Retail Crime — [Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 2:52 pm on 11th April 2019.

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Photo of Judith Cummins Judith Cummins Shadow Minister (International Trade) 2:52 pm, 11th April 2019

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.