Written evidence submitted by Pets at Home Plc (VTR0009)
[Note: This evidence has been redacted by the Committee. “***” represents redacted text. Text in square brackets has been inserted where text has been redacted.]
1.1 This submission is on behalf of Pets at Home by Neil Cadden, Head of Profit Protection. This team looks after the security operation across the retail estate which spans over 450 locations.
1.2 In this document we aim to provide our opinion on the four key topics that are detailed within the body of evidence.
2.0 Body of Evidence
2.1 The police response to incidents of abuse and violence towards retail workers
2.1.1 Incidents involving violence, threats of violence and verbal abuse towards our colleagues have increased three fold since March 2019. The response from Police forces across the UK has been reasonably well received, albeit inconsistent during the latter half 2019/20. Quality of response has also remained static from summer 2020, with little noticeable change.
2.1.2 Some forces have attended the scene and investigated allegations promptly, have provided follow up detail where required and often made arrests. This has reassured our retail colleagues that the behaviour they have experienced is not going to be tolerated and that we as a business, and their local Police force will support them through what is a very stressful and potentially dangerous situation.
2.1.3 Other forces however, have been extremely slow to react to serious incidents such as physical assaults, or have shown very little interest helping out with others. There are three recent incidents of such nature detailed below for reference:
22.214.171.124 In [town in South West England] one of our store managers was physically assaulted [***] by a customer [in December 2020]. CCTV evidence has been collected by the Police and we have provided the name and address of the person who committed the offence. As of 08/01/21 no action has been taken that we have been made aware of.
126.96.36.199 In [city in Southeast England] there is a lack of motivation for follow-up. On chasing up an incident that was reported recently, an officer told our manager that ‘most incidents from retail just get filed away without having an officer assigned, as they don’t have the resource to deal with them’.
188.8.131.52 In [city in Scotland] one of our stores is suffering from a huge amount of shop theft which is a daily occurrence. The number of thieves in the store at any one time creates an intimidating and threatening environment. Despite increasing our security presence in the store, this appears to have little impact in deterring activity. Instead it has the tendency to intensify the behaviour of the thieves. Reporting through to the Police has not yielded any support, as repeated calls appear to have gone without an officer attending. The only interest that appears to have been taken is when one of the offender’s cars appeared not to have an MOT. We recognise that the Police cannot attend all instances of shop theft, however, this is a particularly hostile environment, that can and does turn violent and our colleagues are being exposed to it on a daily basic.
2.2 Barriers to justice for victims of retail abuse and violence
2.2.1 There are several barriers to justice, however the most prevalent is there is a lack of confidence in the justice system. Taking the time to report incidents, provide statements to the Police and then having the investigation drag on for a number of weeks, is sometimes not perceived as worth the time and effort. This results in a percentage of our colleagues not reporting incidents to the business or the Police. In some cases they have almost come to accept that it is a normal part of their working day.
2.2.2 Loss of confidence in some Police Forces is a further barrier due to other examples of a similar nature to the one detailed in 184.108.40.206. There are only so many times our colleagues can report incidents of violence and/or threats of violence to the Police without any action being taken before they lose faith in the justice system.
2.2.3 Finally, fear of back lash from offenders is another barrier. Offenders often live locally to the retail outlet where they have committed an offence. In the more serious incidents they threaten to return to the store, wait for the team after the store closes or they begin harassing the colleagues, either in person or over the phone. Some of our colleagues will not report a crime, or press charges for fear of repercussions. In some cases, this is combined with the perception that Police forces do not have the resources to support them in a worst case scenario.
2.3 Whether a new aggravated offence is required
2.3.1 An aggravated offence is absolutely required. The escalation in violence, whether that be physical or verbal, is unacceptable. The COVID19 pandemic has undoubtedly escalated the frequency and the severity of offences and the current sanctions are obviously not a credible deterrent.
2.3.2 Retail workers should not have to come to work and be subjected to violence and abuse on a daily basis. In numerous cases, this can have a detrimental effect on their wellbeing and mental health. It can disrupt their personal lives outside of their working environment and they can often fear returning to work in case they experience another incident. They are also often anxious about the possibility of the same offender re-entering their place of work, which happens regularly.
2.3.3 Over the past twelve months, our colleagues have experienced verbal abuse, physical assault in the form of spitting, punching, kicking, objects being thrown at them and even stalking and harassment. Offences of this nature are serious in any scenario, however within a retail environment they become more personal and concentrated.
2.4 The adequacy of the Government’s response to its call for evidence
2.4.1 Whereas the government response to the last call for evidence does acknowledge some of the feedback, particularly around the impact on shop workers of being exposed to violence, it does fall short on a couple of key points:
220.127.116.11 [41. Those in favour of a new offence suggested it is required to deter potential offenders and ensure an effective criminal justice response to these crimes when they occur. Whilst the Government recognises the motivations behind this suggestion, it does not consider that the case is yet made out for a change in the law]. The frequency and severity of the incidents in recent months supports a case to create a new aggregated offence. Retail colleagues should not be expected to come into work and be subjected to this form of behaviour on a daily basis. The justice system is inadequate in this area and no longer fit for purpose. If it was adequate, offences would not have increased to the level they currently have. The Police have rightly escalated their response to coughing and spitting and we have some great examples of where they have done a great job with this, however violence of any type against our colleagues should carry a similar priority level and a change in law would help support this.
18.104.22.168 [42. The government considers existing legislation that maybe applied to violence against shop workers to be sufficient]. This is not a sufficient deterrent to any offender, particularly throughout the current pandemic. Shop workers are placed in much more challenging situations than the general public, or than people in other non-public facing roles such as office workers. Offenders who routinely target retail workers are not being dealt with appropriately under the current justice system, which is at least in part to blame for the increase in both severity and number of offences being committed.
22.214.171.124 [43. In addition, and as is set out in the sections above, respondents to the Call for Evidence reported a general lack of faith in the way in which these crimes were dealt with, either by the police or their employer. Too often, the response to shop workers was inadequate, leading to individuals deciding not to report further incidents. The Government believes that this issue is one that requires more urgent action than it does a change in the law]. As a business we encourage our teams to report every incident to us internally and all offences to the Police. This does require some urgent action; the action needs to reaffirm confidence in Police forces and the justice system. Consistency needs to be achieved across the different forces and police forces need to be adequately resourced. They also need to be able to apply the correct priority level to violent offences in retail.
3.0 Summary and Solutions
3.1 In the majority of cases it is evident that the Police want to do a good job and in numerous cases often do. The reality however, is that resource has to be prioritised and it seems as though retail is less of a priority. The support that is provided to retail by the Police needs to be resourced adequately.
3.1.1 Greater resource needs allocating to Police forces to help tackle violence in the retail sector and officers need to be more visible on retail parks to deter potential offenders.
3.1.2 The consequences of this behaviour require much tougher sanctions in order to demonstrate that it is unacceptable and to act as a greater deterrent towards offending. Retail workers are particularly vulnerable as they have to deal with the public’s emotions on a daily basis. We have carried out some great work in terms of training our teams to manage conflict, we have also implemented robust security processes together with deploying our own security resource where required. This alone is not sufficient, for the safety of all retail workers it is critical that we get the correct level of support from the Police and justice system. If we do not implement changes, violence and aggression towards shop workers will continue to escalate.
3.1.3 A larger piece of work needs to be undertaken to establish consistency and credibility across different Police Forces and they need to be given the ability to apply greater priority to retail offences.