Retailers frustrated over Government response to violence against shop workers
Retailers have responded with frustration to the Government’s action plan for tackling violence against store staff, claiming it to be a missed opportunity to bring into law a specific offence.
A number of large retail organisations, including the Co-op, had hoped the Home Office would respond positively to a call for new legislation, similar to the Protection of Workers (Retail and Age Restricted Sales) Scotland Bill that is having its second reading at Holyrood in September.
This followed around 3,500 responses to the Westminster Government’s call for evidence, a 12-week consultation with retailers, their workers and trade unions on the issue that was launched over a year ago.
Instead, the Home Secretary Priti Patel, announced a series of measures that many retail organisations felt fell short of the tough action the Government had pledged.
The measures include working with the National Retail Crime Steering Group (NRCSG) on a best practice guide to support staff in reporting these crimes, strengthening and making full use of existing laws, and improving data sharing between businesses and the police.
In addition, the Crime and Policing Minister Kit Malthouse MP, will write to PCCs and Chief Constables underscoring the importance of working closely with local businesses to tackle this issue and emphasising that the theft of goods valued up to £200 from a shop should be prosecuted as a criminal offence.
At the launch of the response Priti Patel said: “As the daughter of shopkeepers, I know what a vital role they play within our communities and just how tirelessly they have worked during the coronavirus pandemic.
“I will not tolerate violence and abuse against any shopworker and it’s right that those who commit these crimes must be caught and punished.”
Kit Malthouse added: “Shopworkers are the beating hearts of our communities and violence or abuse against them is utterly unacceptable.
“Through the NRCSG, we are developing solutions which address concerns highlighted by the retail sector.
“We are determined to drive down these crimes and crucially, ensure that shopworkers are fully supported in reporting incidents to the police.
“The Government is taking action to tackle violent crime of all types, including by recruiting 20,000 new police officers over the next three years.”
The Government argues that in terms of sentencing, laws announced in the Queen’s Speech contain proposals for tougher community penalties, tackling the underlying drivers of offending such as mental health or drug and alcohol addiction.
The Sentencing Council is reviewing its guidelines for courts on assault and published interim guidance in April 2020 clarifying that it should be treated as an aggravating factor when assault involves threats around COVID-19 (e.g. spitting or coughing). It is already an aggravating factor for an offence to be committed against anyone providing a service to the public.
More widely, the Government argues it is taking steps to improve support for all victims of crime, including a future consultation on a Victims’ Law.
The news follows figures published by the Co-op last month which showed a rise in store crime of more than 140% this year - 1,350 attacks having been reported by mid-June - despite communities recognising the critical role played by key workers in society.
Paul Gerrard, campaign and public affairs director for the Co-op, said: “The Government says there is no need for a new law, but there is a precedent with the HMRC where such a specific offence exists as is also the case with emergency workers who also get additional protection under the law.”
As part of its Safer Colleagues, Safer Communities campaign, the Co-op is building awareness and support for MP Alex Norris’ Assault on Shop Workers Bill which has seen its second reading in Parliament postponed. It states that because shop workers have responsibilities to uphold the law on age restricted products, they should be afforded greater protection in carrying out those public duties.
Paul Gerrard added: “Retailers are also key workers and have kept working throughout the pandemic. This legislation could have been used as the moment to re-set societal expectations about violence against store staff who after all are only doing their jobs as well as upholding the law in relation to enforcing restricted sales, for example.”
Shop worker union Usdaw, also expressed its concerns after submitting its own survey of staff which highlighted that more than 150,000 retail workers had been assaulted in the year. The Government took to publish its response to the call for evidence.
Paddy Lillis, Usdaw General Secretary said: “Zero-tolerance is easy to say, but means very little if it is not backed up by actions. We are deeply disappointed that the Government and now the Prime Minister have not backed legislating for stiffer penalties for those who assault workers. They have failed to listen to the voices of shop workers and retailers, who had jointly called for a simple stand-alone offence that is widely recognised and understood by the public, police, CPS, the judiciary and most importantly criminals.
“We recognise that there are a series of measures in the Government response that are worth trying and we hope that they can make a real difference. They would be much more likely to succeed if they were backed up with new legislation, but it is clear that the Government is desperately trying to avoid that.
“Retail staff have a crucial role in our communities and that role must be valued and respected, they deserve the protection of the law. We are shocked that violence, threats and abuse have doubled during this national emergency. At a time when we should all be working together to get through this crisis, it is a disgrace that the people working to keep food on the shelves for their local communities are being abused and assaulted. Our message is clear, abuse is not part of the job.”
The Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) chief executive James Lowman said: “Warm words and working groups are not enough; we need tougher penalties for attacks on shop workers and more police resources to stamp out violence.
The Government is rightly approaching PCCs and chief constables to encourage better handling of incidents affecting shop workers, but this must be followed to ensure proper enforcement. This must not become a blame game with national and local authorities passing responsibility to each other; this is a critical issues affecting the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and ministers must build on the Home Secretary’s leadership and take ownership of this problem.”