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Sentencing (Retail Crime)

Volume 462: debated on Wednesday 27 June 2007

First, I should like to explode some common myths about shop theft. There is a view that shoplifting is a petty or victimless crime of ordinary people taking a few bits off the shelves on impulse, and that it is not really criminal behaviour and shoplifters are not really criminals, but that is by no means the entire picture. We should all be concerned that shop thefts are increasing: 296,044 were recorded by the police in 2005-06, which was up by more than 14,200 on the previous year. Official figures show that shop theft increased by 1 per cent. between 2000 and 2006, but data collected by the British Retail Consortium indicate an increase of 70 per cent. in that period. That huge discrepancy could be down to under-reporting to the police.

We should also be concerned that there were 10,000 physical assaults on shop workers last year, 7,000 of which were linked to shoplifting. Behind those statistics lie horrifying incidents involving the assault and abuse of shop workers. I recently met two brave women who work in Asda. One of them had been the victim of an armed robbery, in which a gun was held to her head, and the other had been attacked with an axe. Since the attacks, they have felt frightened to go to work every day.

The local paper in my constituency, the Stockport Express, reported in March that there had been a spate of 19 armed robberies of late-night shops and off-licences. In April, there was an awful case in which a woman shop worker suffered horrendous injuries when she was hit in the face with a hammer for four bottles of vermouth and a few packets of cigarettes. Other Stockport cases that have recently been reported to the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers include that of a youth who attacked a shop manager when he was challenged for stealing beer. The deputy manager went to assist the manager, but the youth broke free and produced a hypodermic syringe, saying that he had AIDS, and started chasing staff members, before eventually escaping. In another case, a woman was confronted for stealing magazines and said that she was going to pay for them. When she was told to leave the store and not to return, she became abusive and threatened to come back and stab the sales assistant.

Sixty per cent. of violent incidents occur when staff attempt to detain criminals or to protect property from theft. Many shop workers are faced with that dilemma every day, and there are many cases of traumatised workers leaving their jobs. In order to deal with shoplifting, it is important to understand the link between it and other criminal activities, such as organised crime. Much shop theft is done by people who are desperate for cash to buy drugs or alcohol. A Home Office report entitled “Strengthening powers to tackle anti-social behaviour” said that people who commit retail theft are 85 per cent. likely to be drug users and to live “chaotic” lifestyles.

A recent report by the Centre for Retail Research found that the biggest shoplifters are men. It said that shoplifters are

“older, more organised and are often stealing higher value goods to order which explodes the myth of store theft being a largely opportunistic and ‘harmless’ offence”.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate, and she makes a powerful case. She said that there were 10,000 physical attacks on shop workers last year. Given those attacks, the antisocial behaviour in shops and the fact that some shoplifting is driven significantly by large-scale organised crime, is not it crucial that the full force of the law is brought to bear on the perpetrators of those crimes? Any signal that the seriousness of the offence of shoplifting might be downgraded sends entirely the wrong message. Would not it be good to get some reassurance from the Minister ahead of the national respect for shop workers day on 11 July that has been organised by USDAW, which has done much to campaign for shop workers on this issue?

I thank my right hon. Friend, and I agree entirely with that important point about the message that is being sent about the seriousness of shop crime. I know that he has a long record of campaigning for shop crime to be treated more seriously, both to make shops safer for shop workers and to make communities safer for constituents to shop in.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. She makes an excellent case, particularly in highlighting the vulnerability of many female shop workers. Is not it incredible that, against that background, the Sentencing Guidelines Council should suggest that even persistent shoplifters should no longer be sent to prison?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. All sentencing options should be open to the courts when dealing with shoplifters, and there should not be a presumption that offences are trivial before they are dealt with in court.

Shoplifting has also been linked to gun crime and terrorism. A report on Operation Trident, which investigated shootings within the Afro-Caribbean community, said that a generation of young people had moved from shoplifting to gun crime within six years. There have also been many reports of terrorists raising funds through organised shoplifting. Far from being a trivial offence, shoplifting may be a visible sign of a shoplifter’s more extensive criminal activity, or of his or her link to organised crime. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that many shop workers are assaulted, because they often have to challenge people who are not novices in crime.

If sentencing policy is to be effective in preventing retail crime, it is important to recognise that shoplifting is not the victimless, petty crime that it is portrayed as, and that shoplifters are often hardened criminals. It is also important that sentencing policy should take account of the fact that people may start as shoplifters but end up involved in more criminal activities. That is why it is vital that first offences are treated appropriately.

That brings me to fixed penalty notices for disorder. In 2004, the scope of PNDs was extended to include shop theft offences. Many people expressed concern that shop theft was being trivialised and put on the same level as parking offences or litter dropping. PNDs were intended to be used in cases of the theft of goods worth less than £200, and they were not meant to be used for repeat offenders. Victims’ views were also meant to be taken into account when deciding whether to use PNDs instead of prosecuting. More importantly, they were meant for first offenders, although the length of time since any previous offence could be taken into account. The idea was that they would provide a quick penalty for shoplifting and would discourage further offences, but regrettably they seem to have been much misused. Businesses claim that some offenders collect notices like parking tickets.

Police officers are not supposed to give on-the-spot fines to drug users. If a drug offender is not identified and is given a PND, they stand no chance of receiving treatment or coming off drugs. An offender who is given a PND will not be drug-tested on the scene and so probably will not be identified. That is important, because the reason that people are tested on arrest is to identify underlying problems and to stop the spiral of crime.

PNDs have a part to play in the overall system, but I remain concerned about their overall effectiveness and about the consistency of their use. The British Retail Consortium has dozens of examples in which police guidance on PNDs has been flouted, including cases in which multiple PNDs have been issued to persistent offenders, sometimes in the same day, and two cases in which PNDs were issued to offenders wearing electronic tags, one of whom was a previous employee and was on parole. Those are clear breaches of guidance, as PNDs should not be given to repeat offenders.

Other examples of guidance breaches include the issuing of PNDs to aggressive and disorderly individuals and to those using foil bags, indicating that the offence was planned. For those who do not know, a foil bag is lined with layers of aluminium foil, which enables the carrier to shoplift because it blocks out store sensors. PNDs have been issued in cases involving goods worth well in excess of the recommended £100 limit and even in excess of the £200 exceptional circumstances limit. In other cases, PNDs have been issued without the victim’s consent. Victims should not be pressurised into accepting the issuing of a PND simply because it makes life easier for the police. A PND disposal removes the possibility of the criminal court awarding a compensation order in the victim’s favour.

A recent survey of solicitors for BBC Radio 4’s “Law in Action” programme found that some people racked up as many as five fixed penalty notices in a matter of months without getting a criminal record. Parliamentary figures show that in 2004 only 2,072 PNDs were issued for shop theft. In 2005, the number leapt tenfold to 21,997. In the first six months of last year, the number was 16,807; new figures from the House of Commons Library suggest that it will rise to 37,463 for the whole of 2006. That could mean that PNDs have been effective and that more shoplifters are being caught, but it could equally indicate a level of abuse and that PNDs are being handed out like confetti. Even if we accept that PNDs are being issued legitimately to first-time shoplifters, it is staggering that only 41.2 per cent of related fines are paid.

There is no national system for recording PNDs—the figures are collected by individual police forces—so it is not possible to say how many have been given to repeat offenders. Police forces are supposed to record the issuing of PNDs on the police national computer, but there is evidence that that does not always happen.

A report from the Office for Criminal Justice Reform published in February 2006 confirmed that the way in which PNDs are issued is not consistent from area to area. The report refers to the poor quality of notices, which are mainly hand-written, and to problems with recording information on the police national computer. Those things make it easier for an offender to get away with multiple offences, because they could, for example, move between police authorities.

On a national level, the jury is out about the effectiveness of PNDs as a deterrent for would-be first-time shoplifters. The recent announcement that police will be able to defer payment of PNDs for shoplifting for three to six months has been met with consternation because of the message that it sends out. I understand that deferments will take place only when the police feel that a community will benefit from the shoplifter signing, by way of an alternative, an acceptable behaviour contract. I welcome that, because it will enable us to pay some attention to underlying social problems, but it is important that people have confidence that deferments will be effective, which means having confidence that PNDs are being used effectively. Before the measure is introduced, will the Minister undertake a thorough, national evaluation of PNDs? Such a review would include collecting information on the extent to which guidelines are adhered to, including on the recording of offences; the number of people who reoffend having been issued a PND; and what action is taken against the high proportion who do not pay PND fines. The evaluation should also include evidence from stakeholders.

There is anecdotal evidence that criminals move into retail crime because there is less risk and penalties are lower. I should like to see an assessment of whether the perceived weakening of punishments for shop theft is making retail premises more attractive to thieves than domestic properties such as houses and cars.

The Sentencing Advisory Panel is currently drafting advice to the Sentencing Guidelines Council, which it is expected to publish in the autumn. The proposal to remove or cap custodial sentences for shop theft at 16 weeks for even the more persistent offenders has caused anxiety among businesses, especially when combined with the increased use of PNDs. It will be helpful if the Minister confirms that the full range of sanctions under the criminal justice system will remain available, from PNDs to antisocial behaviour orders and drug treatment orders, and custodial sentences of whatever length a court believes to be appropriate.

This year, the national respect for shop workers day, which is organised by USDAW, will be held on Wednesday 11 July. To emphasise the important part that local shops play in the life of the community, the theme of the day will be that safer shops make for safer communities. A shop that is the target of persistent crime and antisocial behaviour is not a safe place for staff or customers.

Communities would benefit if reducing retail crime, including shoplifting, was made a key police performance indicator. Will the Minister consider that? It would encourage local crime and disorder partnerships to use the full range of their resources and available measures to tackle retail crime. I congratulate the Government on introducing a wide range of measures that may be used to tackle retail crime, including shoplifting, but there needs to be better co-ordination at both national and local level. Will the Minister consider writing to crime and disorder partnerships to draw their attention to the available measures?

As a result of my concerns, I would like the Minister to consider instituting a review of the current and future sentencing framework for retail crime. The review should involve all the major stakeholders, including USDAW, the British Retail Consortium, and big employers such as Morrisons and Tesco.

Nobody wants a situation in which the retail environment is increasingly seen by thieves as a place where they can act with impunity. Preventing crime and antisocial behaviour in and around stores and shopping centres is vital for the regeneration and strengthening of our communities, and for the well-being of shop workers and customers.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) for her positive contribution on the issue of retail crime. I also thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith) and the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) for taking part in the debate.

First, I declare an interest: I am a member of USDAW, the shop workers’ union, as were my father, mother and grandfather, so I am fully aware of the support for USDAW’s campaign to tackle retail crime.

The Government take retail crime seriously, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing it to our attention today. We recognise that retail crime causes disruption to retailers and involves the threat of physical violence to staff, and that it can have a knock-on effect on communities and, by increasing costs, on consumers. When I worked for the Co-op in Plymouth and south Devon many years ago as a retail manager, losses from shoplifting were of great concern to the organisation, in terms of both the knock-on costs for consumers and the company’s profit margin, so I take my hon. Friend’s points seriously.

Sadly, there has been an increase in shop crime from 275,000 cases in 1995 to a little under 300,000 cases in 2005. I hope that I am able to assure my hon. Friend that the Government take the matter seriously, by pointing out that only 2.6 per cent. of those convicted of theft from a shop were sentenced to imprisonment in 1993, but the figure had increased to 19.5 per cent in 2003.

My hon. Friend made some valid points about the impact of the threat of violence that shop workers bear as a result of shop-related retail crime, and she gave some extreme examples from her constituency. I take the issue of violence against shop workers very seriously, as do the Government. There are a number of measures available in the criminal law with which to deal with violent behaviour, and I hope that they will be used accordingly. Guidelines issued by the Sentencing Guidelines Council ensure that courts take account of the seriousness of offences, and sentences will reflect the fact that violence is an aggravating factor.

The Government are working with the Health and Safety Executive and other key stakeholders to help reduce incidents of workplace violence, primarily through the partnership on work-related violence, a stakeholder group. We want to target those sectors, including retail, in which there is the greatest risk of violence to staff. As a constituency Member of Parliament, I recently visited my local Co-op in Flint and spoke with USDAW members at a local level, and I support the USDAW campaign. Violence against shop workers is totally unacceptable, and I give a commitment from the Government that we fully support USDAW’s “Freedom from Fear” campaign, through which the union is collaborating with employers, local authorities and the police to help promote the health, safety and well-being of shop workers. Sadly, many retail business do not report crime to the police. I hope that we can encourage people to report that crime to the police when they discover it.

According to the Sentencing Advisory Panel, research has shown that the average sentence has increased during that period from 11 months to just under 13 months. More people are in prison for longer periods now than 10 years ago, but there are still more offences, and we must address that problem.

We must consider whether prison is always the most appropriate venue for someone who has been convicted for certain crimes. That involves fine judgment. I share the message from my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend that it is unacceptable for the courts not to have the full sentencing options for organised crime, persistent offenders and violence-based crime, but for some people a community-based sentence with action on some of the issues that my hon. Friend mentioned, such as drug and alcohol abuse, may be appropriate to help them not to reoffend. The Government are trying to ensure that we take action to prevent reoffending by people who are currently undertaking activity that is distasteful to all of us.

In community terms, that means that sentencing can involve individuals being subject to intensive supervision, surveillance, unpaid work, curfews, drug treatment and alcohol referral orders, which might help to prevent reoffending. Many women are involved in shop crime, and prison may not be the most appropriate place for them. I take my hon. Friend’s point that sentencing is key.

We are considering the question of custodial sentencing. On 24 August last year, the Sentencing Advisory Panel issued a consultation paper on sentencing for theft. The consultation closed towards the end of last year, and is being examined by colleagues. Recommendations will go to the Sentencing Guidelines Council and will ultimately come to Ministers. I take very seriously my hon. Friend’s strength of feeling on behalf of her constituents and her union that we must maintain a range of sentences appropriate for the crime.

My hon. Friend also referred to penalty notices for disorder. They were introduced under the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001 to target low-level offenders, not to avoid the issues of high-level sentencing. PNDs were designed for a speedy response to minor incidents, if we can define them as such, of shop theft. Serious and violent offenders will not and should not be issued with PNDs, and my hon. Friend is particularly concerned that we look at alternative solutions.

Since November 2004, the police have been able to issue PNDs for an offence of retail theft that is normally under £100. Since the start of the scheme in 2004, we have issued 400,000 penalty notices, and 61,000 were for shop-related theft. There are problems with that—I must be honest with the Chamber—because there is a difficulty about the payment level of some fines, and the lack of continuity if individuals commit crimes, for example, in Greater Manchester and then in Cheshire.

I am aware of the concerns raised by the British Retail Consortium about the inappropriate use by some forces of PNDs for repeated and prolific shoplifting and those with drug and alcohol problems. We must review those issues positively, and we are already taking steps to examine the effectiveness of the PND scheme, and to consider an action plan to evaluate it. I hope that my hon. Friend will be party to discussions about that.

We are also looking at how we record offences. All penalty notices for recordable crimes are logged on the police national computer and while there is no central record of criminal convictions, the information is used as intelligence by local police forces to ensure that they operate positively I agree that a 24-hour national facility for the police to check for previous PND issue notices is necessary. That is why the Ministry of Justice and my colleagues in the Home Office are considering introducing a national PND database from 2009 to allow forces to track individuals, and to determine whether PNDs are the most appropriate penalty or whether there should be referral for further action in due course. PND payment rates and fine enforcement are a difficult issue and we still have some difficulties in enforcing those fines, but I hope that we can look at that.

I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that our approach is not making retail premises more attractive for thieves. We have jailed more thieves, and we have issued penalty notices to many people who would not have had them previously. However, as I said, recorded shop crime has, sadly, increased. We must look not only at existing options for custody and community sentences but at new disposals to deal with low-value shop theft, which formerly went unpunished. Since 2004, PNDs have been available, but we must look particularly at individuals who have a low level of reoffending and how to deal with them with other out-of-court disposal options.

We have introduced conditional cautioning, which is available to the police and the Crown Prosecution Service. A simple caution has been used for a long time, allowing the police to deal quickly and simply with people who have admitted to a less serious offence. It records individuals, and again the purpose is to try to reduce reoffending in total. Under the Criminal Justice Act 2003, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service can offer adults aged 18 and over conditional cautions with attached conditions covering drug and alcohol treatment. I hope that that will prevent reoffending in the longer term.

Retail crime is important, and my hon. Friend made a number of valid suggestions. She mentioned the police key indicator, which is a matter for my hon. Friends in the Home Office, and I will draw this debate to the attention of my colleagues there who deal with the police. There is no appetite in the Government for expanding the key performance indicators, but I will draw the matter to my hon. Friends’ attention.

My hon. Friend asked whether we would agree to examine the calls from USDAW, the British Retail Consortium and major employers such as Morrisons for a review of sentencing for retail crime. They have been active in pressing the Government, Home Office Ministers and now the Ministry of Justice to look at the police response to shop theft as well as sentencing options. We are trying through the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), to ensure that we examine those issues seriously. We are considering an effective review of the PND scheme, and there will be meeting on 24 July involving my Department and the Home Office to consider these issues.

My hon. Friend asked whether we could contact crime and disorder reduction partnerships. I hope that we can do so as part of the business crime strategy, and widen understanding of available penalties and what the Government can do to help with crime reduction, as well as giving greater prominence to the need for local crime and disorder reduction partnerships to tackle business crime. I will certainly consider, with Home Office support, highlighting the importance of business crime in public service agreements. My hon. Friend stated clearly and coherently that we must consider that as a key issue for the future.

We will look into the advent of local area agreements, which I hope will mean that, more than ever before, funding decisions will be made at local level, and that the crime and disorder partnerships can consider how to support positive developments in working with shopkeepers, businesses and the police to reduce the level of crime by having high-visible-impact, targeted actions in the community at large.

I shall be happy to meet USDAW, if my hon. Friend wants to investigate that possibility, to discuss the wider issues of sentencing for retail crime. We will shortly face the outcome of the Sentencing Advisory Council’s consultation and the guidelines and comments following that.

From my perspective, my hon. Friend’s points have been extremely valid. Retail crime affects us all, and it is often a hidden crime. It puts up costs for consumers and creates difficulties for staff who work in stores. It attacks the profits of British businesses, and the Government should not tolerate that. As the Minister for sentencing, I must consider how we can most effectively prevent that crime. That means a menu of options, from imprisonment through to community orders, according to the severity of the crime.

I thank my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend for bringing these matters to the Chamber today, and I hope that we can continue this debate positively outside.

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o’clock.