Written evidence submitted by Nationwide Building Society (VTR0024)
- Nationwide Building Society welcomes the opportunity to respond to this call for evidence, and do so on behalf of our frontline colleagues working in our network of 600+ branches across the UK.
- When the first lockdown was announced, our colleagues working to facilitate vital, everyday financial services were rightly categorised as ‘key workers’. However, abuse of colleagues has increased substantially during the lockdowns. Our frontline colleagues have logged over 4000 incidents, of which 511 required or would merit police involvement. Those that require or merit police intervention (sometimes colleagues are reluctant to involve police, for reasons addressed in response to question 1) are logged as ‘physical security incidents’.
- Between December 2019 and July 2020 (when they were at their highest) the number of incidents logged rose by a shocking 300%. In December 2020, the number of incidents registered that month were still 86% higher than December 2019. At the time of writing this submission, we have registered 9 physical security incidents in January 2021.
- The nature of abuse and attacks are wide-reaching, and include 34 threats to kill, 26 members of staff assaulted, and 26 ‘covid related’ incidents – where members have come into branch and spat at colleagues. This causes incalculable distress to colleagues and their families.
- As discussed, the incidents cited above are those we would register as show ‘physical security incidents’ – those that would merit police intervention. However, in addition to this, our colleagues face more generalised abuse – ‘industrial language’, hostility, and so on – on a much wider scale every day. Both are unacceptable, but given the increase in ‘physical security incidents’ we believe legal change is needed; and fast.
- Nationwide takes violent and aggressive behaviour against colleagues very seriously. We have drastically increased and improved our security measures in branch, and have improved the system by which colleagues log complaints.
- Our ‘Sticks & Stones’ team work hard to ensure that all colleagues registering complaints receive proper care after the incident, and that incidents are registered quickly, and abusive behaviour dealt with effectively. We take action where appropriate, including warning letters, and closure of accounts. We have also joined with other employers – including the Co-Op and National Rail – to lobby on legal change and raise awareness of key & retail worker abuse via adverts shown on Channel 4. This is part of our #TogetherAgainstHate and Mutual Respect campaign.
- We have engaged with a number of MPs and urged them to support the Assaults on Retail Workers (Abuse) Bill tabled by Alex Norris MP. The Bill would change the law so that if a retail worker is assaulted in their place of work, the fact that they were assaulted whilst doing their job would be considered an ‘aggravating factor’, resulting in a higher sentence. We have also submitted evidence to the Sentencing Council’s call for evidence on this issue.
- We are doing our utmost to encourage colleagues who are subject to abuse to prosecute, but – for reasons outlined below – are encountering issues with this.
- We believe that the Government making the changes outlined above would embolden and encourage retail and key workers who are subject to abuse to report, safe in the knowledge that their complaint would be taken seriously.
The police response to incidents of abuse and violence towards retail workers
- The police have overwhelmingly been helpful and efficient when dealing with instances of abuse in branch, both at first response, and during subsequent investigation of potential offences. However, we would like to outline two key issues.
- The first is that our colleagues are sometimes reluctant to prosecute. Even though the number of incidents that would merit police intervention (‘physical security incidents’) have risen, our colleagues – for a number of reasons – reluctant to prosecute, often citing reasons around time, and the emotional toll it would take on them.
- The second is that some of our colleagues report just feeling that it is ‘part of the job’. Again, we believe that the issue is not the police response to the issues of abuse, but the fact that the current sentencing guidelines are not reflective of the fact that retail and public-facing workers are – under the current circumstances, i.e. that of lockdown – targets for abuse.
- The stress and frustration of lockdown is causing people to vent their frustration on the only strangers they have the opportunity to interact with – key workers (retail workers working in bank branches and food production and distribution, e.g. supermarket workers, are designated as such) doing their jobs.
Barriers to justice for victims of retail abuse and violence
- One of the barriers we face as an employer is the reluctance of some Home Department Police Forces to take crime report notifications from a 3rd Party (i.e., the employer reporting the crime on behalf of the employee) if there was no Police involvement at the time of the incident.
- Several Forces have refused to take the initial crime report when the Security Department have tried to report incidents on behalf of the victim when the victim has asked us to do so for them. When this has happened, the victim has often not then gone onto make the crime report themselves, meaning a criminal offence goes unrecorded / investigated, and an offender is not held to account for the offences they may have committed. The victims have said they would have been willing to provide statements etc but are overwhelmed by the reporting process, so just want to forget about the whole thing.
Whether a new aggravated offence is required
- We unequivocally support the creation of a new aggravated offence, and find it deeply disappointing that in the Home Office’s response to the call for evidence on abuse of retail workers (more on this below) it was found that the case “is yet made out for a change in the law”.
- We firmly believe that the scale of abuse those in public-facing roles encounter justifies the creation of a specific offence, and / or for the assault of such workers in the workplace to be considered an ‘aggravating factor’ (as per Alex Norris’s Assaults on Retail Workers Bill).
- Moreover, we consider the creation of such an offence to be proportionate to the risks to health that retail workers undertake every day in their roles. As you can see from the figures cited above, many of our colleagues have been subject to ‘covid-related’ incidents – these include members licking money and throwing it at colleagues, members who profess to have the virus coming into the branch and spitting profusely, and much more. Moreover, in January alone (figures correct as of 19th Jan) there have been 40 ‘covid incidents’ that would not fall under the umbrella of a ‘police security incident’. This means verbal abuse: people telling our colleagues that they hope they and their families catch coronavirus, and so on.
- As noted in the Home Office’s response to the call for evidence, “The Sentencing Council also published interim guidance for sentencers in April 2020, in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. The interim guidance clarifies that, when sentencing common assault offences involving threats or activity relating to transmission of Covid-19 (for example, assaults involving spitting or coughing), courts should treat this as an aggravating feature of the offence. The Sentencing Council is reviewing its guidelines on assault and a consultation on a revised guideline is underway. With regards the existing legislation that may be applied to violence and abuse committed against shop workers, the Government considers this action to be sufficient”.
- This move acknowledges the role the pandemic is playing in the nature of violence against shopworkers – the threat to transmit the disease. The Government must now acknowledge what necessarily follows – that the pandemic is also driving the volume of violence against shop-workers.
The adequacy of the Government’s response to its call for evidence
- We are disappointed to note that to date there has been little movement from the Government on the issue of retail worker abuse. In response to the Home Office’s Call for Evidence on the issue of retail abuse, it is noted that respondents overwhelmingly thought the following:
- Respondents believe violence and abuse towards shop staff has increased in recent years;
- Trust in the response to these offences has declined (not taken seriously, part of the job, etc);
- The response from the criminal justice system is not strong enough.
- Respondents overwhelmingly supported the creation of a specific offence, but also raised following issues: that the civil tools under Anti-Social Behaviour Act (2014) are not enough to tackle harassment and repeat offending; lack of understanding and opportunity for victims to discuss how they were affected by crimes (via Victim Personal Statement / Business Impact Statement; belief victims could not get justice for crimes committed.
- In response, the Government has pledged to address three thematic areas: 1. to deepen its understanding of the drivers of assaults against shop workers; 2. send a clear message that such crimes are not to be tolerated; 3. provide effective support to shop workers who are victims of violence and abuse.
- With this in mind, it is surprising that the Government has responded to the proposal that assault of retail workers in the workplace be designated an aggravated factor (modelled along similar lines to the Assaults on Emergency Workers Act of 2019) by saying that “whilst the Government recognises the motivations behind this suggestion, it does not consider the case is yet made for a change in the law.”
- If the Government really wanted to deliver on its three aforementioned aims it would seek to drive up the prosecution rate of those who harass and abuse retail workers. This would act as an effective deterrent, and send a strong message to retail workers: that their work is valued, and they are protected. At present, the Government’s response to the call for evidence is long on rhetoric and light on action.
- Moreover, the Government must be alert to the fact that there is an undeniable link between lockdowns and rising abuse levels. The Government must recognise the service of key workers in retail roles (including, naturally, retail bank branch workers) by making it abundantly clear to would-be assailants that if they attack or abuse these workers they will feel the full force of the law. This is why the new ‘aggravating factor’ discussed above must be introduced as a matter of highest priority.