It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate my right hon. Friend David Hanson on securing this debate. He has worked on this area of public policy for many years. As a member of the USDAW group and of the Co-op party, and as a proud shopper at the Co-op, I too feel that I have several reasons to participate in this debate.
We have had quite a congenial debate so far, and I put my thanks to the Minister on the record as well. As with her work on modern slavery and gangs, this is an area of her brief that she takes seriously. Although few Conservatives are present today, the quality of the Minister will in some ways make up for that, for which we should be grateful.
My constituency, much like that of Alison Thewliss, is small but perfectly formed—[Interruption.] My hon. Friend Carolyn Harris says it is not, but it is—she is more than welcome to visit any time she likes between now and
Like many urban-based constituencies, however, my constituency can be broken down into a series of small communities linked together over history. Whether people are in the middle of my constituency, tootling up towards the moorlands and passing through Baddeley Green or Milton, or going towards Newcastle through Penkhull, they will pass a Co-operative store—I will constrain my remarks to those stores but, to cover all bases, other convenience stores are available.
Many community convenience stores are open from very early in the morning until very late at night. Normally, the ones in my constituency are the only shops open in a community at 10 o’clock at night, the only store open on a whole high street—everywhere else closes at teatime—and the only convenience store in the village that can still sell a pint of milk at 20 to 10 in the evening. Often, they are the place where people gravitate, because the light is on. In the winter, they are the only place that may be warm and, after a couple of drinks in the local pub, people may call in for a snack on the way home. At those times, the shop workers are most vulnerable.
Those times are not peak hours, so the workforce are not numerous and lots of people are not milling around in the streets outside, giving a sense of solidarity and community—the shop workers are on their own. If they are on the periphery of the city of Stoke-on-Trent, they will be far away from anyone else at work or from any on-duty police officer who will automatically be concentrating on the more densely populated urban areas in the city centre. That does not mean that crimes perpetrated against them should have any less value than those perpetrated against someone in the city centre.
As my hon. Friend Judith Cummins said, we are asking for more and more of the laws that we pass in this place to be enforced by civilians, at the till and at the point of sale. We are asking them to check ID, whether for the purchase of cigarettes, alcohol, or a knife. I am glad that the Co-operative Group has said that it will stop selling knives in its stores to prevent them from being available and used for crime in communities. However, we are asking civilians—individuals who have gone into a relatively low-paid retail job—to enforce the laws that we create. At the same time, we are saying that if those civilians receive abuse or are the victim of aggressive behaviour as a result of enforcing those laws, they may not get the follow-through and the justice that they desire. That clearly needs to be rectified, which is why I was proud to support the amendments that my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn tabled to the Offensive Weapons Bill, and why I am glad that constructive conversations are continuing between him and the Government.
There is another aspect of this issue that I am concerned about. I have been sent stories similar to those sent to my hon. Friend Susan Elan Jones, and the individuals against whom those crimes are being perpetrated tend disproportionately to be women. They are disproportionately older women who are working a low-paid job, and who disproportionately live in parts of the world where the sense of security has disappeared. I fear that there is a cultural issue in play as well: if people do not feel safe going to work in those shops, people will not feel safe shopping in them, and we cannot afford to lose those convenience stores from high streets. We cannot afford to lose those small shops from villages, because in most of those places they are the last shops standing, whether they are independent or part of a larger chain.
We need to start making examples of some of the perpetrators of these crimes, and demonstrate that their crimes will be taken seriously. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn said, there need to be little signs that we can point to and say, “If you carry on with this, you are undertaking an aggravated offence. You will be prosecuted, and there will be a punishment for your actions.” There are obviously penalties for aggravated robbery and other crimes, but I feel that the sense among some consumers that they are entitled to take out their anger, wrath or frustration on somebody who is at work, serving them and their community, is not taken as seriously as crimes such as robbery.
I also want to touch on a statistic that has already been mentioned: according to USDAW’s research, 280 retail staff are violently assaulted every day. Given that these isolated small shops will usually open from 6 am until 10 pm, a little bit of jiggery-pokery with the maths suggests that in the three hours this debate could go on for, up to 50 people will have been violently assaulted while we sit here discussing this issue. I do not think we should tolerate any violence, let alone up to 50 assaults; I stress that point not because I want to belabour it, but because I think it is important. These are relatively low-paid women workers who are serving their community through their roles, and it is simply unacceptable for them to be left in a situation in which they potentially face violence on a daily basis.
Like all Labour Members, I particularly enjoy setting six tests when it comes to any aspect of public policy, and I endorse the six tests that my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn has laid out. I particularly want to talk about community penalties, because that is one area in which I have seen success in my own constituency and community. The perpetrators of aggressive behaviour in shops on little high streets are made to go back and tidy up those high streets; they are used as the labour to fix some of the problems that they have helped create. That restorative process demonstrates to the community that that sort of aggressive action is not tolerated. As has already been pointed out, most of the staff who work in those shops tend to live in those communities and know the people responsible, so community penalties restore a sense of faith that justice is being done.
[Phil Wilson in the Chair]
Community penalties also allow networks to grow. I want to place on the record my thanks to the Stoke-on-Trent City Centre Partnership for the work it does through its Shopwatch scheme. It has successfully created a network of shops, mainly independent but also with the intu Potteries shopping centre, where anyone working alone in a shop knows that there is someone in a next-door shop who can come and help if there is a problem; they work through a network of radios and share intelligence about frequent perpetrators.
Intelligence networks are important not only for preventing crime, but so that people working alone in shop, perhaps around closing time, know that if there is a problem, there is somebody they can call—somebody who is looking out for them to whom they have recourse. That sort of community-based solution is important, but it should be done with Government, not in spite of Government. It should be the normal practice, not an ad hoc arrangement that arises from good practice in communities.
I want to leave as much time as possible for the Front Benchers, so I will end by asking the Minister to touch on or consider what role there might be for the future high streets fund and some of the town funds in funding some of these community-based improvements. We in Stoke-on-Trent do not want to see high fences or fortresses created around shopping areas, but a CCTV camera here and there can go a long way to making people feel safe, as can eliminating grotspots or dark spots where people can hide after committing a crime, and making sure there is help and support for individuals who may be going through tough times, leading them to commit these actions. I wonder whether treating retail crime not merely as a criminal justice issue but as a community and economic development issue could be a way to lever in money from other Government Departments. Small shops are valuable to our high streets. Although we should prosecute the perpetrators, we should also value these shops as integral elements of the communities we all serve.