Retail Crime — [Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 3:12 pm on 11th April 2019.

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Photo of David Linden David Linden SNP Whip 3:12 pm, 11th April 2019

It is, as always, a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Wilson. We also thank Mr Robertson, who chaired the first part of the debate.

As others have done, I start by thanking David Hanson for securing the debate and opening it with a powerful and passionate speech. I will come back to this, but I pay tribute to the work he did as a Home Office Minister.

We have heard 15 Back-Bench contributions, which is particularly impressive on a Thursday afternoon. This debate is clearly not the highlight of business today and many of our colleagues are in the Chamber, so 15 Back-Bench speeches shows there is clearly an appetite for debate on the topic.

The right hon. Gentleman set the scene by reminding us of some of the stark data from the British Retail Consortium, and he had six asks for the Minister, which I have no difficulty endorsing. He was right to remind us that this is not a victimless crime; we should be reminded of that regularly.

Ruth George spoke about her 20 years’ experience in USDAW. I pay tribute to her for that. She talked about the police situation in England, as did a number of other Members; as a Scottish MP, I will not wade into that. She was absolutely right to place on the record the point about people working alone. Steve McCabe reminded us that the loss in his constituency was £214,000, equivalent to a 7% tax, which is passed on to consumers. We need to take note of that.

Jim Shannon spoke about the situation in Northern Ireland, particularly his home town, Newtownards, about which he always speaks passionately. The people of Strangford are very lucky to have such a diligent constituency MP speaking passionately about Northern Ireland. He was right to highlight a problem that seems to arise particularly in Northern Ireland of ATM thefts that cause great damage.

Susan Elan Jones was rather controversial. In a largely consensual debate, she divided the Chamber by talking about the beauty of her constituency. She was right to remind us that, even in a close-knit community, retail crime remains an issue. She read out some powerful testimonies, which I think Members were quite moved by.

My hon. Friend Alison Thewliss spoke passionately about shopping outlets in her constituency. She is of course my constituency neighbour, so I will have nothing said about shopping there. Go east! Shop in Glasgow East. But she is absolutely right to speak about small businesses and the impact of lone working. We also learnt of her experience as a retail worker in Next and about some of the issues she was exposed to there. The Chamber is richer for heeding the personal experience of Members.

Judith Cummins spoke about the underfunding of police forces in England. I was interested in what she said about the local Shopwatch scheme pilot. The Pubwatch scheme in my own constituency has been very successful, so I am interested in the Shopwatch pilot and whether we could adopt it.

Gareth Snell spoke about the dangers of working in the evening. He also reminded us of our responsibilities as consumers. Far too often in shopping environments on a Saturday afternoon, people have a bunch of kids with them and they get quite stressed out, but as consumers we have a responsibility to act and behave in a certain way, which some people perhaps forget. Although people have spoken about some of the figures, I was struck by what he said: up to 50 people will have been assaulted by the time this debate concludes. It reminds us of the danger that many people face just by going to work, so he was right to put that on the record.

My other constituency neighbour, Hugh Gaffney, made a typically thoughtful speech. He was right to talk about the retail tax as well. He spoke about the situation in Bellshill Main Street and some of the costs for his constituency.

In Scotland there were 31,300 recorded offences of shoplifting in 2017-18, which equates to 58 per 10,000 inhabitants. The Scottish Government are acutely aware of how serious shop theft and physical and verbal abuse are in the retail sector. We are working closely with the Scottish Grocers Federation, Police Scotland and the Scottish Business Resilience Centre, and my colleague, Ash Denham, the relevant Minister, is progressing that.

This debate gives us the opportunity to pay tribute to the many retail workers who serve us every single day. We know that their work can be dangerous and often includes antisocial hours. First and foremost, today is an opportunity for us to acknowledge their hard work and place on the record the debt of gratitude that we owe every retail worker.

In my own constituency of Glasgow East we have vibrant retail outlets, including the small shops on Tollcross Road, Baillieston Main Street and Shettleston Road, and the much larger shopping centres such as the Lochs in Easterhouse, Glasgow Fort and the iconic Forge to name but a few. Each of those shopping centres provides significant employment opportunities in my constituency. I pay tribute to all of the staff, particularly the security guards who work tirelessly to ensure that those centres are enjoyable places for us to eat, shop and meet friends.

However, crime is prevalent in retail environments and many shopping centres have to undertake work to prevent shoplifting, which accounts for some 6% of recorded crime in Scotland. In advance of today’s debate, I was in contact with Paul Wishart of Parkhead Forge and Phil Goodman of Glasgow Fort. Both of them told me about the challenges that their centres face in guarding against theft, which can lead to increased overheads. In the case of Glasgow Fort, the year 2018 saw a total of 279 incidents involving retail theft, attempted theft or fraud. That accounts for around 40% of all the incidents that Glasgow Fort’s security team had to deal with.

In preparing for today’s debate I was surprised to learn that security accounts for 25% of the total operating costs at the Fort: a significant overhead that is then passed on to the various retailers that occupy it. Although I am totally supportive of the security industry, I would much prefer to see retailers passing on savings to their hard-working shop staff who are so often, as Members have already said, underpaid. We know that retail is not one of the more handsomely paid roles.

Broadly speaking, retailers in the East End are hugely complimentary towards the local police, but I know from speaking to staff at the Forge that response times to shoplifting can vary. That is significant when there is no longer a community officer based in the centre. Longer response times put additional pressure on both security staff and shop staff. That means that some retailers will not press charges, because they simply cannot afford to have members of staff tied up dealing with incidents.

One other frustration relates to the wider issue of deterrence and punishment. Sadly, in the case of Parkhead Forge, there are a number of repeat offenders who know exactly what kind of punishment they can expect to receive if caught shoplifting. One of the reasonable suggestions that Paul at the Forge made to me was that offenders should be asked to do their community service in the shopping centre where the crime was committed. Perhaps, if they did so, they would realise the impact that their actions had on the shop and, above all, on the staff.

However, I do not want to end on a negative note in what has been an excellent debate. I want to round off where I started, by thanking our hard-working retail staff, who consistently go above and beyond and ensure that the Fort, the Forge, the Lochs and all the small businesses in my constituency are places where we are proud to spend our money and support local jobs.