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I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to restrict the use of penalty notices for disorder in respect of the offence of theft from retail and commercial premises;
to revise sentencing guidelines in respect of this offence;
to make provision for the recording on a national database of penalty notices for disorder issued;
and for connected purposes.
The Bill has cross-party support and I am grateful to my co-sponsors for their support. Organisations representing retailers, including the British Retail Consortium, the Association of Convenience Stores and the Federation of Small Businesses, are supportive of the work that I am doing and welcome the Bill. I am delighted that the Magistrates Association also supports the Bill and that the Justice Secretary has taken the opportunity to meet many of the organisations concerned.
Crimes against business cost the UK economy £19 billion every year according to the British Chambers of Commerce. The cost to small business of shoplifting alone in the past 12 months ran to £1 billion according to the Federation of Small Businesses. In 2007-08, more than 290,000 incidents of shop theft were recorded, and, of course, there might have been many more.
By introducing the Bill, I am seeking to amend police guidelines to ensure that penalty notices for disorder or fines are limited to first-time offences and to ensure that the guidelines state that penalty notices for disorder should be issued only in a police station and that victims of shop theft should be consulted on the appropriate action to be taken by the police.
Secondly, I am seeking to improve the police database to ensure that all recent shop theft offences are entered on the national computer system for ease of reference across the police forces.
Thirdly, I am seeking to amend sentencing guidelines to give greater flexibility in tackling persistent offenders and to check that offenders are able to pay, as well as to ensure that when offences fuel a drug or drinks habit, the offender appears before the court so that they can receive proper treatment and rehabilitation. The Magistrates Association has noted
"from dealing with such offences over many years that most offenders are driven to theft because of poor budgeting and lack of support or abuse of alcohol and/or drugs. The use of a fixed penalty only serves to cause even greater financial hardship and in no way tackles the underlying cause of the offending behaviour. If the matter is put before a court then magistrates have the discretion to impose a penalty that would address the causes of the offending and help in reducing such crimes, which have a significant impact on society."
Furthermore, the association states:
"We are concerned about the inappropriate use of Fixed Penalty Notices and even more so when we hear that over 50 per cent. are not paid and then registered for court action. As we said earlier, FPNs do not really address the underlying causes of offending and so do not make any contribution to reducing offending behaviour."
Shop theft is not recognised as a serious offence. Retailers are often not consulted before fines are issued and the police do not always liaise with the victims of the crime. The police are switching from cautions and prosecutions to the increasing use of penalty notices for disorder and fines. The police find penalty notices for disorder attractive as they reduce paperwork and free up police time, but from the retailers' point of view, as the victims of the crime, PNDs do not match the value of goods stolen. The average value of goods stolen is £149, but the initial fine that is incurred is £80, with a penalty of only a further £40 if that is not paid.
More worryingly, 50 per cent. of all fixed penalty notice fines go unpaid. The Magistrates Association believes that such notices simply do not address the underlying causes of offending, and that they make no contribution to reducing offending behaviour—surely the object of any legislation.
In my view, the Government are not being tough on crime or on the causes of crime. I believe that the punishment should fit the crime, and that is why I want to restrict penalty notices for disorder to first-time offences of shop theft, where the goods stolen are limited in value. Again, a PND would be issued only after consultation with the victim of the crime—that is, the shopkeeper or shop owner.
When a community sentence is issued after persistent or aggravated offences of shop theft have allowed a case to go before the court, that sentence must be seen to be served in full. When shop theft is deemed to fuel a drug or drink habit, the court should be allowed to analyse and treat the underlying causes, and a programme of rehabilitation should be issued, where appropriate. That means that a package of measures should be put in place.
Penalty notices for disorder were introduced by the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001. Shoplifting was introduced as an offence that attracted a PND in 2004. The notices are regarded as an alternative way to deal with low-level offending because they deliver swift, simple and effective justice and also carry a deterrent effect. A crime report is always required for the offence of retail theft.
A notice may be issued provided that a police officer has reason to believe that a person has committed an offence, and that the officer has sufficient evidence to support a successful prosecution. Sufficient evidence may be based solely on reliable witness testimony. The amount levied by such a notice is specified by the Secretary of State and must not exceed a quarter of the maximum fine on conviction for the offence.
Notices can be issued for the higher sums of £200 or £500 only in exceptional circumstances, and notices for theft would usually be issued only when goods have been recovered. As I said earlier, the penalty notices carry a fine of only £80. If the notice is paid within 21 days, it does not result in a criminal record. Originally, the notices were intended for low-level, usually first-time, offending and were not considered appropriate for those who offend repeatedly.
The British Retail Consortium believes that, in addition to losing £1 billion to retail crime every year, firms must invest £1.4 billion in crime prevention measures, such as installing CCTV cameras and shutters. They also incur higher insurance premiums. Given that there could be job losses to cover those additional costs, the wider community definitely suffers from this crime.
Since 1998-99, the number of recorded offences of shoplifting has averaged an astonishing 295,000 each year. That is equivalent to nearly 6,000 offences a week. Since 2004, the use of penalty notices has become increasingly widespread. In 2004, 1.8 per cent. of shoplifting cases attracted a penalty notice, but that proportion had risen to 27 per cent. by 2006. In fact, from 2002 to 2007, there was a 27 per cent. decrease in the number of people prosecuted for theft from shops. The use of penalty notices is replacing court sentences as a means of combating retail theft, but I believe that the current system is simply not working.
The use of the notices means that shoplifters are treated in the same way as people who leave litter in a public place, or who are prosecuted for a parking offence. The penalty for stealing up to £100 of goods is too modest, and I believe that it should be more severe. Forty five per cent. of businesses state that crime costs them more than £5,000 each year, and that is a heavy price for small firms to pay.
It gives me great pleasure to present this Bill to the House. I hope that the Government will look wisely and supportively on my three modest calls for action—that the police computer be amended so that all multiple and persistent offences are entered into it, that the guidelines for the police be amended so that only first-time offences attract a penalty notice fine, and that the sentencing guidelines be modestly amended to allow such cases to be referred to the court, especially when there are underlying causes.
Question put and agreed to.
Miss Anne McIntosh accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on