Written evidence submitted by Wickes (VTR0010)
- Wickes Building Supplies are delighted that the BRC Campaign on violence and abuse towards shop workers has been successful in securing a Home Affairs Select Committee Inquiry into the matter. As a business, we feel strongly about the wellbeing of all our colleagues and in simple terms we feel it is unacceptable that anyone going to work in one of our stores may be subjected to verbal or even physical abuse.
- We therefore wish to fully support the Inquiry and have already circulated the associated survey to our colleagues. We would ask that our feedback be considered in answer to your Call for Evidence within the 4 criteria.
Who are Wickes?
- By way of introduction, Wickes are a home improvement retailer, with more than 230 stores throughout the country and we employee c.7000 persons within our Business.
- We specialise in the sale of goods and materials for both homeowners and the building trade and we also offer extensive ‘big ticket’ ranges in the kitchen and bathroom market.
Section 1. The police response to incidents of abuse and violence towards retail workers.
- Wickes are hugely supportive of the Police and the challenging circumstances they have to deal with. There is, however, mounting concern over growing levels of retail crime. Even before the pandemic the figures did not make for pleasant reading and since then, the situation appears to be getting worse.
- Since 2014, our Wickes colleagues have recorded in total, 401 incidents of Abuse and Violence, of which 60% were reported to the Police.
- Of the 241 incidents reported to the Police, 68% were subsequently responded to and supported. Additionally 16% lead to an arrest and Police prosecution. Furthermore, in conjunction with the Police, the business has issued 89 formal banning notices withdrawing access to our premises.
- The evidence gathered by the Wickes Security Department has been able to demonstrate that Police response and support to 2018 was tracking in line with the number of incidents reported. However, there is disparity in 2019 between the reported and supported incidents which can be attributed to the type of incident, namely verbal abuse and foul language which was not considered to be serious enough to warrant any further Police action.
- During 2020, Wickes experienced a sharp increase of 84% in the number of incidents reported compared to 2019. Of particular note, there were two spikes which directly correlated with the first and second national lockdown periods.
- In 2020, the Police responded to and supported 63% of all incidents reported, however it was notable from May onwards that police resources were stretched (coinciding with the Pandemic), which we can only attribute to the sheer number of incidents given the industry wide issues. Rather disappointingly, on two occasions where our personal attack buttons were used and confirmation of a serious incident was verified, the police failed to attend in both instances.
- Our Security Team has a strong relationship with Police forces up and down the country. It takes pride in ensuring all reported instances of abuse are backed up with the appropriate evidence. We believe this has afforded us a reputation of being a retailer that fully supports police prosecution. This is aided by instant reporting allowing for a number of security mechanisms to provide time critical and credible evidence (despite the majority of our offenders believing incorrectly that the wearing of masks would afford them a level of anonymity).
- This reputation has resulted in Wickes benefitting from a greater than average ratio of supported incidents.
- In summary, we have historically been happy with the levels of Police response but have noticed that, as the number of cases has steadily risen, the Police response rate has not. We are finding that since 2019, only what the authorities consider to be ‘serious’ issues are progressed. This has resulted in an increase in the number of re-offenders.
Section 2. Barriers to justice for victims of retail abuse and violence
- Within Wickes, we recognised that there was some historical reluctance from our colleagues toward the reporting of incidents of both physical and verbal abuse. This was picked up as a trend and we attempted to address the root causes as part of our internal ‘Let’s Care for Each Other’ campaign which delivered the following key components:
● Internal (colleague) and external (Customer) facing messaging such as in-store radio, POS, colleague poster, t-shirts, badges etc.
● A focus on reporting ‘every’ instance of abuse on one internal system to help the Business build an accurate record of the extent of the issue.
● The development of both systems and MI to ensure we had adequate support in place for any victims (training, counselling, procedural etc).
● We also promoted the opportunity for both our customers and colleagues to sign the Petition calling for the Inquiry.
● At the time of writing we are developing training for our Teams on how to defuse potentially difficult situations that might otherwise lead to incidents of violence and/or abuse.
- Since the internal Campaign launch in October we’ve seen a significant rise in incidents of abuse being reported (see section 3) and this backed up our supposition that previously there had been reluctance for our colleagues to do so. This has been partially addressed as part of Wickes recent focus; however this then creates the expectations that local authorities (Police) will react when the matter is escalated to them.
- Evidence gathered by our Security Team during our internal investigation process clearly demonstrates why some colleagues will not facilitate the reporting of these types of incidents and therefore become the first barrier to justice:
● Not being believed or taken seriously - coupled with the false perception that abuse is ‘part of the job’.
● The outcome resulting in a customer complaint.
● Having to become involved in criminal justice proceedings.
● Fearing that the criminal justice system is biased towards perpetrators.
● Fears of counter claims from the perpetrator.
● A fear that the abuse may be worsened by way of repercussion/threats to themselves and their family if they report the incident, including being “stabbed/killed”.
- A key area in order to substantiate any incident is the ability to provide evidence. The absence of such evidence can be considered a barrier to justice:
● No witness(es) to the incident or CCTV footage to clearly identify the events and substantiate the allegation.
● Incidents reported 48 hours after the event resulting in evidence being compromised or destroyed
● The absence of transactional data, dates, times, offender details, vehicle registration etc.
- The Police themselves are to be considered a barrier to justice, in our experience, if we overcome the barriers detailed above, we can often still find ourselves unsupported:
● The factor responsible for the outcome is often used by the police to justify not pursuing the case; a colleague was spat at when they apprehended a shoplifter for stealing a chocolate bar.
● Low level volume crimes are not deemed serious enough to deploy resource e.g. Verbal threats and hate crime
● Based on the allegation, the Police have pre determined the outcome and the probability of a successful prosecution without a full investigation.
● Inexperienced officers are being deployed to our stores to investigate allegations without the support and training required, resulting in failures such as but not limited to missing potential lines of enquiry and evidence.
● Irrespective of the severity of the incident and the availability of witnesses, in our experience if there is an absence of CCTV footage, the Police will not support the allegation.
● The severity of the cuts in spending has created a decreased level of available resources, which in turn has resulted in selective deployment. As law enforcement is the framework that underpins the three basic parts of our criminal justice system, their inability to support is the ultimate barrier to justice.
Section 3. Whether a new aggravated offence is required
- Since the Covid 19 pandemic hit last year we have all read regularly of the increase in reported attacks and abuse against shop workers. However, it should be noted that the abuse of retail workers has been on the rise for some time before the pandemic and it is Wickes strong view that such assaults are both appalling and unacceptable.
- The USDAW (the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers) survey from April involved 4,928 shop-workers post the Coronavirus outbreak:
● 62% of UK shop workers experienced verbal abuse.
● Almost a third were threatened by a customer.
● Some 4% were assaulted - when extrapolated over the circa 3,000,000 retail workers, this amounts to over 3,538 assaults per day over 34 days.
- We do not accept that there should be any circumstances where abuse towards our colleagues should have to be tolerated ‘as part of the job’. Furthermore we feel it unacceptable that our colleagues should ever feel unsafe at their place of work. As an essential retailer during the Covid 19 pandemic, our store teams have kept vital supplies available during these unprecedented, often difficult, times. We consider our colleagues in store to be in ‘the front line’ and that they should be considered as key workers who work long hours to help support communities.
- Retail workers, their friends, family and loved ones, are saying loud and clear that enough is enough - imagine if your loved ones (a son, daughter, partner etc) were to suffer verbal or physical abuse in the workplace - how can this be acceptable? We know that violent and abusive incidents can have a devastating and long-lasting impact - not only upon the individual but also businesses and communities.
- Our recent data from 1st June until 30th November illustrates how prevalent the abuse is within Wickes. As the insight included illustrates, Wickes alone had 91 instances of abuse reported. Of these some:
● 84 were verbal abuse
● 7 contained physical violence
- Of the 91 instance reported:
● 48% included incidents of foul language
● 10% of incidents were discriminatory
● 18% included threats of violence
- In terms of the causes of such instances we’ve established the following:
● 20% of the Incidents related to Covid controls such a queuing etc.
● 15% (combined number) were relating to mask compliance - either public refusal or our colleagues' exemption status being inappropriately challenged.
● 43% related to service (notably delays in product availability) with a further 10% relating to theft.
- Since the internal campaign (see earlier) started in week 40, you can see (below) the rise in incidents ‘reported’, perhaps giving the best insight as to ‘true’ numbers in our Business and the importance of maintaining internal focus on such a key matter to avoid complacency and ‘old habits’ in terms of attitudes to risk acceptance and non-reporting.
- Whilst much of the above is time specific in that it reflects the ‘pandemic’ that our society presently faces, Wickes would like to point out that even in ‘normal’ circumstances our store colleagues are often at the forefront of efforts to enforce the law. Examples of this would be the activities our colleagues are asked to carry out in enforcing restrictions on a range of age restricted goods (adhesives, potentially offensive weapons etc).
- Whilst the Government has only recently declined to create a new aggregated offence, (see July’s “Call for Evidence – Violence and Abuse Toward Shop Staff Government Responses”) the strength of feeling borne out of the Petition leading to this new Inquiry and the fact that so many retail workers have again been at the forefront of supporting ‘essential’ retail, should mean they are treated as key workers and heightens their legitimate call for them being better protected. The model for such an offence remains the ‘Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018’.
- Wickes would fully support the call for a new offence to be created in order to better protect our colleagues and we believe such a change will both help reduce incidents of violence against retail workers and remove barriers to them seeking justice. In conclusion therefore, we would recommend that a specific new offence of statutory aggravation of assaulting a retail worker should be created and legislation put in place to sentence an appropriate custodial term for anyone found guilty.
Section 4. The adequacy of the Government’s response to its call for evidence.
- On review, we were deeply disappointed by the government’s initial response to the petition; it seemed to lack urgency and offered little more than sympathy and a re-enforcement of already known issues. That said, in his foreword to their July 2020 response to the original ‘Call for Evidence – Violence and Abuse toward Shop Staff’ Kit Malthouse MP (Minister for Crime and Policing) made some statements that we at Wickes welcomed, namely:
● Recognising that the abuse and physical violence faced by shop staff can have a significant impact on their health, not only physically but mentally and emotionally.
● Shops are the beating heart of our communities and neighbourhoods, and never more so than in recent months during the Coronavirus pandemic.
● An acknowledgement that ‘individuals are not reporting retail crime, as they accept it as part of their job or because they do not have confidence in the response they will receive when they do’.
● Making it clear that the Government expects all crimes to be reported to the police and for them to be investigated accordingly.
- Whilst acknowledging the above, disappointingly, the Government response was that it did not consider that the case had been made out (sufficiently) in the CFE for a change in the law. Instead, it went onto state 3 key actions in the report that it would undertake to address the issues raised.
● To deepen its understanding and address the drivers of violence and assault against shop workers - with particular onus on the role of drugs in the issues flagged.
● To send a clear message that such crimes are not tolerated and should be recorded whenever and wherever they take place focusing on the messaging to victims and authorities alike that all crimes should be reported.
● To provide effective support to those shop workers who are the victims of violence and abuse - essentially pointing out that there are already a wide range of offences that a person may be charged with that could be committed against a shop worker (theft, burglary and assault) all of which have different maximum penalties reflecting the seriousness of the offence.
- Wickes view is that we welcomed some of the output of the Government response (such as to look at the Council guidelines in the sentencing legislation) and the indication that offences against shop workers can already be treated as ‘aggravated’.
- That said our experiences tell us that the need is more immediate and our view remains that a change in the law would send out the required clear and definite signal that abuse of shop workers needs to cease.
- We still call on the Government to create an aggravated offence similar to the ‘Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018’ that will create a clear deterrent against continued abuse of retail workers and would be punished by law carrying a custodial sentence.
- We appreciate the opportunity to feedback our experiences and evidence. It is our hope that our submission can be helpful, informative and ultimately persuasive in the forthcoming debates. It is our sincere wish that the call for legislation is answered and that retail workers are given the protection, we feel, they desperately deserve.