Written evidence submitted by the Home Office (VTR0035)
- The Government recognises that violence and abuse of shop staff is a significant concern within the retail sector and acknowledges that figures published by the British Retail Consortium, Association of Convenience Stores and Usdaw, obtained through surveys within the sector, indicate an increase in this crime over the past year, including an increase in incidents during the coronavirus pandemic.
- The Government is clear that violence and abuse is not acceptable and must not be tolerated. The abuse and physical violence faced by shop staff can have a significant impact on their health, not only physically but mentally and emotionally. The Home Office is working with retailers to reduce these crimes, ensure they are reported when they do occur and that an appropriate police response is provided.
- The Government ran a Call for Evidence on Violence and Abuse Toward Shop Staff from 5 April to 28 June 2019; the Government response was published on 7 July 2020.
- The Call for Evidence was issued following debates during the passage of the Offensive Weapons Act 2019, where the issue of assault on shop workers was raised. The Government committed to run a call for evidence to understand the extent of this issue. The Home Office also provided £60k funding to the Association of Convenience Stores to run a communications campaign “Always report abuse”; and has provided £1m funding for the National Business Crime Centre over three years.
- The Home Office received a total of 800 main responses to the Call for Evidence. Some of those were informed by wider consultation, and we estimate that a total of nearly 3,500 individuals, businesses and other organisations, such as charities and trade bodies, engaged in the Call for Evidence to some extent. The level of response reflects the depth of feeling and determination to tackle this problem, and we are grateful to all who responded.
- The Government is determined to act, in conjunction with the retail sector, on the issues raised in the Call for Evidence. The Government set out its plan of action in its the response to the Call for Evidence.
- The Home Office has been working with members of the National Retail Crime Steering Group (NRCSG) to take these actions forward. The NRCSG brings together Government, trade organisations and enforcement partners to ensure the response to crimes affecting the retail sector is as robust as it can be. It is co-chaired by the Minister for Crime and Policing and the British Retail Consortium. The programme of work has been designed as a direct response to what retailers told us in response to the Call for Evidence and has been agreed by the NRCSG and wider retail sector. A number of working groups (known as task and finish groups) have been established consisting of the Home Office and members of the NRCSG, to take forward this work.
The police response to incidents of abuse and violence towards retail workers
- The Call for Evidence highlighted that often incidents of violence and abuse are not reported to police. While some cited the lack of police response to a previous incident as the reason for not reporting, there were also other significant reasons given, including employers discouraging their workforce from reporting incidents, employers or employees considering incidents were not serious enough to be reported to police, and a general sense that abuse was ‘part of the job’. The Government expects all crimes to be reported to police and for them to be investigated accordingly, and retailers must play their part in this.
- A common theme throughout responses was a lack of support shop workers received from their employer. Individuals reported being told to ‘get on with the job’ after reporting instances of verbal abuse and a culture in which managers tended to side with customers rather than employees, potentially as a result of believing that the customer ‘is always right’. Some respondents also felt that managers tended to focus on preserving the reputation of the store and did not always challenge unacceptable behaviour by customers.
- Respondents to the Call for Evidence also highlighted the lack of time they have to report incidents, and the variety of ways in which incidents are recorded and subsequently reported. For example, other than calling 999 or 101, incidents were recorded via reports to a business’ health and safety or HR department, a paper log held by the business, a call or email to head office or central security department or an entry on a computer system.
- One task and finish group has been dedicated to the issue of reporting incidents. The group is working to produce a good practice guide to effective reporting which aims to provide practical help to retailers. The guide will outline the ways to report an incident to police, the terminology to use, and what to expect of the investigation process once the incident is reported. This will help retailers understand what types of incident to report and how to report them.
- In discussions between the Home Office and members of the reporting task and finish group the predominant issue has been time taken to report incidents and the ease of reporting. Time taken reporting incidents is time away from an employee’s core role, especially where this task falls to a shop assistant or operational manager. Discussions have highlighted several practical difficulties in reporting crimes, which add to the time it takes to do so. The Home Office is working with the Home Office-funded NPCC Digital Public Contact (DPC) Programme with input from the National Business Crime Centre to establish what additional functionality can be made available on existing police online reporting tool police.uk, to reduce these practical difficulties in the short term, as well as considerations for longer-term improvements via the development of Single Online Home. The Home Office-funded, police-led Digital Public Contact (DPC) Programme is developing the national online reporting tool Single Online Home and discussions are ongoing to scope options for an integrated system for individuals and businesses to report crime to police.
- In addition, the Call for Evidence highlighted barriers to sharing crime data between retailers and police. Sharing high-level data can assist police in establishing a broader picture of the level of crime in a particular community or location and help to develop a partnership approach with businesses in the area. A task and finish group, including the National Business Crime Centre, has been looking at barriers to effective data sharing, with a view to establishing how data can be used to better understand the problem in a local area and foster collaborative information-sharing between businesses and local police. It is for Chief Constables and Police and Crime Commissioners, as operational leaders and elected local representatives, to decide how best to respond to individual crimes and local crime priorities. Many police forces have effective processes in place to work with local businesses in understanding the scale of the issue locally and to develop suitable policing responses to it.
Barriers to justice for victims of retail abuse and violence
- The Call for Evidence sought to understand the application of the current legislative framework, and response by the police and wider criminal justice system to enable Government to understand whether there are any gaps in current legislation and consider the case for reform. Some respondents provided details of their experience of engaging with the criminal justice system. However, as described above reporting levels are low and responses to the Call for Evidence reflected this.
- Respondents raised concerns about the effectiveness of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 in tackling the issue of violence and abuse toward shop staff. Of particular concern is section 176 of the Act, which provides police powers to prosecute offences of shoplifting where the value of goods stolen is less than £200 as a summary only offence. Respondents felt that this power had given the impression that such crimes would no longer be investigated by the police.
- Section 176 of the 2014 Act does not constrain the ability of the police to arrest or prosecute someone in the way they feel is most appropriate. In September, the Minister for Crime and Policing wrote to all Chief Constables and Police and Crime Commissioners urging them to consider the impact on local shops when dealing with this crime type.
- The Government is keen to improve the criminal justice response to crimes against shop staff and ensure that victims feel heard and supported. Key to this is ensuring that crimes are reported to police, and thereafter that the full range of criminal justice outcomes are effectively utilised.
Whether a new aggravated offence is required
- Those in favour of a new aggravated offence of assaulting a shop worker claim it would deter potential offenders and ensure an effective criminal justice response to these crimes when they occur. The retail sector is in effect seeking a similar offence to that which currently applies to emergency workers, an offence that was created in 2018 as a result of increased violence directed towards emergency workers in the course of providing often life-saving or emergency services to members of the public and placing themselves in danger whilst doing so.
- As with those other groups, the Government considers that a specific new offence of assaulting a retail worker is not needed. A wide range of offences already exist which cover assaults against any worker, including shop workers. Relevant offences include common assault, actual bodily harm and grievous bodily harm, harassment and other public order offences which criminalise threatening or abusive behaviour intended to harass, alarm or distress a person. All these offences already apply to people whose work brings them into contact with members of the public.
- The courts have a statutory duty to follow sentencing guidelines, produced by the independent Sentencing Council for England and Wales. The current guidelines for assault offences specify that it is an aggravating factor for an offence to be committed against a person who works in the public sector or who is providing a service to the public, such as a shop worker. In 2019, the Sentencing Council provided additional advice on this factor in order to make it clear that it could apply to those working in the private as well as the public sector. In all cases, therefore, the fact that an offence has been committed against a person serving the public will be considered an aggravating factor when passing sentence.
- In April 2019 the Sentencing Council published interim guidance that clarifies that, when sentencing assault offences relating to the transmission of Covid-19, the courts should treat this as meriting a more severe sentence. The Sentencing Council is also reviewing its guidelines on assault and has recently undertaken a public consultation, which closed on 15 September 2020.
The adequacy of the Government’s response to its call for evidence
- The Government takes the issue of assaults on retail workers very seriously and has taken action on all of the key issues raised in the Call for Evidence.
- The Call for Evidence has been an important step in building the Government’s understanding of the problem of violence and abuse toward shop workers, and the Government response established a programme of work to tackle this crime. As described above, the programme of work has been designed as a direct response to what retailers told the Government in response to the Call for Evidence and has been agreed by the NRCSG and wider retail sector. The National Retail Crime Steering Group established four task and finish groups to work with the Home Office to take forward this work.
- The four task and finish groups were tasked with:
- Developing communications for both employees and employers to make clear that violence and abuse of shop workers is not tolerated;
- Developing a best practice guide that aims to support staff in reporting these crimes when they occur to ensure that a suitable response can be delivered;
- Looking at barriers to effective data sharing between businesses and the police to ensure that information can be used to better understand the problem; and
- Looking at how to better provide support to victims.
- The aim of the task and finish groups has been to produce practical solutions to assist retailers. The resources being developed are currently being finalised, with a view to publishing them in the spring. The resources will be published on the British Retail Consortium website, and available for any retailer to use. The resources will include:
- A good practice guide to support staff in reporting crimes, including what, when and how to report incidents. It will also signpost sources of support for victims.
- A web-page containing useful resources for shop staff who are victims of violence and abuse, and their managers and employers. This will include links to resources and charitable organisations which provide support.
- Case studies and good practice examples of how retailers can work with police to share data to help understand the picture in a local area. This will include examples of the work done by Business Crime Reduction Partnerships and Business Improvement Districts.
- Downloadable communications assets for use by retailers nationwide. This will include signage to be used in stores and messaging suitable for use online and on social media, making it clear to employees and the public that abuse is not tolerated.
- The knowledge and experience of task and finish group members has been invaluable in developing these resources; providing further insight into the issues highlighted in the Call for Evidence and working collaboratively with the Home Office to explore potential solutions. By working closely with retailers on this response, the Government is confident that the work should provide an effective solution to reduce violence and abuse toward shop staff and help ensure an effective response from employers and police.
- In October 2020, the British Retail Consortium hosted a meeting for their members, in which the task and finish groups presented their work and sought feedback on whether the resources being developed would provide what retailers need. The feedback from those who attended was positive and constructive, enabling further development of the work. The Home Office will continue to work with the British Retail Consortium and members of the NRCSG to publicise and promote the work among retailers and police forces.
- As described above, the Home Office is working with the Home Office-funded NPCC Digital Public Contact (DPC) Programme with input from the National Business Crime Centre to establish what additional functionality can be made available on existing police online reporting tool police.uk, as well as considerations for longer-term improvements via the development of Single Online Home.
- In the Government response to the Call for Evidence the Minister for Crime and Policing committed to write to Chief Constables and Police and Crime Commissioners about several matters. The letter was sent in September and covered the following matters:
- That section 176 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 does not constrain the ability of the police to arrest or prosecute someone for shop theft in the way they feel is most appropriate, and urging them to consider the impact on local shops when dealing with this crime type.
- Encouraging them to continue to work closely with local businesses to understand the scale of the issue locally and to develop suitable policing responses to it.
- Drawing their attention to guidance on the use of Victim Personal Statements and Business Impact Statements, and reminding them that officers should provide victims the chance to use either or both of these impact statements.
- Reiterating the appropriate use of the licensing objective prevention of crime and disorder under the Licensing Act 2003, and that this may act to discourage licensees from reporting crime.
- The Government response to the Call for Evidence also referred to the Government’s intention to introduce legislation for community penalties, to increase public confidence and tackle the underlying drivers of offending. The white paper A Smarter Approach to Sentencing, published in September, sets out the details of the proposed measures.
- The Government is committed to ensuring that victims receive the help and high-quality support they need to cope and, as far as possible, recover from the impact of crime. The new Victims’ Code was published on 18 November 2020. After coming into force on 1 April 2021, it will ensure that victims will benefit from a clearer set of rights and that these rights are recognised at every stage of the justice system.
- The new Victims’ Code provides a solid foundation focussing on 12 key rights, on which we can progress our consultation on a Victims’ Law. We propose to use the Law to guarantee these rights, ensuring that victims receive them, in particular by holding agencies to account for delivering victims’ rights through improved reporting, monitoring and transparency. We aim to consult on the detail of the Law later this year.