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New criminal offence needed to protect retail workers following shocking upsurge in violence and abuse – Home Affairs Committee

29 June 2021

Violence and abuse towards shop workers is becoming endemic in British society and the policing response is failing to match the scale of the problem, the Home Affairs Committee has found.

In its report published today, the Committee calls for a much stronger policing response to tackle violence and abuse against shopworkers, as well as more support from employers and more prevention work on local high streets. It calls on the Government to consult on the scope of a new standalone criminal offence to protect retail workers from unacceptable violence and abuse.

The last 5 years has seen a shocking increase in the level of violence and abuse directed towards retail workers. For millions of shop workers this has become a daily reality. The Committee found that abuse and violence increased during the pandemic, concluding that it is appalling that these front-line workers faced greater abuse during the crisis.

  • The Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) found that 89% of individuals working in local shops had experienced some form of abuse
  • The Co-op reported a fourfold rise in incidents of violent crime between 2014 and 2020.
  • The British Retail Consortium reported that the number of incidents recorded last year amounts to the equivalent of one a minute during a typical shopping day
  • USDAW reported that 76% of shop workers said that abuse has been worse during the Covid crisis

The Committee has found that the policing response to retail crime is failing to match the rising tide of violence and abuse. On far too many occasions retail workers are being left alone to manage dangerous situations which put both their physical and mental wellbeing at risk. The Home Affairs Committee’s own survey found that only 1 in 5 shopworkers who reported incidents were satisfied with the response from the police. When the police fail to attend or follow-up serious incidents, it undermines trust and confidence in them, discourages reporting, and weakens the deterrent for repeat offenders.

The Committee is therefore calling for urgent improvement in reporting and responding to retail crime, including:

  • The expansion of neighbourhood policing teams who can rebuild relationships with retailers, identify prolific offenders and respond quickly to local reports of retail crime
  • Proper recording of violence against shopworkers including mandatory recording of offences committed in a retail environment to allow for better monitoring of the scale of the problem and patterns of local crime
  • A new criminal offence to send a powerful and long overdue message that assaults on retail workers will not be tolerated, with Government urged to consult urgently on the scope of the new offence
  • Police and Crime Commissioners and Chief Constables to provide local leadership in giving greater priority to retail crime and the creation of Business Crime Reduction Partnerships for all areas, including supporting small independent shops
  • An Employers Charter setting out how employers should support and protect staff including reporting, security measures, training, counselling, and banning prolific offenders
  • Safer Streets Fund resources to support measures on high streets and retail settings

The report additionally highlights the need for renewed focus and action on the causes of retail crime, including theft linked to organised crime and in particular the consequences of drug addiction. The Committee calls for local drug rehabilitation services to be adequately and sustainably funded to help break the cycle of prolific offending.

Throughout the course of its inquiry, the Committee heard that the patchwork of existing offences for prosecuting incidents of violence and abuse against shop workers is not adequate to address the escalating nature of these crimes. Retail workers are responsible for enforcing laws with regard to age-restricted sales and restricted goods, and conflict over these types of sales is a key trigger for violence and abuse. The report notes that other categories of workers, such as emergency workers and customs officers, have been afforded extra protection by the law in recognition of the service they provide to the public and the responsibility placed upon them by Parliament. The Committee believes that offences against retail workers must be treated with the same seriousness, with extra protection from the law.

Drawing on evidence that the creation of a specific offence for assault on emergency workers has driven up prosecutions in that area, the Committee advocates for an equivalent standalone offence of assault on a shop worker and calls on the Government to consult on the scope of the offence. It believes this would send an unambiguous message that retail workers on our high streets and in our communities must never be unsafe at work.

Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, Rt Hon Yvette Cooper MP said:

"Everybody should be safe at work. Shop workers are the lifeblood of our local high streets and communities. During the Covid-19 pandemic, retail workers kept our communities going and they deserve our thanks and gratitude. It is even more shameful, then, that abuse and assaults against shopworkers went up during the pandemic, and it is completely unacceptable that these attacks have become so commonplace in our society.

Yet too often the police have not taken these crimes seriously enough and workers have been left to deal with the traumatic consequences alone. Those who abuse and assault shop workers must not be allowed to reoffend with impunity. Policing leaders must step up and make this a priority for local forces – with more neighbourhood police, clear plans to identify repeat offenders, respond to incidents swiftly and better record and understand patterns of local crimes.

Other public workers have rightly been afforded extra protection by the law in recognition of the public service they provide and the increased risks they face, and a standalone offence for assault on emergency workers has produced promising early results in increasing prosecutions. Violence and abuse towards shop workers must be treated with the same seriousness and those workers must be afforded similar protection in law.”

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