Written evidence submitted by the National Federation of Retail Newsagents (VTR0020)
- The NFRN welcomes the inquiry and the opportunity to present its views to the Home Affairs Select Committee.
About the NFRN
- The NFRN was founded in 1919 and is one of Europe’s largest employers’ associations with the owners of over 15,000 independent retailer outlets in membership throughout the UK and Ireland.
- We exist to help the independent retailer compete more effectively in today’s highly competitive market by providing practical help and assistance, commercial support, deals and buying opportunities, training, expertise and services.
- The NFRN also actively represents its members’ interests at governmental and parliamentary level, acting as a powerful voice for independent retailers across issues ranging from retail crime and business rates to food safety and recycling.
- Membership of the NFRN consists of a variety of independent retailers, including: newsagents, convenience stores, confectioners, florists, petrol forecourts, news deliverers, off-licences, post offices, coffee shops, and card & stationery shops.
- This inquiry is welcome because retail crime, including verbal and physical abuse, is an issue of great and increasing concern to our members who feel the brunt of the problem on a daily basis. Our members work in their stores from early in the morning until late in the evening, often with only one or two members of staff on duty, and, lacking the security back up that would be found in larger stores, they are extremely vulnerable to those who would rob the store or attack the staff.
- The NFRN has been working to raise awareness of the issues related to retail crime for some time, engaging with MPs and peers of all parties and recently working through the APPG on Retail Crime under the chairmanship of Steve McCabe MP, for which we act as the secretariat. We were also joint signatories of a letter to the Committee’s chairman last autumn.
- Retail crime, be it in the form of shop theft or in the targeting of threats and violence against retail staff, have become an all too familiar part of the working day of many if not most retailers. Depressingly, whether triggered by unwillingness to pay for goods taken or the refusal to sell age restricted products, there has been a failure by those in the criminal justice system to give retailers the support and protection they need, something that has served only to encourage to those who steal, threaten and assault.
- In this submission, we will consider the police response to crime in retail outlets and how retailers have come to have little faith in the police to protect them, how the criminal justice system has failed to send the right messages through the use of out of court disposals, seen by retailers as being on a par with a parking ticket, the failings of the government’s response despite the legal obligations it has placed upon retailers and how the barriers to justice have been raised for retailers.
- The police response to incidents in independent retailers’ stores has been a source of frustration to our members and a worry for the Federation for some time. The level of response, or in too many cases the perceived absence of a response, has seriously undermined retailers’ confidence in the system. Many incidents are not reported by retailers who do not see filing a report as worth the time or cost of doing so, particularly as they may be coping with a staff member taking time off after the incident to deal with the physical or mental affects of the incident, or spend time clearing up in the store. For too many retailers, being on the receiving end of verbal or physical abuse has become part of the job.
- While understandable, this lack of reporting serves to exacerbate the problem as these incidents do not appear in local crime statistics, disguising the scale of the problem from the police, criminal justice system and the retailers themselves. This situation is made worse still by the lack of a standardised process for the police recording of business or retail crime. An assault may be recorded but not that it was at a business premises or that it was in the course of the victim’s work.
- At the bottom of the ladder of incidents in our members shops are simple cases of shop theft. A strong police response at this level might serve to stop future, more serious incidents, but it is here that the police response is weakest.
- Shop theft has been seen in the past as a victimless crime, but retailers have to make up the losses through increased sales and, working on small margin, this can be a challenge. The introduction of the category of “low value shop theft” by the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act, 2014, has been seen by some, including police and crime commissioners, as a get out that allows them to safely ignore the calls from retailers.
- While incident of serious assault are attended by the police, although it is not unknown for it to take the police multiple phone calls and 45 minutes to arrive to an incident of someone being attacked in a store, the lack of follow up and information from the police does not help to gain the confidence of retailers, particularly if they subsequently find that the investigation has been filed away for no further action and they have not been informed.
- In a survey of NFRN members conducted over the late summer of 2020, 50% of respondents said that they did not bother reporting thefts in their shops to the police. This statistic shows a frightening lack of confidence in the police response to incidents in the retail environment, something supported by the same survey reporting 10% of respondents reported the incident(s) to the police and that nothing further happened. Only 16% of respondents reported that the police attended their shop and took a statement, while only 7% of respondents reported that an arrest was made for any of the incidents in their store.
- The pandemic which affected the country during 2020 provided a new range of challenges for retailers who were allowed to remain open as “essential” retailers. While having to adjust their stores to the world of social distancing, there were a worrying number of incidents where the threat of COVID-19 becomes the weapon as a customer threatened to cough or spit on staff. In an NFRN survey carried out in December 2020, more than half of respondents reported that the requirement to wear a facemask has become a significant trigger for incidents in their stores, relegating the refusal to sell age restricted products to a distance second. As one Glasgow based retailer who has had staff spat at said: “Our health is being put at risk by these idiots.” The NFRN would support proposals for coughing or spitting at a member of staff, or the threat to do so, being treated as a factor that increases the seriousness of the offense.
- While the police response to incidents of retail crime is an operational matter for the Chief Constable and not the Police and Crime Commissioner, the latter is responsible for policy and the production of the local police and crime plans. The fact that only two of the 42 force plans made any mention of retail crime and only 17 referred to business crime or shop lifting, is perhaps a good indicator as to why retailers have not received the support that they both need and should be able to expect.
Barriers to Justice
- For retailers who have suffered from verbal of physical abuse, the barriers to obtaining justice remain higher than they should be.
- As has been noted, retailers have little confidence in the process and so many incidents go unreported. Justice is not being served if less than 7% of incidents lead to an arrest, let alone someone being charged.
- Where cases do reach the courts, it would seem that the criminal justice system continues to fail retailers, as even repeat offenders avoid custodial sentences. A parliamentary question tabled by Philip Davies MP in 2019 revealed that the highest number of previous convictions for shoplifting for a defendant receiving their first custodial sentence was 66 in 2016, 47 in 2017 and 62 in 2018, but that the highest number of previous convictions for a defendant who still did not receive a custodial sentence was a 435 in 2016, 279 in 2017 and 287 in 2018. In 2016 and 2018 the defendant received a conditional discharge, with the defendant in 2017 receiving a day in a police cell and a compensation order. (Official Report, 6th March 2019). Faced with these statistics it is not hard to understand why retailers have such little faith that the criminal justice system will deliver justice for them.
- The NFRN believes that a large part of the problem for the courts is that they do not hear the full impact that the offences have on both the victims and the businesses.
- It is the intention of business and victims’ impact statements to allow those involved to appraise the courts of the impact that the incidents had, financially and psychologically, allowing the courts to then factor this into the sentencing of those responsible.
- The problem is that retailers are too rarely offered the opportunity by the police to complete such statements. In the NFRN’s December 2020 survey, 64% of respondents were not offered the opportunity to complete an impact statement. Of those who were given the opportunity, half submitted a statement and half declined the opportunity. It seems that the police do not always have the processes in place to make the offer, or in some cases it would appear, to log and track statements that are made. This failure is therefore depriving the victims – retail business owners and their staff – of the opportunity to get justice.
- A final area of concern for retailers is that, having suffered from threats or violence, the retailer’s business is then threatened if the incidents are used as grounds to questions the renewal or continuance of the businesses licence to sell alcohol. For a retailer who may been suffering from higher insurance premiums after making a claim, the loss of what might be an important product category could be highly damaging, if not fatal to the business. This would seem to be punishing the victims, and the local community that could lose the benefit of the local store.
A New Aggravated Offence?
- As has been noted, apart from the requirement to wear face mask due to COVID-19, a long term major driver of verbal and physical threats against retailers has been the requirement to check a customer’s age and / or the refusal to sell the requested product when dealing with age restricted products.
- These checks are a statutory duty for retailers and, as no-one should be the subject of abuse of attack just for doing their job, the government and parliament should step up to protect retailers in these circumstances.
- The NFRN has long called for the introduction of legislation to protect retail workers, along the same lines as that in place to protect emergency workers, making any offense an aggravated one. The NFRN believes that as an aggravated offence it could reflect the impact on the victims of sudden and unexpected threats, of being faced by someone wielding a weapon, including knives, and who made it clear that they “knew where you lived”.
- There was considerable disappointment when, in the response to the Home Office’s call for evidence, the government declined to introduce such legislation and has also refused to support Alex Norris’ 10 minute rule Assaults on Retail Workers (Offences) Bill, as it awaits its Second Reading in the House of Commons. This is in marked contrast to the Protection of Workers (Retail and Age-restricted Goods and Services) (Scotland) Bill, introduced into the Scottish Parliament by Daniel Johnson MSP, which now enjoys the support of the Scottish Government as it passes through the final stage of legislative scrutiny.
- The UK government argues that other existing legislation exists where the offences can be treated as aggravated and that they are not convinced that further legislation is needed. While this is true, few incidents are treated as aggravated and it somewhat misses the point. The introduction of a specific aggravated offence would send a very clear signal that the government was serious about protecting retail workers going about their business and that anyone convicted of such an offence could expect to receive an appropriate sentence.
The Government’s Response
- Having worked with David Hanson MP to help secure the call for evidence some 18 months ago, we welcomed the government’s response for what it contained and the fact that the problems of retail crime in general and verbal and physical assaults in particular are now being discussed by ministers.
- The contents of the response were, however, somewhat limited. As has been noted above, we were disappointed that the government did not agree to a new offence and hope that their position will change over time. The government was also not convinced that the artificial distinction between “low value shop theft” of less than £200 in value and that of £201 or more in value should be abolished. As indicated above, this distinction is unhelpful in the way that it gives the appearance that shop theft of this level is both more acceptable and less worthy of pursuit by the police. In the view of the NFRN’s members, neither should be true.
- The decision to write to Chief Constables and Police and Crime Commissioners to remind them that all offences should be investigated, whatever the value was however appreciated.
- Also welcome was the renewed focus on the delivery of key tasks, including victim support, communications and reporting, by the National Retail Crime Steering Group and we hope that ministers will continue to support and drive forward the work of this group.
- In responding to the Committee’s consultation, the NFRN has a number of recommendations that it hopes the Committee would feel able to support.
- That the government support Alex Norris’ Bill or introduce similar legislation to provide for an aggravated offence
- That the £200 threshold for low value shop theft be repealed
- For it to be made mandatory for police and crime commissioner and Mayors, where they fulfil the function, to include a retail crime strategy in their crime plans
- That police forces be required to record retail crime as a category within their force’s crime statistics
- For it to become mandatory for the police to offer the opportunity to those affected to submit to the courts a business or victim impact statement
- A change to the alcohol licensing laws to prevent incidents of physical and verbal abuse being used to question the renewal of a licence to sell alcohol
- The NFRN believes that if these steps are taken, together with a positive approach to responding to and tackling crime in retail premises, then it should be possible to move back from the position we are currently in and ensure that the verbal and physical abuse of retail workers is not acceptable and is most certainly not part of the job.