Retail Crime — [Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 2:02 pm on 11th April 2019.

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Photo of Ruth George Ruth George Labour, High Peak 2:02 pm, 11th April 2019

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.