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Crime Prevention (Small Businesses)

Volume 406: debated on Monday 9 June 2003

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Dan Norris.]

10.16 pm

I was pleased to secure this debate to raise the problem of crime that is blighting small businesses throughout the country. I congratulate the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson), who secured a debate in a similar vein on 14 May. I want to cover the small retail sector as opposed to larger stores. They, too, suffer from retail crime, but I want to concentrate on the smaller end of the market this evening.

I declare an interest as the owner of a retail business, which my sister now runs—and makes a profit—now that I have gone. I do not apologise for being passionate about my beliefs in small businesses and the small retail sector; involvement in such businesses has been an important part of my life. The fact remains that being a small retailer these days is far more dangerous than in the 1930s, when my grandfather started his store. We have seen considerable changes since, with many smaller enterprises closing down. There used to be a small corner shop on virtually every street—the "Open All Hours" of Ronnie Barker fame. Sadly, many of those have disappeared.

The problems that such businesses face have also increased. As the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East told the House on 14 May, the retail industry employs 2.7 million people, with just fewer than half working in the smaller end of the business—not the Asdas, Tescos, Sainsburys and Safeways, but the smaller retail outlets. They employ 1.1 million people and produce more than 4 per cent. of the UK's turnover.

Small retail business is part of the fabric of what was once described as a nation of shopkeepers. Many smaller businesses tend to be one-man bands or perhaps a husband and wife run the stores, and many work on, the margins. If they employ anyone, it will be disproportionately female staff, who often work all hours just to make a living. It is mainly a cash trade, not credit cards or cheques, and the businesses are vulnerable.

I should like to do my Huw Edwards impersonation by reading one or two articles from Convenience Store, which has run on a weekly basis some of the problems that retailers face up and down the country. It states:
"A store manager in Cambridgeshire was knocked unconscious by robbers during an early morning raid. The raiders struck at the Budgens store, in Cambridge after climbing in through an upstairs window. After attacking the store manager the robbers escaped through a rear fire door with £5,745 in cash … The … manager was found by staff sprawled on the floor with a bruise on his head and a bloody nose. He was taken to a local hospital."
Another article says:
"A convenience store worker was tortured by vicious raiders during a robbery in Greater Manchester",
when a stun gun was used against him. A further example says:
"A store assistant had a screwdriver held to her throat during a robbery on a convenience store in Essex. Two robbers entered the Alldays store in Benfleet via the back door and demanded that the female member of staff hand over cash and the store's CCTV tape … A convenience store worker was threatened with a gun by two women during a robbery in East Sussex."
I shall not read them all, because there are too many, but such stories appear every week in Convenience Store. For example, it says:
"A store assistant has quit her job after being confronted by a pair of armed robbers in an Essex c-store … A 52-year-old convenience store owner was killed and another retailer left seriously injured after being attacked with a machete while working in their stores in Birmingham. Mother of four Parminda Poonia was viciously attacked in the Costcutter store she ran with her husband in Birchfield Road, Aston, at noon on September 16. Parminda, who leaves four sons, suffered four blows to the head during the attack and died in Birmingham's Queen Elizabeth Hospital".
Those are the sort of crimes that are now being committed in stores around the country. We could have a whole other debate on shoplifting, but retailers have to face violent crime every clay. I pay tribute to Convenience Store magazine, which has published "Zero Tolerance" to give advice and guidance to retail owners about the actions that they should take to try to protect themselves. We should have zero tolerance for this crime. Some 20,000 attacks took place in 2001—an increase of 40 per cent. I understand that new figures from the British Retail Consortium will reinforce that trend. In total, thefts and robberies have hit a new record level, and the cost to the nation of retail crime is topping £2.4 billion.

For smaller businesses, with few resources, crime can threaten their very viability and the employment that they provide. Business crime is sometimes seen as a victimless crime, but it cannot be victimless when violence is used against the employers or employees. The Alldays chief executive, in charge of 600 stores, stated that it is difficult to get staff in areas in which a store has been attacked.

People also tend to think that goods are insured, so there is no problem. However, in many cases, the goods are not insured. The premiums for some of the smaller stores are so high, especially to cover money, cigarettes, lop-up cards for phones and lottery terminals, that they cannot afford the insurance. It has also been estimated that when an attack takes place in a store, up to 40 per cent. of the staff have to take time off afterwards to recover in hospital or just to get over the trauma.

Some of the smaller stores are working at the margins. The bigger stores can make 5 or even 7 per cent. profit on turnover, but some of the smaller stores are not making the money, even though they may have a large turnover.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the smaller stores are suffering from the success of some of the 250 retail crime partnerships that have been set up by the British Retail Consortium? Those partnerships benefit the bigger stores but the smaller convenience stores are outside the system, so they are even more isolated. The people who are being excluded from the bigger stores by the retail crime partnerships are now attacking the convenience stores, so they are even more at risk than they were before.

I agree with the hon. Lady. Many of the smaller businesses do not know anything about the crime partnerships and they feel as if they are on their own. Only a small percentage of businesses in the Ribble valley, for example, have anything to do with the crime partnership. We need to look again at how we can involve smaller businesses in crime partnerships. Small businesses that are only one or two-man operations may not be able to send someone to meetings, because they do not employ any cover. We must be alert to the realities of what we can do for those smaller businesses.

Smaller businesses may not be able to afford security measures. They may have a high turnover, but they make only 5 per cent. on lottery tickets and less on some of the phone cards.

Even if a business has a respectable turnover, it might make only a small profit. Such businesses do not have the money to invest in the security measures installed in some of the larger stores.

The National Federation of Retail Newsagents carried out a survey in my area, which is seen as fairly affluent, and in Blackburn. It painted a picture of a rising trend in the fear of crime. People are afraid. The postmaster in Chatburn, one of my local villages, told me that there is a fear factor; even there, people fear attack. He lives above the shop and told me how, in the middle of the night, youths smashed a window, broke in and stole the automatic cash machine. The raid was obviously well planned, but the people living above the shop were afraid of what might have happened to them if they had gone downstairs and caught those thieves. When people read all those articles in Convenience Store, they are afraid.

There is a rural area in my constituency, and I have noticed that fear of crime is a factor in the closure of rural post offices. We all know how necessary rural post offices are, so, in areas where there are no neighbourhood wardens and no possibility of a crime partnership, I beg the Minister to look into ways of safeguarding what may be the only store in a village.

I agree with the hon. Lady. When violence and intimidation are used against members of staff, they ask why they should put up with it. Owners of businesses decide that they cannot put up with it either, so they shut up shop.

I want to turn to what the Government can do to help smaller businesses. We need a police presence and appropriate sentencing. Retail crime should be taken very seriously indeed. The attitude should not be, "Oh well, it's only retail crime—they can afford it." Such crime has an immense impact, especially in rural areas or in areas where there may be only one store. Sentences must be seen to be a deterrent. When financial penalties are imposed, more must be done to recover them. There are financial penalties in 70 per cent. of cases, but the money is actually paid in only 59 per cent. of them, which causes great despondency in the retail trade.

Anyone who attacks staff working in a retail business should be dealt with as seriously as someone who attacks a nurse in an accident and emergency department or anyone else doing public service. When a person is attacked while they are working with the public, the penalty should be much more severe.

Much crime is drug-related. Apparently, goods worth between £20,000 and £40,000 must be stolen each year to feed one person's drug dependency. We must do more to ensure that such people are caught and given rehabilitation rather than continuing to steal from stores to feed their drugs habit. We need a crackdown on such drug users.

The Government have given a £15 million grant over three years for closed circuit television in deprived areas. However, we must also consider small businesses in other areas, whose owners cannot afford to install CCTV themselves. I hope that the Government can consider them. Such businesses may not be in deprived areas but they cannot afford such measures. Even shutters for a normal store cost about £2,000, which is a lot of money for many people. Will the Minister consider that point, too?

The NFRN survey reported that the lower a store's turnover, the less likely it was to invest in security measures. CCTV alone is not the answer. The hon. Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett) referred to policing. The police need to be far more visible around small businesses. If people see police officers on the beat, they feel much more secure. As some small businesses are open until 9, 10 or 11 o'clock at night, we need policing at those times. Will the Minister consider how local crime partnerships can be extended to include small businesses so that at least they have that cloak of security and feel that they are not alone?

The Minister should treat the problems of violence, vandalism and thieving in shops and stores throughout the country seriously and urgently. Ordinary, decent and hard-working retailers and their staff are getting battered and injured daily. That has got worse over the years, and it is still getting worse. In some areas, it has reached crisis point, and I want to know when the Government will recognise the problem and do something concrete about it that will give smaller, independent retailers a ring of security and safety.

Like many other MPs, I have a small shop. It is where I operate from, and I have had to invest in its shutters and to put in CCTV and other security measures. I would like the Minister to press local police forces to ensure that antisocial behaviour orders are brought into force, because I find it difficult to get such orders put in place in my constituency. We have streamlined them, but there is still resistance among officers, and I should like some work to be done on that. My life and that of my caseworker are being made a misery at the moment by a youngish man of between 11 and 13 ringing the doorbell, although I think that an ASBO is about to be imposed. However, that is a minor nuisance compared with what other shopkeepers have to suffer. We have the instruments; we just need to ensure that they are used.

I agree, and if a small group of young people persistently behave abusively, it can be hell for people who run retail stores because they are worried about their security and frightened that those people will come into their shops, and we know how they operate.

I hope that the Minister will give some positive news tonight and that, at the end of the day, Convenience Store magazine, which has a run a very successful campaign, will be able to print fewer articles about genuine, hard-working people being battered, injured and, indeed, killed. Perhaps we can then give three cheers to the Minister for listening and proposing action.

10.31 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department
(Mr. Bob Ainsworth)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) on securing this Adjournment debate and on raising these important issues. I fully understand the detrimental effect that crime against business has throughout the community and the damaging effect that crime, particularly violent crime, can have on people's lives, their businesses and their families. That is why the Government are determined to address the problems in the most effective way possible: in partnership with those businesses and other stakeholders, such as the police.

In December 2002, we launched a consultation exercise in which we sought the views of business and other interested organisations on how we can work together more effectively to tackle crime. The consultation period has now ended and the responses are being analysed. As part of the consultation process, the Home Office and the Small Business Service jointly organised a seminar for small businesses and obtained the views of those present in a series of workshops. I am very grateful to all those who responded so fully to the consultation, and their views will be key to helping us to develop a clear strategy for better working with those in business to reduce business-related crime.

The hon. Gentleman has particular knowledge of, and interest in, the problems that face small retailers. I am sure that he will have welcomed the scheme, announced by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, in which £15 million was allocated to improve security for small retailers in deprived areas throughout England and Wales. Funding has been provided so that security improvements can be made to shops and shopping parades to help to tackle crime and disorder problems on their doorstep. We helped 7,500 shops in the first two years, and with the £6 million that we still have to allocate this financial year we hope to help a further 5,000 shops.

Some businesses in the hon. Gentleman's constituency have benefited from the scheme. For example, last year, the scheme paid for the installation of an external CCTV camera outside a late-opening shop in the Longridge area. That is the kind of small scheme that we can implement through those programmes. Although I accept that the programmes are targeted on businesses in deprived areas, the problems go wider than that, as the hon. Gentleman said, but I ask him to accept that there are particular pressures on businesses in deprived areas, where those businesses are badly needed by the community yet the crime that they suffer effectively drives them out and prevents them from serving the community.

Clearly, I am grateful for the money that has gone into Longridge. Is it possible, however, to examine what the Association of Convenience Stores has suggested: a 100 per cent write-off for equipment that is used for security in smaller stores?

The hon. Gentleman is right: we must look at how we can most effectively help as a result of the consultation. I know that he and the convenience store organisation will have some input into that consultation and will evaluate all the views to enable us to allocate what moneys are available in the most appropriate way and ensure that they are used effectively.

We also continue to support retail business crime partnerships. My hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett) raised that issue, and I am aware of the work that she has been doing with the British Retail Consortium for some time.

Some valid issues have been raised in relation to the potential for effective partnerships through working with larger stores in larger city-centre locations. Coupled with the issue of cash, with which many small businesses, because of the nature of their business and the size of the transactions that they conduct, are forced to operate, there can be such potential. If we spread effectively that partnership working to the localities, and connect with small businesses, we can dislocate crime in those areas.

When I talk to small retailers and the people who have been involved in the consultation, I am told that, in respect of crime reduction partnerships, there is a feeling that it is difficult to make contact and engage properly with small retailers, yet small retailers feel that they are not getting access to crime reduction partnerships and policies that operate in their local area. We therefore need to try to do everything that we can, as a result of the consultation, to find ways and means of breaking down those barriers to ensure that small businesses input properly into and receive advice from local partnerships, retail crime partnerships and crime reduction partnerships in their local area. There is certainly a problem, and much work that needs to be done, in relation to expanding our ability to make those contacts.

The partnerships that exist have proved valuable. They have helped to identify and exclude offenders from retail centres. We are exploring the possibility of a pilot scheme to see whether schemes can be extended to include access to drug treatment services. The hon. Member for Ribble Valley mentioned the impact that drug addiction and the problems flowing from it have on business crime. As he will know, we are expanding treatment considerably: we plan to double the amount of treatment places under the drug strategy between now and 2008. We need to get into treatment—and we will do so by that time—at least 250,000 problematic drug users. At the moment, the maximum figure on which we could impact is about half that. The amount of drug treatment available, however, is growing at about 8 per cent. a year. We need to target that properly so that all those people who come into contact with the criminal justice system are brought speedily into treatment.

There is no point in our being able to identify problematic drug offenders and to make those issues known to the court if they must then wait four to five weeks for access to drug treatment, because in the meantime they will commit crime, and businesses, at least in part, will be on the receiving end of their crimes. I have asked the hon. Gentleman to accept that although the situation is nowhere near what it needs to be, access times for drug treatment have fallen considerably. We need to drive those down even further, and we need to do so in the areas where there is the greatest need.

Many of the Government's crime reduction programmes and initiatives, including our CCTV schemes, are aimed at reducing robbery, theft, reoffending and drug misuse problems. They also contribute to reducing crimes that impact on business.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the Adjournment debate on 14 May that was held by my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson), in which I addressed various issues concerning criminal attacks on shop workers. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that my hon. Friend majored on the more substantial retail outlets, and I agree that there should be no tolerance of violence against shop workers—whether the employees of large concerns or small business people struggling to provide a service to their community and to keep their businesses alive. The issue is effectively the same. As the hon. Gentleman said, people sometimes dismiss crimes such as shoplifting as victimless crimes. They are not victimless crimes, because they destroy the profitability of businesses and their very existence in many circumstances.

I made it clear in that debate that any form of violence is unacceptable and should not be tolerated. Under the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974, all employers have a legal duty to ensure—so far as is reasonably practicable—the health, safety and welfare of their employees. Their duty includes risks arising from violence at work. The Health and Safety Executive has issued guidance that can help businesses to deal with violence against staff working in the retail sector. The debate also covered the practical guides that the HSE produced to tackle the problems and causes of work-related violence.

The HSE's publication, "Work-related violence: managing the risk in smaller businesses", will particularly interest the hon. Gentleman, given the practical help that it outlines to assist smaller businesses. The process of managing the risk from violence is similar to that for other health and safety risks. The key aspects of successful management are to identify the risks and decide what measures can be taken to prevent and to control them. The guide sets out a straightforward four-stage approach for tackling violence and includes case studies, including one involving a convenience store. It shows that there is usually a range of solutions to every problem. In particular, the guide demonstrates that the most effective measures do not have to be expensive. The most cost-effective solutions usually arise from the way in which the business is run, such as staff training, work schedules and the physical environment.

We need to be more effective at making contact with small businesses, and the advice and methodology is available to help them to minimise some of the risks that they face. However, they often do not have the wherewithal, the time and the contacts to receive that information. We must try to ensure that we set up a system that helps them to access the information that is available.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will also be interested to know that the HSE has commissioned research to find examples of good practice in preventing and managing violence to lone workers, including shop workers. The findings of the research are due to be published on its website this summer.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that the ongoing measures that I have outlined demonstrate that we are fully aware of the problems of crime and associated violence that can face those who own, operate and work in small businesses. We shall continue to work with all our stakeholders, especially businesses themselves, to try to build on successes that we have had to reduce considerably the incidence of certain crimes. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will want to have input in the consultation and determine whether it can be used to include a wider range of retailers to make it absolutely certain that we not only cover major city centres and district shopping centres but provide good access, advice and partnership working for lone businesses that serve our communities, such as rural outlets in deprived areas throughout the country.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fifteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.