focus on excluding offenders from major retail centres. Although that successfully reduces the incidence of shop theft and violence against shop customers, it does not necessarily have the impact that we would like on tackling the causes of crime. We are currently exploring the possibility of a pilot project to extend schemes to exclude shoplifters from shopping centres and include access to drug treatment, which is often involved in such cases.

It may be an opportune time to take the partnership work forward and examine some other issues, such as the usefulness of the database. Perhaps a meeting should be held with the British Retail Consortium and USDAW to explore ways in which to develop the partnerships. I know that my right hon. Friend Mr. Denham was especially keen to try to develop that aspect of the work and to look beyond the immediate towards a preventive framework. If we can link retail partnerships' information with the preventive work that we are expanding in the updated drugs strategy, perhaps we can have a genuine impact on continuing violence.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East mentioned the day of respect. We are considering a genuine problem. Not only retail staff but some workers in the public sector face a complete disregard for their safety and a general lack of respect from elements of our society. Every day should be a day of respect. If the day that is requested will help to hammer home the message, it is worth supporting. I have read the pamphlet, "Voices from the Frontline". My hon. Friend is right that the catalogue of appalling examples does not make comfortable reading. It is sometimes necessary for organisations to produce such pamphlets to try to illustrate and make people aware of such appalling situations.

We can do a lot in partnership. I have spoken to representatives of the British Retail Consortium and USDAW separately and together over a period of time. I know that my hon. Friend has also done that. We need to try to develop that relationship and get the most out of the partnerships to evaluate all the potential working practices and best practice around the country. I know that my hon. Friend will be keen to follow up those ideas. I am more than happy to try to facilitate that after this evening's debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eleven minutes to Nine o'clock.