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.