Shop Workers (Criminal Attacks)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:21 pm on 14th May 2003.

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

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.