The next item of business is a stage 1 debate on motion S5M-22226, in the name of Daniel Johnson, on the Protection of Workers (Retail and Age-restricted Goods and Services (Scotland) Bill. I invite members who wish to speak in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons now.
This is quite a moment for me. Rising to speak in favour of my own bill brings with it a real sense of responsibility.
I pay tribute to the various organisations that have supported the development of the bill and that have campaigned with me to promote it. It has been hugely rewarding to campaign with trade unions such as the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, the GMB and Unite the Union, as well as employers’ representatives such as the Scottish Grocers Federation, the Scottish Retail Consortium, the National Federation of Retail Newsagents, Scotmid and the Co-operative Group. It is a cause with regard to which unions and employers are of one view, and that alone should say something about the importance of the issue.
I remind members of my entry in the register of members’ interests, as I am a member of USDAW and of the Co-operative Party as well as a director of a company with retail interests.
I thank the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee for its thorough and helpful scrutiny of the bill; I thank the non-Government bills unit for its help, advice and assistance throughout the process; and I thank Ash Denham for her constructive engagement with the bill.
We are six months into the pandemic, and it has brought a sharp focus on the crucial role that is played by shop workers. They make sure that we can obtain the bare necessities and essentials of life—shop workers have stepped up to keep us safe when we do so. The pandemic has also exacerbated the disturbing behaviours of a small minority who, when faced with restrictions, have responded with abuse, threats and violence towards shop staff who are simply trying to uphold those rules and keep us all safe. USDAW, the shop workers union, estimates that the number of such incidents has doubled during the pandemic, and almost 70 per cent of retail workers cite enforcing social distancing requirements as the biggest single cause of the abuse and violence that they face at work.
The pandemic has brought the need for the bill into focus. Shop workers have been on the front line of the response, as a consequence of which they have faced abuse and assault. That is unacceptable. Put simply, violence, threats and abuse are not just part of the job for anyone, whether they work behind a desk or behind a shop counter. It should not have taken the pandemic to provide that insight.
The challenge 25 age check has become the norm in recent years, and there are dozens of goods and services for which purchasing customers must prove their age. What most people do not realise is that it is the shop workers who are liable if they fail to ask for proof of age. They can be fined £5,000 or serve time in prison if they sell an item or a service to an individual without checking their identity. It is that same legal duty that also triggers incidents of abuse and violence. According to USDAW, 15 shop workers are assaulted in Scotland every day, and the Scottish Grocers Federation reports that half of its members receive abuse every day because they are asking for ID.
That is a useful intervention. Unfortunately, I am a solitary member and this is a member’s bill. There is a case for looking at the protection that all public-facing workers could and should enjoy, but, critically, retail workers are legally duty-bound to uphold the law, and there is a clear parallel with other such workers who enjoy the specific protection of the law when they do so.
That is the basic principle that my bill focuses on: when we ask people to uphold the law, they should have the specific protection of the law. Emergency workers, customs officers, border staff and tax inspectors all have such protection as a matter of statute. That principle and imperative was clear before the pandemic and it was why I introduced my member’s bill to the Scottish Parliament. It recognises the important legal duty that is fulfilled by people who work behind shop counters.
The drafting and language in my bill are directly comparable both with section 90 of the Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Act 2012 and with the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Act 2005. When the latter was introduced in response to growing attacks on ambulance crews and firefighters, its necessity and rationale were questioned. However, that law has been used in more than 3,000 prosecutions since its introduction. The principle is clear, the legislative approach is well established and it is also clear that such protections are effective.
My bill has two central provisions. First, it creates a specific offence of assaulting a shop worker. Secondly, it creates a statutory aggravation when the offence occurs in relation to the sale of an age-restricted good or service.
The creation of a new statutory offence plays three important functions. First, it creates a clear legal scope and effect, which is, in turn, important for the statutory aggravation. Secondly, it provides a clear articulation in law that such behaviours are unacceptable. As Lord Bracadale stated in his review of hate crime legislation, it is a legitimate function of the law to communicate. That point was highlighted by trade unions and trade bodies in their evidence to the committee when they drew parallels with other behaviours that, although covered by other pieces of legislation or common law, required specific legislation to make the law effective.
Thirdly, the creation of the new specific offence means that much better data will be provided. Right now, we simply do not know the true scale of the problem, as this type of crime is not recorded separately. As a result, we rely on survey work such as that carried out by USDAW, the Scottish Grocers Federation and the Scottish Retail Consortium. That is particularly worrying, given the concerns that were articulated to the committee and that are reflected in the report regarding the underreporting of threats, abuse and assaults on retail workers.
Perhaps the most important element of the bill is the aggravation element, which places in law the seriousness of assaulting someone when they are undertaking their legal duty as required in statute. It will require those who pass sentence on people who commit such crimes to give due consideration to those circumstances in the sentencing.
In addition to those core elements, in its current form, the bill would make it an offence to obstruct or hinder a retail worker while they are carrying out their duties. That concept was taken from the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Act 2005, and the intention is to prevent the familiar pattern of escalation whereby a simple refusal of sale results in someone refusing to move from a queue or move on, which then escalates to abuse, threats and violence. However, I note the committee’s concerns regarding the provision and I agree that it was drawn too broadly. I intend to lodge an amendment at stage 2 to remove the provision from the bill.
It is also important to note the scope of the bill. Drafting the bill required several decisions and the consideration of many options. I wanted the bill to be focused and to the point, but I also wanted it to recognise the broad range of contexts in which age-restricted goods and services are sold, as well as the changing nature of retail. As a result, the bill defines retail work in such a way that those who work in bars, restaurants and hotels will be covered. Likewise, the bill will cover delivery drivers who are required to ask for identification when delivering age-restricted items.
Shop workers provide a vital front-line service. The pandemic has brought new insight into the role played by those workers, but, in reality, they have always played that role. They keep us safe and they uphold the law. Let us take this opportunity to ensure that they have the protection of the law. It is the very least that we owe them for their vital public work.
That the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the Protection of Workers (Retail and Age-restricted Goods and Services) (Scotland) Bill.
As the saying goes, the customer is always right—it was the founders of Selfridges and the Ritz hotel who first popularised the phrase. Variations on the theme include: the customer is king; the customer is never wrong; the customer always has a reason; and, in its most extreme form, t he customer is a god—with a small g. Unfortunately, there are times when the customer is not right and when the customer abandons all reason. Daniel Johnson’s bill relates to those times and the protection of shop workers.
Our appreciation of people who work in retail—supermarket staff, the man or woman in the corner shop and those behind the counter in pharmacies—has grown during these Covid times, and their role over the past six months has proved invaluable. We have acknowledged them all as key workers, and r ightly so.
What we require from the bill—should it be passed—is that it is effective and that shop workers feel not only valued but safe and free to go about their work without fear, now and beyond the current restrictions. Indeed, much of the committee’s work on the bill preceded the pandemic.
The committee wanted to hear the views of shop workers and members of the public. In February, a pop-up Parliament stand was held in Paisley’s Piazza shopping centre. We asked retail workers and shoppers what they made of the bill and whether extra protection was necessary. Most people who spoke to us on that day said that it was.
A central plank of the bill is the recognition that those who are required to ask for proof of age should have additional protection on the basis that workers who enforce statutory age restrictions are upholding the law, as Daniel Johnson mentioned. That can be a trigger for acts of violence and abuse. The committee found the evidence of such behaviour against retail workers compelling, and it believed that that must be addressed. As a shopkeeper from Blantyre said in a recent newspaper article:
“Shop workers aren’t looking for a pat on the back, but they don’t need a kicking either.”
The committee’s stage 1 report encouraged the member in charge of the bill to speak to the minister to address the committee’s concerns about the bill’s scope and its definition of retail work. We also invited the Scottish Government to reflect on several areas: the reporting of incidents, data collection and awareness raising. What we have heard about that dialogue and the reflection on those points is encouraging. I hope that I am not overly repeating what the member in charge of the bill has just said or pre-empting anything that the minister plans to tell us, but I understand that she shares the committee’s concerns about the obstruct-and-hinder element of the bill and that she has indicated a willingness to continue her dialogue with the member on that through to stage 2.
I will pick up on a couple of other strands. Reporting and confidence in the system are closely entwined. There is a perception that the abuse of retail workers is not taken seriously by the police and that current laws are not being enforced. That worried the committee, because employers and employees should be encouraged to report crimes. The bill can raise awareness, but action must be taken regardless. The committee invited the Scottish Government to work with its justice partners to address enforcement issues and to ensure that those matters are given the priority that they call for.
In her written response, the minister said that operational matters sit with Police Scotland, but she also said that the Scottish Government would be happy to assist in any way that it can. Perhaps she can elaborate on that in a moment. The minister also argued that a defence of reasonableness should be added to the bill. The committee recognised that concern and recommended that it be considered at stage 2. No doubt, the minister will comment on that in a moment.
A recurring theme in our evidence was the importance of communication. The Law Society of Scotland recognised
“an overwhelming need for enhanced provision of education, training and awareness raising of the issue to the public.”
The Federation of Small Businesses called for a
“smart, well-resourced marketing campaign”.
The committee agrees that there is a need to promote cultural change in order to deter aggressive behaviour and to give shop workers the recognition that they deserve. We therefore called for the Scottish Government to work with retailers and others on an educational campaign that will target retail workers, employers and the public. It is pleasing that the minister has given a commitment to do just that. She has suggested that the focus will be on small retail outlets whose staff may feel more vulnerable. We look forward to hearing more when she sets out her position.
Daniel Johnson told us that previous attempts to introduce similar legislation had resulted in warm words but that those who were seeking protection were left in the cold, because nothing happened. Thomas Hobbes wrote in “Leviathan” that the law is the public conscience—or at least it should be.
The committee has made its concerns about certain aspects of the bill clear, and we welcome the continuing discussions between Daniel Johnson and the Scottish Government. We commend the member for bringing forward the bill and the minister for being attentive to the committee’s findings. The committee supports the general principles of the bill.
I begin by recognising the important role that retail workers play in our local communities and the wider Scottish economy.
During the Covid-19 outbreak, their contribution has been highlighted as the retail trade helps communities across Scotland get through these challenging times. I appreciate the hard work and commitment of all those working in the retail sector in Scotland. They should be lauded for the work that they are continuing to do during these challenging and unprecedented times, and it is absolutely right that they should be protected by our criminal laws. Every worker in a front-line customer service role should feel absolutely safe and supported.
Daniel Johnson’s bill is well-intentioned and well-timed, given Covid-19.
I thank the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee for its thoughtful stage 1 report, as well as the clerks who assisted in preparing it. The job that we all have in this Parliament is—as the committee report says—to assess whether the bill will improve how the criminal law in the area of protections for retail workers operates.
Evidence to the committee showed that retail workers are exposed to verbal abuse, threatening and abusive behaviour and physical attacks, as well as spitting and other disorderly behaviour. We heard that that often occurs when people are under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or when the retail worker is carrying out age checks or enforcing core hours for the sale of alcohol. Let me be clear: that type of criminal conduct is absolutely unacceptable and perpetrators should be held to account.
Retail workers should feel that they are currently protected by the criminal law, and they are protected, of course. We have a wide range of existing criminal laws in place to tackle that type of offending behaviour—for example, the statutory offence of threatening or abusive behaviour and the common-law offences of assault and breach of the peace. Those existing laws criminalise the verbal and physical abuse of our retail workers and provide our courts with the discretion to impose robust maximum penalties.
Enforcement of the law is for Police Scotland, the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service and, ultimately, the criminal courts. I fully support law enforcement agencies in taking robust enforcement action to deal with any attacks and threats made against retail workers if they consider that necessary in any given case.
However, the context for the bill is the concerns that have been raised by a number of trade unions, such as the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, and from a number of retail bodies, such as the Scottish Retail Consortium, which has explained why it supports the bill.
I pay tribute to Daniel Johnson. It is not easy navigating the member’s bill process—even with the help of the Parliament’s excellent non-Government bills unit. Daniel Johnson’s bill has already helped raise awareness of this important issue. We appreciate that such a bill will have the potential to make the public think more about their behaviour while interacting with retail workers, especially in such difficult and challenging times.
The committee recognised in its report that the new offence contained in the bill largely restates existing offences, and where it seeks to extend the law—by including hindering and obstructing as elements of the offence—we consider that it does so in a way that sets too low a threshold for criminal sanctions. The committee’s stage 1 report shared that concern. It indicated that it
“shares concerns raised about the practical impact of including ‘obstruct and hinder’ as an offence against retail workers and believes that this could be open to misinterpretation as currently framed in the bill.”
Subject to changes being made at stage 2 to remove the hindering and obstructing elements, I can advise that the Scottish Government will support the bill through the legislative process, including at decision time today. The approach should ensure that the seriousness of offending is highlighted through a specific offence and that the court—when sentencing—assesses whether higher sentences are required in the context of age verification and would allow for better data to be collected over a period of time. We understand from discussions with Daniel Johnson that he would be agreeable to such an approach.
The maximum penalty in the bill would be up to one year in prison and/or a fine of up to £10,000. We imagine that most offences will be captured under the bill and prosecuted as such, but more serious offences—which would, as I understand it, be much lower in number—would have to be prosecuted under the existing criminal law, in which they obviously carry much higher maximum penalties. The bill would operate in a similar way to the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Act 2005
, under which some offences are prosecuted while others are prosecuted under existing criminal law.
It is worth touching briefly on the age verification aggravation. We can understand why it has been included, but Police Scotland expressed some concerns that such a measure could impact mainly on young people. The Scottish Government agrees that that might happen, although it is also worth noting that, in cases in which the age verification aggravation applies and is related to the conduct of a young person or child, discretion would exist in respect of what action to take as a result of the alleged offending behaviour. With that reassurance, we can see the value of the age verification aggravation.
Laws have a key role to play, but they are not the answer to everything. As I indicated in my evidence to the committee, the Scottish Government is committed to developing an awareness-raising campaign to coincide with the implementation of the bill, which would highlight the importance of reports being made when retail workers are attacked, threatened or abused during the course of their work.
At decision time, the Scottish Government will support the general principles of the bill, subject to steps at stage 2 to improve it by removing the hindering and obstructing elements. I look forward to hearing more during the debate to help ensure that the bill can be as good as possible.
I am pleased to contribute to this stage 1 debate on the bill. Daniel Johnson knows that I am sympathetic to what he is trying to achieve, as we have discussed the matter on and off for the past two or three years.
I recognise the ills that he seeks to address, as I have been a retail worker at various times—as no doubt many across this chamber have—and was subjected to the sort of behaviour about which the committee has heard, although mercifully not of the severity that still far too many must endure.
Those who have been retail workers will recognise the issues that the bill covers, given the Scottish Grocers Federation’s report that 99 per cent of workers it surveyed had experienced violence and physical abuse, and USDAW’s evidence that a Scottish shop worker is abused, threatened or assaulted more than 20 times a year on average.
I witnessed a lone petrol station worker being subjected to a torrent of abuse late one evening around three weeks ago on the outskirts of Edinburgh, simply because his till had crashed and failed to register a loyalty card. I spoke to him afterwards to offer support and he was clearly shaken and scared. Did he report the incident to his boss or the police, as I suggested? He possibly did not—for reasons that I will return to later.
It is not difficult for the Scottish Conservatives to support the principles of the bill, which are about increasing the protection for workers in the retail sector, as the online executive summary to the bill suggests. I feel, however, that a number of areas ought to be explored in greater depth.
My colleagues will elaborate on these throughout the debate, but let me suggest some thoughts on which the member might wish to reflect and perhaps come back to when he closes the debate.
I noticed that, among others, the Scottish Government’s memorandum, the Crown Office and the minister herself suggest that the new offence would not significantly expand current legal protection and that provisions in existing criminal law cover many of the proposed elements. Regardless of whether that position is accepted, I note that the member’s response throughout the process has been that the key is to send a message that would
“communicate our priorities to the public” and
“reflect the seriousness of the crimes that are perpetrated and the duties and obligations that we place on people”—[
Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee
, 13 May 2020; c 9.]
Let us leave aside the question whether the primary aim of the law should be to send a message. In her evidence to the committee, the minister said that
“the sending of a message is a sort of secondary benefit" .—[
Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee
, 6 May 2020; c 5.]
I am not readily persuaded of that. If the proposed bill does not fundamentally create anything new, the member ought to ask why the messaging of the current law does not work. Should we not work to establish where the current failure lies and what is required to fix it? The answer might well not be more law.
Should we not be asking whether retail workers are reporting incidents? Daniel Johnson referred earlier to the USDAW survey, which found that only 34 per cent of victims report incidents. If they are not reporting them, why not? Is it because they are afraid of the consequences? Is it because, as the Scottish Co-operative Party suggests, they are not being taken seriously? Is it because they are unaware of the current law and their rights? Is the Federation of Small Businesses in Scotland right that only one in 10 businesses report incidents as a crime? If so, why is that? Is it ignorance of the existing law? Is it that the police do not have the time or resources to properly combat the problem? If so, that is a much bigger issue, which will not simply be addressed by the proposed new law.
Are there problems at prosecution level? Are cases falling on an evidential basis? If so, why? Will the proposed requirement for evidence to be from a single source address that? In addition, what message does the current sentencing regime give? What sentences are being handed down for the offences at the moment? Do those fail to send a message that that behaviour is reprehensible and will not be tolerated?
The Association of Convenience Stores believes that the proposed offence
“would act as a deterrent”, but presumably that would be the case only if the sentences given were seen to be commensurate with the seriousness of the crime. However, the ACS states:
“The maximum sentence ... may not be high enough”.
The ACS might be right, because the penalty under the bill could be, as we heard from the minister, imprisonment for 12 months or a fine. However, it will not be lost on anyone watching and listening to this debate that just last year the Scottish Parliament voted, with the notable exception of the Scottish Conservatives, for a presumption against 12-month prison sentences. That means that the criminals who carry out the acts that the bill addresses, who the minister described as committing lower-end offences—I know that she did not mean that pejoratively—do not risk prison, and they know that they will get a fine or community sentence instead. However, we already know—and Daniel Johnson knows this very well—that one in three community sentences are not completed and one in four contain no element of work.
I ask Daniel Johnson to muse on that throughout the debate and address in his closing speech the inadequacies and myriad failures of the soft-touch justice approach pursued by the Government—I will welcome his conversion with open arms. Although that is perhaps a forlorn hope, it would be useful if he were to note the importance of addressing those underlying questions and acknowledge the importance of enhanced education, training and public awareness as crucial for the bill, as the committee convener flagged up earlier.
The Scottish Conservatives will support the general principles of the bill at decision time tonight.
I am delighted to be able to speak in favour of the bill at stage 1 and I congratulate my colleague Daniel Johnson for all his hard work in getting it to the chamber. I know that the bill seeks to address issues that are close to his heart and I encourage members across the chamber to support the bill and call time on the abuse of shop workers.
The retail sector is Scotland’s largest private sector. If the past six months have taught us anything, it is how heavily we rely on the sector and how much we depend on quick and easy access to essential goods. Retail workers have played and continue to play a vital role in keeping our country stocked during the pandemic. They have coped with panic buying and the unnecessary stockpiling that took place in the early weeks and they are the staff who remind us all to wear our masks and keep our distance, which can often trigger abuse and violence towards them.
A survey by USDAW found that violence and abuse against retail workers had doubled since the beginning of lockdown. It is truly appalling that 59 per cent of shop workers have faced verbal abuse since the beginning of the outbreak and a further 4 per cent have been physically assaulted. Those figures are based only on those who took part in the survey, so the reality is likely to be even bleaker. The claps and cheers for our key workers mean absolutely nothing if we allow that abuse to continue. The least that we can do for them is ensure that they are properly supported and protected against physical and verbal abuse in their workplace, which we can do by voting for the bill.
The bill would cover almost 300,000 retail workers and 120,000 hospitality staff. That significant proportion of the Scottish population is going to work every day in fear of what they will come up against—and we have the power to help them.
The Scottish Retail Consortium tells us that around 10 retail workers are attacked every day in Scotland. Similarly, the Association of Convenience Stores says that there have been 50,000 incidents of violence and threats towards convenience store workers across the UK during the past year. In Scotland, we have around 44,000 local convenience stores. Last year alone, more than 8,000—one in five—independent retailers experienced violence. It makes me so angry to think of the many independent retailers along the high streets of my constituency who are facing such awful levels of abuse and violence for simply for doing their job.
As with any abuse, emotional scars linger long after the physical ones fade. USDAW found that abuse in the workplace can be traumatic to deal with and, indeed, move on from. That is because, every day, workers are forced to return to the scene of their abuse, not knowing if or when their abuser will come back to the shop. Even worse, some victims find the attack too traumatic to return to work at all. That leaves them without an income and livelihood, while their attacker faces no repercussions.
It is also not enough to assume that managers in shops are able to take control of a situation—not only are they also facing verbal and physical violence, but they are often unable to provide adequate support to employees, despite their best efforts.
We know that attacks happen for a variety of reasons—none of which are the fault of the shop worker. One of the biggest triggers for abuse aimed at shop workers is the law on age restriction and the responsibility that shop workers have to enforce it.
The Scottish Grocers Federation’s crime survey found that 100 per cent of survey respondents experienced incidents of abuse when sale was refused, or when simply asking for proof of age. I must admit, Presiding Officer, that it has been a long time since anyone asked me for that, but I live in hope.
The bill targets the abuse that shop workers face every day by making such abuse a criminal offence. It would also, as Daniel Johnson said, add aggravation to the offence if the shop worker who is abused is enforcing the law on age restriction. That would give shop workers the confidence to come forward and report the abuse that they receive. Far too many abusers get away with it because there is not adequate legislation in place to hold them accountable for their abhorrent behaviour.
It is time to let shop workers know that abuse is simply not part and parcel of the job that they do, and that their suffering can and will stop. The bill must be a warning to all those who have abused and will continue to abuse shop staff that the law will be on the side of the workers, and that offenders will finally have to deal with the consequences of their actions.
I again congratulate Daniel Johnson. His bill is an important and significant achievement.
I, too, welcome the bill, and commend Daniel Johnson for his work to introduce it. The Scottish Greens support the general principles of the bill and will vote for it.
I am a member of the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee. I thank fellow committee members, clerks, researchers and witnesses for their diligent work in scrutinising the bill.
I, too, agree with members who have commended the work of retail workers, particularly those who, in the early months of the pandemic, were very much on the front line, meeting and greeting thousands of customers and seeking to police a safe environment, much of which is mandated by laws passed by the Parliament, the latest of which is, of course, the regulation on wearing face coverings. All that is in addition to the existing laws on, for example, age-restricted goods and services that retail workers are required to implement. I thank retail workers for their hard work and for doing their bit to keep us all safe.
As the convener of the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee said, we heard disturbing testimony about the routine threats and abuse facing retail workers. I found equally disturbing the sense of helplessness around not knowing whether such abuse would investigated if reported. That is very troubling.
I do not want to get into the arguments about the scale or nature or character of the police response—the police rebutted some of those allegations. Nevertheless, it was clear from the evidence that relying on existing offences does not appear to be sufficient to curb on-going abuse.
I am not a fan of legislating to send messages—I think that Liam Kerr is not, either—but sometimes a new offence that is clearly targeted at abusive behaviour against a defined group of vulnerable people is the way forward. Daniel Johnson mentioned using the law to communicate. I think that it should be used in that way only sparingly, but I am persuaded that this situation is such a case. The mere existence of a notice on the front door of a shop, clearly articulating that the legislation applies, might do something to curb the worst excesses.
It is also fair to say that introducing a criminal offence is never an easy or a straightforward process—nor should it be. No doubt Daniel Johnson was aware of that when he took up the issue. As he will know, the committee spent some time grappling with the legal choices that had been made. In particular, we questioned the need for a new offence of obstructing or hindering a retail worker. We recognise concerns about the lack of a reasonableness defence to the threatening and abusive elements.
I am pleased to note that there is now a measure of agreement on the way forward on those matters. In particular, I am pleased that the “obstructing or hindering” element has been dropped. I was never persuaded that it was analogous to similar offences against emergency workers, where such behaviour can—and does—pose a threat to life.
I want to pay particular attention to the question of the aggravated offence that would apply where retail workers are enforcing a statutory age restriction. We agree with that proposal, but we also agree that such a charge should be available to be pled in any proceedings, brought against anyone who is alleged to have assaulted, threatened or abused a retail worker, regardless of whether it is brought for that offence, other statutory offences or under the common law. We are pleased to note that the Government has not closed the door on that possible amendment.
One of the most valuable observations to have arisen from the committee’s scrutiny was the question why we have not, as a matter of routine, created an aggravation in relation to all offences that we create in law whereby ordinary workers—whether in public transport, shops, entertainment venues or wherever—are then required to enforce it, such as the law on age restrictions, and who may, as a consequence, invite and receive abuse or violence.
I hope that the bill will be passed. I also hope that we will learn that important lesson, and will never again legislate to create offences that we expect to be implemented and enforced by ordinary workers without there being requisite protection in the law. Indeed, had we been more diligent about that, Daniel Johnson might not have needed to introduce the bill—or, at least, not in its current form.
The bill is a worthy and welcome one, and the Scottish Greens will support it at decision time.
Presiding Officer, I offer my apologies—to you, to the Presiding Officer who was then in the chair, and to other members—that I was not here at the start of the debate.
I join others in warmly congratulating Daniel Johnson on getting to this stage with his bill on the protection of retail workers. He has put in a tremendous amount of work to develop his proposals, and I think that the principles of the bill deserve the support of the Parliament; they have certainly secured the support of the Scottish Liberal Democrats.
As I am sure that Daniel Johnson will recall, when he first approached me about lending my support to the bill, I was a bit concerned about the reach and the potential knock on-consequences of what was initially envisaged. However, I felt that it was still important for the Parliament to have the chance to consider his proposals, so I added my signature to the list of the bill’s supporters.
I am delighted that, since those initial discussions, Daniel Johnson has clearly worked hard with stakeholders, the minister and her officials to hone the bill, which is now more tightly focused and, as a result, will be more effective in tackling the problems that it has quite legitimately identified.
I also acknowledge and thank others who have been instrumental in getting us to this point. USDAW deserves particular credit for its long-standing commitment to the issue and for its freedom from fear campaign, which has been running for more than 15 years. The Scottish Retail Consortium, the Scottish Grocers Federation and a range of other organisations have also been strong supporters of moves to provide greater protection for retail staff. I commend them all for their efforts, too.
Of course, when the bill was conceived, the principal driver was a desire to take action to address violence, threats and intimidation towards shop workers, often brought about by conflict over the sale of age-restricted goods. There was growing evidence of the risks to retail staff who had the unpalatable choice of provoking anger from customers by asking for ID or facing potential legal action from police for failing to do so. That, Presiding Officer, is the very definition of being between a rock and a hard place.
Those problems have not gone away—if anything, they have increased, according to the latest crime survey figures—and the Covid pandemic, as others have observed, has brought with it additional challenges in this area.
I recall having conversations with managers and staff of various local supermarkets and shops in Orkney in the early stages of lockdown—I am sure that many members had similar conversations—who talked of their experience of wholly unacceptable behaviour from customers when asked to abide by Government advice or the restrictions in place to ensure that everybody had access to the food and supplies that they needed.
Toilet roll, pasta and bread flour may not be age restricted, but that did not stop those items being the source of flashpoints in shops and supermarkets up and down the country. In a community such as Orkney, though, this all felt particularly inexplicable, uncomfortable and at odds with the norm. At a time when shop staff were going out of their way to help to keep people in our communities safe and supplied, the idea that they would be abused or attacked for that is beyond reprehensible.
Thankfully, this appears to be a problem that has greatly diminished: the wearing of face coverings is more routine and panic buying feels like a thing of the past. However, with more stringent restrictions now back in place, there is always the possibility—although I hope not—that we could see a resurgence. Either way, the case for the protections set out in the bill, which are focused on the issues arising from the sale of age-restricted goods and services, is one that is well made and deserving of support.
As with all bills, there will be the need to scrutinise it robustly and amend it where necessary. Scope, definitions and penalties are among some of the issues that members of the committee have referred to. I share Andy Wightman’s hope that, as well as finding a more effective way of prosecuting crimes when they are committed, the legislation will act as a disincentive to those crimes being committed in the first instance.
For now, however, I congratulate Daniel Johnson once again on his progress, I wish him well and I confirm that the Scottish Liberal Democrats will support the bill at decision time.
As a member of the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee, I support the general principles of the bill. It is important that we have a full debate on the important issues that are raised in this member’s bill, which aims to increase the protection of workers in the retail sector, and I commend Daniel Johnson for introducing it.
At the outset, I would like to thank retail workers across Scotland for the key role that they play in our communities. The coronavirus pandemic has only emphasised how vital retail workers are in our society. This period has undoubtedly been stressful for retail workers and has presented them with new challenges, as people have depended on them to provide access to key supplies and they have navigated new roles to keep the workplace safe.
I firmly believe that all workers should have the right to carry out their duties free from threat or fear. The bill focuses on two main principles. It
“creates a new statutory offence of assaulting, threatening, abusing, obstructing or hindering a retail worker” and it
“allows for aggravation of that offence where the retail worker is enforcing a statutory age restriction”, for example, when selling cigarettes or alcohol.
The committee considered a wide range of views in the course of taking evidence and it quickly became clear that elements of the bill overlap with existing offences, such as common-law assault and the statutory offence of threatening or abusive behaviour, and that needs further investigation.
However, the evidence indicates that levels of crime against retail workers are already high and that those rates are only increasing. It seems that it is necessary to put something in place that adequately addresses the challenges that are faced by retail sector staff. That raises the question of whether the existing laws are adequate to deal with such incidents and the question of whether those laws are being adequately enforced.
One concern that I had relating to the bill, and I am pleased that Daniel Johnson is addressing this issue, is how we define the offence of
“obstructing or hindering a retail worker”.
The bill does not limit that offence to physical interference. It becomes a matter of judgment as to whether an offence has been committed and, in my opinion, that is not a robust principle. We should consider whether it is proportionate to make “hindering” a criminal offence. I believe that we should not be criminalising that, as it is too subjective and it could result in impairing the life chances of those whose behaviour has been perceived in a way that was not meant. I do not think that it is a strong enough concept to criminalise.
At the beginning of my speech, I emphasised that there is no doubt that retail workers are experiencing increased levels of harassment and crime. According to research by the Federation of Small Businesses, the majority of businesses do not report crimes. The Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers has said that its opinion is that the laws are not being enforced. I believe that our starting point should be to persuade retailers to report crimes and make use of the many existing laws that could be enforced in such situations.
By encouraging retail workers to contact the police in situations of assault and threatened abuse, we can see a truer picture of incidents, and the police may enforce the laws that already exist. The Minister for Community Safety, Ash Denham, has offered to work with Police Scotland and the Scottish Government’s justice partners to explore how data collection can be improved when recording and monitoring criminal incidents in shops, and I am certain that those discussions will be productive. If we can understand the extent of the problem, we can work with the police to come up with solutions as to how we can effectively enforce the existing laws.
I repeat my thanks to those who work in the retail trade and offer my support to attempts to find solutions for the challenges that are faced by all those who work in the sector. I understand the difficulties in enforcing age-related statutory restrictions and I hope that, through the bill, we can work towards solutions that ease the situations that those in the sector meet with. I look forward to further dialogue to create a robust bill with the best interests of workers at its centre.
That is a challenge—thank you, Presiding Officer.
I, too, am a member of the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee. Since Daniel Johnson introduced the bill, MSPs have received a number of worrying reports about the extent of the abuse, violence and threats that our shop workers face. Statistics from the Scottish Grocers Federation show that just about every retail worker in Scotland has experienced some kind of physical abuse incident or violent attack at some stage. Other figures have suggested that the average shop worker is abused on 20 occasions each year. We have heard from members from across the chamber about many other examples of abuse. It is simply not right that people should have to consider what abuse they might face as a result of simply going to work.
Clearly, the situation is completely unacceptable, and it is our job as MSPs and legislators to reduce that risk where we can. With that in mind, we are supportive of the bill’s aims, although we have reservations about how effective it will be, and we cannot ignore the irony of the Labour Party, which has traditionally been weak on issues of justice, suddenly deciding to stand up for victims of crime.
The maximum punishment that anyone who is convicted under the proposed new law can receive will be a year in prison. However, last year, Labour sided with the Scottish National Party Government when it launched proposals to abolish sentences of less than a year, resulting in people who are found guilty of domestic violence, serious drugs offences and even significant assault charges avoiding jail altogether and finding themselves back out on the street immediately.
In effect, Labour wants to create a new law that, at best, will see perpetrators waltz out of court with just a fine or community sentence. We know from previous form that, in the SNP’s justice system, it is easy for criminals to dodge paying fines in full or to shirk community service, in part or sometimes even in full.
Much of the evidence that the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee heard centred on the fact that attacks on shop workers are underreported. We heard evidence from the Law Society of Scotland and Police Scotland that there are existing laws in place to deal with abuse of shop workers. During one evidence session, we heard that an awareness campaign is perhaps needed to educate people. There would be two aims. The first would be to encourage people not to be violent towards shop workers, and the second would be to assure people that, once a matter is reported, it will be dealt with properly. I certainly agree that we need to raise awareness, and I hope that, if we educate people, there will be a much better understanding of what is acceptable behaviour.
Therefore, there are two arguments. There are the shop workers, who feel strongly that a law is needed to protect them, and there are those who believe that such legislation is already in place. For any new law of that kind to succeed, it will have to be matched by tough action at the business end of the justice system. We do not want our shop workers to be let down through the court process failing them. People who are found guilty of the proposed offence must be properly punished, or the legislation will soon get a reputation for being toothless and ineffective.
If the proposed law is passed, the Scottish Parliament cannot relax, merely satisfied in the knowledge that another piece of legislation exists. The new law will need to be constantly monitored, reviewed and, where necessary, improved.
Although we retain some scepticism about the bill, we agree that something needs to be done for a group of workers who are often undervalued. Therefore, we will vote for the motion on Daniel Johnson’s bill at decision time.
As others have done, I thank Daniel Johnson for navigating his member’s bill through stage 1. It is a robust bill, albeit that I know that some amendments are required. I also thank the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee and the Scottish Government for what has been, from what I can gather, strong, positive and constructive engagement on both sides. I will whisper this: sometimes, that is what the Parliament does, and maybe we should do it more often. Credit goes to the parliamentary system as well.
I take on board the fact that the “obstructing or hindering” part of the offence will be removed from the bill by amendment—I will say no more about that—but there will be a stand-alone offence of assaulting, threatening or abusing retail workers. It should not have to be said, but it has to be said that no one should be assaulted, threatened or abused while doing their job, in the line of duty or—the aggravation provisions apply to this—in performing their legal duty. That is not acceptable, but it happens. Such behaviour is committed by a vocal and sometimes highly visible minority.
I have seen at first hand the efforts that retail workers in my constituency have made during the Covid-19 outbreak in ensuring social distancing, assisting with queueing outside supermarkets, encouraging the use of face coverings and sanitising what is, in effect, their workplace, all while keeping the shelves stacked. I will make this point delicately; it is in no way a reflection on the workers. I have been contacted by constituents—I am sure that all members will have been—who have complained that, in their view, some shops and supermarkets have not done enough and should do more. There is the rub—huge expectations, stresses and pressures are put on those front-line workers when what they need is solidarity and support and the backing of law. That is what Daniel Johnson is trying to secure, and that is why I support his bill.
Questions have been asked about how many workers are impacted, how often retail workers are victims of such unacceptable abuse and how many people who are guilty of such behaviour are changed and prosecuted. I know that we do not know the answers to those questions, but Daniel Johnson provided some anecdotal yet robust figures from USDAW and the Scottish Grocers Federation, and it is clear that there is a problem that must be tackled. The creation of a specific offence will help to deal with that data issue and determine the extent of the problem.
The bill is not just about capturing data; it is about changing behaviour. That is why it is important that, in tandem with the bill, the Scottish Government has pledged to run an awareness campaign on the importance of reporting to the police incidents in which retail workers are attacked, threatened or abused in the course of their work. We should never normalise such unacceptable behaviour. Legally, it is unacceptable at the moment, but we must make sure that it is absolutely socially unacceptable. We should be clear about how quickly certain behaviour can become socially acceptable if we do not do something about it. [
.] I am sorry; I do not have time to take an intervention.
In the time that I have left, I ask members to think about how some people treat call centre staff when they get frustrated and impatient. Those staff get abuse even though they are just doing their job. Imagine getting such abuse face to face every day at your work. When I was at school, I did some jobs in Jackie Baillie’s constituency—I sold tablet and macaroons around the doors of Bonhill, and I sold sports socks in the Vale market, which were both public-facing jobs. I preferred being a kitchen porter on Loch Lomondside, because it was not public facing.
Every day of the week, retail workers do public-facing vital jobs, and they deserve our protection. I will support the motion on Daniel Johnson’s bill at decision time.
I draw members’ attention to my declaration of interests. I am a member of USDAW and Unite.
I am delighted to support Daniel Johnson’s bill and congratulate him and the committee on getting it to the chamber today. It is a much-needed piece of legislation that will send two clear messages—that retail workers have a right not to be abused or subjected to threats and violence in their line of work and that, if the worst happens, there is a mechanism in law to help workers to get justice.
The current system is failing retail workers. We know that because of the statistics that we have heard from members in today’s debate. They are damning, and they make it undeniable that the proposal is more important than ever.
We must remember that these workers are just doing their jobs. Many have committed decades to serving their community. Seven days a week, they do it with a smile, often on their feet for full shifts, and many of them do it for little more than the minimum wage. They are literally on the front line. They are key workers who have kept us fed and supplied with vital medicines during the pandemic, risking their own health. They have come into contact with thousands of people, some of whom will undoubtedly have been infected with Covid-19.
While ASDA has said that it is starting a crackdown on anti-maskers, Paddy Lillis of USDAW said yesterday that abuse has doubled since March. The very people who are helping to disinfect trolleys and self-service tills and ensure that there is social distancing have had to face increased threats, abuse, intimidation and, for 3.5 per cent of them, assault. Just as they are when they perform age checks, retail workers are simply upholding the law, and they are at the sharp end of implementing public health policy.
Just this morning, I spoke to an USDAW member at a Co-op in my region, and they described their experience of working through the pandemic. People have said to them, “You’re not the police”, “You’re not a doctor” and “You’re just a shelf stacker”, and have told them to F off. The irony that they are stacking the shelves to keep the community that they serve fed is not lost on that worker. The proposed new offence was necessary before Covid-19, and if it was already law, retail workers would have had added protection throughout the pandemic.
Outside the pandemic, USDAW has accumulated a decade of survey information on the issue, and the results for Scotland reinforce the need for the bill. It has found that, in previous years, Scotland’s figures have been well above the UK national average, with more Scottish members reporting threats as well as both verbal and physical abuse.
It is the law enforcement role that retail workers have that triggers the abuse. The British Retail Consortium has reported that violence and abuse are up 9 per cent in a year, and the members of the Scottish Grocers Federation who responded to its survey had universally experienced incidents of abuse after refusing a sale or requesting identification.
A worker who responded to USDAW’s freedom from fear survey said:
“We get abuse from customers about the think 25 policy. I have had many people call me the C word or the B word. It won’t be long before somebody will physically hurt one of us in the shop.”
“An age-related sale customer with no ID started using foul language and threatened to come back at the end of my shift.”
It gets worse. One comment was:
“Customer was refused sale of alcohol as he was under the influence. He told me I was a F-ing B and to watch my back as he was going to get me.”
The committee and the Parliament have heard just how necessary the bill is. The situation that retail workers face is serious. I ask all members to support the bill.
I thank Daniel Johnson for introducing his bill with the support of USDAW—the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers. It is on a matter that is important to the constituents of each and every one of us.
During the lockdown, we all regularly clapped our national health service workers for their phenomenal efforts in keeping our communities safe in the Covid-19 pandemic. In these challenging times, many of Scotland’s more than 375,000 retail workers have done equally fantastic work. Not only do they provide indispensable everyday life essentials such as food and medicine, but for many of us they have also been a rare and welcome source of face-to-face human interaction. They make a real and positive difference to people’s lives and their value should not be underestimated.
Sadly, however, retail workers have recently endured an unacceptable rise in assaults against them. According to the Association of Convenience Stores, which represents more than 33,500 local shops across the UK, last year there were more than 50,000 incidents, including verbal abuse, threats and physical attacks. Earlier this year, a woman was taken to hospital after an intoxicated man assaulted two female staff working at a local convenience store in Bourtreehill in North Ayrshire.
We should use the increased public attention that is currently being given to this issue to protect our retail workers by enhancing the long-standing existing laws. I therefore welcome the bill to strengthen the legislation and specifically protect retail workers against the minority of customers who assault, abuse or threaten them.
It is completely unacceptable that, according to the Scottish Grocers Federation, some retail workers now come to
“expect threatening and abusive behaviour as part of their job.”
It is certain that the real number of offences committed is actually much higher than official figures suggest, as many incidents are never reported to police. A number of colleagues have talked about how the police response is not what should be expected.
A new specific statutory offence to deter assaults, threats or abuse committed against retail workers would not only raise public awareness of the problem but reassure shop workers that the issue is being taken seriously and encourage the reporting of incidents. I welcome the minister for community safety’s offer to work in collaboration with Police Scotland and the Scottish Government’s justice partners on improving data collection when criminal incidents are reported and monitored on retail premises.
We expect our retail workers to uphold the law daily, with regard to not only current Covid-19 safety regulations but the protection of minors from the harmful damages of early exposure to alcohol. Therefore, it is our duty to ensure that the law sufficiently protects retail workers who enforce statutory age restrictions by requesting proof of age from young customers who want to buy alcohol or tobacco products, for example. For that reason, I also support moves to create a statutory aggravation for the offence of assaulting, threatening or abusing a retail worker in cases where a statutory age restriction is being enforced.
The minister has shown willingness to engage with Mr Johnson to address some remaining concerns about the bill. I am not alone in my belief that some elements, such as impeding a retail worker from carrying out work in a non-physical way, set the bar too low for criminal behaviour. Of course, in cases where an obstruction or hindrance is carried out in a threatening or abusive way, the conduct amounts to assault or breach of the peace, which is already penalised under criminal law. I expect that there are many issues in the bill to be addressed at stage 2.
The bill will improve working conditions and the rights of shop workers to go about their work safely. It will increase their legal protections with a new specific offence and highlight to the wider public the unacceptable threats and physical attacks that shop workers often face. The latter is particularly important, because ultimately, only cultural change and increased public awareness will effectively deter abusive conduct and eradicate violent behaviour in our shops. We should therefore all unite behind an awareness campaign that addresses employers and customers.
I once again thank Daniel Johnson for introducing his bill.
Without doubt, the bill has a commendable purpose. As I was convener of the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee during the stage 1 process, I would like to thank all those who gave evidence, and the committee clerks for all their hard work in producing our report.
I had the opportunity to speak to Mr Johnson, and there is absolutely no doubting his commitment to addressing the issue. He was right, in his argument with me, to say that there was merit in introducing the bill—to raise awareness of the problems, as much as anything. The minister highlighted that, too.
The evidence that the committee received left us in no doubt that we have a problem. Dr Cheema of the Scottish Grocers Federation gave moving evidence on his experiences after coming to Scotland in 1988. He described how he had been
“spat at, called names, threatened, attacked and had” his
“tyres slashed and ... windows broken”.—[
Official Report, Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee,
3 March 2020; c 23.]
The Co-operative Group’s submission described
“unprecedented levels of violent, weaponised attacks” on its staff.
The impact on retail workers is not just physical. Their mental health suffers as a result of trauma and intimidation. It is deplorable that the culture in our communities has brought us to this debate.
It is no surprise that there is strong support for the bill from the retail sector. The comment that struck me most strongly in the evidence session was from a representative of the Co-operative Group, who said:
“Honestly, I think that we all agree that retail workers do not believe that the police care or that the criminal justice system cares, and they are not sure whether elected representatives care about them, because so little is being done.”—[
Official Report, Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee,
3 March 2020; c 26.]
Our debate should send one clear message: we care.
However, the challenge is that this is a bill to create law, but for the most part, it duplicates and crosses over existing law. The provision for the new statutory offence would carry a maximum sentence of imprisonment for up to 12 months, and/or a fine of £10,000, as we have heard.
We also recognise that the current Government supports the presumption against short sentences and that the bill does not significantly extend current legal protections. That said, I am delighted that Daniel Johnson has worked with the Government to address the issue and remove “obstruct and hinder” from section 1. Although that would have been a new protection, I do not think that any committee member was convinced that it would be workable, because it would set the bar too low and create more problems than solutions.
I was particularly struck by the fact that 284 age-restricted products are sold in shops and that they are often flashpoints for the abuse of shop workers. I agree that if we are asking retail workers to uphold our laws, there is a duty to ensure that they are supported and protected for doing so; as such, an aggravator should be applied when a worker is upholding a statutory duty. Andy Wightman rather stole my thunder on that, because he eloquently described why the committee felt the way that it did. The fact that that is now being taken forward is welcome but I, too, wish that it had been inserted into legislation such as the Air Weapons and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2015. That could have saved us a lot of problems now.
The committee heard conflicting evidence on how the current law is upheld. Police Scotland was clear that it takes all reports of violence and intimidation seriously, but we also heard that two thirds of incidents are allegedly not attended by the police. That gap in perception is clearly not helping retail workers’ confidence.
I am in no doubt that action needs to be taken to educate and raise awareness of the issue. Our citizens need to understand that we will not tolerate this behaviour, but punishment should be the last resort. We need to target the behaviour at the root cause—a view that is supported by the Law Society of Scotland.
If I have any concern, it is that the bill recognises the problem but will not necessarily offer a solution. However, I thank Daniel Johnson for introducing the bill and I wish him all the best in its progress through Parliament.
I, too, congratulate Daniel Johnson on and commend him for his hard work and absolute determination to introduce the bill and reach this stage. I also pay tribute to USDAW and its members for their relentless campaign, which has led to the debate today.
The focus on the need to protect and support retail workers has never been more appropriate. Although it is important to state for the record that the role that retail workers play in our society has always been of importance, it is self-evident that the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted how essential retail workers are. No one could conclude other than that retail workers have been key workers in ensuring that we can all continue to access food, medicine and vital goods and services.
Although many people have been able to work from home, retail workers are obviously not generally in that position; we therefore owe it to them as legislators to do what we can to ensure that, at a minimum, those vital retail workers feel safe and supported at work and that the law is on their side. Although it has been acknowledged that the existing laws already criminalise much of that unacceptable conduct, I believe that it is helpful to clarify the law in that respect and send an important signal that such conduct will not be tolerated.
In the brief time available, I wish to note the following in relation to the provisions in the bill. A lot of the debate has centred, rightly, on the definition of the specific offence to be introduced. As currently drafted, the new statutory offence would include not only assaulting, threatening and abusing retail workers, but “obstructing or hindering” a retail worker, as we have heard. The inclusion of the latter has attracted comment from a number of sources, including the Law Society of Scotland—I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests wherein they will see that I am a member of the society. The society considered that the term “hindering”, in particular, was too vague and recommended that the term be either expressly defined in the bill or deleted from it. The society cited the example of a customer who may have a legitimate complaint that is raised in a reasonable way about a particular good or service, and it queried whether such conduct would fall foul of the proposed legislation.
I am pleased that, as we have heard, further to discussions between Daniel Johnson, the minister and her officials, a way forward has been worked out to address the concerns that were raised and, hence, to facilitate the Scottish Government being able to support the bill.
Other important provisions include the creation of the statutory aggravation, and I very much agree with Andy Wightman in that regard. How on earth can we impose a duty on vulnerable workers to check someone’s age and then put them in a position in which they feel that they are not supported when carrying out the task that the legislation has tasked them to do? I very much welcome the statutory aggravation.
I also welcome the improvement of data collection, the greater focus, I hope, on reporting and the Scottish Government’s commitment to mount an awareness-raising campaign.
Our retail workers deserve our support. I hope that the new specific offence will act as a deterrent, provide confidence and assurance to retail workers, and demonstrate that we recognise the vital role that they play and that they are as entitled to a safe place of work as any other worker is.
I have been a member of the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee off and on. I am currently a substitute member, but I was not involved in the bill at all, so I come to it today fairly fresh. I will comment on some of the issues that particularly struck me as I read the committee’s report.
Paragraph 22 talks of
“the low-levels of ... reporting to the police” because
“retail workers have come to expect threatening and abusive behaviours as ‘part of the job’.”
That is, frankly, awful and totally unacceptable.
Some of the figures that we have received in briefings are particularly stark. The Association of Convenience Stores says that 20 per cent of independent retailers experienced violence in the past year, and USDAW says that 27 per cent of workers were threatened by a customer.
Paragraphs 29 to 37 of the committee’s report consider the scope of the bill and who should be covered. The scope of Hugh Henry’s 2010 bill was wider, and the committee has heard conflicting evidence on that point. My feeling is that retail workers deserve and need the kind of protection that is planned, but it is clear that other workers do, too. I wonder whether we will end up with a plethora of bills that each protect a different sector.
When I was a councillor in Glasgow, I remember being shown videoclips of the kind of abuse to which traffic wardens could be subject. It ranged from the driver pulling out a baseball bat from the boot of their car to the offending vehicle being driven at the warden. Other sectors need to be considered at some point.
On the other hand, I am pleased that bar staff are included in the bill. They also have to challenge customers on a range of issues, including whether people are already under the influence, and the range of issues has increased because of Covid. I have been in a number of bars and restaurants since the fuller lockdown was eased in mid-July, and they all varied in how they interpreted the regulations. On the whole, I have been impressed by the staff checking age ID, recording contact details and ensuring that masks are worn at appropriate times.
The most significant factor that I have not seen being enforced relates to groups of younger men who are all out together for a meal or a pint. It is pretty clear that they are from different households, but they are all round the one table with no social distancing, and there is no intervention from hospitality staff. I have seen groups of five right up to 11. I hope that the bill will encourage staff to be able to challenge such behaviour.
At paragraph 43, the report says:
“Police Scotland said that ... there would be no significant change in how” it goes about its business. That might be because there is already an overlap with existing law. However, it seems that the police are having to prioritise the most serious cases. As a result, as paragraph 72 says, there is a lack of reporting, with only 26 per cent of retailers who experience abuse reporting the incidents to the police.
We have a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation. Lack of reporting might mean that the police do not see the full scale of the problem. However, given the volume of incidents, the police inevitably have to prioritise. I suspect that that will always be the case.
A valid point is made at paragraph 59, in that we do not want to lower the threshold of criminality too much. I think that the minister used the word “discretion” in her speech. Criminalising young people for nuisance behaviour might not be the best long-term solution for anyone. Labour argued against criminalising young people in other circumstances—for example, in relation to the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012. On balance, I agree that we should tighten up on what is criminal, and then it is up to the police, the courts, the third sector and others to work out the best remedy in the individual circumstances.
Overall, I support what the bill is trying to do. I remain a little sceptical about how quickly it will have an impact and how great its impact will be, but I am certainly happy to support it at this stage.
I join colleagues in congratulating Daniel Johnson on getting his bill to Parliament and this stage. It is clear that there are more discussion and negotiation to be had, but
Covid-19 has really brought to the fore how vital retail workers are to all of us—not just to our economy but to our day-to-day lives. I thank colleagues for raising that fact consistently throughout the debate.
I commend retail workers for their capacity to adapt to new circumstances and for their professional and warm approach to keeping us all going. It has not been easy for them. Earlier in the month, I visited Scotmid in Portobello and heard first hand from staff there about the challenges that they have had to deal with over the past few months, about how important it has been for them to make their customers feel safe, and about their role in supporting local residents.
As several colleagues have mentioned, the ACS sent us a briefing. It highlights the fact that 20 per cent of independent retailers have experienced violence. That is simply unacceptable. Even more worrying than that is that it highlighted that robberies and use of weapons are on the increase. That cannot be acceptable in Scotland today.
Many members have highlighted USDAW’s freedom from fear survey, which was carried out before the pandemic. It reported that more than six in 10 retail workers had experienced verbal abuse, that a third had been threatened by a customer, and that there were more than 15 assaults every day on Scotland’s shop workers. That is a shocking statistic. Although they have been designated key workers throughout the pandemic, retail workers have not stopped facing abuse for simply doing their day-to-day job. As
Daniel Johnson highlighted, the level of abuse has doubled during the pandemic.
As several members have commented, retail workers are among the lowest-paid staff in our society, but they have significant responsibilities when it comes to enforcing the law. Several colleagues have mentioned that that has been one of the trigger points.
We have the chance to pass the bill through to the next parliamentary stage to drive real change, offer real protection to shop workers, and get the detailed provisions in the bill right.
One comment that I found interesting was about the low levels of reporting to the police of the abuse that retail workers face. It was highlighted that criminal prosecution depends on the employee and the employer reporting the case and that that simply does not happen often. That needs to change, and the bill needs to empower that change.
If enacted, the bill would make abusing retail workers a separate offence. That would not only protect retail workers; it would also raise awareness and encourage reporting. There has been an interesting debate about that this afternoon. With the increased provision of closed-circuit television in shops, we are better able to see evidence in order for prosecutions to take place. As almost every member has said, nobody should face abuse simply for doing their job, upholding the law, and serving customers. The bill will be key to ensuring that that becomes a reality.
The points that have been made about the importance of changing attitudes were powerful. Several colleagues mentioned that. We need cultural change and respect for retail workers, so public messaging is important. I hope that the minister will commit to that in her summing-up speech. There are things that the Scottish Government could do that would help to give that permission and set the bar higher.
Let us be clear: our shop workers urgently need the bill. I join colleagues in thanking USDAW for its fantastic campaigning, which has gone on for some time, and I thank all constituents throughout the country who have written to us to support the bill and help us to get to where we are today.
Let us support the bill and take a step to powerful legislation that will change people’s lives for the better.
It goes without question that no one should face violent abuse or untoward behaviour at their place of work. Sadly, however, violence against shop workers is far too common. I pay tribute to Daniel Johnson and recognise all the work that he has put in to get the bill to this stage.
Daniel Johnson said that
“unions and employers are of one view”, and that the pandemic has increased incidents—in particular, due to the enforcement of safety measures. That is deeply concerning. Ash Denham highlighted that many perpetrators were under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and that, commonly, when identification was being checked, such behaviours began to come to the surface. Research that was carried out by the Scottish Retail Consortium estimated that 10 attacks are made on retail workers in Scotland every single day. Liam McArthur highlighted that every corner of Scotland has problems, even his native Orkney.
When I worked in a shop in Dundee, I would face threats and abuse on a regular basis. Liam Kerr spoke about his similar experiences when he was a retail worker. The Scottish Grocers Federation found that 99 per cent of the workers whom it surveyed had experienced violence—a point that was highlighted by Alison Harris, who said that it is just not right.
It is not only the physical violence that causes harm. Many workers suffer mental health issues as a result of attacks, and that is not to mention the fear that their families, friends and colleagues might feel. It has therefore been encouraging to hear members affirming their commitment to this simple commonsense proposal in today’s debate: shop workers have the right to work in a safe environment, free from harm and the fear of harm.
Jackie Baillie spoke about her anger that so many workers are facing abuse just for doing their jobs. She also said that she had not been asked for ID for a number of years. I have to tell her that if she walked into a shop that I was working in, I would, without hesitation, ask for identification. [
Let us remember the valuable contribution that shop workers make to our communities, which has been apparent to everyone these past months. Shop workers have been essential in keeping the country fed, maintaining access to medications and ensuring that life can go on as normally as possible. They have taken on new duties—for example, in monitoring health and social distancing regulations—on top of existing legal obligations, such as to do with age-related sales.
Shop workers being asked to carry out those duties creates potential flashpoints. I therefore believe that, because the law places that burden on shop workers, it also has a duty to protect them. Annabelle Ewing highlighted that point in her speech, and Michelle Ballantyne cited evidence from the Co-operative Group, saying that workers feel that no one cares. Today, Parliament has shown that we do care.
Speaking on behalf of the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee, Gordon Lindhurst highlighted concerns regarding the scope of, and definitions in, the bill, but acknowledged the need for action in this area. Andy Wightman described the bill as “a worthy and welcome” introduction. As he will, we will support the general principles.
It is worth noting that both the Scottish Retail Consortium and the Association of Convenience Stores cite sentencing as a common concern; therefore, we must do more to strengthen sentences. Just as there is as scope to go further, we must also ensure that the bill gets the basics right. Arguably, none is more important than encouraging people to report attacks. The FSB’s research has shown that just one in 10 firms does so. We must also reflect on where other issues might arise. For example, “obstruction and hindering” have already been removed due to concerns about an overlap with existing offences.
Stage 2 will be an opportunity to explore and discuss the issues in more detail. I look forward to doing so.
I thank all members who have contributed to this debate on an important issue. It is clear that we all agree that the abuse of a retail worker is totally unacceptable, and I encourage anybody who has been affected by such criminal behaviour—no matter whether they work in a large retail store or in a local corner shop—to report the matter to the police. As Gordon Lindhurst said, there are times when the customer is not right. Bob Doris noted that there is a problem that must be tackled. Kenny Gibson reminded us that retail workers have played an invaluable role in society during Covid and that they will continue to do so.
Unfortunately, it appears that it is, at times, too easy to take such valuable work for granted and for people to show anger when they cannot get what they want when they want it. That should never happen. It is important that retail workers are recognised for their valuable contribution to our society and that they are always given the respect that they deserve.
We have learned a few things about members. Jackie Baillie would really like to have her age verified the next time she is at the shops, buying an age-restricted product—I will not say which. I am sure that someone watching the debate will oblige her the next time she is at the shops. We also learned that Bob Doris used to sell sports socks and macaroons and that Liam Kerr used to be a shop worker.
His mention of that reminded me that I worked in a fish and chip shop when I was 17. I worked late into the night, sometimes until 2 in the morning. On one occasion, a customer came in and—I cannot remember what the altercation was about—he picked up the salt shaker and threw it at me. It hit me on the shoulder, which was shocking at the time. I have every sympathy with shop workers who feel under attack or who are abused when they are just trying to carry out their work.
I will take the opportunity to address a point that Liam Kerr made. As the member knows, the presumption against short sentences is just that: a presumption. It is not a ban, and the courts can impose a short sentence should they wish to.
As we all know, laws have a key role to play but they are not the answer to everything. That is why the Scottish Government is committed to developing an awareness-raising campaign to coincide with the implementation of the bill. The details of such a campaign will be developed in conjunction with the Association of Convenience Stores and others in order to develop proposals for what could be delivered collaboratively to create an effective awareness-raising campaign.
Such a campaign would be designed to support the protection of retail workers across Scotland, encouraging them to report any instances of abuse, threats or violence. It is right that the campaign will focus on those smaller convenience stores where individual retail workers, perhaps working alone and late in the evening, can be at risk while they serve the needs of their communities.
I have been engaging directly with the main supermarket chains to understand their corporate policies and the approaches that they have in place to protect staff at work—and I have been encouraged by what I have learned. For example, mandatory training courses to deal with such incidents are available to staff and managers; staff are encouraged to report all incidents to their manages, and stores are being encouraged to report all incidents of violence and abuse to the police; panic alarms and good-quality CCTV are standard, as is the presence of security guards; and counselling is available for staff who are affected by offending behaviour. There are also regular calls with other retailers to monitor hotspots across the industry, and repeat offenders are excluded from stores.
I am saddened that such measures are necessary in Scotland today. However, it is important that all retail staff feel safe and that there are effective policies in place to ensure their safety. I hope that the bill will reduce the prevalence of such criminal conduct and will help all retail workers to know that we take the matter seriously and that we want them to feel safer in their jobs.
I will do so gladly.
I begin by thanking everyone who has taken part in the debate. It has been encouraging to hear such a broad range of views and to have such constructive engagement from across the chamber. I know that hundreds of thousands of retail workers will be heartened to know that we are taking the issue—
I know that those retail workers will be heartened to know that we take the issues that they face daily seriously.
Before I go much further I would like to restate my thanks to the clerks in the non-Government bills unit. It is a special feature of the Scottish Parliament that we have an enlightened process and approach to enable individual members to initiate legislation. It means that each of us has a genuine opportunity to do that. It is an opportunity that we take seriously, because it is not one that is enjoyed by all parliamentarians in all Parliaments. We should all recognise that and give thanks to the clerks in the NGBU.
The minister alluded to one of the big points in the debate, which is the broad reach of retail work. So many members told stories of their own experiences in retail work and the jobs that they have had in the past. Perhaps that should not be a surprise. As we heard from Jackie Baillie, more than 300,000 people work in retail—it is the single largest area of employment in the private sector—and more than 100,000 workers in the hospitality industry will benefit from the bill, which amounts to more than 400,000 people. For many people, retail work is their first job in the workplace and indeed, the job that they take in retirement. It affects so many different people.
The other broad point to come out of the debate, which Gordon Lindhurst made well in his speech, is that there is a cultural issue at stake. The concept of the customer always being right or being king has been taken too far. It has been interpreted by some as meaning that they can have a go simply because the person that they are speaking to is wearing a name badge and standing behind the counter. If there is one thing that we need to tackle with the bill—and I hope by taking other steps—it is that pernicious idea in our society.
I am glad that Michelle Ballantyne mentioned Pete Cheema’s evidence, because he spoke so movingly about the issues that he faces. He also spoke eloquently about the need to put the offence into law and the difference that a law can make. That is why we must at act.
Perhaps one of the most interesting issues is underreporting, which was raised by several members. There are several things to say on the topic. First, we need to look at how the police respond to retail crime. I have huge regard for the police. I have been out on several occasions with local police officers and I regularly meet my police inspector; I have good connections at all levels of the police service in Scotland. However, there is an issue with the way in which the police respond to retail crime. I have been in the presence of officers who have said that they cannot prioritise retail crime such as shoplifting because of the value of the goods concerned. When it gets to the point where a police response has a retail price on it, we have an issue. However, that is beyond the scope of what I can deal with as an individual member of the Scottish Parliament. Although I can introduce a bill, I cannot instruct the police or take other steps that other people usefully and constructively can do in relation to communication and awareness raising. However, I encourage the Government to take those steps.
Several members questioned whether the bill is necessary. I raised that point directly with the police. In 2012, the Scottish Parliament passed the bill that became the Police and Fire Reform (Scotland) Act 2012. I encourage members to read section 90 of the act, which makes it an offence to obstruct or assault a police officer. I asked Police Scotland what the usefulness of that provision was. The police were very clear: it is about the seriousness of the crime. It is quite possible to prosecute someone for assaulting a police officer without that section of the act. However, the police were clear that the act is vital because the police are charged with upholding the law. That is the same point that I make in regard to retail workers: we ask them to uphold the law and therefore they must have the specific protection of the law. It is an established principle in law that, when people have those duties, they have specific protections through specific offences.
I thought that Andy Wightman and Liam Kerr raised the most interesting points, which were about whether the bill breaks new ground and how it will operate. To some extent, Andy Wightman’s exploration of the aggravation point demonstrates how it will work. First and foremost, it will require sentencers to take such crimes more seriously and to issue sentences that are commensurate with the crimes. That is not to say that that cannot happen now, but the new law will ensure that it does happen.
Andy Wightman’s point about a general aggravation is interesting and it is one that I considered. Again, because of the restrictions in lodging a member’s bill, I decided to limit my scope to make it very clear. I was worried about the aggravation applying to other crimes and having unintended consequences. However, I absolutely agree that future legislation imposing legal obligations must take into consideration the consequences when people do not comply and ensure that there are adequate measures for compliance.
Liam Kerr asked whether the bill expands the scope or purchase of the law. I believe that the aggravation point answers that. He also asked whether the penalties were sufficient. I simply say to him that the penalties as they are set out are exactly the same as they are in the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Act 2005.
I hope that we will pass the bill at stage 1 and that members will take the opportunity to do so, because tomorrow Alex Norris MP, who is a Labour colleague in the House of Commons, will introduce the second reading of his bill, which does very similar things. We have the opportunity to lead the way, as we have led the way in the past on the smoking ban, which was adopted elsewhere and was controversial at the time, and on minimum unit pricing, which was also controversial.
At decision time, let us lead the way again. Let us give shop workers the protections that they need and that they deserve. I urge all members to support the motion and my bill at stage 1.