Written evidence submitted by WM Morrison Supermarkets PLC (‘Morrisons’) (VTR0028)
WM Morrison Supermarkets PLC
Wm Morrison Supermarkets PLC (“Morrisons”) is the fourth largest chain of supermarkets in the UK and is headquartered in Bradford, West Yorkshire. The company is also the largest fresh food manufacturer in the country.
Morrisons has 497 supermarkets and more than 300 petrol filling stations across England, Scotland and Wales and employs around 120,000 people.
1. We take the welfare of our colleagues extremely seriously and are concerned by the rising tide of violence and abuse they experience while going about their job. We hope that our evidence - along with that of other retailers and representative groups - strengthens the case for a change in the law to make attacking a retail worker an aggravated assault, with those convicted subject to tougher penalties and increased sentences.
2. Violence against shopworkers has steadily increased in recent years both in terms of physical assaults and verbal threats. Across our stores we have seen incidents increase in line with the industry over the past few years, with rising numbers of incidents involving weapons such as firearms, knives and syringes.
3. Violent incidents have risen further during the Covid pandemic as colleagues try to maintain social distancing and encourage compliance with the rules on face coverings. We have also seen an alarming number of incidents where people committing shop theft have threatened to cough or spit on colleagues in order to avoid being apprehended.
4. Enduring violence and abuse has almost become seen as ‘part of the day job’. Since the beginning of 2020 our stores have reported just under 35,000 incidents involving the following incident types which cause alarm, distress and even injury to colleagues and customers:
● c.1,500 physical assaults (two-thirds of which resulted in injury)
● c 4,200 incidents of threatening behaviour
● c.13,000 incidents of verbal abuse
● c.16,000 incidents of Anti-Social Behaviour which invariably includes threats or abuse
5. In addition to the incidents categorised by stores as set out above there are also a large number of other incident types which often include violence or threats, or could lead to those taking place. Examples of these incidents include dealing with drug users (c 1,800) and over 4,500 people being ejected from our stores since the beginning of 2020.
6. Our colleagues are faced with violent confrontation on a daily basis. They return to work in the following days and weeks despite receiving threats from offenders who threaten to return to the store and cause them harm. In a number of our stores, due to this type of threat we have had to issue our colleagues with equipment such as personal attack alarms to provide some reassurance to them. For example, one of our stores reported:
‘A young male was refused alcohol due to being under age, he made threats to the colleague. A couple of hours later the youth returned to the store, approached the colleague and struck him with a house brick causing a head injury.’
7. In a number of incidents weapons are being used. This includes the use of firearms or replica firearms even for low-value theft. For example, reports from store include:
‘A known offender concealed bottles of spirits under his clothing, as he was leaving he was stopped at which point he revealed a firearm which was under his coat in his waistband and made a threat to colleagues.’
‘A male and female attempted to walk out with a trolley of shopping without paying, when they were stopped the male produced a gun.’
‘A male walked into the petrol station wearing a balaclava and demanded cash, he produced what appeared to be a firearm.’
8. In addition to the physical harm faced by our colleagues, there is also a psychological effect which is more difficult to measure. Colleagues who are subject to violence and abuse often cannot continue in their current role and have to be redeployed. For example:
‘A male youth attempted to buy an energy drink and when challenged for age identification punched the colleague in the jaw causing a facial injury.’
9. This colleague was psychologically affected by the incident and was unable to continue in their current role. They have now left the business as a result. This psychological impact is particularly relevant in areas where there are small numbers of colleagues such as petrol stations, which are more subject to robbery offences involving weapons and threats.
10. During the Covid pandemic we have seen shopworkers subjected to a new increasing trend of coughing and spitting - often with the threat that the offender has coronavirus. This leaves colleagues in fear of contracting the virus and potentially passing it on to family members. We have seen numerous examples of this since March 2020. It has often been in response to a simple request to maintain social distancing or used as a means to evade capture for theft.
Terms of Reference
The police response to incidents of abuse and violence towards retail workers
11. The retail industry and Morrisons greatly value and appreciate the work of all serving police officers and understand the competing priorities they face. We are also aware of the dangerous situations they place themselves in on a daily basis. Through our work with the National Business Crime Centre we are aware that police officers have also seen an increase in hazardous situations during the Covid pandemic. As a business we have strong strategic and operational relationships across the UK across multiple police force areas.
12. There are a number of minor retail-setting crimes which we understand would draw police resources unnecessarily from more important work. However, it is our view that physical and verbal assaults on shopworkers would never fall into that category. We have seen numerous examples of both types of incidents when the police have failed to attend or have attended in the following days long after the offenders have left the premises. When offenders are dealt with at court, sentencing all too often fails to reflect the threats and abuse being used.
13. Most recently supermarkets have taken a firmer stance around the wearing of face coverings, which further increases the risk to colleagues from abuse and violence. It is therefore imperative that colleagues are confident that they will be supported by the police in such incidents. We have already seen an instance of police declining to attend despite customers refusing to wear a face mask and forcing their way past colleagues into the store. Examples such as this erode and further fuel the mindset of colleagues that they will not receive a satisfactory response when the police are called.
14. It is likely that a large number of incidents are going unreported because shopworkers do not have confidence in a swift police response. As mentioned earlier, there is also now a sense that threats and abuse are ‘part of the job’.
Barriers to justice for victims of retail abuse and violence
15. There is a perception amongst many shopworkers that when they are subjected to physical or verbal abuse they are treated as ‘Morrisons’ the company as opposed to as an individual, personal victim. This in turn is represented in the sentences given out to offenders which we believe are often inadequate.
16. It is important to note that the individuals threatening our colleagues are quite often people who they see regularly and who may live in the vicinity of the colleagues themselves. This type of behaviour shouldn't be viewed by the courts as corporate crime: these are serious attacks on individual people which often leave shopworkers feeling unsafe in their own community and in their personal lives, outside any protection we can offer them in store.
17. In addition to incidents during store opening hours there is also a concern around the severity of sentences given out to offenders who enter our stores whilst closed and commit the offence of burglary. Some of these are opportunist offenders but others are more organised groups who are well equipped and often armed with weapons, such as crow bars and hammers, which they will use to threaten colleagues who are working. Sentencing for commercial burglary is clearly lower than for residential burglaries. However, consideration needs to be given to aggravating factors, such as if they have made threats to a colleague in the store; the psychological effects of this can be profound and long lasting.
18. As a retailer we often see offenders being sentenced in court for an offence of ‘theft’, usually resulting in compensation orders being made which are paid over a period of time, if at all. The number of occasions, however, when their abusive or threatening behaviour is considered during sentencing is low. This neither acts as an incentive for stores to report nor creates a sense of fear in the offender that should they behave in such a way they will receive a harsher sentence.
19. The use of legal orders from courts to restrict the offenders’ access into affected stores is also underused and is generally only pursued if the retailer specifically challenges this. Legally binding restrictions on entering certain premises would undoubtedly further act as a deterrent and should be the norm not the exception.
20. All retailers are targeted by prolific repeat offenders and in most cases they are handed a ‘banning notice’ by the retailer, withdrawing permission for them to enter the store and effectively making them a trespasser. Should they return into that store with the intent to steal they commit an offence of burglary, which carries a greater sentence than theft. However, there is significant reluctance to pursue this offence in the courts.
Whether a new aggravated offence is required
21. We strongly feel that attacking a retail worker should be classified as an aggravated assault. Our frontline workers are carrying out a vital public service and should be afforded additional protection when performing these duties. They are increasingly enforcing restrictions required by the Government which has exposed them to violence and abuse from a small minority of customers.
22. Shopworkers are designated key workers and during the Covid pandemic they have been at the forefront of feeding the nation. They have put themselves on the frontline every day, including through national lockdowns when most of the rest of the public were ordered to stay at home. It is important and necessary that they are given greater protection.
The adequacy of the Government’s response to its call for evidence
23. For the reasons set out above, we were disappointed that the Government rejected calls for creation of a new separate offence for violence and abuse against shopworkers.