Retail Crime — [Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 2:10 pm on 11th April 2019.

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Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak 2:10 pm, 11th April 2019

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.