I beg to move,
That this House
has considered prevention of retail crime.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Robertson. I thank right hon. and hon. Members for coming to this important debate against much competition on a busy day, with the Prime Minister shortly to speak in the main Chamber. I wish to put on record my thanks to the Backbench Business Committee for granting the debate, and to Sir John Hayes and my hon. Friend Steve McCabe for sponsoring it.
I also wish to put on record my thanks to the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers—USDAW—the British Retail Consortium, the Association of Convenience Stores, the National Federation of Retail Newsagents, the Co-op Group, and the Co-operative party for working collaboratively with me on the debate, and for raising this important issue with the Government over the last few weeks and months. Today, I will focus on two key issues: shop theft and, in particular, violence and aggressive behaviour towards shop staff.
I think it will help the House if I begin by giving a flavour of the concerns in the community about how those issues are perceived. There is a range of ways in which we can look at this matter, but I will begin by quoting the British Retail Consortium, which is the trade body for major retailers across the country. The consortium does its own annual survey on retail crime and retail concerns, and its 2018 annual survey showed some key figures that are worth sharing. There were a staggering 42,000 incidents of violence against shop staff in the United Kingdom in the last 12 months; that is 115 a day—11,615 so far this year.
Customer theft, just from BRC members, equates to £636 million in one year—£1.7 million a day. Remember, Mr Robertson, that you, I and every member of society pay those additional costs on the goods that we purchase in store. Fraud costs around £163 million a year. Robbery—the more serious end of shop theft—costs around £15 million a year, as does burglary, and criminal damage to shops costs around £3.4 million.
Those are just the figures from the BRC. The Health and Safety Executive’s crime survey for England and Wales shows a reported 642,000 incidents of violence at work, including many of the issues that we will address today. USDAW, of which I am a proud member, as well as chair of the USDAW group of MPs, does an annual survey of violence and abuse against retail staff. Last year, USDAW surveyed some 6,725 members of staff, 64% of whom said that they had experienced verbal abuse when serving in a store and 40% of whom said that they had been threatened by a customer when serving in a store. Furthermore, USDAW assessed that an average of 280 shop workers are assaulted every day.
One important issue, which I will ask the Minister to focus on, is the triggers of violence and threats to shop staff. USDAW identified that the top triggers are shop theft itself, in terms of apprehending people who are stealing, and critically—I hope the Minister will focus on this in the longer term as well as today—the enforcement of age-related sales. If a member of the public comes in to buy alcohol, they have to be 18; there are also age restrictions on cigarette sales.
I raised age-related sales of knives and acids with the Minister during consideration of the Offensive Weapons Bill, because the legislation was making it an offence. It is not the police, trading standards or the Minister who will uphold the legislation on the frontline; it is the members of staff who face a customer seeking those products. In 22% of cases, age-restricted sales triggered violence, and in 21% of cases, the sale of alcohol triggered violence.
I apologise for missing the very start of my right hon. Friend’s contribution. I have been told by a number of representatives of shops and supermarkets that when shoplifting takes place and is reported to the police, quite often the police are not really interested, and it is down to the shop staff to try to recover the goods. If that message gets out, the problem of shoplifting will only grow.
My right hon. Friend anticipates a later section of my initial contribution, which will be about the police response. I will come to that in due course, but it is a critical point. If shop theft takes place—if a member of staff at the local Co-op sees somebody stealing a bottle of vodka and they say, “Please put that back”, that is one of the major triggers for the shoplifter to engage in verbal abuse or violence.
I have talked about USDAW and the BRC. The Association of Convenience Stores represents some 22,000 shops, the smaller stores that are in every town, village and community in the United Kingdom. It has identified that for those 22,000-plus shops, the cost of retail crime equates to £246 million per year, or £5,308 per store. Critically, that means a crime tax of 7p in the pound on the price that you and I, Mr Robertson, pay for goods. That cost comes from the loss of goods through theft and from the information that has to be provided, through CCTV cameras and in other ways, to prevent those thefts in the first place.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he share my concern about how reductions in the police service have affected response times and confidence in the police? The Central England Co-operative has suffered 18 armed robberies, and its staff are very concerned about how vulnerable not knowing whether the police will turn up for some crimes makes them feel. Clearly, the police will turn up for armed robberies, but there are a great deal of threats and violence against our shop workers.
Given my hon. Friend’s contribution, and that of my right hon. Friend Mark Tami, I will skip a couple of paragraphs in my speech and return to my planned order later.
These rises and these concerns come against a background of reduced police numbers. In 2009-10, I had the great honour of being police Minister for the Labour Government, and when I held that post, the Home Office had 20,000 more police officers than it currently does. That has real impacts: on neighbourhood reassurance first and foremost, and secondly on visibility, but it also has an impact on response times. Obviously, people will respond to higher-level incidents, such as armed robberies—we had one in my constituency, in Flint, only this time last week. Police will respond to those incidents.
However, turning to the Government’s response to incidents of retail theft through the police forces, I will quote John Apter, chairman of the Police Federation. He has acknowledged that shoplifting is not a priority crime for stretched forces; he has said that
“as forces struggle to meet 999-call demand, incidents such as these are increasingly likely not to be attended by officers at all which, as a serving police constable with 26 years’
service, I find quite shocking.”
That backs up the point that my hon. Friend Jim McMahon just made. Thames Valley police has informed its local shops that it will not send officers out to deal with shoplifters who steal less than £100-worth of goods. I do not think that is acceptable, and I do not think that the Home Office believes it is acceptable. In due course, I will return to address that issue in detail, but it is a point that has been raised, so it is important that we discuss it now.
Given what the Association of Convenience Stores has said, what do other people think about this? Let me put some quotes on the table. Paddy Lillis, general secretary of USDAW—the shop workers’ union—has said:
“The idea that shoplifting is a victimless crime is wrong. Theft from shops is often a trigger for violence, threats and abuse against shopworkers. The rising trend in shoplifting is extremely worrying” for his members. Mike Mitchelson, president of the National Federation of Retail Newsagents—one of whose members was murdered in the past month, in a shop in Pinner in north London, because of the type of violence that we are discussing—has said:
“Across the country we are suffering from increasing levels of verbal and physical abuse and it’s important that the full nature…of the problem is understood.”
“Violence against employees remains one of the most pressing issues retailers face,” yet its crime survey once again shows
“an increase in the overall number of incidents.”
James Lowman, chief executive of the ACS said:
“The financial implications of crime are clearly damaging for” local shops, but their urgent priority is tackling
“the impact of violence, abuse and aggression on people working in” communities. He said that “there is no excuse” for that abuse, and it must be stopped.
The Co-op Group retail chief executive has said that nothing is more important than colleagues’ safety. As a result, it has spent £70 million in the last three years on innovative security, crime prevention and colleague safety measures. However, it is clear to the Co-op that it needs support from the police, the judiciary and Parliament to make sure violence against retail workers is not tolerated.
We should be concerned not just about shop theft; violence and abuse against staff working in shops is simply unacceptable, and the Government must address it. The rise in theft is going hand in hand with violence.
It is very important that we also recognise that those shops provide vital services in our communities and on our high streets, which are under a lot of pressure. We as a society have to support businesses and individuals who contribute to our local economies at a time when there is a lot of concern about the future of the communities in which we live.
The vast majority of the convenience stores and local newsagents that have been referred to in the correspondence and representations I have had are one or two-person businesses, or businesses with very few staff. They also have a social function, because they keep an eye on their neighbours. If a person turns up for a bottle of milk every morning and does not on Thursday and Friday, there will be a trigger. The increase in violence and shoplifting is not acceptable, and it is driving a culture that I know the Minister abhors. The turnout in this Chamber shows that there is great concern about it. We must deal with it.
As I said earlier, that rise has happened against the backdrop of a reduction in police numbers and the response to retail theft. A key issue is that many lower-level shop theft incidents—I am not minimising their effect; I mean that they are not armed-robbery level—are fuelled by drug and alcohol addiction. The ACS said:
“Retailers perceive that 50% of the repeat offenders into shops are motivated by a drug or alcohol addiction”.
The three products targeted most by thieves in ACS stores are alcohol because it is alcohol, meat because it is expensive, and confectionary because it is the sort of thing that can be sold quickly on the streets to fuel drug or alcohol issues.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this debate. I know how much he cares about this issue. Many Members will know that, in a previous life, I was a trainee butcher in Tesco for many years. That is where I did all my butchery training. On low-level abuse, one of the things that is not highlighted enough is that this is not just about robbery or abuse; it is also about the customers who come into the store. I remember vividly when I worked on counters that if we did not have a particular type of stock, the customers would feel free to scream abuse at us. There was no response to that; we simply had to take it. I now know that lots of retailers are developing safety training to counter the abuse that staff face and training on how to deal with aggressive customers. It is a sign of the times that more and more staff face abuse because people are having a bad day and cannot get the goods that they want. That cannot be allowed to carry on, particularly given that those people provide key services and are there to do a job. I have friends who still work in the industry and feel that they cannot stay because of the abuse that they receive.
My hon. Friend backs up my point strongly. It is simply not acceptable that people who are doing their jobs are abused. Ultimately, I want to look at age-related sales, because when the Government determine that the sale of certain goods and services should be restricted for a range of reasons, it is the shop staff who must enforce that.
I apologise for not being able to stay for the whole debate. Like my right hon. Friend, I am proud to be an USDAW member, and I very much welcome the debate. He is right to highlight the theft of high-value goods, which is sometimes related to addiction and sometimes—particularly in the case of women offenders—results from coercion by others to obtain goods that can be sold for those coercive partners to benefit from. Does he agree that it would be well worth the Minister’s while to look at the initiative undertaken in Manchester, where women caught shoplifting in such circumstances are diverted not to the criminal justice system per se, but to women’s centres? Good, preventive work can be done there to deal with addiction, domestic abuse, coercion and other causes of this kind of retail crime committed by violent and dangerous offenders, and also some vulnerable offenders.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. I will talk about the four or five solutions in a moment, but the outcome of this should not necessarily be putting more people in prison. It might actually be trying to deal with the causes of people committing offences in the first place. That scheme in Manchester is a good example of how that could be integrated, and maybe, with good practice, developed still further.
That brings me on to the question of drug and alcohol treatment orders. If, as the ACS says, 50% of repeat offenders are motivated by drug or alcohol addiction, the key is to stop the drug or alcohol addiction. The figures for community order starts for people who have been caught, convicted and given a community order show that, in 2014, which was well into the Government’s term of office, 8,734 drug treatment orders and 5,547 alcohol treatment orders were given. However, the figures last year were only 4,889 drug treatment orders—halved—and only 3,315 alcohol treatment orders, which were down by at least a third.
If I go back—dare I say it, it is a long time now, but it is still worth going back to—to the last years of the last Labour Government, in 2007-08, we gave 16,607 drug treatment orders, which is double what we had in 2014 and four times more than now. I simply say that one way we can support people is by identifying why they steal alcohol or other products for their own use. They are doing it to sell them quickly, or to satisfy their cravings. We have to have alternatives, such as that in Manchester, and drug and alcohol treatment orders, which also help.
Finally on the picture of where we are is the threshold for low-level shoplifting. As shadow Minister, I dealt with this issue in Parliament five years ago when the Government introduced a £200 threshold for low-level shoplifting under section 22A of the Magistrates’ Court Act 1980, which means that people do not go to court for thefts of goods valued at up to £200. That in itself is fine, because if they are caught that might be dealt with by post.
However, this is five years on. The concern expressed to me from both outside and inside Parliament is that that has been seen as decriminalising shop thefts of under £200. That leads to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton made about police not attending, which leads to magistrates not taking cases in front of court, which leads to offenders thinking that they can get away with it. I simply say that we should look at that in detail and review this, now that we are five years on.
My right hon. Friend is being generous in giving way. To complete that picture, I visited a local Co-op store in my constituency, and the feedback was absolutely about drug and alcohol issues, but also that staff noticed a significant rise in people who just had no money, perhaps from universal credit delays; several women were caught stealing sanitary products, baby milk and nappies. It is absolutely right to point that out, but there are bigger issues in society that drive some of this that also need to be addressed.
I accept that, but we have to be careful not to equate poverty with shop theft. There are many people who have honour in themselves and will not commit crimes. However, I understand and accept that desperation can lead people to do things that they would not in perhaps more economically improved circumstances.
That background leads us to ask what we can do about this situation. I know that the Minister is engaged on this issue, and I give her credit. I moved amendments to the Offensive Weapons Bill to make age-related sales an aggravated offence. We discussed those matters formally in the Chamber, and we have discussed them informally. The amendments were withdrawn on the basis that the Minister would look seriously at the issue. I am pleased to say she had a roundtable, which I went to, as did all the parties I mentioned earlier—the retail organisations, the Co-operative Group and USDAW—so that solutions could be aired.
A helpful letter of
I want to conclude with my six asks for the Minister. She looks worried. Some of them are things she will already be aware of. I started my speech by setting out what the BRC, the ACS and USDAW thought the level of attacks and violence against staff to be. I want first to ask the Minister to bring that together, so that we can identify retail crimes, their incidence, and the overall level. All those organisations, the newsagents and the ACS and USDAW, are acting individually and not as part of a formal Government response. They indicate that there is a great deal of under-reporting to the police because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton said, the police may not be able to respond owing to their lack of numbers. Also there is a question about what the scale of the problem is. As I quoted Paddy Lillis saying earlier, the crime is not victimless. People who are threatened in shops are traumatised. People who are injured in shops go home and have days off sick. People go to their doctor and fear coming back to work. Shops have to increase security. It is not a victimless crime. We must bring a record of the whole matter together, and the Home Office is a key part of that, in conjunction with Police Scotland—I see my Scottish colleagues are here for the debate—and the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
Secondly—this will come out of the consultation, but I must mention it now—the Government should consider legislating for an aggravated offence with respect, in particular, to age-related sales and abuse of shop staff. We have tested that through the Offensive Weapons Bill and it is part of the consultation discussions. I want the Government to do it, because in addition to the traumatic experiences I have mentioned, and the potential for long-term injury and for people to lose their jobs because of assaults, staff who are required to enforce the law are the frontline, and the Home Office must back them up.
Current sentencing is complicated. The sentencing guidelines for all kinds of assaults are that
“an offence committed against someone working in the public sector or providing a service to the public” is “an aggravated factor”, but there is no clarity about what is contained within that. If someone is abusive that factor should be taken into account—perhaps for a community sentence, which might be the most appropriate route. I want the shop worker at the front of the Co-op on their own to be able at least to say to someone, “Look, there is a sign there. If you continue this poor behaviour you are liable for an aggravated offence. Please stop.” It is a protection, if not a final conviction.
It is not just in the shop that people can be targeted. They can be targeted on their way home, particularly if some of the offenders live in the locality. They can be subject to that sort of attack all the time.
Indeed. Again, shop staff are part of the community. The town I live in is 12,000-strong. The people who work in small shops there live in the town. They put a uniform on for 20 hours a week in some cases. In some cases, low-paid staff are putting a uniform on and enforcing the law of the land. We have to give them support. As well as the legislation, we also need to look at prosecution and the response from the police. That is important.
Following on from bringing together the numbers and examining legislation, the third of my six points is about engaging with police and crime commissioners to make shop crime a priority. The ACS has a pledge, which basically says that police and crime commissioners should pledge to be
“confronting reoffending, particularly prolific reoffenders with drug dependencies” and
“working to standards on what a ‘good response’
to shop theft looks like”,
which is the very point that my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton made. Another pledge is to be
“always responding promptly to shop theft where violence is involved or where a suspect is detained”.
Often it is a shop staff member detaining someone who is drunk or out of their head on drugs in the shop.
Fifteen of the 40 police and crime commissioners have signed up to that pledge, which means that 25 have not. It is important that the Home Office grabs hold of the issue, co-ordinates a response, gives a level of guidance and priority and indicates that this is an important issue. We can argue about police numbers—we have done and will continue to do so—but this is an important issue. This crime causes trauma and difficulties and the Government should examine it, so I urge them please to engage with police and crime commissioners.
The fourth of my six points is, going back to what I said earlier, about community-based penalties. My hon. Friend Kate Green has indicated one mechanism. Drug and alcohol orders are another. There may be other things that can be done, including with approaches to CCTV. There could be guidance on other issues where we can give support and help. A lot of employers, such as the Co-op, are investing a lot of money in headsets, CCTV and a whole range of wireless operation things, but not every store can do that, particularly individual stores, where it is an extra burden of cost. Support for some of the community penalties will take pressure off them.
My fifth and almost final ask is for the Government, five years on, to review the £200 limit to see whether it is working, whether it has made a difference and where we are with that.
My sixth ask for the Minister is simply this: the Home Office, with the Scottish Government and the Northern Ireland Government, could explore the whole range of good practice that can be undertaken and push it out. I welcome the ongoing discussions with the organisations, but that can be done on a regular basis. I know there is a business group. What have the outcomes of it been in the nine years it has been established? What positive outcomes from it have moved things on?
Going back to my time in the Home Office, we had funds available that key organisations could bid for to help reduce crime. CCTV camera schemes could be discussed and improved. There might be all sorts of radio wireless schemes. There might be a whole range of things that the Home Office could do. It could have a fund for organisations to bid against for support to ensure we make a difference.
On the particular issue of CCTV, the right hon. Gentleman is correct to raise the prospect of the Home Office considering whether CCTV infrastructure across the UK can be improved, particularly in our towns and cities. Not only would that help the detection and prosecution of certain instances of retail shop crime, but it would act as a deterrent. I am glad to say that in my part of Wales, Dyfed-Powys police and the commissioner, Dafydd Llywelyn, have recently reinvested a lot in CCTV infrastructure. Shopkeepers in Aberystwyth and Cardigan are keen to see that return.
There is a pile of good practice, and the key thing is that the Home Office is in a great position, with the Scottish Government and the Northern Ireland Government, to pull these things together and potentially provide seedcorn funding for innovative schemes that could develop into ways of reducing crime and shop theft in particular.
The “Crime Report 2019” from the Association of Convenience Stores gives a whole range of advice and guidance as a sector on reducing crime, involving CCTV; acid and knives; how to deal with ATM thefts; antisocial behaviour, which is key; behaviour outside stores, which often attracts people whose behaviour is antisocial; how to deal with cyber-crime or internal staff theft, which happens occasionally; what to do with age-restricted sales; and how to design a store, looking to design out crime. The Home Office can get a grip, and give advice and support, on such things.
Those six asks can be developed as part of the consultation. My hon. Friends may think of and develop more, but those six can move the situation on. As I said, and we must remember it, this is not a victimless crime: this crime will impact on the store owner, the financial viability of the business, and the health, wealth and wellbeing of the members of staff. It drives up the cost of food and produce that we buy, and it causes tremendous upset and a great deal of antisocial behaviour. It does not happen just in London, other major cities or in banks; it happens on every street on every day of the week.
As Members of Parliament, we have a duty to shine a light on the issue, to offer solutions and to support the Minister in the solutions that she has graciously brought to the table but, in doing so, to keep her feet to the fire to ensure that she delivers on the consultation. We do not want just to talk about such things, and for my words to float to the ceiling of the Chamber; we want them to result in change for the better. The Minister has a chance to grapple with this and to make a success of that. She will have my full support if she does so. If she cannot grapple with it, we will have further debates and discussions until the Government do.
I thank my right hon. Friend David Hanson for securing the debate and for his excellent speech.
For nearly 20 years I worked for USDAW, the shop workers’ union. I spoke day in, day out with shop workers affected by abuse, threats and violence. When I started out, I heard abuse mentioned as part of the banter in the coffee room, or members would speak at conferences about the abuse that they had received, trying to support each other and laughing at customers who abused them. They were trying to see the funny side, as so many working people do to get through. I soon realised that such offences were not laughable and not just the odd occurrences; this happened day after day, week after week, sapping away at people’s energy, self-confidence and self-esteem, and their ability to do their job.
I therefore worked with USDAW to set up the Freedom from Fear Campaign, with workers from across that great union, from shops and companies, and from all across the country. I am pleased to say that we had an enormous amount of engagement from shop workers, who welcomed the fact that at least they had a voice to speak about what was happening to them in the workplace. Also, professional support could be put together through companies, the trade union and professional organisations to ensure that incidents got reported as far as possible, and that employers did as much as they could to support their staff, putting investment into CCTV, reporting systems or counselling for people who were traumatised.
Shop workers have to put up with far too much abuse, threats and violence each and every day. On the basis of our surveys, we worked out that every minute of every working day another shop workers suffers abuse. Each day, more than 1,000 threats of violence are reported. As my right hon. Friend Mark Tami commented, those threats do not just affect people in the workplace; threats are made by people who live in the same towns and communities as shop workers, so not just those workers but their children and families are affected.
Each day, 737 assaults are reported, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. Far too many threats, assaults and instances of abuse are not reported either to an employer or to the police. As a union, USDAW has worked very hard to try to change that culture—to try to get the reports in place and to get employers and police to act on them. But too often, the impact on shop workers is not taken into account. We have fewer police on our streets and fewer police cells and custody suites; my local one in Buxton is due to close in a couple of months. That will impact on the number of arrests that can be made and the number of offenders who can be dealt with. Courts are closing down. We are seeing a reduction in arrests and prosecutions and, at the same time, a lack of the support services that my hon. Friend Kate Green said exist in Manchester. I wish that such services were available in my rural area to refer prolific offenders to; too often, they are not.
Victims of crime over the years have told me how they have struggled to get back to work after being threatened or assaulted. They can have flashbacks; they suffer post-traumatic stress disorder, for which there are very few treatment services. That affects them in the workplace as they try to return to work. They might find that impossible, so they lose their job and livelihood as well as their confidence, self-esteem and courage to go out into the community.
The impact that I have described simply is not taken into account. With the reduction in the number of staff in retail, employers also have to play their part. There should not be lone working, particularly in areas that have seen assaults and antisocial behaviour in stores, but we see this far too often—staff, often women, left to cope alone at night with gangs of teenagers or with possible offenders. Employers have a duty of care to staff, and I am pleased that many employers, such as the Co-op, have put a lot of investment into supporting their staff, but others do not and we need to send out a message from this place that that is not acceptable and that employers have a duty of care that includes protection against known threats of violence.
If police get involved with employers, working with CCTV and the evidence that employers gather as part of their work, they will find that they can work with both employers and shop workers. In an era when we are seeing a massive reduction in community policing, the police need to do that; they need to reach out to shop workers and to cafés and so on. If people want to know what is going on in a community, a sure way to find out is to ask the local shop workers; they will know. The police and the justice system need to give those workers the respect that they deserve. They need to take into account the impact of crime on those workers and their families and the impact on stores and on our high streets, which are too often suffering a decline. If they can work with them to tackle persistent offenders and get evidence on the drug dealers who are too often pushing drugs to victims who then go out and commit shop crime, they will find that they can improve the policing in their area and improve their links with the community.
For many years, I have worked with USDAW to argue for a separate offence of assaulting a worker. My right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn set this out. Shop workers do not feel that assaults and threats against them are taken seriously enough. The sentencing guidelines are extremely complicated. I worked with previous Governments on them, and there are so many factors to be taken into account that it is almost impossible for a victim of crime to see how the impact on them has had any impact on a sentence, even when an offender is actually brought to justice. A separate offence would simplify sentencing. It would encourage prosecutions, because it is simpler to get a prosecution in place through one branch of the law and through an Act. It would have a deterrent effect as well and shop workers would feel that the law is on their side. It sends the message that assaulting a shop worker is not preferable to being caught shoplifting. We in this House must send out that message to all shop workers, bar workers and café staff. They need to know that we, the police and the criminal justice system are on their side, because they are always on our side.
It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Robertson. I congratulate my right hon. Friend David Hanson on securing this debate and on his thoughtful and comprehensive opening speech. Not surprisingly, much of what I say will echo comments that have already been made. I thank members of the all-party group on retail crime and its former chair, Stephen Hammond, who have done so much to raise awareness of the issue both in Parliament and elsewhere.
In my constituency of Selly Oak, shops lost more than £214,000 last year because of shoplifting and other criminal acts. As we have heard, the knock-on effect is equivalent to a tax of about 7% on every consumer transaction. Much harder to calculate, as my hon. Friend Ruth George indicated, is the impact on owners, family members and staff who are threatened, intimidated and subjected to frequent violent assaults, including murder. Tragically, we recently had the murder of Ravi Katharkamar in Pinner, north-west London—a hard-working family man trying to go about his business.
We know that there were at least 10,000 attacks on shop workers. My right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn cited a higher figure from the British retail crime survey, which suggested that one of the issues is how the crime is identified and recorded. As with a number of offences, there is always some dispute about how a crime is recorded and therefore how much certainty we can have about the volume of particular crimes. As has been said, many of the perpetrators are repeat offenders, and perhaps in some cases regular offenders. They tend to target high value items or items that are easily disposed of. It is a growing problem. The Home Office’s commercial victimisation survey reported that such crimes in the retail and wholesale sector had doubled between 2016 and 2017, and the same study also revealed at least half a million assaults and threats against retail staff—about 250 a day.
Part of the problem, as we have heard, is overstretched police services, which have substantially fewer resources. In the west midlands alone, we have seen the loss of 2,000 officers since 2010 and cuts to the budget of about £175 million. Our own chief constable has publicly admitted that his force can no longer cope with the range of demands made on it. Against such a background, we need a new approach to the issue of retail crime.
I certainly agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn that, first, we have to recognise the scale of the problem, its financial impact on consumers and businesses, and its effect on ordinary people just trying to go about their business, earn a living and provide a service. There are about 46,000 convenience stores in the UK, of which 72% are operated by independent retailers or as part of a symbol group such as Spar, Nisa or Costcutter. They provide flexible employment for more than 365,000 people and 24% of shop owners work more than 70 hours per week. It is not easy, and they deserve a better deal.
On recognition, we need an agreed definition of business crime, so that all police forces record such crime to the same agreed standard. My right hon. Friend referred to the retail crime survey, which reported something like 3.5 million incidents of retail crime in 2017. At the same time, official statistics recorded only 382,000 incidents of shoplifting, which implies that there is massive under-reporting of the crime or that there is a recording issue.
Interestingly, if we add the definition of robbery, we get nearly 12,500 further incidents per year, and if we add the definition of burglary, we come up with another 7,000. There is an argument for agreeing a common definition that would allow us to get a better grip on what is happening. That would go a long way to identifying the real scale of the problem and might end the false debate about whether there are significant regional variations, which is not entirely convincing—it may be more of a recording issue.
The fact that the police will not investigate shop thefts with a value of less than £200 is virtually an incentive to offend. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn said, because of stretched police resources and different ways of dealing with things, I understand how we have ended up in the situation where those who are caught with stolen goods worth less than £200 are fined and allowed to pay by post, but frankly that reduces it to the status of a parking offence. Psychologically, it decriminalises the activity, which is why people think it is not as serious as it genuinely is. His call for a review is essential in the face of the growing crime levels.
For years, before I came to this place, I worked with young offenders, and I spent a lot of my life arguing for out-of-court disposals and community disposals, but the problem with out-of-court disposals in this area is that offenders are repeatedly issued with cautions, conditional discharges and small fines for committing almost identical crimes, so it has no impact. We should at least introduce proper banning orders, so that people who commit repeat offences in that way are banned from specific shops or retail areas. We have to find a way to curb the repetition of the activity.
Where those who are engaged in these offences have obvious addiction problems, we have to place more emphasis on that and make more effort to deal with the addiction issue. My right hon. Friend referred to the reduction in the numbers from the last year of the Labour Government to last year. There must be pressure on the courts to recognise that that is a problem and to ensure that the sentence sets out to tackle the addiction issue. A disposal that pushes that to one side is of little value and, again, is an incentive to repeat that behaviour.
Those who threaten, intimidate and commit violent attacks on shop workers should be charged with an aggravated offence. There should be an additional penalty and it should be made abundantly clear that they are not able to get away with that. My right hon. Friend mentioned the request by the Association of Convenience Stores for a pledge from police and crime commissioners. Next year, we have an election for the police and crime commissioner in the west midlands—in fact, I think that there are elections in other parts of the country as well. I will certainly demand such a pledge from all candidates in the west midlands election, and will encourage all shop owners in my constituency to do the same. We want a clear and unequivocal commitment to prioritising the tackling of retail crime and violence against shop workers.
I have a pretty good relationship with the current police and crime commissioner, David Jamieson, who is doing a good job. I looked at the police and crime plan for 2016 to 2020 while I was thinking about this debate. It is quite an impressive document of 40 pages, which deals with all sorts of important issues—road traffic injuries, mental health, young people and animal cruelty—but I could not find a single reference to retail crime, shoplifting or violence against shop workers. To be fair, page 6 refers to
“working with companies and other partners to reduce overall business crime”,
and on page 27 there is a section on supporting economic development, which also refers to working with companies.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn said that 25 of the commissioners have not signed up to the pledge. The same ACS survey shows that only nine of 40 police and crime plans explicitly refer to retail or business crime. That is simply not good enough. We want a pledge from all candidates at the next election that if they win, the plan will contain a section about tackling retail crime and shop worker violence. It should detail what they will do to address the issue.
I, like my right hon. Friend, acknowledge that the Minister has indicated her interest in this subject and her determination to improve the situation, for which I thank her. Ideally, we would see the production of a new retail crime prevention strategy, drawn up in conjunction with the sector. We need a strategy that expands on who has responsibility and what items are required to crack down on crime. We have heard about some of the good initiatives, such as that in Manchester and those of USDAW, ACS and the Central England Co-operative, which I understand is seeking a meeting with the Mayor of the West Midlands combined authority, Andy Street. If he is listening, he has an opportunity to get in on the act and help out.
We need a strategy that expands on who has responsibility for what and itemises the steps that are required to crack down on crime. I would like to see a process in which MPs get a monthly or bi-monthly constituency-level report that shows the hotspots and trends, so that there is a constant focus on taking action and utilising the measures that prove successful.
As we have heard, we must do more to help both smaller and independent stores, and encourage the Government to look at additional ways of helping to fund new and better security equipment for smaller retailers. There is a tendency to view the proceeds of crime funds as the answer to everything these days, but that money is derived from the actions of criminals, so maybe that is an area from which we could draw a little additional funding to support smaller retailers. I understand that they already spend something like £5 million of their own money on such measures. That is quite a lot for the owners of small shops, many of whom barely scrape a living—they are not rich people in any sense. We need these businesses; they provide crucial services. These people work very long hours and deserve our support.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, and I congratulate David Hanson on bringing the issue to this Chamber for consideration. There are very few debates that he brings to Westminster Hall that I do not have an interest in, wish to participate in or support him on. It is pleasing to see the Minister in her place. She is not afraid of hard issues, and always responds positively and helpfully—we look forward to her response. She is amenable and approachable, and is prepared to give the answers to the hard questions that we ask.
As the Minister will know, policing is devolved in Northern Ireland. None the less, the issues that other Members have referred to and will refer to after my speech, are replicated across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for giving us the chance to participate in this debate.
I am pleased to represent Strangford in this Chamber; it is a name that I use in every speech I make. I am also pleased that the main town in my constituency, Newtownards, has bucked the trend: we have a thriving high street. We have boutique shops, specialist shops, branded shops and coffee shops—if you need it, we’ve got it. If hon. Members have not visited Newtownards—I know the right hon. Gentleman has—I encourage them to do so.
I am not as proud to say that we have had robberies and threatening behaviour, although it is extremely limited. However, any act of violence or theft is one too many. I have three sons, two of whom have worked in shops and are now managers. During the time that they have worked in shops, they have experienced the violence that takes place. The right hon. Gentleman referred to people with drug and alcohol addictions, who sometimes try to steal from shops. In the violence that takes place, shop staff feel threatened. From my sons, I know that there have been occasions when staff have been taken off work. Ruth George mentioned that sometimes staff are traumatised and are on sick leave for a long time. Those things happen, but it is not what someone expects when they sign up for a nine-to-five job or whatever shift they are on. The repercussions are great.
They have introduced CCTV in most of the shops in Newtownards. People who have carried out robberies, caused damage and acted violently or threateningly in shops have been made accountable for their actions. One thing that we should perhaps look at—the Minister might say this in her response—is encouraging shopkeepers to install CCTV in their properties. It seems to be a norm now, and it helps when thefts take place.
I was so disheartened to learn of the behaviour that some shopkeepers and workers have to put up with. The report provided by USDAW during Respect for Shopworkers Week gives shocking statistics. There have been instances of violence and threats, and it was made abundantly clear that abuse against shop workers remains a major problem on the frontline of retail. Other hon. Members have referred to it, and I could relate similar stories from my constituency.
Six out of 10 shop workers have experienced verbal abuse. Some 37% have been threatened by a customer, and 230 are assaulted every day. The number of incidents is in line with last year, but remains higher than two years ago. Two thirds of UK retail workers have been exposed to violence or aggression in the workplace. Earlier in the year, the British Retail Consortium reported a doubling of violence against retail staff in its annual retail crime survey. That is why this debate is so important, and why we are indebted to the right hon. Gentleman for bringing it forward.
I am in complete agreement with the general secretary of USDAW, who said:
“While there are many factors behind retail crime…severe cuts in police funding and the loss of over 20,000 police officers” do not help. I am beyond alarmed to learn that some chief constables have said their officers can no longer attend incidents of thefts from shops, and that they are asking shop workers to detain shoplifters. We see stories on TV in which shop workers take it upon themselves to detain a person who is trying to rob a shop—I watched such a story on TV the other night. The level of courage of shopkeepers is to be commended, but that is not what they should be doing, so we have to look at that.
In my constituency, I met the local chief superintendent to discuss the fact that the Police Service of Northern Ireland would no longer investigate drive-offs at petrol stations. I am not sure how good other Members’ knowledge of such incidents is, but unfortunately in Northern Ireland and in my constituency, statistics out this week show a 2% rise in drive-offs.
The meeting that we had with the Chief Constable, I think last October, involved both garage owners and the retail association. We feel that it is not the responsibility of the garage owner to take action to retrieve money from drive-offs. That is a straight theft issue and should be the responsibility of the police, or the PSNI as it is in Northern Ireland. It is not the responsibility of garage owners to source the person’s address through the Driver and Vehicle Agency, and approach them and ask them to pay; yet only when they refuse to pay does it become the job of the PSNI to investigate. Such a process is hardly logical.
If someone walks out of Tesco, which featured on TV the other night, and drive away, having forgotten to pay for their week’s shopping, it is considered a theft right away. However, if someone drives away from a petrol station, it is presumed to be forgetfulness. We are now asking garage owners to become detectives and track down people who have driven away with perhaps £60-worth of petrol or diesel. Clearly, the support is not there. To be fair to the police, I do not believe that it is because they are too lazy; it is because they are stretched thin. The police are so drastically underfunded and understaffed that they must prioritise every crime. Unfortunately, that leaves victims of crime having to go beyond what should be expected of them.
The right hon. Member for Delyn referred to ATMs. In Northern Ireland, we have had some of the most incredible thefts of ATMs. I am not sure whether it has been at the same level on the mainland. To give an example, one such theft happened just last weekend before I came over here. Thieves in these cases seem to pick ATMs where there is a JCB or digger not too far away building houses—that is what happened at the weekend. The thieves stole a big digger from the local building site and ripped the ATM out of the wall, which took them four minutes and 10 seconds. They had a car sitting ready. This is the story, and it was all caught on CCTV, so it is factually correct. They grabbed the ATM with the digger. The roof of the car was removed, and the ATM was placed in the back seat. Absurdly, this small car with no roof had a big ATM sitting in it, and was driven down the road. It took four minutes and 10 seconds.
Such crimes are hard for the police to respond to, given the timescale. However, there are other ways of doing so. May I make a suggestion to the Minister, as we were talking the other day about how to address such issues? All ATMs across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland should have a movement device inside them. As soon as it moves, the police will know where the ATM is going and can track it.
I understand that the tracking is done by helicopters. However, I also understand that we have two helicopters in Northern Ireland that the police can access. I suggest that the police in Northern Ireland do that, and we should do the same here on the mainland. I watch “Police Interceptors” on the TV—that may show how sad I am, but I always find it quite interesting. The police helicopters are able to source and follow the person who is getting away. For me, that is a better way of doing things. There are other ways to address the theft of ATMs, the threat to staff and so on, and we should explore them.
We simply need more help on the ground from the police. People are less likely to smash and grab if they think that there may be police on the beat, as opposed to being certain that they can run and not be caught. It is my belief that action is needed to help to protect staff. That must come in the form of legislation that provides for harsher penalties. Others have referred to the fact that penalties must deter. At the moment, with cautions and let-offs, the system seems not to work in the way that it should.
For those caught stealing or being abusive, and for those who assault workers, the message must be clear: such behaviour cannot and will not be tolerated. Instead of saying to people, “You can thump me once or twice before it actually matters,” it should matter the first time that someone is verbally abusive. Assault is verbal abuse, not just physical abuse.
These people are going about their daily business, and that is why we are here, on behalf of the shop workers and staff who do not deserve to be intimidated in any way. Everyone, no matter what their job or how much they get paid, deserves to be respected and to go to their place of work, leave when their paid hours are done and not be subjected to abuse in between.
We can be sure that if I were verbally abusive to my staff—I certainly am not, for the record—it would be reported to the police and in the newspapers the next week. My staff would not let me off with that anyway, because they are capable of looking after themselves; I get told off many times by them. Why is it less important for employees of the local Russell’s essentials shop to be assured of support and freedom from abuse? It is not.
I am conscious that other hon. Members want to speak, so in conclusion, we have not sent the right message thus far. We need to change the narrative and be clear that people have the right to work free from abuse, and we will support them in that right. That is what the right hon. Member for Delyn said, what I am saying, what other hon. Members have said and will say, and what the shadow Minister and the Minister will say as well. People have the right to support from the PSNI or the police on the UK mainland when someone commits a crime, and we will ensure that people’s right of access to the police is protected. No one should ever dread going to work because of abuse while we, by omission, are saying that it is acceptable. It is not and never will be, and that must be made clear today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I pay great tribute to my near neighbour and right hon. Friend David Hanson for his thorough introduction to the debate and his extensive campaigning on the issue. I also thank all other hon. Members who have contributed.
I represent the most beautiful and nicest constituency in Parliament; there is nowhere that quite compares with it. It is 240 square miles and contains many vibrant communities. There is also a strong sense of community. Almost any shop worker who lives in my constituency will speak about that strong sense of community; how much they enjoy their job, in many cases; and how important their shop is in the community. That is all true, but unfortunately, it is not true all the time.
One deeply concerning UK-wide statistic, which came from the excellent USDAW, is that more than 280 retail staff are violently attacked every day across the country. That should cause us to be very concerned. Those shop workers go to do their jobs in the same way that others go to do their jobs, and that level of attack is concerning.
In my constituency, we have a good mix of small and medium-sized stores, and a few supermarkets, and the bulk of them take the issue very seriously. I put on the record my particular thanks to the Co-op Group, however, not simply because I am a regular shopper at the Rhosllanerchrugog and Johnstown stores, but because it has sent briefings on individual constituencies and has had the honesty to say some of the bad things that have happened in its stores.
I do not like reading things word for word, but the Co-op gave three examples of things that happened in its stores in my constituency. The first example is:
“A drunk man came into the store and started abusing one of our colleagues. This colleague asked him to calm down and stop swearing. The bloke carried on shopping and on his way out carried on the abuse so he was escorted out of the shop. When outside, he started swinging his shopping bag and throwing punches. He ripped the colleague’s glasses of his face and threw them into the car park. He then ran off.”
This is the second one:
“Two hooded men came into the store with a large knife. One of them grabbed a colleague and put a knife to her neck, and the other one went behind the till and grabbed another colleague. They emptied the safe and the tills and ran into a waiting car.”
This is the third account:
“Four blokes came into the store, they threatened colleagues with a knife and nicked all the cigarettes that had just arrived from the delivery.”
The people affected by that are ordinary working people in our communities. In that case, it was in Clwyd South, but there are examples from across the country.
I welcome what the Co-op Group has done with its community fund. In addition to security measures and the like, it supports projects that tackle crime and crime prevention measures. Its corporate social responsibility in that regard is very much to be welcomed. Of course, we need to tackle the root causes as well as the problem itself.
Reflecting what everyone else has said, I want to say this to the Minister: whatever is happening at the moment—my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn spoke about that in great detail—it is clear that we have to do more. I echo the calls to make attacks on shop workers and other retail workers aggravated offences. When the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018 was going through Parliament, and in the campaign that preceded it, we heard many reasons why it was not possible. The campaign continued, and I am pleased to say that the Government supported it. That was very important. Many of us were co-sponsors of the Bill, and we worked on a cross-party basis. I am pleased that it got Government support.
As my right hon. Friend said, it is important that we look at creating an aggravated offence for attacks on shop workers, because shop and retail workers are a bit different from other workers. The argument will always be made that we cannot have aggravated offences against everyone. Clearly not, but the difference is that people know that shop workers have ready access to cash and have to handle it all the time.
Absolutely so. I agree wholeheartedly. Those are the everyday dangers that shop workers have to face, and they should not have to do so. They have to deal with people who are being obstructive outside their store. I have heard examples of shop workers who have had to deal with people who did not want to pay 5p for a carrier bag. I urge the Government to commit to doing something more on this issue. Let us work together, because it is not right that people in those shops, whether in the beautiful constituency of Clwyd South or anywhere else around the country, are affected in that way.
I cannot say that my constituency is as large as that of Susan Elan Jones, but it is small and perfectly formed, and very beautiful too. I am delighted to speak in this important debate. I pay tribute to David Hanson for securing it.
There are a great many shops in my constituency of Glasgow Central. It has the city centre, the major shopping streets and many large retailers of different kinds. We also have malls such as the Buchanan Galleries, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary, the St Enoch Centre, Princes Square and the Argyll Arcade. They can all be subject to retail crime in different ways. The Argyll Arcade had an armed robbery in 2014 because it contains many jewellers, and high-value goods are sold there.
Large retailers can put in place different things to cope with that. They can have CCTV and perhaps absorb some of the cost, but, as hon. Members have said, their shop workers put themselves at risk every day when they go in, because they do not know what kinds of things might happen in the store. In small businesses there is particular vulnerability, with people engaged in lone working. There are many small businesses across my constituency—retail shops that often have only one member of staff there all the time. There needs to be greater protection for them, because some of those shops cannot afford CCTV or anything like that. If things are stolen from them they have to absorb the cost. A few stolen items could be a whole day’s takings. It is quite worrying for small businesses to face that kind of thing. They are particularly vulnerable.
I have a wee bit of experience in retail. I worked for Next for five years in the Buchanan Galleries and in Aberdeen and Hamilton. During that time we employees were always told not to put ourselves at risk. If someone came in to steal something we should let them go. The shop and the police would deal with it: “Don’t put yourself at risk.” However, it is difficult, seeing something like that happening, not to try to stop someone or intervene. The thieves we saw coming into the shop could be quite gallus. In the Buchanan Galleries at the start of a shift the managers were meeting, discussing what was happening in the store, and when they turned around someone had walked in, and walked off with a whole rail of expensive dresses. It was around Christmas, so Members will understand the type of expensive dresses the shop would be trying to sell. Someone had come in and taken them, right next to a bunch of managers standing having a meeting, and walked off into the shopping centre and out into the street. There is nothing that people determined to do such acts will hold back from. They are absolutely gallus and brazen, and will do that time and again.
People would often steal from shops such as Next to try to return the things later and get the money back. They would be stolen not just for people to use or sell on; people would perpetrate a fraud against the store by trying to take the items back and get cash for them. Members of staff behind the till had to be aware of that, when someone was trying to return something, and challenge them. Refusing to take a return is another occasion when shop owners can be at risk; customers can kick off when there is a challenge.
The right hon. Member for Delyn mentioned drugs and alcohol as drivers for some of the type of crime in question. In Aberdeen someone would come in, on occasion, clearly under the influence of something, and try to steal children’s clothes by shoving them into their pockets and down their trousers. Staff would then put themselves at risk if they tried to intervene in some way and get that person, under the influence of alcohol or drugs, out of the store—so that is another risk.
The figures from Police Scotland seem to show that shoplifting has increased. They are up 10% from April 2017 to March 2018. That is more than 2,700 more incidents. Police Scotland find that poverty is definitely something of a driver. The increase was not in thefts of dresses or watches or things of that kind; it is people stealing food, to get by, because they cannot cope. Items such as infant formula can now be out of many families’ reach, because they are so expensive, and people resort to desperate measures as a result of austerity and poverty. The Government should bear that in mind when they look to tackle retail crime. Some of those crimes are very much crimes of desperation.
I want to touch on the evidence of the impact on workers. The survey on under-age sales conducted in 2016-17 found that there is a disproportionate effect on some workers: 56% of Asian or Asian British workers in the UK have reported abuse at least once a month, compared with 31% of white workers; 30% of Asian or British Asian workers in the UK reported being subject to racial abuse; and 10% reported being physically attacked at least once a month, as a result of challenging customers for ID. I agree with hon. Members who have said that challenging people for ID is a driver in many instances. That needs to be taken into account. I support all moves to improve the charges and convictions for that, because there needs to be a deterrent.
Workers who are not confident in challenging people for ID can end up in trouble themselves, because if they sell to under-age people they can be disciplined or face criminal charges. Workers are personally liable if they sell to a young person, facing a fine of up to £5,000 and/or imprisonment for up to three months. If workers are not confident in challenging for ID, there is a further impact on them as well. It may be that workers choose to leave the retail sector altogether if they regularly come under such pressure.
Lastly, an emerging issue is automation. We have all seen the new automated tills in many supermarkets. They are coming up everywhere, which is a risk to workers’ jobs; there may be fewer workers in stores if there are more automated tills. Research shows that people who would not normally steal from shops are much more tempted to do so if they use a self-service checkout. People have been seen passing off more expensive things as carrots or onions to cheat the device—something is being weighed, although it is clearly not the item being sold—and figures showed that more carrots had been sold than had ever been stocked because of people doing that.
Again, that is putting temptation in the hands of people who may be quite desperate and who may want to cheat the system because they cannot afford things. If that temptation is not checked on, people can be away and out the store before anybody realises that something has happened. There needs to be more examination of how automated tills drive retail crime and the results of that.
I will finish on the point that others finished on. Shop workers need to feel safe, as though they are not under pressure and that they are looked after. That goes from workers in the very largest supermarkets to sole workers. All of them deserve protection and our thanks for their work. We need to do a lot more to make sure that they feel safe and looked after, and if the law needs to change to do so, I would fully support that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate my right hon. Friend David Hanson on securing this important debate.
Local shops are the lifeblood of our economy and communities. Many people rely on them, as they provide an important sense of belonging, community and identity to our local areas. However, retail crime can have a hugely damaging effect on local businesses and communities. In Braford South, we have seen a rise in instances of burglary and antisocial behaviour near shops, as well as a rise in theft and shoplifting. I am a huge advocate of the economic contribution that small businesses make to our economy. However, small business owners have raised with me that repeated burglaries are making their insurance costs so expensive that they are being driven out of business. That is honestly not acceptable.
We all know that the police face unprecedented pressures in the context of an extremely difficult funding situation. Put bluntly, the Government are simply not giving our police forces the resources they need to do their job properly. I know that our hard-working police officers want to be out there catching those criminals who blight our communities through theft and antisocial behaviour, but they are forced to prioritise. That too often means that serious crimes such as shoplifting and abuse are not given the priority they deserve.
As my right hon. Friend pointed out, this is not a victimless crime. Local communities like mine deserve better. Our businesses, customers and shop workers rightly expect retail crime to be thoroughly investigated. The Government must stop passing the blame and start funding our police properly. As I have said many times in this place, our police should be fighting crime, not fighting for funding.
I will turn to some of the positive work being done in my constituency to prevent retail crime and to support shop owners. Traders in parts of my constituency have signed up to a pilot Shopwatch scheme designed to tackle crime. After a spike in retail crime, I called together police, councillors, council officers and traders to find ways to improve the situation. With local councillors taking the lead, I am pleased to say that the police, the council and businesses now work even closer together, sharing information through the Shopwatch scheme about those persistently offending in the area. That is done by WhatsApp and face-to-face meetings, and it is modelled on the established Pubwatch scheme. Early signs from the pilot are positive, and I look forward to seeing the full review of how the scheme can be rolled out across my constituency.
Figures recently published by USDAW, the ACS, the Co-operative Group and the BRC all show that violence and threats against and abuse of retail workers are on the increase. In 2018, nearly two thirds of shop workers experienced verbal abuse, while an average of 280 shop workers were assaulted each and every day. That is unacceptable. No one deserves to be attacked or abused simply for doing their job.
USDAW rightly points out that as well as being a threat to shop workers’ physical safety, attacks and abuse can cause anxiety and considerable worry to those subjected to them and to their loved ones. Those workers deserve dignity at work and should not be seen as easy targets for violence and abuse. I therefore fully support USDAW’s Freedom from Fear campaign, which is for tougher penalties for those who assault shop workers. That is especially important in the context of the greater obligations that we place on retail staff, such as to prevent under-age people from buying knives or acid. There is evidence that those age-related checks are a particular trigger for abusive behaviour.
I again pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn for attempting to amend the Offensive Weapons Bill to introduce age-related new offences in that area. I fully support him in that objective and indeed on each of his six asks in the debate. I hope that the Minister will set out in her closing remarks what more the Government plan to do to support retail workers to ensure that those who abuse or attack them are properly punished. I also hope that she will make it clear to the Home Secretary that the existing police funding settlement is simply not good enough.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate my right hon. Friend David Hanson on securing this debate. He has worked on this area of public policy for many years. As a member of the USDAW group and of the Co-op party, and as a proud shopper at the Co-op, I too feel that I have several reasons to participate in this debate.
We have had quite a congenial debate so far, and I put my thanks to the Minister on the record as well. As with her work on modern slavery and gangs, this is an area of her brief that she takes seriously. Although few Conservatives are present today, the quality of the Minister will in some ways make up for that, for which we should be grateful.
My constituency, much like that of Alison Thewliss, is small but perfectly formed—[Interruption.] My hon. Friend Carolyn Harris says it is not, but it is—she is more than welcome to visit any time she likes between now and
Like many urban-based constituencies, however, my constituency can be broken down into a series of small communities linked together over history. Whether people are in the middle of my constituency, tootling up towards the moorlands and passing through Baddeley Green or Milton, or going towards Newcastle through Penkhull, they will pass a Co-operative store—I will constrain my remarks to those stores but, to cover all bases, other convenience stores are available.
Many community convenience stores are open from very early in the morning until very late at night. Normally, the ones in my constituency are the only shops open in a community at 10 o’clock at night, the only store open on a whole high street—everywhere else closes at teatime—and the only convenience store in the village that can still sell a pint of milk at 20 to 10 in the evening. Often, they are the place where people gravitate, because the light is on. In the winter, they are the only place that may be warm and, after a couple of drinks in the local pub, people may call in for a snack on the way home. At those times, the shop workers are most vulnerable.
Those times are not peak hours, so the workforce are not numerous and lots of people are not milling around in the streets outside, giving a sense of solidarity and community—the shop workers are on their own. If they are on the periphery of the city of Stoke-on-Trent, they will be far away from anyone else at work or from any on-duty police officer who will automatically be concentrating on the more densely populated urban areas in the city centre. That does not mean that crimes perpetrated against them should have any less value than those perpetrated against someone in the city centre.
As my hon. Friend Judith Cummins said, we are asking for more and more of the laws that we pass in this place to be enforced by civilians, at the till and at the point of sale. We are asking them to check ID, whether for the purchase of cigarettes, alcohol, or a knife. I am glad that the Co-operative Group has said that it will stop selling knives in its stores to prevent them from being available and used for crime in communities. However, we are asking civilians—individuals who have gone into a relatively low-paid retail job—to enforce the laws that we create. At the same time, we are saying that if those civilians receive abuse or are the victim of aggressive behaviour as a result of enforcing those laws, they may not get the follow-through and the justice that they desire. That clearly needs to be rectified, which is why I was proud to support the amendments that my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn tabled to the Offensive Weapons Bill, and why I am glad that constructive conversations are continuing between him and the Government.
There is another aspect of this issue that I am concerned about. I have been sent stories similar to those sent to my hon. Friend Susan Elan Jones, and the individuals against whom those crimes are being perpetrated tend disproportionately to be women. They are disproportionately older women who are working a low-paid job, and who disproportionately live in parts of the world where the sense of security has disappeared. I fear that there is a cultural issue in play as well: if people do not feel safe going to work in those shops, people will not feel safe shopping in them, and we cannot afford to lose those convenience stores from high streets. We cannot afford to lose those small shops from villages, because in most of those places they are the last shops standing, whether they are independent or part of a larger chain.
We need to start making examples of some of the perpetrators of these crimes, and demonstrate that their crimes will be taken seriously. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn said, there need to be little signs that we can point to and say, “If you carry on with this, you are undertaking an aggravated offence. You will be prosecuted, and there will be a punishment for your actions.” There are obviously penalties for aggravated robbery and other crimes, but I feel that the sense among some consumers that they are entitled to take out their anger, wrath or frustration on somebody who is at work, serving them and their community, is not taken as seriously as crimes such as robbery.
I also want to touch on a statistic that has already been mentioned: according to USDAW’s research, 280 retail staff are violently assaulted every day. Given that these isolated small shops will usually open from 6 am until 10 pm, a little bit of jiggery-pokery with the maths suggests that in the three hours this debate could go on for, up to 50 people will have been violently assaulted while we sit here discussing this issue. I do not think we should tolerate any violence, let alone up to 50 assaults; I stress that point not because I want to belabour it, but because I think it is important. These are relatively low-paid women workers who are serving their community through their roles, and it is simply unacceptable for them to be left in a situation in which they potentially face violence on a daily basis.
Like all Labour Members, I particularly enjoy setting six tests when it comes to any aspect of public policy, and I endorse the six tests that my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn has laid out. I particularly want to talk about community penalties, because that is one area in which I have seen success in my own constituency and community. The perpetrators of aggressive behaviour in shops on little high streets are made to go back and tidy up those high streets; they are used as the labour to fix some of the problems that they have helped create. That restorative process demonstrates to the community that that sort of aggressive action is not tolerated. As has already been pointed out, most of the staff who work in those shops tend to live in those communities and know the people responsible, so community penalties restore a sense of faith that justice is being done.
[Phil Wilson in the Chair]
Community penalties also allow networks to grow. I want to place on the record my thanks to the Stoke-on-Trent City Centre Partnership for the work it does through its Shopwatch scheme. It has successfully created a network of shops, mainly independent but also with the intu Potteries shopping centre, where anyone working alone in a shop knows that there is someone in a next-door shop who can come and help if there is a problem; they work through a network of radios and share intelligence about frequent perpetrators.
Intelligence networks are important not only for preventing crime, but so that people working alone in shop, perhaps around closing time, know that if there is a problem, there is somebody they can call—somebody who is looking out for them to whom they have recourse. That sort of community-based solution is important, but it should be done with Government, not in spite of Government. It should be the normal practice, not an ad hoc arrangement that arises from good practice in communities.
I want to leave as much time as possible for the Front Benchers, so I will end by asking the Minister to touch on or consider what role there might be for the future high streets fund and some of the town funds in funding some of these community-based improvements. We in Stoke-on-Trent do not want to see high fences or fortresses created around shopping areas, but a CCTV camera here and there can go a long way to making people feel safe, as can eliminating grotspots or dark spots where people can hide after committing a crime, and making sure there is help and support for individuals who may be going through tough times, leading them to commit these actions. I wonder whether treating retail crime not merely as a criminal justice issue but as a community and economic development issue could be a way to lever in money from other Government Departments. Small shops are valuable to our high streets. Although we should prosecute the perpetrators, we should also value these shops as integral elements of the communities we all serve.
Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Wilson, and giving me the opportunity to repeat some of the statistics that may have already been mentioned.
I thank my right hon. Friend David Hanson for securing this important debate. The 2019 crime report produced by the Association of Convenience Stores illustrates the scale of retail crime in the UK. The association estimates that in 2018 retail crime cost the convenience sector more than £245 million. Through no fault of their own, shops across the UK are being subjected to a retail crime tax. It is estimated that local shops in my constituency lost more than £170,000 to retail crime last year. The businesses on Coatbridge and Bellshill Main Street provide jobs for the local community and contribute to the local economy, and it is frustrating to think that they are penalised by retail crime. If the rising costs of retail crime are not tackled, our communities will ultimately pay the price, with the loss of local business and jobs impacting on the local economy.
We often hear the Government talk about the importance of our high streets, but with no support, their shops are closing down. If the Government are serious about supporting high streets across the country, it is time they acted to prevent retail crime. The National Audit Office highlighted an 18% reduction in the police workforce. As the workload and pressure put on the police continue to increase, their ability to respond to retail crime is affected. That is why I call on this Government and the Scottish Government to invest in community policing. Retailers estimate that 79% of thefts against their business are carried out by repeat offenders, and that 50% of repeat offenders are addicted to drugs or alcohol. Perhaps it is time for the Ministry of Justice to review how repeat offenders are dealt with and to look for ways to tackle the root causes of reoffending, such as addiction.
Retailers have also expressed concern about the introduction of section 22A of the Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980. Unintended, that provision on low-value shoplifting—below the £200 threshold—may have helped to increase shoplifting, as it is no longer a police priority. I urge the Government to reflect on whether section 22A is helpful in the ongoing fight against retail crime.
When I was elected to the House, I said I would stand up and provide justice for workers, so I will talk about the impact of retail crime on shop workers. The ACS crime report estimated that there were almost 10,000 incidents of violence against shop workers last year; 41 of those incidents led to staff being injured. The Home Office commercial victimisation survey found that incidents of violence in the retail sector had more than doubled from 2016 to 2017. We know that shop theft is the No. 1 trigger of violence and abuse in the convenience sector. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for his work to secure legal protections for shop workers who are responsible for enforcing age restrictions on products, and I am disappointed that the Government opposed those measures.
We await the outcome of the Government’s call for evidence on violence and abuse directed at shop workers. I am disappointed by the no-show of any other Tory Members; they must have a safe working environment, unlike shopkeepers. Anyone who wants justice for workers, vote Labour.
I will continue my speech, then.
I pay tribute to USDAW, especially Jean Hession and her Scottish colleagues for their Freedom From Fear campaign, which seeks to ensure that shopworkers are not subjected to violence and abuse in their workplace. I commend USDAW for its Time for Better Pay campaign to achieve a living wage of £10 an hour for all workers regardless of age, and to end to zero-hours contracts and insecure work—all measures that could greatly benefit shop workers across the UK.
This Government have to do more to support businesses and communities who suffer the consequences of retail crime. It is time to introducer greater legal protections for shop workers, who should never have to face abuse and violence simply for doing their job.
It is, as always, a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. We also thank Mr Robertson, who chaired the first part of the debate.
As others have done, I start by thanking David Hanson for securing the debate and opening it with a powerful and passionate speech. I will come back to this, but I pay tribute to the work he did as a Home Office Minister.
We have heard 15 Back-Bench contributions, which is particularly impressive on a Thursday afternoon. This debate is clearly not the highlight of business today and many of our colleagues are in the Chamber, so 15 Back-Bench speeches shows there is clearly an appetite for debate on the topic.
The right hon. Gentleman set the scene by reminding us of some of the stark data from the British Retail Consortium, and he had six asks for the Minister, which I have no difficulty endorsing. He was right to remind us that this is not a victimless crime; we should be reminded of that regularly.
Ruth George spoke about her 20 years’ experience in USDAW. I pay tribute to her for that. She talked about the police situation in England, as did a number of other Members; as a Scottish MP, I will not wade into that. She was absolutely right to place on the record the point about people working alone. Steve McCabe reminded us that the loss in his constituency was £214,000, equivalent to a 7% tax, which is passed on to consumers. We need to take note of that.
Jim Shannon spoke about the situation in Northern Ireland, particularly his home town, Newtownards, about which he always speaks passionately. The people of Strangford are very lucky to have such a diligent constituency MP speaking passionately about Northern Ireland. He was right to highlight a problem that seems to arise particularly in Northern Ireland of ATM thefts that cause great damage.
Susan Elan Jones was rather controversial. In a largely consensual debate, she divided the Chamber by talking about the beauty of her constituency. She was right to remind us that, even in a close-knit community, retail crime remains an issue. She read out some powerful testimonies, which I think Members were quite moved by.
My hon. Friend Alison Thewliss spoke passionately about shopping outlets in her constituency. She is of course my constituency neighbour, so I will have nothing said about shopping there. Go east! Shop in Glasgow East. But she is absolutely right to speak about small businesses and the impact of lone working. We also learnt of her experience as a retail worker in Next and about some of the issues she was exposed to there. The Chamber is richer for heeding the personal experience of Members.
Judith Cummins spoke about the underfunding of police forces in England. I was interested in what she said about the local Shopwatch scheme pilot. The Pubwatch scheme in my own constituency has been very successful, so I am interested in the Shopwatch pilot and whether we could adopt it.
Gareth Snell spoke about the dangers of working in the evening. He also reminded us of our responsibilities as consumers. Far too often in shopping environments on a Saturday afternoon, people have a bunch of kids with them and they get quite stressed out, but as consumers we have a responsibility to act and behave in a certain way, which some people perhaps forget. Although people have spoken about some of the figures, I was struck by what he said: up to 50 people will have been assaulted by the time this debate concludes. It reminds us of the danger that many people face just by going to work, so he was right to put that on the record.
My other constituency neighbour, Hugh Gaffney, made a typically thoughtful speech. He was right to talk about the retail tax as well. He spoke about the situation in Bellshill Main Street and some of the costs for his constituency.
In Scotland there were 31,300 recorded offences of shoplifting in 2017-18, which equates to 58 per 10,000 inhabitants. The Scottish Government are acutely aware of how serious shop theft and physical and verbal abuse are in the retail sector. We are working closely with the Scottish Grocers Federation, Police Scotland and the Scottish Business Resilience Centre, and my colleague, Ash Denham, the relevant Minister, is progressing that.
This debate gives us the opportunity to pay tribute to the many retail workers who serve us every single day. We know that their work can be dangerous and often includes antisocial hours. First and foremost, today is an opportunity for us to acknowledge their hard work and place on the record the debt of gratitude that we owe every retail worker.
In my own constituency of Glasgow East we have vibrant retail outlets, including the small shops on Tollcross Road, Baillieston Main Street and Shettleston Road, and the much larger shopping centres such as the Lochs in Easterhouse, Glasgow Fort and the iconic Forge to name but a few. Each of those shopping centres provides significant employment opportunities in my constituency. I pay tribute to all of the staff, particularly the security guards who work tirelessly to ensure that those centres are enjoyable places for us to eat, shop and meet friends.
However, crime is prevalent in retail environments and many shopping centres have to undertake work to prevent shoplifting, which accounts for some 6% of recorded crime in Scotland. In advance of today’s debate, I was in contact with Paul Wishart of Parkhead Forge and Phil Goodman of Glasgow Fort. Both of them told me about the challenges that their centres face in guarding against theft, which can lead to increased overheads. In the case of Glasgow Fort, the year 2018 saw a total of 279 incidents involving retail theft, attempted theft or fraud. That accounts for around 40% of all the incidents that Glasgow Fort’s security team had to deal with.
In preparing for today’s debate I was surprised to learn that security accounts for 25% of the total operating costs at the Fort: a significant overhead that is then passed on to the various retailers that occupy it. Although I am totally supportive of the security industry, I would much prefer to see retailers passing on savings to their hard-working shop staff who are so often, as Members have already said, underpaid. We know that retail is not one of the more handsomely paid roles.
Broadly speaking, retailers in the East End are hugely complimentary towards the local police, but I know from speaking to staff at the Forge that response times to shoplifting can vary. That is significant when there is no longer a community officer based in the centre. Longer response times put additional pressure on both security staff and shop staff. That means that some retailers will not press charges, because they simply cannot afford to have members of staff tied up dealing with incidents.
One other frustration relates to the wider issue of deterrence and punishment. Sadly, in the case of Parkhead Forge, there are a number of repeat offenders who know exactly what kind of punishment they can expect to receive if caught shoplifting. One of the reasonable suggestions that Paul at the Forge made to me was that offenders should be asked to do their community service in the shopping centre where the crime was committed. Perhaps, if they did so, they would realise the impact that their actions had on the shop and, above all, on the staff.
However, I do not want to end on a negative note in what has been an excellent debate. I want to round off where I started, by thanking our hard-working retail staff, who consistently go above and beyond and ensure that the Fort, the Forge, the Lochs and all the small businesses in my constituency are places where we are proud to spend our money and support local jobs.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. First, I declare an interest as a very proud member of USDAW and the Co-op, both of which have featured quite heavily in the debate. I congratulate my very knowledgeable and right hon. Friend David Hanson on once again securing a really important debate. I will keep my remarks short to allow the Minister to answer the many varied and insightful questions that have been raised by all colleagues today.
For many years, I have been an ardent supporter of USDAW’s Freedom From Fear campaign, and I am acutely aware of the prevalence of violence committed against shop workers who are simply doing their job. USDAW’s 2018 survey showed that in the past year nearly two thirds of shop workers were verbally abused, just under half were threatened, and an average of 280 shop workers were assaulted every day. That abuse and violence stands at an unacceptably high level. It is essential that we take action to reduce instances of abuse.
Crime against retailers is detrimental to both the businesses and the workers. Theft places a financial burden on the shop, and there is a negative impact on employees who are forced to endure abuse. Retail crime costs the sector an estimated £246 million. In my Swansea constituency alone, a reported £190,000 was lost as a result of this type of crime.
There are numerous examples of police failing to prosecute cases of retail crime, not because they do not want to, but because their resources are so pared back.
I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the current funding cuts that all police forces are facing. Does she agree that the £30 million that has been cut from the Gwent police budget has a direct impact on the way the police in my area can carry out their role both reactively and, just as importantly, proactively, to prevent shop crime from happening in the first place?
May I say that that point was very well made? The point that we are making is that the lack of action because of the lack of resources is causing a lack of reporting. USDAW says that 17% of those attacked do not report the crime.
I have always been clear, when I have spoken about the effects of antisocial behaviour and crime, whether it involves physical violence or verbal abuse, that those incidents cause emotional and psychological damage. We have to do more to demonstrate that we are protecting retailers and their staff, who are on the frontline. We need to send a clear message to those prepared to commit these crimes that they will not be tolerated, that they are not acceptable, and that those committing them will be punished. It is the responsibility of this Government to do more to ensure the safety of our citizens; they must listen to the very wise words of all the speakers here today. I shall end my remarks with that and just say to the Minister that I hope she has listened carefully to what all Members have had to say and will respond accordingly to as many points as possible.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. I am grateful to all right hon. and hon. Members for a really thoughtful and thought-provoking debate. I am particularly grateful to the shadow Minister, Carolyn Harris, for such a brief response, because that gives me plenty of time to answer the many important points that have been raised.
I congratulate David Hanson on securing this debate on a matter that I know is of huge importance to him and his constituents. It has been a genuine pleasure to work with him and members of the all-party parliamentary group on retail crime, chaired by Steve McCabe and my hon. Friend Richard Graham, particularly during the passage of the Offensive Weapons Bill, because we have made real progress. I hope we will make much more in future.
I will make a gentle point for Hansard regarding a comment that was made earlier. This debate is taking place alongside a very important statement by the Prime Minister in the main Chamber, about the European Council. I know that many hon. Members will have had real difficulty deciding which important debate they should take part in.
The importance of our local shops and convenience stores unites us all; every single constituency has such shops. I take this opportunity to thank the local shops in my wonderful Louth and Horncastle constituency. I may get into a battle with Susan Elan Jones about whose constituency is more beautiful, but I have the pleasure of having some special market towns in my very rural constituency, as well as many independent shops on our high streets that we are keen to preserve. I hope that all the shops in all our constituencies will have a busy and profitable Easter period in week or two ahead.
Right hon. and hon. Members have very powerfully made the point that crimes against our local shops and businesses are not victimless—everyone who spoke made that point strongly. I think that we were all struck by the examples given by the hon. Member for Clwyd South and indeed by Alison Thewliss, who brought some of her own experiences to the Chamber. Gareth Snell talked about the cultural impact of such crimes, not just on the immediate victims, but on the wider shop staff community and then on villages and small towns. I am grateful to him for making that important point.
Violence and abuse remain the biggest concern for retailers. That is the No. 1 priority for the National Retail Crime Steering Group, which I chair, and I am delighted to see members of the group in the Public Galley. The group brings together retailers, trade bodies, police and others, to help to ensure that our response to tackling those crimes is as robust as it can be. Our last meeting, a month or so ago, was extraordinary and focused solely on the issue of violence. I am grateful to the members of the group for helping my officials to draft the call for evidence in such a way that we get the richest evidence we can from shop workers and others in the retail industry.
I am absolutely determined to tackle this problem. Every day, we ask shop workers to enforce the law, whether by refusing to sell age-restricted products to those whom they believe are below the legal age, or by confronting criminals who are trying to steal from their business. Shop workers, like all employees, have the right to feel safe at work, without fear of violence or intimidation. That is why, on April 5, I launched a call for evidence to enable us to learn more about the scale and extent of the issue and inform our response.
We are seeking information in four key areas. First, information on prevalence and data will help to address gaps in our understanding and to build a more accurate picture of the nature of violence and abuse toward staff. Secondly, information on prevention and support will help us to gather evidence and information about what works in preventing such crimes, including how businesses can support their staff. Thirdly, information on enforcement and the criminal justice system will help to develop our understanding of the reporting of incidents, application of the current legislative framework, and the response by the police and wider criminal justice system. Fourthly, identifying further best practice will help to establish what works and to consider potential non-legislative solutions.
The call for evidence will run for 12 weeks, to ensure that those with an interest have sufficient time to respond. Obviously, we will consider the responses carefully and publish our response as swiftly as possible after the call for evidence closes.
The Minister has indicated that the closure for responses is June, but I would welcome some indication of when she expects to respond publicly. The Home Office has still not published a response to an outstanding consultation on air weapons, which closed in February 2018, so I would welcome some framework for her official response.
My intention is to publish it in the autumn. I ask all right hon. and hon. Members to spread the word through their networks and encourage local shopkeepers to contribute to the consultation, because the richer the tapestry of evidence that we have, the better we will be able to respond.
The call for evidence is supported by a wider package of measures. The Home Office is providing £50,000 of funding for a targeted communication campaign, led by the Association of Convenience Stores, to raise awareness of the existing legislation to protect shop workers. We have published guidance on gov.uk about the use of impact statements for business, which provide victims with the opportunity to tell the courts about the impact a crime has had on their business. From my experience of working in the criminal courts, I know that those statements can make a huge difference and have a real impact on judges as they are considering how best to sentence offenders.
We have also worked with the police to develop guidance for staff and retailers to use when reporting emergency and violent incidents. As I say, I encourage everyone with an interest to respond to the call for evidence, including shop staff who have been directly affected by violence and abuse at work.
Interestingly, Chris Elmore, who is sadly no longer in his place—he may be in the main Chamber—made a wider point about courtesy and the use of language. I am sure that we all consider that an important point that we will encourage people to remember as they visit our shops. Shop workers deserve politeness and courtesy, as does anyone else in this world. The example was given of an item of stock running low, which can be frustrating, but we should try to behave with courtesy.
I will quickly touch on the issue of police funding, which a couple of hon. Members raised. It has largely been a debate of great collaboration and agreement, but I must point out that police funding will increase by more than £1 billion in 2019-20, including, with the help of council tax, extra funding for pension costs and the serious violence fund. The Home Secretary has also stated that he will prioritise police funding at the next spending review.
Does the Minister accept that in the west midlands, the increase in the central grant for police funding will be entirely eaten up by dealing with the pension funds? That will mean that the same consumers who are paying the 7% tax on crime will also pay the council tax for any improvement in their policing position. In the west midlands, that is a standstill position.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have given specific money to deal with the increase in pensions. I think he would agree that it is important to make sure that our police officers have their pension rights adhered to and honoured.
Furthermore, in the west midlands, we recently had a meeting with the police and crime commissioner and the chief constable to talk about measures to tackle serious violence, which is a particular problem. I was therefore delighted when the Chancellor granted an extra £100 million to deal specifically with serious violence. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman’s area will benefit from some of that.
I am delighted that Ruth Jones joined us. I was most interested to hear her intervention. I hope she will urge her police and crime commissioner to spend some of his reserves, which stood at £56 million as of March last year, because that or just a bit of it could go some distance. I am sure she will do that as a good new Member of the House of Commons.
The national business crime centre is a significant step in tackling business crime more generally. We recognise the importance of ensuring a co-ordinated response to crimes against businesses. That is why we have supported the national business crime centre, which launched in October 2017 with the support of Home Office funding through the police transformation fund. The centre provides information for police forces and businesses, offers a targeted alert service to support businesses nationally and facilitates national consistency in the management of business crime. It has proved to be a valuable resource for all businesses, not just retailers, and continues to provide essential guidance and support nationally. The resources include advice, examples of things that retailers can do to prevent crimes and training for staff to defuse potentially violent situations to help protect businesses, staff and customers alike. I urge Members to see whether the centre can be of assistance to shops and businesses in their local areas. In addition, the Home Office runs its commercial victimisation survey, which is an important measure of business crime as well.
One of the six points that the right hon. Member for Delyn made was about gathering good practice. There is a great deal of good practice already in the system. For example, many business crime reduction partnerships operate across England and Wales and bring significant benefit to their members, the wider community and the police. We have heard about other schemes, such as Pubwatch and Shopwatch, which Judith Cummins mentioned. There is also BusinessWatch and Radio Link, which I saw for myself in the constituency of Erewash. I liken such schemes to a form of vaccination. If every shop in the local area participates, the whole community is strengthened and empowered through the scheme’s operation, but if one or two businesses do not sign up, it weakens the overall strength of the community response to these crimes. We are keen to encourage such schemes. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak challenged police and crime commissioners to make retail crime a priority. I agree with him; the point of police and crime commissioners is to set local policing priorities. I encourage Members to raise the issue with their PCCs.
Jim Shannon highlighted the importance of the response of local businesses. Indeed, there is lots of good practice from individual businesses that shows a very positive impact, such as the use of CCTV, which he rightly mentioned. It is much cheaper than it used to be. One plea to everyone who uses CCTV is to maintain it and replace the tapes. I know that seems a small, practical point, but regrettably investigations sometimes show that the CCTV evidence is not there because the machines have not been kept up to date. As long as businesses are able to do that, it is of real benefit. Some stores have invested in body-worn cameras to help to reduce levels of violence and abuse towards staff.
The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central made a point about the future high streets fund, which is £675 million to support local areas in England to invest in town centre infrastructure and to support redevelopment. He made an interesting point about whether the fund could be used to help with security, and I am happy to look into that for him.
My hon. Friend Gillian Keegan is sitting behind me. She takes a keen interest in these issues, but because of her commitments cannot contribute verbally to the debate. She has reminded me that we have business improvement districts, which are business-led partnerships created through a ballot process to deliver additional services to local business. Improvements may include extra safety and security. In Chichester, all retail and other businesses contribute a 1% levy, and some of that money is used to fund walkie-talkies to act as a security system for support for workers. There are many examples out there of interesting schemes. They may differ in their applicability to different areas, but there are schemes out there that may help, if Members are interested.
The right hon. Member for Delyn rightly raised the issue of drugs and alcohol, as did other Members. We know that drugs can devastate lives, ruin families and damage communities. Our approach to drugs remains clear: we must prevent drug misuse in our communities and support people through treatment and recovery. Although drug misuse is at similar levels to a decade ago, we are absolutely committed to reducing it and the harm it causes. We have done that through, for example, the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016. Since it came into force, more than 300 retailers across the UK have either closed down or are no longer selling psychoactive substances. That has helped to remove the presence of such substances from our high streets. Of course, there is more to do. Our drugs strategy sets out our approach, bringing together the police, the health community and global partners to tackle the illicit drugs trade, protect the most vulnerable and help those with a drug dependency to recover and turn their lives around.
I am glad the Minister has moved on to the impact of drugs. Many retailers in Glasgow tell me that they have people coming in to inject in their toilets or at the back of their shops, which puts retail staff at risk. People do that because they do not have anywhere else to go. Will the Minister look again at the proposals from Glasgow for a supervised drug consumption room, which would take away that risk for retail workers?
A delegation from the Scottish Parliament—from Glasgow, specifically—came to see me about that and described the problems. It seems that there is more scope for precision policing in the local area. Policing in Scotland is now devolved, and where there are alleyways with drug paraphernalia, as the delegation described, I think there is a role for precision policing.
The hon. Lady will know that there is work ongoing with the local authorities to look at other ways of treating drug addiction, including more targeted heroin-assisted treatment. I am sure that, like me, she is pleased that more adults are leaving treatment successfully compared with 2009-10. The average waiting time in England and Wales to access treatment is now two days. On
Hon. Members raised the issue of alcohol dependency. The two phases of the local alcohol action areas programme, which works with a total of 52 areas across England and Wales, suggest that theft to support alcohol dependency is not as prevalent as one would imagine. Although many LAA areas have had problems with street drinking, none felt the need to take action to prevent alcohol-related thefts, interestingly. The reasons for that may be manifold, but I wanted to introduce that into the debate to ensure that hon. Members are satisfied that we have looked into it and will continue to do so.
Many hon. Members spoke about shoplifting of items with a value of less than £200. I will take a moment to clarify the law on that, because there appears to have been a misunderstanding. I am delighted that this debate gives us the opportunity to clarify the law. In 2014, we changed the law to enable cases of theft from a shop of goods of a value of £200 or less to be dealt with as swiftly and efficiently as possible. The changes enable certain cases to be dealt with as summary-only offences, so they can be prosecuted. The simple offence of theft is triable either way—in other words, in the magistrates court or the Crown court. We have said that shoplifting offences of values of less than £200 can be tried only in the magistrates court in order to speed up the process, in terms of defendants choosing trial by jury.
That procedural change was designed to improve proportionality and lay the groundwork for the police to prosecute uncontested cases in the future, much as they do with some driving offences. The change has had no bearing on the ability of the Crown Prosecution Service to prosecute a person for theft from a shop, or on the courts’ powers to punish offenders. An offender convicted of theft in a magistrates court can still face a penalty of up to six months’ imprisonment for a single offence. I am happy to discuss that further after the debate in order to clarify people’s understanding. The value of shoplifting in irrelevant, because it can still be prosecuted even if it is under £200.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak raised the issue of banning orders. We introduced a range of powers through the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014; these can be used by local agencies to redress antisocial behaviour that relates to retail crime, and can impose a range of conditions, such as banning an individual from entering a particular premises or area. Many of the powers are not limited to the police; some can also be enforced by local authorities. Again, if colleagues would like more information on how those powers can be used, I am very happy to share details after the debate. The more we can help our partners across local government and elsewhere to use those powers, the better I suspect it will be for our local communities.
I absolutely understand why the right hon. Member for Delyn and many others have asked the Government to consider introducing a new offence of attacks on shop staff. As he is aware from our previous discussions, powers are already available to the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to deal with this type of offending and provide protection to retail staff. There are a number of criminal offences available to cover a wide variety of unacceptable behaviour, ranging from abusive and threatening language to offences against the person. In addition, the independent Sentencing Council is planning to consult on a revised guideline for assaults during the summer. The call for evidence presents us with another opportunity to understand how the current legislation is being applied. I am very keen to look at the efficacy of community schemes, which were mentioned by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central and others. At the end of the call for evidence, I am very happy to see what it suggests.
I am very grateful to hon. Members for what has been an interesting and important debate on retail crime. As well as hearing concerns, we have heard about the positive work that is going on in response to retail crime. Although much more can be done to reduce such crime, there is much that we can take heart from in the efforts of a range of communities, organisations and partners to respond to this problem. I know that we all share a common aim to create safer communities for the public we serve, and that, once again, we all thank our local shops and convenience stores, which are open at all sorts of hours of the day and night in order to provide us with a pint of milk, our dinner after a late day at work or a bit of chocolate when we need cheering up. All shops play an incredibly important role in our local communities, and I join hon. Members in thanking them all.
I thank you for chairing the second part of the debate, Mr Wilson, and your colleague Mr Robertson for chairing the earlier part.
I thank right hon. and hon. Members for attending on what has been a busy afternoon and for contributing. I particularly thank my hon. Friend Ruth Jones. Can it be only last Thursday that real people in Newport put crosses on bits of paper to send her to this place? It is a great privilege to have her here. She may have made more, but I have seen her make at least two contributions already this week. I welcome her, and I am pleased that she is here. I thank my hon. Friend Carolyn Harris and David Linden for their contributions. The Minister responded, and I know that there is a working co-operation between us, but there are real issues about the level of theft and violence.
I have asked for the collection of statistics. I have asked for the consideration of legislation. I have asked for support for neighbourhood policing. I have asked for reviews of drug and alcohol work. I have asked for the prioritisation of retail crime. I have asked for a review of how the £200 threshold—I understand it, because I worked on the Bill at that time—is working in practice. I have asked for the Minister to disseminate good practice across communities, and the consultation that she graciously initiated will do that. When that consultation closes on
Freedom from fear should not be a slogan; it should be a reality for the day-to-day people who work on the shop floor. Freedom from losing business and profits because of theft, which can never be stopped completely but can be reduced by active government, is an objective we should all share. I thank you for chairing the debate, Mr Wilson, and I thank my colleagues for their contributions. I look forward to the outcome of the consultation, which I will certainly hold the Minister to account for in due course.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered prevention of retail crime.