Written evidence submitted by Marks & Spencer (VTR0029)
About Marks & Spencer
Marks & Spencer (M&S) is one of the UK’s leading retailers. Today we operate a family of businesses, selling high-quality, great value own-brand products in the UK and in 62 countries, from 1,519 stores and 44 websites globally. In the UK we employ over 70,000 people.
1. We are grateful the opportunity to submit evidence to this inquiry. Whilst M&S store colleagues have fortunately not experienced the volume of violence and abuse which colleagues in some parts of retail experience are facing, we have nevertheless seen an increase in the volume of verbal and physical assaults and welcome the focus which this inquiry is placing on the issue.
2. We are supportive of the written evidence which the British Retail Consortium has submitted to this inquiry and agree with the arguments which they have presented.
3. We strongly support the creation of a new aggravated offence and have provided further detail on this in our response below.
Context: Steady increase in violence due to lack of police resource to respond
4. In recent years we have seen a slow but steady increase in the number of verbal and physical assaults against our store colleagues. In early 2020 the level of such assaults, whilst low compared to some in the industry, took place at a rate of just under two physical assaults per day across all of our stores.
5. In terms of the reasons for this increase, we have seen that local police forces have struggled to respond to reports of assaults in our stores. As a result, colleagues have become less inclined to report assaults to the police, as they believe that there is ‘no point’ when it is likely that no action will follow. In turn, perpetrators become aware of the lack of reporting and feel more confident that they will not suffer any consequences for their actions.
6. The majority of cases of violence occur in our city centre stores. Therefore, before the outbreak of Covid-19, we undertook some work with the Metropolitan Police to understand more about what they need in order to action a report. This collaboration has been effective as our colleagues have developed a better understanding of what the police force needs, the reporting has become better and more consistent and the police has become more responsive as a result.
7. As a business, we have also undertaken increased training and have updated our tools and policies designed to improve workplace safety. This has had an impact, but we cannot completely eliminate some of the risks without the support of the police.
Impact of Covid-19
8. The Covid-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the number of violent incidents against our colleagues.
9. Our most recent internal reporting of incidents shows that, whilst in March 2020 there was an initial drop in assaults on our store colleagues, once the first lockdown began to ease in July there was a sharp increase. We saw a 36% increase in assaults, and a 27% increase in violent assaults. Although our overall assault rates remain comparatively low for the retail sector, our data shows that 1 in every 13,215 customers is now assaulting one of our colleagues, compared to 1 in 17,582 customers before the pandemic started. Clearly this is not a trend we want to see continuing.
10. It is worth noting that, before parts of our business were closed due to lockdown, around 80% of the offences committed within our stores occurred within our food halls rather than our clothing and homeware departments. Therefore, even though we are currently trading with reduced capacity, the areas of our stores which are open are those which are more likely to see assaults taking place within them.
11. Since the start of 2021 and the renewed focus on Covid-19 measures in stores, we have seen a further increase in assaults. This seems to be attributable to the increased number of confrontations between our colleagues and customers. Whereas before the pandemic customers may have only interacted with a colleague at the till point, and this would typically have been a positive engagement, now they could expect to engage with them in a different way as they enter the store and again within the store, as colleagues have new responsibilities to remind customers of the need to comply with Covid-19 safety measures.
12. We strongly support the creation of a new aggravated offence and believe this would increase the responsiveness of the police and reduce the overall number of violent incidents in our stores. We believe that creating an offence similar to that which was created by the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018 would be effective and we hope the Committee will recommend this to the Government.
13. The passing of the Protection of Workers (Retail and Age-restricted Goods and Services) (Scotland) Bill in Scotland is very welcome, as it makes assaults against retail workers an aggravated offence in certain circumstances. However, we would like the UK Government to go further and ensure that all assaults against retail workers are considered to be aggravated offences.
14. If the Government or Committee has any hesitancy about creating this new offence specifically for retail workers, it could perhaps look to create something which covers all essential workers, using a similar definition to that set out in the Covid-19 legislation. The Covid-19 pandemic has brought into sharp relief the fact that essential workers, in both the public and private sectors, are crucial in delivering services for the rest of the population, and that often they are having to place themselves in harm’s way to do this. Creating this offence would underline that no essential worker should be assaulted simply for doing their job.