Protection of Workers (Retail and Age-restricted Goods and Services) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3

– in the Scottish Parliament on 19th January 2021.

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Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour

Our next item of business is a stage 3 debate on motion S5M-23606, in the name of Daniel Johnson, on the Protection of Workers (Retail and Age-restricted Goods and Services) (Scotland) Bill. Before the debate begins, I am required under the standing orders to decide whether any provision in the bill relates to a protected subject matter; that is, whether it modifies the electoral system and franchise for Scottish parliamentary elections. In this case, my view is that no provision of the bill does any such thing. Therefore, it does not require a supermajority in order to be passed at stage 3.

Photo of Daniel Johnson Daniel Johnson Labour

I will start the debate with not my own words, but those aimed at Jackie McKenzie, a petrol station worker who simply asked someone to wear a mask. For doing so, she was threatened with the following words:

“I’d get a test if I were you. I’ve got Covid.”

Sadly, her experience is far from unique. Shop staff have been spat at for asking customers to social distance, and stock has been deliberately smashed in retaliation for item limits being imposed. Nor is Jackie’s experience—and that of hundreds and thousands of retail workers—confined to lockdown and the pandemic. Jackie told me that for her, as for countless other shop workers, abuse is now seen as just part of the job—something that each worker is expected to handle every single day.

According to the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, 15 retail workers are assaulted on an average day in Scotland. In a given year, one in three will be threatened and three in five will be abused. Those figures have all doubled since the onset of Covid.

As a former retailer and someone who is still connected to the industry, as a member of the trade union USDAW, as a member of the Co-operative Party and as a Labour MSP, I mean not just to make a declaration of interests; I mean to make a declaration of intent. Violence, threats and abuse should not be and should never be just part of anyone’s job. Let us make the bill and the vote on it tonight the first step in saying that enough is enough, that these acts of violence must end and that, when shop workers do their job, keeping us safe and upholding the law, they will have the fullest possible protection of the law. That is what my bill seeks to deliver.

As well as creating a new statutory offence of assaulting, threatening or abusing a retail worker, it creates a statutory aggravation to that offence if it occurs while enforcing a statutory age restriction. The aggravation element of the bill stems from a basic principle: that when people are tasked with upholding the law, they should have the protection of the law.

Shop workers are personally liable for upholding the law regarding age-restricted items. Failure to ask for proof of age can result in fines or imprisonment. However, it is a sad fact that the denial of a sale after a proof-of-age check is the single biggest trigger factor for dreadful incidents—or it was until Covid-19 and the enforcement of social distancing overtook it.

The bill recognises the broad range of contexts in which age-restricted goods and services are sold as well as the changing nature of retail, in that people are now as likely to buy online and have goods delivered as they are to make in-store purchases. The bill defines retail work beyond the retail context, covering those working in bars, restaurants and hotels. Similarly, it will cover those delivering online orders, who are required to ask for identification when dropping off age-restricted items.

The bill will have two additional benefits. It will act as a clear signal of the seriousness with which such crimes will be regarded and it will ensure that we are able to measure such crimes, which it is currently difficult to do. We are able to do so through the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Act 2005, which is used on average 300 times every single year, but it cannot stand alone, so I was pleased to hear confirmation from the Minister for Community Safety at stage 1 of the bill that the Scottish Government is committed to developing an awareness-raising campaign to coincide with the implementation of the bill. That is vital to ensure the success of the legislation and I would be interested to hear about any further details that the minister might have.

I thank everyone who has worked so hard to get the bill to stage 3. I thank the members and clerks of the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee for their diligent stage 1 report. I also thank fellow members from across the chamber for their input and co-operation. I would particularly like to thank the minister, Ash Denham, and acknowledge her constructive and productive engagement on behalf of the Scottish Government. I offer my particular thanks to my trade union, USDAW, as well as to GMB, Unite and the other trade unions that supported the bill, along with the Co-operative Party. I also thank retail groups such as the Scottish Retail Consortium and the Scottish Grocers Federation for being behind the bill from the very start and for demonstrating the consensus between workers and employers on the issue.

Above all else, I say thank you to the thousands of shop workers who have supported the initiative. I say thank you to them for the job that they do, keeping us fed, keeping us safe and upholding the law. Finally, I had better remember to move the motion in my name.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees that the Protection of Workers (Retail and Age-restricted Goods and Services) (Scotland) Bill be passed.

Photo of Ash Denham Ash Denham Scottish National Party

In the short time that is available to me for the stage 3 debate, I too will begin by thanking retail workers right across Scotland for their outstanding contribution to helping to get communities through these extremely challenging times. I appreciate all the hard work and commitment of those working in the retail sector in Scotland. That is even more the case now, because of the increased number of infections that we have seen across Scotland and the pressure that that puts on us all, including those within the retail sector who are serving communities.

I thank the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee for its excellent scrutiny of the bill, the clerks to the committee and all those who gave evidence. I also want to give credit to Daniel Johnson for managing to navigate the member’s bill process, which I am sure is not easy, with help from the officials in the non-Government bills unit. It is no mean feat to get a member’s bill to this point, so I congratulate Daniel on managing to do it.

The bill has progressed through scrutiny in the midst of Covid-19 and that has undoubtedly helped to shape how that scrutiny has been undertaken. At all times, but especially at the moment, workers in retail roles should feel safe, supported and protected by our criminal laws. Although they are protected by a wide range of existing criminal laws, many have not felt safe or protected when exposed to verbal abuse, threatening and abusive behaviour and physical attacks. There is no excuse for such behaviour and criminal laws have a key role to play.

I fully support law enforcement agencies taking robust enforcement action to deal with any attacks and threats that are made against retail workers, if those agencies consider that to be necessary in any given case. I hope that the bill, when passed, will make the general public think more about their behaviour when they interact with retail workers, especially in the current difficult and challenging times.

The bill will ensure that the seriousness of offending against retail workers is highlighted through a specific offence. The court, when sentencing, will assess whether higher sentences are required in the context of age verification. The bill will also allow for better data to be collected over time. The parliamentary process has resulted in an amended bill that now strikes the appropriate balance.

Legislation has a key role, but it is not the answer to everything. That is why the Scottish Government is developing an awareness-raising campaign that will highlight the importance of reports being made when retail workers are attacked, threatened or abused during their work. I will be able to give members more information on that shortly.

The Scottish Government will support the bill at decision time, and I urge all MSPs to do likewise.

Photo of Maurice Golden Maurice Golden Conservative

The debate is a fitting opportunity to recognise the enormous contribution that retail workers have made to keep Scotland going during the pandemic. Throughout lockdowns, they have kept us fed and supplied with medication and have often provided people with their only human contact. We owe them all a huge debt of gratitude.

Sadly, it is far too common for retail workers to face abusive and even violent behaviour. One statistic in particular illustrates just how common it is: the Scottish Grocers Federation found that an astonishing 99 per cent of workers had experienced incidents of violence or physical abuse. By anyone’s measure, that is a staggering number. Given that, according to USDAW, the average shop worker is abused, threatened or assaulted more than 20 times a year, there is a clear need to act.

It has been encouraging to see support from across the chamber for greater protection, even though there have been points of disagreement. The inclusion of the provision on obstructing or hindering a worker would have created a new offence, which risked diluting the special protections that are given to emergency workers and would have overlapped with existing offences. I am pleased that, now that that provision has been removed, the Scottish National Party can join us in supporting the bill.

However, there is a dangerous irony here, because the maximum penalty in the bill is 12 months’ imprisonment or a £10,000 fine, but the SNP’s presumption against short sentences means that, in effect, there is a ban on sending anyone to prison who is convicted under the new law.

Photo of Ash Denham Ash Denham Scottish National Party

Does the member accept that it is patently evident that a presumption is not a ban?

Photo of Maurice Golden Maurice Golden Conservative

It is patently evident that the SNP is soft on crime and soft on criminals.

I commend Daniel Johnson for introducing the bill and for the exemplary way in which he has guided it through Parliament, but we should remember that Labour supported the presumption against short sentences. I raise that point because I support the bill and want it to succeed. That position is shared by the Association of Convenience Stores, which is fully supportive of the bill but which has concerns over sentencing.

Photo of Daniel Johnson Daniel Johnson Labour

I wonder whether I might return us to a point of consensus. I thank Maurice Golden for his complimentary remarks. Will he get in touch with his colleagues in Westminster and urge them to support the similar moves there by my colleague Alex Norris?

Photo of Maurice Golden Maurice Golden Conservative

I am sure that my colleagues who ably represent Scotland will look favourably on any reasonable proposed legislation that is put before the house, as they always do while representing Scotland and standing up for Scotland’s interests.

If the bill is to act as a deterrent, it must not be seen as soft justice. As I noted at stage 1, sentencing alone is not enough, and a serious look needs to be taken at how the number of incidents can be cut through rehabilitation programmes for offenders who are dependent on alcohol and drugs, especially given the rising trend in incidents that involve intoxication.

Finally, perhaps the most important point when it comes to tackling abusive behaviour over the long term is that we must ensure that incidents are properly reported. We have heard much about the low rate of reporting, which has previously been raised by me and others, such as the Federation of Small Businesses. According to its research, 28 per cent of businesses have experienced threatening behaviour but just one in 10 reports it. The hope is that the creation of a new statutory offence will provide greater legal clarity and thus victims will be encouraged to report incidents. That will be crucial for monitoring the effectiveness of the bill and for recognising where any further interventions, such as adjusting sentencing, might be necessary.

I thank Daniel Johnson for introducing the bill. It enjoys cross-party support because it seeks to do what is right—to protect shop workers, who keep this country going, and to allow them to work free from fear and violence—and the Scottish Conservatives very much look forward to supporting it.

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour

I want to say a huge thank you to Daniel Johnson and the Scottish Government for coming together and making sure that the Parliament focused on the needs and rights of retail workers, who are key workers.

Fifty-six per cent of retail workers are women. On the whole, they are among the lowest-paid workers in the country, and many of them have no unions to turn to. I believe that the bill sends out the message that retail workers are important in our economy and should be protected.

Matt Hancock said that the Covid-19 death rate among male shop workers was 75 per cent higher than it was among the general population, and 60 per cent higher among women who work in retail. That is what persuaded him to introduce the wearing of masks in shops.

At Christmas, many shop workers do not even get 24 hours off, as they have to come back for the boxing day sales. Work is being done to recognise the conditions that shop workers often work under, but there is a lot more work to be done there.

At the start of the pandemic, when most of the country retreated to the safety of their homes, retail workers rolled up their sleeves and got on with the task of keeping shops open for the rest of us. Those who work in pharmacies, supermarkets, post offices, jewellery shops and clothing stores have been vital in ensuring that the country has been kept running from day to day as smoothly as can be expected in a national crisis, and they deserve our gratitude and respect.

However, although most of the public appreciate the work that shop workers do, unfortunately, as we have heard, some do not. I was appalled to find out that, on average, 15 retail workers are assaulted every day in Scotland. Throughout the pandemic, I have been shocked to read about some of the abuse that shop workers have faced. In the freedom from fear survey by the retail trade union, USDAW, which was my first union, more than 2,000 retail staff indicated that abuse towards shop workers had risen during the pandemic, with 76 per cent of those who were questioned saying that abuse had been worse than normal and more than half saying that they had been threatened by a customer. That is totally unacceptable. There have also been outrageous reports of workers being told by customers that they have the virus. Daniel Johnson told us about the case of Jackie. One national retailer experienced more than 100 incidents a day of threats of coughing and spitting.

It is clear that such abuse cannot continue. It heavily affects the mental and physical wellbeing of front-line shop workers, and it is understandable that some say that they feel anxious about going into work.

In late November last year, a Co-op spokesperson said that violent abuse and antisocial behaviour had become normalised and was at unprecedented levels. On average, the Co-op reports 133 incidents of abuse a day. Across the UK, the supermarket has invested £70 million in security measures for staff, including body-worn cameras. It is shocking that the abuse has been so severe that it has felt the need to do that.

Such antisocial behaviour is unacceptable, and some of it has been fuelled by conspiracy theories. One supermarket worker said:

“A couple have behaved really awfully—we had one gentleman come in with no mask, filming the store, shouting abuse, telling us we were all robots for the government.”

Sadly, there are many workers who have come to believe that the abuse that they experience from the public at work is just part of the job, and the abuse often goes unreported to the police. Hopefully, the bill will create a public perception that retail workers will no longer be fair game for abuse. The police will have the long-overdue necessary powers to come down hard on those who assault workers.

I am delighted that the trade unions USDAW and the GMB, which is my union, and the Scottish Co-operative Party, as well as the Scottish Retail Consortium and the Scottish Grocers Federation, are supporting the bill, and have done so much work to promote it.

Anyone who has had to interact regularly with the public during the pandemic is already exposing themselves to a degree of personal risk of contracting the virus. On top of that, they should not have to fear verbal or physical abuse at work.

It was reported yesterday that UK Minister for COVID Vaccine Deployment is hoping to target key workers, such as police officers, shop workers and teachers, in the next phase of the vaccine roll-out. Although it is difficult to decide where people should be placed in the queue to get the vaccine, whatever we decide, shop workers are heroes in the pandemic, and I know that the whole Parliament is already united to protect them.

Photo of John Finnie John Finnie Green

I am delighted to contribute to the debate. Although I have not been involved in scrutiny of the bill, I have watched its progress and am pleased to see it reach this point.

Many of us will recall representations that USDAW—the shop workers union—has made to Parliament, often in the run-up to Christmas, about the terms and conditions that their members find themselves working under. It has done so to highlight a particularly important time for workers, but the union has not been neglectful of the need to have a safe working environment throughout the year. The bill will play an important role in that.

Every worker has the right to a safe and healthy workplace, but we have heard a number of shocking statistics. It is interesting that the documents that accompany the bill talk about the aim to give greater protection. I recall a conversation with Daniel Johnson when he was seeking signatures in support of the bill, during which he explained why he thought that that is important. It is about obligations that the state places on individuals to act on its behalf, and it is a compelling argument. One example is Scotland’s unfortunate relationship with alcohol, and the role that retail workers play in the associated harm reduction. If they are carrying out obligations on behalf of the state, it is quite right that the state should afford them the appropriate protections.

The pandemic has highlighted the importance of our retail workers, so I join colleagues in thanking them for all their efforts. The bill is about workers in shops, bars and restaurants and the challenges that they face—on top of having to work in what, on many occasions, are not the best working conditions.

I commend Daniel Johnson for his tireless work in getting us to this point, and I appreciate the volume of work that has been involved.

The Parliament is at its best when, following the most detailed scrutiny—I know that many issues were stress tested throughout early consideration of the bill—an agreed form of words is put in place. That makes good law that is needed and will work for our communities.

I will not rehash all the statistics that colleagues have mentioned, but I note that I saw the USDAW briefing today and think that its having congratulated Daniel Johnson is entirely appropriate. Stewart Forrest of USDAW talked about shop workers having been

“on the frontline throughout the coronavirus crisis, helping to ensure our communities remain fed, despite the risks of contracting the virus.”

For that pivotal role in our communities, they deserve not simply our thanks and our admiration, but the appropriate level of protection in their workplaces.

My reflections come from my being a former shop worker and a former police officer. I am aware of how some shoplifting gangs intimidate workers by using threats of violence because they know the workers’ addresses. Some of the graphic examples that are given in the USDAW briefing are of the most unacceptable circumstances for anyone to be working in, particularly given that many people assume that a shop is a relatively safe place of work.

One of the quotes in the USDAW briefing is that the

“Pandemic has brought out the worst behaviour” in folk. However, I think that it has also brought out the best behaviour in folk and has, I hope, caused some people to evaluate what is important—such as their being able to put a loaf of bread on the table and who gets it there—and what is not.

I conclude by thanking everyone who has got us to this point—in particular, Daniel Johnson, who in a very short time will be rightly lauded for his contribution to supporting a key workforce and making things better. USDAW has described it as

“ground-breaking legislation to protect retail staff”.

I congratulate him on a worthy and well-earned outcome for all his hard work.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

As others have done, I congratulate Daniel Johnson and his team on their having reached this stage. The amount of work that goes into taking forward a members’ bill is not always recognised. It is a process of which the Parliament can be proud, but it is certainly no easy undertaking. From our work together on the Justice Committee, I know how committed Daniel Johnson is to using the powers of the Parliament to improve the lives of the people whom we represent. That principle is very well reflected in the bill.

That is not to say that I did not initially have reservations about some of what was being proposed. I expressed them at stage 1 and directly to Daniel Johnson, albeit that I was happy to add my name as a signatory to the bill. The draft bill was certainly flawed, but it deserved to be consulted on, scrutinised and improved. I am pleased that that has happened, and I pay tribute to the committee for the part that it played.

Although the arguments for the protections that are contained in the bill were being put long before Covid came to dominate our lives, the pandemic has certainly helped, as others have said, to reinforce and crystallise the case. As in other sectors that are often unrecognised or underappreciated, the true worth and value of retail—and of the people who work in it—have been demonstrated over the past 10 months.

Shops have always been central to the communities that revolve around them. However, that has come into sharper focus of late. In Orkney and, I suspect, in constituencies the length and breadth of the country, local shops have proved to be a genuine lifeline, with retail workers going above and beyond in order to serve their communities—in particular, the people who are most vulnerable and most at risk.

However, as I have said during stage 1, the experience of local retail workers in the early stages of the pandemic was too often not positive. Instead of thanks, they regularly faced abuse, threats and other unacceptable behaviour from some customers. I accept that they are a small minority, but that has been deeply unpleasant, all the same. Panic buying created problems where they should not exist, and staff who were doing their best met abuse for simply doing their jobs.

I am thankful that much of that appears to have died away, and I think that the majority of people have taken steps to redress the balance by expressing their gratitude. Nevertheless, the situation has highlighted weaknesses in the current protections that the bill can, I hope, go some way towards addressing.

The committee heard not only disturbing evidence of the violence, threats and aggression that are faced by retail workers; it also heard concerning reports about reluctance to report such incidents to the police for fear that they would not be taken seriously. That is not acceptable and it needs to change.

When it comes to improvements to the bill, I am pleased that changes have made much clearer the behaviour that is being targeted by the legislation. That clarity will be helpful in improving public understanding and will, in turn, help to ensure greater effectiveness of the protections that are being put in place. Of course, passing legislation will not in itself prevent such problems from arising; however, it can help to raise awareness and to offer greater confidence to retail workers that the concerns that they raise will be taken seriously and acted on appropriately. Those would be no small achievements.

I do not quite understand Maurice Golden’s determination, despite Scotland’s already obscenely high rate of incarceration, to stuff our already overcrowded prisons yet fuller.

I finish by warmly congratulating Daniel Johnson once again, by thanking retail workers in Orkney and across the country very much, and by confirming that Scottish Liberal Democrat members look forward to voting to support the bill at decision time.

The Presiding Officer:

Thank you very much. Before I call Daniel Johnson, I call James Kelly.

Photo of James Kelly James Kelly Labour

Thank you for making time to allow me a brief contribution, Presiding Officer.

The point of Parliament is to make a difference. Shortly, in passing Daniel Johnson’s bill, Parliament will make a great deal of difference to retail workers throughout the country who have, as other members have said, been subjected to unacceptable levels of abuse and attack. I congratulate Daniel Johnson on his success in bringing the bill through Parliament. A significant amount of work was involved.

I was lucky enough to be with Daniel at the Scotmid Co-op on Leith Walk when he launched his proposal. He has been through an arduous campaign to see the bill progress to its conclusion. He has been ably supported by USDAW and the Co-operative Party, which very much welcome tonight’s progress.

As members have said, the pandemic has shone a light on the important role of retail workers, who have done a fantastic job of looking after people—particularly vulnerable people—in our communities. They have ensured that people get their shopping and are safe in shops.

We rely on retail workers to ensure that public health regulations on tobacco and alcohol are followed. That job has been particularly challenging throughout the pandemic. In some instances, unruly customers have been challenging staff as they seek to keep customers safe by making sure that everyone wears a mask, for example. Such behaviour is totally unacceptable.

It is right that we will pass the bill at decision time. It will make a difference and it will be welcomed by retail workers. It will give them protection. Retail workers have the support not just of the Parliament but of all communities throughout Scotland.

Photo of Daniel Johnson Daniel Johnson Labour

I will carry on with a few more thank yous. First, I thank every member who has spoken in the debate. The process has been consensual and the debate has been interesting, if brief.

I thank my office team: Alan Irvine, Allana Hoggard and Michael Adamson. I also thank Stuart Tooley, who is no longer in my employment but was critical at the inception of the bill process. I also want to thank some of the people who worked so hard behind the scenes: the support and advice of Mary Dinsdale, Kenny Htet-Khin and Andrew Mylne, from the non-Government bills unit, were critical in getting the bill to this stage.

I know that we are not meant to mention special advisers, let alone praise them, so I hope that I do not get John McFarlane into trouble when I thank him for the huge job that he did in facilitating constructive dialogue and engagement with the Government—[

Interruption

.] I will leave it there.

The process has taught me a lesson about how politics can work. We sometimes do ourselves a disservice by presenting disagreement and hostility in the chamber although, in committee rooms and in the garden lobby, we exchange ideas and work together constructively. We have certainly worked constructively on the bill and I thank every member who engaged with me on it. We should all reflect on how we could present the more constructive element of our politics. If we always present to Scotland the politics of division, we can only ever expect to be confronted with division in return.

Not just this debate, but the whole bill process has demonstrated that we care about retail workers and how they are treated and that we value the sector. The Covid crisis brought their work into sharp focus; for too long, retail and retail workers were taken for granted. I hope that the bill will act as a vital step towards correcting that and prompting a wider rethink.

We must end the assumption of ministers and legislators of all stripes and colours that public policy can be implemented free, at the press of a till button. There has been an assumption that it is quick, easy and cost free to legislate in that way, but that approach has all too often led to confrontation for retail workers. When additional restrictions are put in place and requirements are placed on retail workers to uphold the law, there must always be the means of enforcing compliance. My bill will improve the situation for workers by making clearer the law, the seriousness of penalties and the responsibility of the police when crimes are reported.

There are more fundamental social issues at play. There is a sense that someone who stands behind a counter and wears a name badge is fair game. That deeper social issue must be tackled. The bill is an important step towards giving retail workers the attention that they deserve.

Retail needs that attention now more than ever. The industry is in crisis. Even before anyone had heard of Covid, high street shop units were being left empty as retailers struggled to compete with online sellers such as Amazon.

Since the pandemic began, the sector has found itself policing social distancing at the same time as lockdown has accelerated those pre-existing threats to the industry. In the past five years, more than 10,000 jobs have been lost from retail in Scotland, and some fear that, throughout the UK, as many as 250,000 could go as a result of the pandemic. Any other industry facing that level of disruption and job losses would have ministerial task forces, support funds and action plans.

However the industry emerges from the pandemic, it needs to be taken seriously by the Parliament and Government. The bill, if passed this evening, will not by itself solve all the issues of violence, threats and abuse suffered by shop workers, but it will create a starting point for tackling those issues, and perhaps it will send a signal to those working in the sector that, at last, they are being listened to and not being taken for granted. If passed, the bill will show Scotland leading the way in protecting retail workers, and attention will naturally turn to my Labour colleague Alex Norris MP’s efforts to pass similar legislation at Westminster.

Let us lead the way. Let us mark our thanks to shop workers for the work that they do. Let us vote and ensure that violence, threats and abuse are not part of the job; not for shop workers, not for anyone.