Shop Workers (Criminal Attacks)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:40 pm on 14th May 2003.

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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.