Retail Workers: Protection

– in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 11th February 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Employment) 4:30 pm, 11th February 2020

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered protection of retail workers.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. The simple reason for calling this debate is that I want to raise the issue of attacks on and threats to retail workers. Although the issue has been given more attention in the House in recent years, we need this opportunity to talk about the violence and threats faced by thousands of constituents in their day-to-day lives and to press the Government to take action.

The retail industry is the single largest private employer in the UK, with 3 million employees and sales of more than £3.8 billion. About one in 10 workers works in the industry. The services they provide up and down the country are invaluable to our communities, but those workers are increasingly under threat from the rising epidemic of violence and abuse from some members of the public. By the end of today, up to 115 retail workers will have been attacked, according to the British Retail Consortium. The Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers—the union representing retail workers—estimates that the figure is even higher; after surveying its members, it believes that around 280 shop workers are assaulted daily. Research by the Association of Convenience Stores suggests that violence has significantly increased in recent years.

Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Solicitor General, Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Security)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he agree that there is a particular problem with lone workers in the retail sector, and that it is something we need to pay attention to?

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Employment)

I agree, and I will come to that. The consistent threat faced by retail workers is despite the fact that retailers spent nearly £1 billion on crime prevention last year alone. The real issue is the human aspect. Staff are being put in danger by simply doing their job. All the organisations and individuals I have spoken to highlight the dramatic impact of assaults and threats at work.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

This is an important issue, which is why so many Members are here. A massive part of protecting retailers comes in the knowledge that a police force is close at hand, ready and able to respond quickly. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need a visible community policing presence on the high street, as a deterrent to retail crime? One way of achieving protection is CCTV on the high street and in shops, but we need a police presence too.

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Employment)

I agree. Community policing is a vital resource. Following up crimes with prosecutions, and deterrents such as CCTV, are powerful and pertinent.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield

This is such an important debate. We face this problem in Huddersfield. Does my hon. Friend agree that being a member of a good trade union such as USDAW is a great protection for workers in this sector? Organisations such as the Co-op—I do not mean the Labour and Co-operative party, of which I am a member—protect workers much better than many major high street retailers.

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Employment)

I agree wholeheartedly; trade union membership should be encouraged. Trade unions work in partnership with organisations such as the British Retail Consortium and the Co-op, as they have done to prepare for this debate.

Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Fair Work and Employment)

Some large retailers discourage trade union membership in their own employee handbooks. Is that not something that we should highlight? We should name and shame the companies that discourage trade union membership in their handbooks; it is a vital protection for workers in this country.

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Employment)

I agree, and I will come on to the progressive work that some of the hon. Gentleman’s Scottish comrades are doing elsewhere.

Working every day in a situation where they were attacked or threatened, and facing a constant stream of strangers, is more than enough to cause retail workers panic attacks and anxiety after an assault. Retail workers, especially those working at night—as touched on by my hon. Friend Nick Thomas-Symonds—or tasked with selling alcohol, simply do not have the option of avoiding the anti-social behaviour of others. Dr Emmeline Taylor, in collaboration with the Co-operative Group, traced the psychological impact of the epidemic of violence. She highlighted the incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder in employees after their assaults. In the most severe cases, they were too traumatised to return to work—assaults literally cost them their livelihood.

In preparation for this debate, the House of Commons digital engagement team last week put out a survey online. Some of the responses received were absolutely shocking: stories of employees being racially abused, watching colleagues being stabbed and punched, and even being held at gunpoint. Andrea from Sheffield told us:

“we are threatened...daily...with…needles, flick knives...colleagues have been headbutted and punched. Shoplifters feel it is their right to assault us”.

The psychological impact described by Dr Taylor is all too clear in many responses. One worker from Bristol said that he developed severe PTSD and panic attacks after he was assaulted at work—another victim of these callous criminals, who affected his livelihood, and who affect that of major retailers.

Looking at the responses, it is obvious that some retailers can do more to support their staff, as many do not feel protected or defended by employers. It is also clear that staff want legally set and enforced standards of behaviour from the public. One respondent, Fiona, stated:

“Customers see retail workers as ‘fair game’, things they wouldn't say to a stranger in the street, they are quite happy to say it to us...I believe for our protection, it should be made clear that verbal or physical abuse would result in prosecution”.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. I wanted to raise the point he just made, because the authorities are giving the wrong signal. The setting of the figure of £200, which has almost become an acceptable figure for shoplifting, is signalling that the police do not need to intervene at that level. Provided the shoplifter keeps it under £200, they will get away with it—the worst that will happen is they will get a fine by post, a bit like a parking offence.

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Employment)

I concur wholeheartedly. Anyone who is assaulted deserves to be protected by the law, but it is clear that retail workers face a particular threat. What is more, despite ample evidence, some cases are not being prosecuted, as rightly pointed out by USDAW, even when there is clear video footage of an assault. A lack of sentencing leads to a lack of reporting, which leads to even fewer prosecutions. USDAW found that 17% of attacks are never even reported to the police.

There is another reason why we need urgently to review how we handle assaults on retail employees. We put a statutory responsibility on retail workers to uphold the law and to protect the public from dangerous items getting into the wrong hands.

Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Labour/Co-operative, Nottingham North

Does my hon. Friend believe that we in this place have a special responsibility towards shop workers? We are the ones saying, “Please don’t sell some people alcohol. Please don’t sell children cigarettes. Please don’t sell offensive weapons and acids.” By making all those restrictions, we put shop workers in a difficult conflict situation. Does he think that gives us an extra responsibility?

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Employment)

I agree. I thank my hon. Friend for the ten-minute rule Bill he introduced recently, which addresses this very issue. USDAW has found that 25% of incidents of people assaulting or threatening retail workers are triggered by staff challenging shoplifting, 22% involve age-related sales, and 21% involve the sale of alcohol.

Photo of Paul Girvan Paul Girvan Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Education), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport)

I appreciate that this is a sensitive issue. Unfortunately, I witnessed an armed robbery in Belfast in which a young girl who was left on her own to look after a shop was attacked and robbed. There is a responsibility on shop owners, too, to ensure that staff are not left vulnerable and on their own without any cover whatever.

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Employment)

I agree. Certainly, lone working should not occur in such situations. We need responsible employers to ensure that that does not happen.

Staff who fear for their safety and do not believe they will be protected are less likely to challenge those who seek to get their hands on something they should not. We ask retail workers to do an important civic role in policing the sale of restricted items. It is a role we often forget they have to do. Surely, it is right that we protect them while they do it.

The current sentencing guidelines for all types of assault take into account as an aggravating factor the fact that the victim was

“providing a service to the public”.

However, that is one of 19 aggravating factors, which are measured against 11 mitigating factors. The experience of retail workers is that the impact of an assault on their lives is not fully taken into account during sentencing. They feel they do not receive appropriate justice. A separate offence of assaulting someone serving the public would be simpler to determine. I have seen multiple cases that show that the Government need to do more to encourage prosecutions and appropriate sentences that do not leave victims feeling abandoned. Creating a specific offence would also send a message that violence and threats against retail workers are not acceptable.

Photo of Navendu Mishra Navendu Mishra Labour, Stockport

Having been a retail worker for six years, I have come across some of the experiences my hon. Friend has shared. He referred to research by the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers. In June last year it conducted one of its surveys of thousands of retail workers, which highlighted that 62% of retail workers have been victims of verbal or physical abuse. Does he agree that abuse has no place in any workplace, and that retail workers must be respected with proper protection by the law?

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Employment)

I do, and I thank my hon. Friend for his powerful contribution.

I know that the Minister will point to the call for evidence that closed in June last year as a sign that the Government are listening to retail workers about this issue. I am pleased that that call for evidence took place, following hard work by my colleague David Hanson, the former Member for Delyn. I am sure that people across the House will recognise his campaigning on this issue.

Photo of Lucy Allan Lucy Allan Conservative, Telford

The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech. I congratulate him on securing this important debate—the attendance is excellent. I represent a constituency with a large shopping centre at its heart. We are reliant on our shop workers for so much of our economy’s success. Will he join me in congratulating the British Retail Consortium on its campaigning on this issue?

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Employment)

I certainly will. In my short time in Parliament—two and a half years and two general elections—I have had the pleasure of meeting representatives of the British Retail Consortium.

Photo of Liz Twist Liz Twist Labour, Blaydon

In my constituency, 24% of jobs are in retail, either at the massive Metrocentre or in small shops. Clearly, my constituents—including Co-op staff Dan, Calum, Kate and Caroline, who wrote to me—are really worried about this issue. My hon. Friend noted that the call for evidence ended on 28 June last year. Is it not about time we had some action, rather than just gathering more evidence?

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Employment)

Action is the key word—definitely. Some quick maths tells us that, in the 228 days since the call for evidence, 91,200 more workers have been assaulted. Will the Minister be clear and tell us when we will get the Government’s response? The Government claim that they are keen to apply tougher sentencing to criminal offences. There are plenty of upcoming opportunities to create the tougher, clearer sentences that retail workers, as well as the British Retail Consortium and the Co-op Group, are asking for. A serious violence Bill and an employment Bill were announced in the Queen’s Speech. As I mentioned, my hon. Friend Alex Norris introduced a Bill on this issue less than two years ago.

A Bill to protect retail workers by creating a new statutory offence of assaulting or abusing them has received cross-party support in Scotland. Does the Minister agree that English and Welsh retail workers are just as deserving of protection as their Scottish counterparts? If he does, will he commit to including measures in an upcoming Bill to protect people doing their jobs? I am sure there would be plenty of cross-party support for that. Additionally, will he ensure that he attends meetings of the national retail crime steering group, a vehicle he has cited as an opportunity for people to provide feedback, as a matter of course? Finally, will he assure us that he will take steps with his Department to prioritise this issue by including it in the strategic policing requirement?

We are in a unique situation: from the shop floor to senior executives, those working in the retail industry tell us with one voice that retail workers who interact with customers are being put in harm’s way. We need greater cultural change, and an end to the attitude among some that people who serve us in shops are fair game. They are spat on, racially and sexually abused, kicked and punched. They are threatened with knives, guns and dirty needles. Nobody should be treated in that way—especially not in their workplace. Those who would do retail workers harm need to hear a clear message that that is not acceptable, and that we value retail workers and the retail industry. I call on the Government to act.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

Order. Five colleagues are trying to catch my eye. The winding-up speeches will begin at 5.10 pm, so you have four minutes each. I call Meg Hillier.

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Chair, Public Accounts Committee, Chair, Public Accounts Committee 4:47 pm, 11th February 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend Mike Amesbury on securing the debate.

My hon. Friend covered most of the important points, so, given the time, I will cut to the chase. However, it is important for me to put on the record that my constituency, which is in the borough of Hackney, has a high percentage of small businesses. More than 95% of them employ fewer than six people, and a large number of them are retail premises. A lot of them are small, family-run businesses. We pride ourselves on our independent shops, but I also want to focus on employees of larger organisations. As a number of Members highlighted, with more than 50 types of products restricted by law, many small retail premises deal with the frontline interaction between enforcement of the law and people who may not want the law to be enforced.

I have some simple asks of the Government. First, as was highlighted, it is now more than 200 days since the Government closed their call for evidence on violence and abuse towards shop staff. It is estimated that there have been 200,000 incidents of violence towards shop workers in that time. Around 12,500 of those incidents—I am a Labour and Co-operative MP—involved Co-operative colleagues. That is just unacceptable. If that were happening in any other sector, we would be having a hoo-hah in the main Chamber rather than a small, albeit important, debate in Westminster Hall. It is not acceptable that people have to face such abuse when they go to work.

That is not all in the hands of the Government, but I want to touch on what the Government could do. First, they could publish their response to the call for evidence. Even an interim response would help those of us who have an interest in this issue, including the bodies that my hon. Friend named, to get to grips with what can be done practically. We would rather get it right than have the Government wait ages and produce a blueprint that they think is right but that cannot be changed. We must engage from all our different perspectives. We have a shared agenda—I hope—to ensure that the people on the frontline are protected.

Secondly, it should be a legal requirement that shop workers who are employees and lone workers get proper support. If there is an argument for having lone workers—there may be challenges for employers if we suddenly say, “You must always have more than one person there”—proper devices should be available to them. Petrol stations, for example, have well worn routes for this, and bookies also have a process, although it is not always perfect. In many shops, people are very vulnerable: they are often right out there, loading the shelves and very much in the frontline. I do not think lone working is acceptable in most cases, but where it happens there must be proper support, which could be enshrined in law.

Thirdly, there need to be security guards. Big chains and employers should ensure that they have proper security and people trained to deal with conflict. Fourthly, we need more prosecutions. The number of prosecutions is just woeful.

Photo of Carla Lockhart Carla Lockhart DUP, Upper Bann

I thank Mike Amesbury for securing the debate. Last week, just outside my constituency, a lone worker was attacked when gunmen entered Bingham’s shop just outside Katesbridge. Does she agree that there needs to be tougher sentencing and more involvement from the police in setting up provisions for lone workers in shops in rural areas?

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Chair, Public Accounts Committee, Chair, Public Accounts Committee

As I have reached the end of my time, I cannot go into any of the horrific examples, but I know all hon. Members are aware of such examples. I completely agree that we need more prosecutions and tougher sentences.

Photo of Jack Dromey Jack Dromey Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Pensions) 4:51 pm, 11th February 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. First, I congratulate my hon. Friend Mike Amesbury, who is a great champion of working people, the safety of working people and the right of working people to go to work without fearing violence.

Five years ago, I stood on a platform at the USDAW conference with a convenience store manager who told this story. One night, a group of under-age young men arrived and tried to buy drink, and they were told to leave the store. A security guard was abused. The manager went to help the security guard, and the young men left. The following night, they came back again. This time, there was a black security guard, and, shamefully, they racially abused him. The manager intervened in support of the security guard, and he was then so violently assaulted that he died three times. He was eventually saved by the ambulance crew. He, a fine man in his forties, told his story in the most heartbreaking way. He spoke of how he used to love to go mountain biking, and to play football with his son on a Saturday. He said, “Never again will I be able to do that.” It is utterly shameful that shop workers should, in the most extreme cases, be treated to that kind of assault, changing their lives forever.

It is right that today’s debate has been initiated, not least because although Government have made some progress, they need to go much further, to be perfectly frank, to protect shop workers from that kind of assault. We have all seen it, including in our own constituencies. I have seen the problems at Tesco at Six Ways at one end of the high street and the Co-operative store at the other end. They all tell stories of staff members who, in one way or another, have suffered abuse.

We are seeing a rising tide of violence against shop workers. Recently in my area, in a Co-operative store survey, one manager said:

“I’ve been punched in the face, threatened with a dirty needle and spat at more times than I can remember.”

Another said:

“They held me hostage. The safe was open, but they wanted more. They broke my nose and eye socket. I have nightmares to this day.”

A third said:

“I’ve witnessed many horrific incidents. The worst was when a masked criminal fired a sawn-off shotgun…on another occasion a colleague was struck with a medieval mace, and she lost her sight in one eye”.

Utterly shameful. USDAW has been outstanding in the leadership it has given to the campaign for the safety of shop workers. I also pay tribute to the work of both the British Retail Consortium and the Association of Convenience Stores, who have taken this issue seriously.

Having said that, crucially, what action is demanded in the next stages? Of course, it starts with the retailers, because they do not always get it right—that is for certain—on issues ranging from the problems associated with lone working to basic safety measures such as CCTV. Action is also demanded of the police and Government. There is no doubt that the police must give greater priority to retail crime—in fairness to the police, they have lost 20,000 officers, so the problems are immense and growing—including response times. Time and again, the story is told that the police were called and they took too long to get there. I stress again that having lost 20,000 police officers, by definition they have a problem, but retail crime needs to go up the police service’s list of priorities. That means featuring in police and crime commissioner crime plans and, crucially, being part of the strategic policing requirement.

Finally, I turn to sentencing. Building on the progress that has been made, and as powerfully argued by my hon. Friend, we absolutely must have tougher, simpler sentences that send the unmistakable message: “If you assault a good man or a good woman for no other reason than that they are serving behind a counter in a store and you want to buy drink—it does not matter what the reason is—there are never circumstances in which that is justified.” An unmistakable message needs to be sent: “Behave that way in future and you will pay a price with your liberty.”

Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Consumer Affairs) 4:56 pm, 11th February 2020

I thank Mike Amesbury for securing the debate. I am delighted to participate. I should declare that some 30-plus years ago I worked in betting shops, and I know all too well the threats, abuse and intimidation that workers in betting shops—and all shops—face on an all-too-regular basis. That gives me a particular insight into, and appreciation for, the kinds of days often faced by my constituents who work in shops. The same goes for shop workers across Scotland and, of course, right across the UK.

The hon. Gentleman is correct, and we in Scotland are looking at creating a specific offence to do with assaulting, abusing, obstructing or hindering retail workers, who simply turn up daily to do their job. I have been contacted by a number of constituents who work in shops and who wished to express concerns about safety in their workplaces. It is interesting to note, by way of an example, that more than 12,000 staff who work in Co-op stores have been subjected to verbal abuse, 1,300 have been subjected to physical abuse or threats and 800 have been attacked with weapons including knives, syringes and hammers. That is a snapshot of one group of workers in one retail chain. In that context, we can better understand and appreciate the concerns raised by the Association of Convenience Stores about the 200,000 incidents of violence towards shop workers since the call for evidence to the Home Office closed in June 2019.

As we have heard, apart from the threats of violence that shop workers face all too routinely, there is a psychological and emotional impact that cannot be easily ignored or dismissed. I look forward to the UK Government publishing the findings of their call for evidence on violence and abuse towards shop staff, and I am frustrated, as I know many people are, about the repeated delays. I understand that the findings are to be published shortly to inform consideration of what more can be done to protect those who work in our shops. All workers in all sectors must be protected from harm as far as is possible, and it is no different for shop workers. Of all workers, they are perhaps the most vulnerable to the kind of intimidation we have heard about.

Those who turn up to their jobs have the fundamental right to be as safe as they possibly can be. I hope the Government will work with shop staff, the retail industry and trade unions to achieve that outcome.

Photo of Charlotte Nichols Charlotte Nichols Labour, Warrington North 4:58 pm, 11th February 2020

I thank my hon. Friend Mike Amesbury for securing this important debate. Before I begin, I will declare an interest: I worked for five years for the trade union USDAW, which has done fantastic work alongside the British Retail Consortium in raising awareness of and tackling violence against shop staff. In the context of the TUC’s HeartUnions Week, I want to put that good work on record. I particularly highlight the work of the research and economics department, who are so often the unsung heroes behind the scenes of the union’s campaigning work on this issue.

Shop workers in my constituency, many of whom are on zero-hours contracts with poor terms and conditions, are expected to enforce the law on age-related sales. That is one of the key trigger points for violence. Having worked in the retail sector myself, I know from experience only too well how things as benign as not having someone’s preferred sandwich in stock, or asking whether they would like a carrier bag, can result in a volley of abuse being unleashed. Sadly, management may treat staff even more poorly than the customers do.

Retail is the largest employment sector in our country. If the Government are serious about levelling up, alongside a desperately needed industrial strategy in retail, they should do more to end the scourge of violence against retail staff; that should never be part of the job. That includes working constructively with trade unions in the retail sector to create a working environment that is free from violence and the fear of violence; reforming the criminal injuries compensation scheme to ensure that low-paid retail staff on insecure contracts who have been assaulted are eligible for the maximum possible compensation, including covering any loss of earnings; and reforming sentencing legislation to make assaulting retail staff in the course of their work a specific offence. I hope this important debate will kick-start that work.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

Everyone has been so concise that Gareth Thomas now has eight minutes.

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Labour/Co-operative, Harrow West 5:00 pm, 11th February 2020

Thank you for calling me to speak, Sir Gary. I join others in paying tribute to my hon. Friend Mike Amesbury for continuing the good work of our former colleague, David Hanson, in keeping this issue in front of the House.

I have taken part of a number of debates to which the Minister has responded. I genuinely believe he is serious about wanting to tackle the epidemic of violence facing shop workers in this country. My hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale referenced the figures from USDAW, which is a great campaigning union. It found that there were some 288 incidents of violence against shop workers every day in 2018. I understand that the figures for last year show a further steep rise in the incidence of violence. That only underlines the importance of this debate and the need for the Government to respond appropriately to the rising tide of evidence that action is needed.

I want to focus specifically on the work of Dr Emmeline Taylor, a leading criminologist who was asked by the Co-op Group to explore the context and the reasons behind the growing level of violence faced by its employees. She came up with seven clear recommendations, which I want to put on the record. Will the Minister be good enough to address—if not today, in the future—each of the recommendations?

Other hon. Members have already talked about the need for a specific, standalone offence to give additional protection to retail workers, so I will concentrate on the other six recommendations. The first is a review of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, which introduced the £200 threshold that my hon. Friend Jack Dromey mentioned as being a significant problem in creating expectations that people could get away with shoplifting. It would be good to hear whether the Minister accepts that that is a problem, and that a review is under way.

Photo of Martin Vickers Martin Vickers Conservative, Cleethorpes

I agree with the hon. Member’s comments about the £200 threshold. I have raised the matter with my own police force in Humberside. Those officers tell me that they do not treat it as an absolute, and they will treat each case as a matter of priority. I hope that the Minister will confirm that it is vital that that message goes out to police forces up and down the country. It is not absolute, and some cases deserve much more attention than others.

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Labour/Co-operative, Harrow West

It is interesting that the hon. Member says that. I welcome his comments and the conversations he has had. The lack of prosecutions suggests that the issue is still not being taken seriously enough by the Crown Prosecution Service or by the understaffed police forces in our country. I hope that the Minister will be able to demonstrate that that will change.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley

Does my hon. Friend agree that the problem with the £200 threshold is that it puts a monetary value on something when, as my hon. Friend Mike Amesbury demonstrated, the personal consequences of such offences are much greater than the monetary value?

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Labour/Co-operative, Harrow West

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The fact that post-traumatic stress disorder is being suffered by a number of shop workers who have been on the receiving end of intimidation or actual violence is a powerful demonstration of his point.

Dr Emmeline Taylor recommended a publicity campaign to promote zero-tolerance of violence towards shop workers. That seems eminently sensible and it would be comparatively easy for the Government to encourage that and make it happen. It would be good to hear whether the Minister will support such change. Dr Taylor recommends changing expectations, such that evidence of age should be provided more often to purchase age-restricted items such as alcohol, knives, aerosol paint and tobacco. Again, that seems eminently sensible.

Dr Taylor also recommends measuring hate-motivated offences in shops. Hate-motivated crime was one of the drivers that she identified as being behind the increase in violence against shop workers. Another recommendation was for drug testing on arrest for shop theft and violence against shop workers. She identified the rise in drug use—particularly of heroin, among other substances—as a significant problem, set against the sharp decline in the availability of services to help people deal with addiction. It would be interesting to hear from the Minister whether the rise in police numbers will be matched by a rise in access to drug and alcohol treatment services, and whether he specifically supports drug testing on arrest for shop theft and violence.

The last recommendation was about streamlining the reporting of incidents to the police and an effort to improve the accuracy of data, so that we can properly understand and, over time, tackle the sheer scale of violence against shop workers, which, as we can all clearly report anecdotally, is on the rise. Without accurate data, that will be more difficult to handle. I look forward to the Minister’s response, and again congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale and others on keeping the campaign very much alive in the House.

Photo of Steven Bonnar Steven Bonnar Shadow SNP Spokesperson (DEFRA Team Member) 5:07 pm, 11th February 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary, and to take part in this important debate. I congratulate Mike Amesbury on securing it and on highlighting the increase in assaults and threats faced by retail workers across the United Kingdom.

We have had some fantastic contributions. Meg Hillier highlighted just how well versed retail staff and workers have to be in particular laws, including on sales of alcohol, tobacco and offensive weapons, and other age-restricted items such as books and DVDs. We ask them to enforce those important laws to ensure that we keep our streets safe. We should be ensuring that these workers are afforded that same safety as they go about their business. They play an important role.

We have heard from some Members about drastic injuries sustained by workers going about their day-to-day employment. I hope that steadies the resolve of the Minister and the Government, to ensure that we put as much protection as possible in place for those workers.

Jim Shannon highlighted the lack of resources for local police and community policing. They are important points, because the lack of policing in our local communities and town centres is having a deep and detrimental impact on the safety of our shop workers.

My hon. Friend Chris Stephens spoke, of course, about the importance of union representation for shop workers. We have heard about the great work of USDAW and other unions. It is an excellent point because, as he says, some of the largest retailers actively discourage people from signing up to unions. I can speak with authority on that matter, as a former employee or partner of the John Lewis Partnership, one of our most iconic retailers, which actively discourages its members from signing up and being unionised. It is a very important role. This is an issue close to my heart, having built a career for myself within the retail industry before my foray into local politics. In fact, I was specifically dealing with problematic customers and difficult situations, both internally and externally, in matters of fraud and theft.

The protection of shop workers is critical to the success of our high streets. My own local city of Glasgow has a renowned shopping district, known as the style mile, which is the lifeblood of the city and its economy. The same is true of many towns and villages right across the United Kingdom. My own constituency has two large shopping precincts in Coatbridge and Bellshill.

Customer service or customer-facing roles are often the last we think of when considering the dangers faced by people at work. We rightly condemn anyone who perpetrates any crime against our protective services—police, fire, ambulance and so on—who face assaults, attacks or even just obstructions while they are simply going about the roles that they are paid to do, and I think we should take the same approach to all people in their working environment.

There were an estimated 10,000 reported incidents of violence against people working in small local shops in the past 12 months, 41% of which resulted in injury to a worker. That figure is far too high. One person sustaining an injury while simply carrying out their employment is one too many, but I am sure all hon. Members will agree that it is staggering that 41% have been afflicted with an injury. Some 83% of workers in the industry have at some point suffered verbal and threatening abuse for simply doing their job.

The top triggers for said abuse are enforcing the laws and facing difficult situations. I go back to my own bread and butter: people who are in the middle of committing a crime, or who have just committed it, have a fight or flee response, and nine times out of 10, when people are consumed by drug or alcohol addictions, their first reaction is to fight to ensure that they are not locked up.

What is needed from the Government is an urgent response to the Home Office’s call for evidence on violence and abuse towards shop staff. Since that call for evidence closed, we have seen little to no action. We need robust action now from the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice and the police commissioners, to tackle these violent crimes and their perpetrators and to protect the retail workers who are on the frontline every single day.

I also call on the Government to review the out-of-court disposal system. Shoplifting is often considered a victimless crime, but we know that that is simply not the case, especially having heard what so many hon. Members have said today. I ask for the introduction of tougher penalties for any attacks on shop workers. We can look at that in the sentencing Bill and in the sentencing guidelines for assaults.

Finally, I want to say to any young person who may be watching that retail work is a fantastic opportunity for people to learn a whole array of different business attributes. It is a really important role and a really important sector, and we should be actively encouraging people to choose it as a career path. By and large, it is a very safe environment for people to work and go about in, and of course there are some fantastic employers.

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Minister (International Trade) 5:13 pm, 11th February 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. This is an incredibly important debate, and it has been one of remarkable consensus on the scale of the problem. I hope the Minister will have some good news in a few minutes’ time in response to the call for evidence, because 115 retail workers have been attacked every day since it closed, according to the British Retail Consortium—a total of 24,000 retail workers. The Association of Convenience Stores estimates that 300,000 retail workers have been either attacked or threatened in that time. In responding to the debate here on 5 November, the Policing Minister described the levels of crime as “obviously unacceptable”.

It is time for me to pay tribute to my friend and former colleague David Hanson, who led that November debate and who championed the cause of retail workers alongside my trade union, USDAW, and many business organisations. I am proud to be an USDAW member and a member of the Co-op as well, because in the context of this debate, their advocacy on behalf of retail staff—both USDAW’s Freedom From Fear campaign and the Co-op’s report, “‘It’s not part of the job’: Violence and verbal abuse towards shop workers”—has been phenomenal. Today, 228 days after the close of the call for evidence, I repeat David’s call for a response that delivers a crackdown on this pernicious blight on our retail sector and the appalling catalogue of attacks on shop workers, which, sadly, we have heard described in graphic detail by a number of hon. Members during this debate.

I congratulate my hon. Friend Mike Amesbury , and I thank all those who have contributed to the debate. I thank the business community and trade unions alike for their contributions. My hon. Friends the Members for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) and for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) all spoke brilliantly, and I thank all hon. Members who intervened as well.

That brings me to my questions for the Minister. Police numbers have declined by 21,000 since this Government came to office. The Government have now promised an increase; indeed, the last Prime Minister started action to increase the recruitment of police officers, but she found that police officers are leaving the service nearly as fast as they can be recruited. The Policing Minister will be acutely aware of how difficult a promise that is to keep, but he must keep it, and in a timely fashion.

We require shop workers to uphold legislation passed by Parliament, so the least we can do is ensure that we protect those same workers. Legislation on solvents, knives, alcohol and tobacco must all be enforced by staff, and all can be the subject of tensions and verbal and physical attacks. The least we can do is ensure that the police have the resources to prevent assaults. Having more police is an essential prerequisite for the prevention of retail crime. Industry is taking steps—£1 billion-worth of steps—and employers absolutely have a responsibility, which they should be held accountable for meeting, to look after their workers. However, the public authorities should act as well, and that is why I repeat that call for the police officers on our streets to support retail workers.

Retail staff should also be able to rely on the justice system. That means prosecutions for violence, abuse, theft and shoplifting, and support for businesses and their staff. Failure to prosecute lets down the victims, so the Government need to ensure that the criminal justice system is equipped to act. The alternative is repeat offences and ongoing intimidation, threats and violence. A caution is not the answer. Consequences must be meaningful, not meaningless; that is why the Association of Convenience Stores calls for a review of the out-of-court disposal system, which needs attention and a response from the Minister. The association’s concern is that it is not disrupting offending and, indeed, is allowing repeat offending against retail workers.

That brings me to the call for tougher sentences and an answer to the question asked by David Hanson and by my hon. Friends. Will the Government legislate to protect shop workers, including, but not exclusively, when enforcing legislation such as age restrictions on sales of corrosives and knives? We have protections in place for emergency workers, and rightly so. Is it not time we did the same for retail workers? Will the Government create a specific offence of assault on a retail worker? Will they review the £200 shoplifting limit, below which no action is taken on thefts? Will they look at the role of organised crime gangs in attacks on shops—an added threat to staff and communities that also needs attention?

As Helen Dickinson of the British Retail Consortium put it:

“No one should ever go to work in fear for simply carrying out their job. Retail workers are at the core of our communities across the country and these horrific crimes impact these skilled, passionate and determined individuals that make the industry what it is.”

This is an incredibly important industry, and I hope that the long-awaited industrial strategy for retail includes an element of protection for retail workers. I hope the Minister comments on that.

My friend David’s last words in Hansard were that

“this issue will not go away and will be dealt with by Parliament.”—[Official Report, 5 November 2019;
Vol. 667, c. 252WH.]

I hope he is right, and that the Minister will give some hope that the Government will give retail workers the support and protection they need and deserve.

Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse The Minister of State, Home Department 5:20 pm, 11th February 2020

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I make no complaint that this subject has been brought up twice in three months. It is obviously extremely important and affects all our constituents in many ways.

Frankly, I have experienced this issue myself. When I was a young man, as a relatively penniless student, I worked behind a bar in a pub for about six months. I well remember the tension when denying another drink to those who had perhaps drunk a little too much. I am a big fellow, and if I felt threatened, there is no question but that people who do not quite have my physical stature might have felt deeply anxious and threatened. Fortunately, I never faced violence, but I am aware that lots do. As an MP representing a constituency with a small town in it, I am aware of the violence prevalent on the high street, and particularly in retail premises.

In the debate back in November, on the last day of the last Parliament, I took Members through the initial findings of the call for evidence. To be honest, although my speech was going to rehearse that again, it sounds as if people are a little more interested in a sense of action and movement, so with the forbearance of Members I will skip to that part. Having sat as a Back Bencher through a lot of ministerial speeches, I have found that there is quite a lot of flannel in a lot of them, and this is an area in which we need to see action more swiftly.

First, we will publish the response to the call for evidence next month; it will come shortly, in the next few weeks. I hope that that will be the start of action, not the end. I refer everybody to the speech I gave back in November, which indicated some alarming developments in violence towards retail workers and, sadly, the sense that that community of workers is starting to feel that it is just an acceptable part of their existence, which, from our point of view, is completely unacceptable. There is much more that we can do.

Secondly, as I am sure Members know, we co-chair the national retail crime steering group with the British Retail Consortium, through which we can do a number of things. One key theme coming through from the call for evidence is about really understanding the data and what is going on and disseminating that to the organisations that need to be doing something about it, both private and public. I will set up an intelligence-sharing group, made up of some members of the steering group, to work through what the data tells us and some of the practical solutions that we need, and then to report back to the wider group, which can help to implement this on a national scale.

Another thing that came through was about messaging effectively—to customers and staff—about the unacceptability of violence in a retail environment. As mentioned by Gareth Thomas, we should take a zero-tolerance approach towards this sort of violence, so a second group will try to develop some of that effective messaging, which we then hope to promote among retailers, learning from some of the good practice we have seen in sectors elsewhere and trying to bring the worst up to the standard of the best.

Thirdly, there is a big job for policing in terms of violence generally across our streets, but in retail in particular. As a couple of Members mentioned, we are recruiting 20,000 extra police officers by the end of the next 36 months. We will have to replace all the ones who retired as well, so the overall target will be to recruit between 40,000 and 50,000 over the next three years. It is a huge task, but it has nevertheless started well, and the first batch of recruits are already out and in training, on top of some of the recruits put in place last year off the budget settlement that policing got then.

Critically, we said that those first 6,000 police officers, who we are relatively confident we will get in the first 12 months, have been designated to be territorial police officers, so they will be out in our communities and on the streets, able to respond to incidents that take place in a retail environment. That is an investment of something like £750 million, and it is the first instalment of a three-year programme that we hope and believe will significantly increase the police presence in our high streets and shops. We have also given the Crown Prosecution Service an extra £85 million to enhance its ability to prosecute.

I am conscious that my hon. Friend Martin Vickers raised the issue of making sure that our police and crime commissioners and chief constables are aware of the issues around the £200 limit. I will write to them all to point out that the £200 limit is optional. It is no brake on their ability to prosecute or arrest somebody, which is effectively for their judgment. I will also include in that letter a requirement for chief constables and police and crime commissioners to examine their data too, to understand what is happening and to respond to concerns in their own communities about this kind of crime in the priorities that they set in their police and crime plans. Hon. Members will be aware that police and crime commissioner elections are coming up in May. This is such an important issue that I think all candidates should be apprised of it. We should put it on their agenda, so I will write to them as well.

That is the start of what I hope will be a huge collective effort to combat violence in retail and generally across the country.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley

The Minister will have noticed that several colleagues raised sentencing and available sentences. Is he able to say anything about that?

Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse The Minister of State, Home Department

I am not at the moment. I will consider the seven points raised by the hon. Member for Harrow West to see what more can be done, whether that is a specific sentence or whether we need the Sentencing Council to look at assault and think about aggravating factors that might be taken into account.

I definitely recognise that asking shop staff to arbitrate or to enforce legislation puts them in a particular position of vulnerability that may induce violence. There is a case there that needs to be addressed, and I am certainly happy to talk to the Lord Chancellor about his views on sentencing. We obviously have a general offence of assault, which can be used, and aggravating factors in particular circumstances should also be taken into account in sentencing, but we will certainly have a look.

Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Consumer Affairs)

Will the Minister tell the Chamber whether he has looked at the measures put in place in Scotland, and what, if anything, the Ministry of Justice in England can learn from what is going on there?

Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse The Minister of State, Home Department

I definitely think that part of our response and the work that we need to do following the publication of the call for evidence will be to look at not only Scotland but other countries around the world. This phenomenon will be common to most countries, certainly in Europe and elsewhere, and it will be interesting to see practices from across the world, to see if there is anything we can do to improve. We should not believe that if it is not made here, it is not any good. In my time in policing in the past, I found that learning what other countries do is often helpful, so we will definitely look for that evidence.

This extremely serious phenomenon contributes in many ways to the lack of health of our high streets and the unwillingness of our constituents to use their high streets, set against the internet retail and shopping phenomenon, which is already cutting away at the foundations of the health of the high street. If we can make high streets peaceful and attractive places where people want to go, we will put the heart back into our communities. Hon. Members have my commitment that we will do our best to make that so.

Photo of Mike Amesbury Mike Amesbury Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Employment) 5:28 pm, 11th February 2020

I thank all hon. Members for their contributions, including the Front-Bench spokespeople, and I thank the Minister for his quite detailed response. This is an important phenomenon, and the action it requires is what works, including in other countries, whether Scotland or elsewhere. We need legislation to protect retail workers.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered protection of retail workers.

Sitting adjourned.