New Clause 11 - Offence of assaulting a worker selling alcohol

Criminal Justice and Courts Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 5:15 pm on 27th March 2014.

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‘(1) A person who assaults a worker who is required to enforce the Licensing Act 2003—

(a) in the course of that worker’s employment; or

(b) by reason of that worker’s employment,

commits an offence.

(2) No offence is committed—

(a) under subsection (1)(a) unless the person who assaults knows, or ought to know, that the worker is acting in the course of the worker’s employment or is enforcing the 2003 Act;

(b) under subsection (1)(b) unless the assault is motivated, in whole or in part, by malice towards the worker by reason of the worker’s employment and their enforcement of the 2003 Act.

(3) In this section—

“worker selling alcohol” means a person whose employment involves them selling alcohol under the provisions of the Licensing Act 2003.

“employment” in this context means any paid or unpaid work whether under contract, apprenticeship, or otherwise.

(4) Evidence from a single source is sufficient evidence to establish for the purpose of subsection (1) whether a person is a worker.

(5) A person guilty of an offence under this Act is liable, on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a period not exceeding six months or to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale.’.—(Dan Jarvis.)

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Dan Jarvis Dan Jarvis Shadow Minister (Justice)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

It is good to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Crausby. We are introducing the new clause on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of public-facing workers across our country who go to work every day and put in the hours but who have to endure fear of violence, or actual violence, because of the nature of their work. The new clause would help to address that by creating a new offence of assaulting a shop worker selling alcohol, as defined by the Licensing Act 2003.

Photo of Julian Huppert Julian Huppert Liberal Democrat, Cambridge

Would that offence replace the general one of assaulting such workers? In other words, if someone assaulted a worker in that category, would it only be possible to charge the assailant under the new offence, not the existing one?

Photo of Dan Jarvis Dan Jarvis Shadow Minister (Justice)

If the hon. Gentleman shows a degree of patience, I will set out the case, and I hope that that will answer the question. If it does not, I will be happy to give way later.

I am pleased to say that our proposal is supported and advocated by many groups including the British Retail Consortium, the Association of Convenience Stores and the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers. They have done tremendous work on the matter, working hand in hand with employers and standing up for people across the country who want to do a hard day’s work free from fear. I am proud to be introducing the new clause with their support.

As will be clear to members of the Committee, the new clause is designed to grant protection to bar staff and people working in off-licences who often have to endure such assaults. It would offer them greater protection by doing three things. It would simplify the current sentencing guidelines for common assault, which can be complex and overcomplicated. It would encourage prosecutions to be brought against people who perpetuate such attacks; currently, too many people are let off, despite ample evidence. It would send a powerful message that would help to deter people from carrying out such dreadful assaults.

Before I say more about each of those points in turn, let me provide the Committee with some additional context. We should bear in mind three points when  considering the new clause. First, let me address the scale of the problem and explain why we need to act. Every day across the UK, some 300 shop workers, many of them in licensed retailers, are violently assaulted simply for doing their job. According to a survey carried out by USDAW, a shop worker is verbally abused, threatened or physically attacked every minute of every day. The latest crime survey for England and Wales shows that there were 643,000 reported incidents of people suffering violence at work in 2011-12, including 319,000 threats of violence, as well as 324,000 cases of assault. As many as 34% of retail staff have reported being threatened with violence in the past year alone.

Those are alarmingly high figures, but we should be mindful of the fact that behind each of those numbers is a person, a distressing incident and a real mental and physical injury. We must not underestimate how traumatic such attacks can be. Most people would identify with the nerves, foreboding and feeling of helplessness that can occur when we return to a place in which we have had difficult and unhappy experiences. Victims of assault on the shop floor face having to return to work at the very spot where they were attacked, sometimes only days afterwards. That is why many workers who have been assaulted report feeling constant anxiety—a fear that the next person to walk up to the bar or the shop counter may be their next attacker. Unsurprisingly, some of them feel too traumatised ever to return to the same job, so they lose their livelihood and are forced to look for new employment.

Secondly, I want to explain why staff involved in the sale of alcohol face a particular issue. Many different types of public-facing workers are at risk of assault at work. I am sure that the Committee will agree that all workers deserve protection from violence in the workplace. It remains the case, however, that staff responsible for selling alcohol are often more at risk than most. This particularly comes with having to enforce the law and effectively police how the products are sold, such as asking for proof of age and having to refuse to serve under-age customers, which can easily trigger challenging and dangerous situations, with staff faced with people who may already be drunk, or hostile customers who have no intention of paying. That is why there deserves to be a distinction for workers selling alcohol on the front line.

Before I turn to the effect that the new clause would have, let me add a third point. Attacks are bad for employers as well as employees. Everyone can understand that it is not good for business when a work force is demoralised by the threat of violence and inhibited by fear. Firms do better and are more productive when staff feel safe and secure at work. That has been made clear by the Health and Safety Executive. It has reported the range of negative impacts that workplace violence in licensed and retail premises can have on businesses: lost staff time from injuries and stress; a higher staff turnover and increased costs to recruit replacements; and damage to the reputation of the business. Furthermore, if a shop worker in a licensed premises does not feel confident that the law is on their side, they are less likely to challenge someone trying to purchase alcohol under age.

With such points in mind, let me lay out the three ways that the new clause would seek to address the problem. First, it would simplify the current sentencing  guidelines for common assault. Currently, sentencing is over-complicated. The guidelines detail three separate categories of harm and culpability, 19 different aggravating factors and 11 factors reducing seriousness. Assaulting someone who works with the public in the course of their employment is one of the aggravating factors. Experience has shown us that that is often not enough to see justice done. A separate offence for assaulting a public-facing worker would make the sentencing guidance much easier and more straightforward. It would help to encourage more prosecutions to be brought against people who perpetuate such attacks. That is the second impact that the new clause would have.

Sadly, there are too many cases where people suffer vicious assaults only to see their assailants let off with lenient sentences, or not brought to justice at all. I will provide the Committee with three examples. There is the case of a shop worker in Truro who noticed a shoplifter stealing alcohol. When he challenged him, the shoplifter head-butted the shop worker and broke his nose. The man was later arrested, but, in spite of CCTV footage, the Crown Prosecution Service decided not to prosecute him.

A second shop worker, in Gloucestershire, was assaulted after refusing to serve a customer alcohol at the till. The customer swore and shouted at her and called her manager for help. When her colleagues tried to escort the customer out of the shop, he kicked and punched three members of staff and spat in the face of the store manager. He later received only a police caution.

The third example concerns a landlord in Bolton. He refused to serve a young man whom he knew to be under age. Later that night, he took his dogs out for a walk after work, and the youth jumped on him and beat him up. He kicked him in the face after he had fallen to the ground. The young attacker was later identified and arrested, but the police let him off the next day with a caution.

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland Conservative, South Swindon

I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s arguments. He illustrates three—on the face of it—very poor decisions by the police and prosecuting authorities. However, I have looked at the proposed new clause and share his intent and exasperation, but I am not sure that it would achieve what he wants. I will listen with great interest to what else he has to say.

Photo of Dan Jarvis Dan Jarvis Shadow Minister (Justice)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Given that he says that he agrees with the intent of the new clause, if he has more specific advice about how it could be improved to address the problem that I think we both agree exists, I am happy to discuss that with him either here or on another occasion, but the Minister will have heard his intervention and we will hear what he has to say.

I have outlined several cases that are worthy of consideration and are designed to illustrate my point. Is it any wonder that as many as 70% of retail staff who have suffered physical assault at work did not report it because they were not confident that anything would be done? Many of them have simply lost faith in the system, which is why we need to reform it and to send a powerful message that such assaults are not acceptable.

The new clause’s third effect would be to deter people from carrying out such dreadful assaults in the first place. A new specific offence would help to demonstrate that such things are not acceptable. The seriousness of the crime would be elevated above common assault in the sentencing guidelines, which in turn would increase the range of penalties for offenders and would encourage the Crown Prosecution Service to follow through with prosecutions.

Photo of Julian Huppert Julian Huppert Liberal Democrat, Cambridge 5:30 pm, 27th March 2014

I have listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman says. It is clear that some awful things have happened, but I cannot see how what he suggests would have the desired result. The existing law of assault already has a six-month maximum. Presumably, he would still want the extra factors of culpability for gang behaviour and more brutal attacks to count. It seems that the proposal would replicate the existing assault law with an identical thing that applies to workers only. I simply do not see how this will help his cause.

Photo of Dan Jarvis Dan Jarvis Shadow Minister (Justice)

As I am trying to explain, the new clause’s purpose is to assist with simplifying the current sentencing guidelines for common assault. As I have explained to the Committee, 300 shop workers are violently assaulted every day—300 yesterday, 300 today and 300 tomorrow. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is not telling the Committee and his constituents, many of whom will have been affected by such attacks, that there is no problem. The new clause seeks to resolve that problem.

Photo of Julian Huppert Julian Huppert Liberal Democrat, Cambridge

I totally accept that this is a serious problem, but a law already exists. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not seeking a tokenistic gesture as that is not what people want. He says that the sentencing guidelines would be simplified, but would he take items out? Otherwise, he will have exactly the same issues in exactly the same way.

Photo of Dan Jarvis Dan Jarvis Shadow Minister (Justice)

This is not a tokenistic gesture. This is about providing a solution to a genuine problem. As I have said, 300 people are violently assaulted every single day—300 yesterday, 300 today and 300 tomorrow—and hundreds of thousands of people around the country have been affected. I accept that the hon. Gentleman disagrees with the new clause’s effect, but it was brought forward in good faith and seeks to provide a solution to a significant problem.

Photo of Sarah Champion Sarah Champion Labour, Rotherham

I support the new clause because hurling abuse at shop workers, which can escalate to assault, seems to have become acceptable. I understand the point that the hon. Member for Cambridge made, but people are not seeing that as a form of abuse when in a shop environment. We need to send a clear message that it is completely unacceptable. If that means specifying shop workers in legislation, then that needs to be done, because the message is not getting out there.

Photo of Dan Jarvis Dan Jarvis Shadow Minister (Justice)

I agree with my hon. Friend. There seems to be a culture of acceptability around abusing and assaulting shop workers, and the numbers are horrifying. There is general agreement that there is a problem, but we will clearly not agree on the solution.

I want to make one further point that will hopefully add to the debate. If we look at similar legislation to protect emergency workers that has recently come into force in Scotland, there is already promising evidence about the difference that creating such an offence can make. Already, there have been more than 1,000 prosecutions and the total number of incidents has fallen as a result of the recent legislation in Scotland.

For all the reasons that I have given, I hope that the Committee and the Minister will give good consideration to the new clause. It is a relatively minor reform. It is not dissimilar to other legislation already on the statute book and it would, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham said, send a very strong signal both to the victims and to potential assailants throughout the country. Fear is a terrible thing. It blights working lives and contaminates our everyday experiences with both physical and mental stress. We believe that no one should have to go through that when they turn up to work.

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland Conservative, South Swindon

I entirely share the hon. Gentleman’s aspirations. He is right to talk about the threats faced and the fear felt by shop workers, including people who work in supermarkets, because we are dealing with on and off-licence premises. We all have friends and acquaintances who do that job day in, day out. The intentions are absolutely honourable. However, there are some flaws in the new clause, which I feel obliged to point out.

First, the hon. Gentleman talks about tougher sentencing. A summary-only offence does not allow that to happen, because the six-month maximum applies, so we are still dealing with the same sentencing constraints as apply to common assault.

Photo of Julian Huppert Julian Huppert Liberal Democrat, Cambridge

The point was made about the legislation in Scotland. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that in Scotland the maximum term is nine months for that specific offence, as opposed to the identical six months in this case?

Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland Conservative, South Swindon

The point is very well made by my hon. Friend. If we are serious about higher sentences, this offence has to go beyond summary only and be either way.

Secondly, the best analogy that I can find is with the specific offence of assaulting a police officer in the execution of their duty. With that offence, which has been around for many years under the Police Act as amended, there is no requirement to prove that the defendant is aware or knows that the person is a police officer. However, what we see in this new clause is a requirement that the person

“knows, or ought to know, that the worker is acting in the course of the worker’s employment”.

Frankly, I would not put that into it. If the hon. Member for Barnsley Central wants to achieve what I think he wants to achieve, I do not see why he needs to complicate it.

Thirdly, we are talking about an offence of motivation. I have seen offences of that nature before, but they are very rarely used; they are very rarely prosecuted because they are not easy to prove.

I make just those few points. Although I support the hon. Gentleman’s intent, I think that much more work needs to be done on the new clause if it is to achieve the laudable aims that he has outlined.

Photo of Jeremy Wright Jeremy Wright The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

It is very apparent from the debate that we have had that there is universal agreement that assaults on people who come into contact with the public as part of their work, whether in shops, bars, restaurants or any other place, are unacceptable. They are a matter that we should all take seriously, and I think we do. However, like others, I cannot agree that a new offence in the way that it has been set up by the hon. Member for Barnsley Central is the right way to address the issue.

There is already a range of offences that criminalise disorderly and violent behaviour and that apply in cases of violence towards people whose work brings them into contact with members of the public. Moreover, sentencing guidelines that have been referred to specify that where an assault is committed against someone providing a service to the public, whether in the public sector or the private sector, that is an aggravating factor and so should result in a higher sentence within the current maximum. The Sentencing Council has made it clear in its guidance that that includes those who work in shops and the wider retail business and who might well be enforcing the Licensing Act 2003.

The proposed new offence would mean that as well as having to prove that the assault took place, the prosecution, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon pointed out, would have to demonstrate either that the offender knew or ought to have known that the worker was acting in the course of their employment or enforcing the 2003 Act, or that the assault was motivated, in whole or in part, by malice towards the worker by reason of the worker’s employment and their enforcement of the 2003 Act. The need to prove either of those elements, over and above the assault itself, could give rise to all manner of argument in the courts. It does not follow, just because the offence is situation-specific, that prosecutions would be easier to undertake.

I understand why the hon. Member for Barnsley Central is concerned that those cases are not being prosecuted as routinely as perhaps they should be, but the best answer is not to make it harder to prosecute those offences, which is what his new clause would do. Moreover, as has already been observed, the proposed maximum penalty for the offence—six months or a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale—is the same as the maximum penalty for common assault. I am afraid it is difficult to glean what benefit a new offence would provide. I therefore hope he feels it is appropriate to withdraw his new clause.

Photo of Dan Jarvis Dan Jarvis Shadow Minister (Justice)

This has been a useful debate. There is universal agreement that such assaults are completely unacceptable, but there is clearly disagreement on the best way to proceed. I am mindful that there are 300 violent assaults every day, and we are clearly not going to agree on the best way to reduce that number. Given the strength of feeling among the hundreds of thousands of workers across the country, I will press the new clause to a vote.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

The Committee divided: Ayes 5, Noes 10.

Division number 12 Decision Time — New Clause 11 - Offence of assaulting a worker selling alcohol

Aye: 5 MPs

No: 10 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.