Retail Crime — [Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 2:43 pm on 11th April 2019.

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Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government) 2:43 pm, 11th April 2019

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.