Thank you very much for joining us this afternoon to give evidence on the Offensive Weapons Bill. Will you explain to us why you have concerns for your members regarding the age verification measures contained in the BillQ 226?
We have a number of points to make. Basically, we are very supportive of the principles behind the Bill. Our union represents 436,000 members, a large number of them in low-paid jobs. We have members who live on working-class estates and who see the damage done by the growing knife culture and acid attacks, so we are supportive of the aims, but with any age-restricted sales legislation, it is often our members who are expected to police it. It is our members who have to stop people and ask them for proof of age or to deny people sales, be that of knives, alcohol or a range of other products. As a result, our members are being placed more and more on the frontline. I think it is right to have extended legislation on this, but it will be our members who will be placed on the frontline and will face abuse and, at times, violence.
Last year, we did quite an extensive survey, of just over 3,600 shop workers among our members. Some 67% of the shop workers interviewed said that they had been abused in the past year, 42% said they had been threatened, and growing number of people had actually been assaulted. The numbers are significant, and we are speaking out. We have over 300,000 shop workers in membership, so we are dealing with a significant number of people. Abuse and violence against shop workers is at a significant level and, interestingly, it is on the increase. We have been running the survey for quite a number of years and we have gradually seen it increase. The abuse figure increased from 53% the year before to 67%.
To put that in context for this discussion, 30% of them reported that the trigger for the violence or abuse was dealing with age-restricted products and having to ask somebody for identification because they might be under age. It is clearly a significant problem in terms of the numbers. Last year, we and the National Federation of Retail Newsagents commissioned a survey with a group called Under Age Sales, and based on that there are probably about 6,000 incidents a day of people facing abuse or threats from challenges associated with age-restricted products.
We need to change the culture. There seems to be a culture among a small element of the shopping public that you can have a go at shop workers—you can abuse them and threaten them.
One of the important things in the Bill is about extending restrictions on the sale of knives. It is currently not an offence for somebody under 18 to attempt to purchase a knife. Knives are age-restricted, so it is an offence for a shop worker to sell that knife to the individual, but it is not an offence for the individual under 18 to attempt to buy it. They can attempt to buy a knife one morning, and if that does not work they can come back in the afternoon and try again. That is a contradiction we would look to deal with.
If we are, quite rightly, to look at restricting the sales of products and have more age restrictions on the sale of products, we need to look at increasing the protection of shop workers who are on the frontline of trying to police that. We have been campaigning for it to be a specific offence to intimidate or assault a worker enforcing the age restrictions covered by this Bill and other legislation.
It is a two-pronged approach. First, it should be an offence for the under-18 youth to attempt to buy age-restricted products, and secondly the shop worker should have specific protection from violence and abuse while carrying out the legal obligations under the Bill and other legislation on age-related restrictions.
Q Why do you think shop workers are not sufficiently protected by other offences that offenders can be prosecuted for, such as assault, actual bodily harm and grievous bodily harm?
There has always been an argument that existing legislation covers all forms of assault. There are some aggravating factors listed in the sentencing guidelines under the assault legislation, one of which includes, if I remember rightly, assaulting a public servant who is in the course of serving the public at the time of the assault. The trouble is, that is one of 19 aggravating factors attached to the sentencing guidelines and there are 11 mitigating factors to be taken into account as well—and that is only when it gets as far as a court and a judge or magistrate is interested in bringing sentencing at the end of the process. In practice, we are told by our members—this is backed up by retail employers—that many cases do not get as far as the courts, so they do not get the chance to apply those sentencing guidelines. Even when they do, those guidelines are not applied as effectively as they should be and the sentences passed are not strict enough to reflect the damage done to the shop worker.
Q Why would a new offence correct the issues in the criminal justice system around plea bargaining and incorrect charges being applied or magistrates not paying due heed to aggravating circumstances?
There are three things: it would help to clarify the law, make sentencing a simpler process and hopefully encourage more prosecutions to take place. This is all stuff that would have to be discussed with the Crown Prosecution Service and the Ministry of Justice. If those two work together and we see people getting more of the sentences they deserve for physically attacking or seriously threatening somebody in that situation, I think it would have a deterrent effect in the long run as well.
There would be a publicity impact as well. If it was a specific offence to assault a shop worker involved in policing age-restricted sales, retailers could advertise that—they could put up zero-tolerance, respect for shop workers posters, notices and so on. While many members of the public think certain people are more protected and should not be abused, quite rightly, such as the police and firefighters, it seems that shop workers are open to abuse—they are fair game.
I think all workers in public-facing businesses should get additional protection. In the context of the Bill there is an opportunity. By widening the range of products that will be subject to age-restricted sales, such as corrosive substances, there will be an opportunity to say, “We will do three things. First, it will be an offence to sell it to someone under 18. Secondly, it should be an offence for somebody under 18 to attempt to buy it. Thirdly, we will give special protection to shop workers who are denying asale to someone under 18.” It seems to me that that is a consistent approach.
You might duplicate some of what you have just said to Louise Haigh, but I just want to clarify some things. I have your biography here, Tony. You say that the Bill should make it a specific offence toQ
“Attempt to purchase corrosive substances and knives underage.”
That should be criminalised. You have talked about that, but we heard in evidence this morning and previously concern about criminalising younger people, who are sometimes forced to make decisions that they would not necessarily take by themselves, perhaps by being goaded or pushed into a place. Could you speak to that a little bit?
I am aware of that argument. It is one that we have had with various people over the years. Part of the problem is that the law in this area is a bit confused and confusing. In England and Wales, if you are under 18 it is illegal to try to purchase alcohol, and it is illegal to purchase a firearm or an air rifle. The latter is of particular relevance to the Offensive Weapons Bill: obviously, the restriction on firearms and air rifles is because they can be used as an offensive weapon. In Scotland, it is also an offence to try to purchase tobacco products if you are under 18, because in Scotland they had that debate and they decided that they wanted to send a clear message out to young people that society considers it wrong to take up smoking. Therefore, they made that a penalty, as well.
It is a question of the messaging you are giving to young people, which is crucially important. It would be better if there was more consistency across more of those age-restricted products, to make it clear that it is an offence to try to buy. Otherwise, as Tony said, you will end up in a situation where a young person intent on buying this stuff for the wrong reasons just goes around and tries it on in various different stores until they find somebody who, for whatever reason, gives in and gives them the product.
Q I should have prefaced my remarks by saying that I do feel for retailers, who are putting themselves in considerable danger, just to make a living, whether we are talking about counterfeiting or other issues with tobacco, alcohol and all these restricted items. Picking up on what you said, Doug, about Scotland, what is the impact of that difference in the laws in Scotland about tobacco?
If you talk to trading standards people in Scotland, they say the impact has been that the ban on selling and buying cigarettes for under 18s has been more successful in Scotland than in England and Wales. The number of test purchases they have done that have gone wrong has gone down substantially, and they believe that the number of underage people who are buying these products has gone down substantially as well, so they think it has had a positive impact.
Q They think that is partly because underage people underage fear criminalisation.
Q On the other two, about intimidating or assaulting a worker enforcing the age restrictions in relation to any sale, I have a point of clarification on the evidence we are receiving. They are clearly criminal offences already. Assault—you used the word assault—is a criminal offence. You can talk about messages, but I am always wary about embedding anything in primary legislation to send a signal, because we have to make the primary legislation work. It has to be enforceable. How would you make it enforceable? How would you differentiate the two? If a police officer was going to be charging someone, how would the CPS then know which offence they will charge someone with and which angle would they go with? You have to make it work, if there is going to be a specific offence.
It is a question of making it quite clear, which is to do with the seriousness of the offence and the sentencing that would follow from that offence. The emergency workers Bill that is going through Parliament at the moment has got some interesting ideas on how that would work in practice. The point is that if the assault quite clearly happens as a result of somebody trying to enforce the law by asking for ID and refusing a sale to somebody who might be underage, that should attract a stiffer penalty.
A quick question: notwithstanding your argument in favour of some of the proposals, I was wondering whether training for shop workers and shop staff in dealing with the process of getting the appropriate information out of an individual and dealing with situations that might be confrontational would help in achieving your objectiveQ .
Most of the members we represent work for large retailers, so the training does take place. One of the big problems that we have is that it is an extremely difficult bit of legislation to police. Guessing the age of many young people, and where they stand in the spectrum from 16 to 30 or whatever, can often be extremely difficult. Sometimes just being good at your job or attempting to do your job thoroughly can lead to a reaction from customers. I have been behind people in a queue who have been asked for ID for buying alcohol, and the person reacted quite strongly, saying it was ridiculous, that they were 28, and who on earth would challenge them? That person was just doing their job.
Quite often, those situations are quite difficult to train for. The task facing shop workers is very difficult, because it is not just the task of stopping the sale to people under 18. It is also the more difficult one of identifying who is under 18. I think training has taken place to the extent that it can, but you are talking about quite difficult levels of managing conflict. I think even the best-trained police negotiator would have difficulty sometimes in dealing with those situations.
One of the findings from the research that we commissioned with the National Federation of Retail Newsagents was that when shop workers were asked what the main reason was that they would be reluctant to ask somebody to provide proof of age when they thought they should be doing so was the fear of violence. They feared that they would get abused or threatened, or even worse, if they challenged somebody. Ironically, that has actually been made more difficult by the training, because the training that is widely implemented now is the Think 25 policy. If you think somebody looks like they might be under 25, you should be asking them for proof of age, because that gives the seller a bit of a buffer to protect them against unintentionally selling to somebody who is under 18. Of course, that means lots of people who you are challenging for ID are going to be old enough to legally buy the product and if they happen not to have ID on them at the time, that is the kind of situation that Tony was describing where they can kick off. Legislation to back up the fact that you have got to do that, and that if it does go wrong, society will look after you, is quite an important message to send to shop workers.
One other point is that in that sort of conflict situation, we are expecting shop workers to police the situation. They are in a position of authority, and if they sell the product to somebody under 18, they will be committing an offence. We need to do more as a society to say that those shop workers are in a position of authority. Creating a specific offence of attempting to assault a shop worker who is trying to carry out that check would be entirely legitimate.
Q A quick factual, and slightly tangential question: has there been a rise in violent assaults against shopkeepers with weapons—guns or knives—in recent years?
Yes is the answer to that, but it is very difficult to prove. In our surveys, we do not specifically ask about weapons; we just ask about physical attacks, because we have pretty short contact time with the people we are talking to. We have seen physical attacks double over the last year, from 4% to 8%. The British Retail Consortium does an annual retail crime survey and it has also seen a rise in serious assaults, and I think the rise in the use of weapons is reflected in the findings of its survey.
There is also a business victimisation survey done by the Home Office and it has come up with some amazing figures for the increasing use of weapons in attacks. Unfortunately, because the survey is done by statisticians, they keep pointing out the fact that these changes are not statistically significant. I think there has been more than a trebling of incidents, but for whatever reason the Home Office’s statisticians still say it is not statistically significant, which I cannot quite understand, although I am not a statistician. But everybody who collects this evidence has been reporting an increase in the use of weapons in these circumstances.
Just following on from the subject of physical attacks with weapons in stores, do you think it would be helpful if we legislated for all knives and sharp instruments to be locked away behind counters, rather than just having the voluntary agreements?Q
It would be. Obviously, now big retailers are increasingly going down the route of making it more difficult for customers to get their hand on the product until they have been age-checked and it is a safe transaction. The problem with it, of course, is that all sorts of bladed things are being sold and it is about where you draw the line. Kitchen knives are quite clear, you wouldn’t want somebody to pick a nine-inch blade off the shelf, unpack it from its packaging and then use it as a weapon, which has happened in some of the stores where our members work. However, when it gets down to safety knives, razors and things like that, it does get a bit more complicated. But, yes, we would be in favour of that, certainly.
That is something the retailers are going towards more often, in the sense of having a range of knives that are behind a counter. Obviously, with the corrosive material there will be a question about other materials, such as bleaches and so on, and we may well need to look at how access to that material is restricted.
However, there is also the issue of the people who are working behind the counters at the cigarette stalls, which would be the age-restricted stalls. That is where an awful lot of abuse takes place. When people are turned away, that is a possible area of conflict as well, and abuse is increasing. Quite often, behind those counters you only have one or two people on their own, isolated from the rest of the store, so that has its own problems as well.
Q There is one question that follows on from that about distribution. I was explaining to another panel that I went down the high street in Sutton, in my constituency, with a couple of anti-knife charities, and different shops were doing different things. There is obviously the voluntary code at the moment, but it was inconsistent. A lot of people were not aware of it. So, regarding display, how is it working at the moment for your retail workers and what would be the effect on those retail workers if things were changed and mandated?
Either under lock and key, or behind the counter—whatever.
I think we would welcome that, because there is an issue that you have dangerous weapons. You could have knives or corrosive materials, and so on, easily available on the store floor, which brings its own problems. I also think that if there are age-restricted products, to have those clearly marked and identified and away from the shop floor brings with it an increased recognition that they are age-restricted products, and sometimes at the moment there is not that recognition.
Q You represent retailers as well as shop workers, do you not?
Just the workers. One of the things I noticed when I went round last year—one of the issues, I suppose, for retailers—is that the more difficult you make it for someone to access the product, to feel the product, or whatever, the less likely they are to buy it. So you have the defence aspect. You want to protect your workers. You want to ensure that people are not just swiping the knives to use them then, which is the whole point of the Bill in the first place, but you do not want to get in the way of businesses selling something because it is on open display. How do you get that balance?
It would be a different selling relationship, wouldn’t it? A lot of these products—things like knives and bladed weapons, for example—are sold in DIY outlets. It would be a move away from the big B&Q-style warehouse, where everything is out on display and you wander around lost trying to find what you are looking for until you find the right thing, and you can never find an assistant to ask for help when you need it. It would make it much more of a human interaction.
There would have to be somebody there to deal with the customer who wanted it, and you would probably end up with better customer service, because that person would know what they were talking about, and could advise you on the right thing to buy and check that you were legitimately buying it for the right purpose along the way. That would actually be a better exchange. It need not be bad for businesses; a different model of business would just develop if those restrictions were in place.
Q Forgive my ignorance, but the distributive bit—the “D” of USDAW—does that include distributors such as deliverers or anything like that? Do you have an angle or a view on what might happen to distributors?
Yes. What might happen to the people who are actually out and what about if there are unintended consequences?
I don’t see any. Given the rise in e-commerce and e-shopping, it is a very important issue. For our members who work for Tesco, who work for their .com service, for example, it is already the policy that they cannot deliver to somebody who is underage. There has to be an adult in the house when a delivery is made. That should be the kind of principle employed by everybody in that area.
The trouble is that increasingly the partial delivery service is being hived off to a kind of Uber-economy approach, where the last person who does the delivery from the hub to the individual customer is some private individual who is getting paid so many pence per parcel to do it, and is working effectively as a self-employed person in that circumstance. It is very difficult to train and police them, and make sure that that side of the business is looked after. However, for all the big supermarket that do home deliveries, the staff who do that are trained about age-restricted products, and are expected to abide by the same principles now. It is not a particular problem.