I beg to move,
That this House has considered prevention of retail crime.
Welcome to the Chair, Mr Betts, for the final day of activity in this Parliament. I wanted to raise the issue of retail crime today because it is still an important one that the House needs to consider. I shall discuss a number of matters that I hope will give the Minister food for thought but also provoke responses on some of the key issues that hon. Members collectively have raised in the House during the past couple of years.
I am raising retail crime because it is an important issue—indeed, a key issue—and sadly is often overlooked. The British Retail Consortium, one of the major organisations representing retailers, estimates that the cost of spending by retailers on crime prevention and of losses to the industry as a result of crime is a staggering £1.9 billion each year. That £1.9 billion cost is passed on to us as consumers and is having a major impact on the ability of retailers, at a challenging time on high streets, to make a profit and ensure that they have a profitable and valued business.
Let us consider crime as a whole. More than £700 million has been lost through shoplifting—customer theft—an issue to which I shall return. That represents a 31% rise in shoplifting on the previous year.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend both on securing this debate and on all his campaigning on this issue. He is rightly highlighting the economic cost of retail crime. Does he agree that there is also a human cost to retail crime and that we must do all we can to protect those who work in shops from threats of physical violence?
My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. I am starting with the financial cost of crime, but I will come in a moment to the key issue, of which the Minister will be aware, of the consultation regarding attacks on shop staff.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing the debate. I draw the House’s attention to my membership of and support from both the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers and the GMB, which represent shop workers in my constituency. My right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) have mentioned attacks on shop workers. In the Trafford Centre in my constituency, there have also been physical attacks on shoppers—gangs were threatening them with knives. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is not just protection of shop workers that is a crucial factor in this debate, but the wider protection of the public?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue. I had not intended to refer to it in this debate, but self-evidently, in a big shopping area such as the Trafford Centre, policing and security for shoppers, particularly in the run-up to Christmas, is a critical issue, and my hon. Friend is right to raise it today.
As I said, £700 million has been lost because of customer theft alone, and that represents a 31% rise. Some £163 million has been lost via fraud and £15 million via robbery. That is the very hard end of retail crime whereby people walk into shops with shotguns and knives and engage in physical violence—attack shop staff—but also threaten and take valuable resource from shopping. A further £3.4 million has been lost via criminal damage, which can involve people vandalising shops both in the evenings and during the daytime. That is a staggering amount of resource.
The Association of Convenience Stores, which represents 22,000 small shops, estimates that there is a £246 million cost to its sector from retail crime. That is £5,300 per store. Interestingly, there is in effect a 7p crime tax on the cost of an average shop in a convenience store. The cost is being passed on to the consumer—the customer.
My purpose today is to look at three issues. The first is progress on the consultation that we secured from the Home Office earlier this year to look at shop theft generally and at serious crime. Self-evidently, we are in an election period, but, if re-elected, as a Back Bencher I will continue to raise this issue, whoever is in government after 12 December, because it is important.
Let me start with the very important point that my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) mentioned—attacks on shop staff. Today and every day, 115 retail staff will be attacked in their workplace while protecting the shopping offer on their retail premises, upholding the legislation that we in this House have passed—on solvents, knives, alcohol and tobacco—and preventing shoplifting in their stores. As my hon. Friend suggested, that is a traumatic event for members of staff. It puts pressure on their mental and physical health. It is not acceptable that 115 colleagues are attacked each day, particularly given that knives, for example, are increasingly a significant weapon on the streets. The industry itself is doing all it can to protect its staff in their workplaces by spending about £1 billion on crime prevention measures, but we are still in a position whereby we need to look at what measures we can put in place to support the staff who are upholding the legislation that we have passed in this House.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about crime prevention measures. Does he not see that there is a difference between the large shops—the Sainsbury’s and so on of this world—and the smaller shops, the small businesses, which have great difficulty in coping with the costs of retail crime? Do we not need a differentiated approach for the two?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Everybody who runs a shop wants their staff to be protected. Large multinational retailers such as Tesco, the Co-op, Sainsbury’s and Asda are caring for their staff, but everybody who runs a shop, be it a corner shop, a one-person shop, or another kind of small shop, wants their staff to be protected at work. That is particularly important when those staff are upholding the legislation that we have passed. When they are threatened by people who want to buy alcohol late at night or early in the morning, when they are threatened for refusing cigarette, solvent or knife sales and when they are threatened for taking action to try to stop shoplifters, it is imperative that we, as the society as a whole, look at what measures we can put in place to help support them.
The Co-op Group recently produced a report entitled “‘It’s not part of the job’: Violence and verbal abuse towards shop workers”. It shows clearly that violence against shop staff has long-term consequences for them and their communities. I know the Minister will know that this is a key issue, but it is one that we need to raise, recognise, and highlight, and we need to give a commitment to those staff on the ground to ensure that they are protected as a whole.
USDAW, which, like my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), I am proud to be a member of—I declare my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests—runs annually the Freedom from Fear campaign, and in the run-up to Christmas it will again run the Respect for Shopworkers campaign. Of the 6,725 shop workers surveyed by USDAW in the past year, 64% faced verbal abuse at work, 40% were threatened by a customer, and 280, on average, were assaulted every day. That is not acceptable.
I pay tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), who previously deal with this issue. We raised it during proceedings on the Offensive Weapons Act 2019. We tabled amendments and called for action in the form of a review of attacks on shop staff. The then Minister agreed to that review during a roundtable meeting with the Co-op, USDAW and other trade unions, the British Retail Consortium, the Association of Convenience Stores and the National Federation of Retail Newsagents. That review has been undertaken; it has taken evidence. There has been an awful lot of consultation responses. The previous Minister promised to respond to that evidence in the course of November. It is now November, so I wanted to put that on the record and get some feedback from the current Minister as to where we are with that action. We are in a politically divisive time, but I hope the Minister and his team see this as an important issue on which we can have cross-party co-operation. If he can tell us what he intends to do, if the Government are re-elected, that would be welcome. I know what I would like to do if Labour is elected as the next Government—we would take action—but it is important that we discuss these issues today.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be helpful to understand, should the Minister’s party be returned to government, what its view is on the use of facial recognition technology, which has been tried in the Trafford Centre, but is controversial? It has the potential to address crime, but we need to know what protections would be in place for personal privacy.
My hon. Friend has put an important issue on the table for the Minister to respond to.
In June, 50 senior retail figures, chief executives of the UK’s most recognisable retailers, the general secretary of USDAW, the chief executive of the Charity Retail Association and the chief executive of the British Retail Consortium all signed a letter calling for legislation in response to the Government consultation. Can we hear about the consultation and the potential legislation, and about what the Government intend to do, so that we can make a judgment about that? Whoever wins this election—that is for the British people—we need to know what measures are in place to take this issue forward.
I met with the Charity Retail Association—not just retail shops as a whole—which wrote to me on 5 June:
“We look forward to joining your list of…organisations in your fight for better protection for shop workers from violence or abuse.”
I wrote to the Minister earlier this year on the consultation that he is now considering. He responded on 3 September:
“Early analysis suggests that, as you highlight in your letter, the vast majority of respondents believe that violence and abuse toward shop staff has increased in recent years and that many respondents are unaware of the measures and tools available to tackle it and provide support for victims.”
My challenge to the Minister is this. Given that those respondents believe violence and abuse has gone up, and they want to see action from the Government, what will the Government do?
I thank my right hon. Friend for securing such an excellent debate. Having worked for USDAW for nearly 20 years, I have spoken to thousands of shop workers who have suffered abuse. They often felt that their employer was not doing enough to be on the side of their staff who were facing abuse. That has happened over decades. Does he agree that the Government should take a lead on this and make it clear that it is never right to abuse or threaten staff on the front line?
I absolutely agree, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s efforts in this area. It is right that the Government should do that. I am looking to the Minister to show political leadership on this. For example, 98% of the current police and crime commissioners’ policing plans make no reference to shop theft, 63% make no reference to business crime, 72% make no reference to prolific offending and 79% make no reference to addiction, drug treatment or drug recovery, which are key to preventing shop theft. What pressure will the Minister put on police and crime commissioners for their actions?
The Minister will probably have received a letter today, dated 1 November, from James Lowman, chief executive of the Association of Convenience Stores, supporting the broad thrust of this debate and the consultation, and asking for legislation. The key point from Mr Lowman’s letter that I want to put on the record is this. Since the Government’s consultation began—back through the autumn, summer and spring, to when it was launched—200,000 assaults have taken place on people working in the retail and wholesale sector, in their place of work, because of the issues that we have mentioned around shoplifting and shop theft, and the lack of prevention of those activities.
Mr Lowman makes the valid point that his organisation represents 33,500 shops, including the Co-op, BP petrol stations, Spar, Nisa and Londis—a whole range of shops. They are united in their wish for a Government to take issue on this issue and introduce legislation on shop theft and attacks on shop staff. I hope the Minister will give some indication on that in due course.
I also want to raise the issue of shoplifting as a whole. In the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, the definition of shop theft was revisited. At the time, I was the shadow Police Minister. I objected to that change and we pressed the matter to a Division. “Stolen goods from shops” was defined as goods worth £200 or less, which meant that such cases would therefore not necessarily go to court. That has had a dramatic impact on shop theft. Someone could walk into a supermarket today and steal £199-worth of goods and potentially not face court, but instead face an out-of-court disposal. I happen to think that it is important that people go to court and face the consequences of their crime. We need to review the threshold.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) and her colleagues will be in the Minister’s position shortly. After this election, whoever the Minister is, they should review the £200 limit on shoplifting. It is causing, potentially, increased shoplifting, because people know there are few consequences to face, and the police do not follow up on that type of activity, because of their stretched resources—which is something we might come to.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who has done so much in this area. I agree that reducing shoplifting to the status of a parking offence has sent entirely the wrong signal. Does he agree that one of the perverse effects has been on the insurance industry? The police will say, “You have insurance.” If a small retailer makes a claim, its insurance goes up and the customer pays more. The shoplifter is the one person getting away with it, but everyone else is paying for the crime.
That is another knock-on consequence of retail crime and emphasises the point I want to make to the Minister. This is not an inconsequential or victim-free crime. The victims of shop theft and shop retail crime are the staff on the frontline, who are upholding the law, the shop owners and businesses, who take a hit to their profits, the customers, who pay more, and the insurance companies and other businesses, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) mentioned, which face the consequences of those actions.
I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend on his brilliant work over the years to support shop workers and the way that he has tried to get the Government to change their approach to the law. The wider damage done by crimes against shop workers affects staff, businesses and, at a time when retail is struggling, communities. Does he agree that, for all those reasons, if this Government are re-elected, they must act? If the Labour party is elected to Government, we will take the action required.
I am not a Front Bencher. My Front-Bench days are over by choice. I did the Minister’s job at one point. We had 21,000 more police officers, at that stage, who helped to protect victims from crime. I cannot speak for a future Labour Government, but I know that my hon. Friends the Members for Swansea East and for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) will put in place measures to improve policing and legislation to protect shop staff, and to reduce retail crime, which impacts badly across our community and remains a hidden crime.
I have mentioned the policing plan and the policing response. I make no criticism of the police for being unable to respond at the same level as in the past, because when there are 21,000 fewer police officers than there were 10 years ago, that puts pressure on the police. The Government have said they will introduce 20,000 new police officers. I would like to know from the Minister how many police officers have been recruited since that pledge was made. What is his plan for when those 20,000 will be recruited? Why is he still putting forward proposals to have fewer police officers than when I held his job 10 years ago? What priority will he put on ensuring that police forces tackle retail crime, supported by legislation? These are key issues in any forthcoming discussion on this subject.
I, too, commend my right hon. Friend for the immense amount of work he has done over the years on this topic. Does he agree that policing is particularly relevant in rural areas, where we are seeing a massive loss in coverage by shops, particularly little independent shops? In my constituency of Warwick and Leamington, we have communities with a single shop—the one shop in the village—and they are the ones that are most vulnerable to retail crime.
They are, and as the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) said earlier, the additional costs of CCTV, head cameras, recording equipment or protective measures such as shutters fall disproportionately on smaller shops. When I was doing the Minister’s job, we had a scheme to support small businesses to prevent shop theft and other types of theft. I would like to hear what he proposes to do, should he be re-elected, on those issues.
I want to see the response to the consultation, I want to see more police officers on the street, and I want to see help and support to raise awareness of the importance of tackling this crime. However, much shop theft is also driven by alcohol or drug abuse and mental health issues. There is a real challenge for the Minister and the Government—again, I compare and contrast previous Governments with the current Government—in supporting those who face difficult challenges and whose shoplifting and shop theft, and maybe even their consequential violence, is linked to a problem that is solvable and that can be dealt with by society as a whole.
I simply make the point that in 2014, for example, there were 8,734 drug treatment orders in the community, but in 2018 there were only 4,889. The number of drug treatment orders given to serial offenders has almost halved in the five years between 2014 and 2019, while alcohol treatment orders have gone down from 5,500 to 3,300. People who needed a criminal justice outcome to their criminal activity—a community-based solution of a drug or alcohol treatment order—have seen the number of those orders fall dramatically in that period. That might mean that more people are in prison, which certainly takes them off the streets but does not necessarily rehabilitate them. Nevertheless, it is important that the Minister looks at how we can increase drug and alcohol treatment orders and the use of mental health orders for people in the community who are undertaking shoplifting because their treatment for alcohol or drugs is not being provided to the extent that it was. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East, the shadow Minister, will look at that.
Again, in my time as Police Minister—I am going back 10 years—we had a prevention strategy as well as a policing strategy. The strategy was about trying to deal with the alcohol and drug problems that were driving offences, in addition to liaising with police in the community who knew who the prolific and serial offenders were locally and taking action accordingly. It is quite possible to find someone who is involved in 10 shoplifting events a month. Reducing those 10 to one through a drug treatment order has a massive impact on the crimewave in a local community. The Minister needs to explain what the Government’s future plans are.
Finally, I want to touch on the issue of serious crime. We have talked about shoplifting, which is serious; we have talked about violence against staff, which is serious. Sadly, however, there has also been an upswing in armed robberies at petrol stations, post offices, shops and supermarkets. I believe that the National Crime Agency should be focusing on this issue, driving down armed robberies, breaking up gangs and working hard to identify perpetrators.
Although I do not have time to go into that issue in detail, I simply put to the Minister three final points. First, he needs to give us the Government’s response to the consultation. Shop staff, shop businesses and shop organisations are unanimous on the need for legislation and a Government response. He should now say what he is going to do, because I am sure that my hon. Friend the shadow Minister will say that Labour will act if we are in government. Secondly, the Minister needs to review the £200 shoplifting threshold—as will my hon. Friend, if she holds his post in future—because it is having a damaging effect on shoplifting as a whole. Thirdly, we need a review to look at the number and type of organised criminal gang attacks on shops, because they are rising, causing fear among staff and damaging our communities as a whole.
This is an important issue. Today is the last day of our parliamentary Session, but I wanted to raise this issue because it matters to the people who work in shops, to the businesses that run those shops and to the consumers who spend their money in those shops. And it should matter to the Minister, as it matters to me and my hon. Friend, the shadow Minister.
Order. Looking at the number of Members who want to speak, I will give a guideline speech limit of six minutes for each Member. If Members exceed that, those at the end of the debate will get less time.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts.
It is typical of the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson) to approach this subject in the way that he has; he has stressed the need for cross-party action. I am not anticipating—unusually—that he and I will be returned here at the general election, but if we are then I would very much like to work with him on sorting out some of the issues that he has raised, and I praise him for securing this debate.
Going shopping should be a pleasure; it should be full of the excitement of trying to find a bargain or being able to negotiate with a shop owner, and I do not think we should do anything that takes away that pleasure. Whatever we do should be seen within that context.
The point that I made in my intervention earlier is crucial. The measures that we can suggest as the solution for companies of the size of Tesco or Waitrose will be completely different to the measures that we can suggest for smaller businesses. In my constituency, although we have a Waitrose and a Tesco, we also have a vast array of smaller businesses. In fact, the majority of the businesses in the high streets in both Henley and Thame are small shops, many of them family-owned, and they are my greatest concern in how we tackle this issue. I am not questioning anything that the right hon. Gentleman has said today, but I am merely pointing out that we need to consider the best approach.
For example, if we consider some of the suggestions that have been made, such as using CCTV or some of the other more developed techniques to control retail crime, we see that they are quite expensive for small and medium-sized businesses. I do not think that a strategy that just takes the whole of the retail sector and applies solutions right across the board is at all appropriate for smaller companies.
We all know, and the right hon. Gentleman made this point very acutely, that shoplifting affects the productivity and competitiveness of smaller shops. A few years ago, a study showed that even the smallest amount of shoplifting can have a major impact on the profitability of these shops. The effect is much greater than the percentage suggests, and that is particularly so in smaller shops where the margins are tighter. That is where we need to concentrate on tackling this crime.
I want to highlight several other issues. It could be said that credit card fraud is a problem just for the credit card companies, but it is not; it is also a problem for small and medium-sized retailers, and a much more joined-up approach to tackle that is essential. Allied with that is the use of mobile payment technologies. I know there are huge benefits to mobile payment technologies, and I acknowledge that I have taken advantage of those benefits in my own shopping, but we have to take a firm line in mitigating against the risks of mobile payment technologies when it comes to the proposed solutions.
The points that have been raised about attacks on staff and shoppers are valid. We must do everything we can to protect those individuals. I have no experience of being attacked while out shopping, and I would like to keep it that way. I would like that not only for me, but for everyone who goes shopping. As the right hon. Gentleman pointed out, drug-related cultures have a keen impact on this issue, and that ties in with the statement he made about attacks on shops to get alcohol and cigarettes. The two are often linked, and we need to tackle them together to sort them out.
My final point is that it is despicable that anyone should target charity shops, which exist for charitable purposes, for theft. We should try to do anything we can to help them. If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to take forward a cross-party approach to the issue, then I am in. I am happy to work with him. He is a colleague of mine on the Justice Committee, so we have worked together enormously on these matters, including some of the justice issues he raised in his speech. I thank him for bringing this debate to the House.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (David Hanson), who is a great parliamentarian and a great champion of shopworkers. Like him, I declare the support I receive from USDAW and the GMB.
The first cost of violence against shopworkers is the cost to shoppers. My right hon. Friend was right to refer to the work done by the Association of Convenience Stores, which suggested that 7p of the cost every time anyone shops is a consequence of violence against shopworkers.
The second cost is the human cost of violence against shopworkers. I will tell a story about when I was walking in my right hon. Friend’s giant footsteps as shadow policing Minister four years ago. I addressed the USDAW conference as part of its Freedom from Fear campaign, and alongside me was a shop manager who had worked for 15 years in a particular shop. One night, a group of youths came in and were very abusive towards a black security guard. The manager went over, managed it and they left. The following night, yet more of them came back. When the manager went to the security guard’s aid, because he was being attacked, he was himself attacked so violently that he died. Mercifully, he was resuscitated on the spot by the ambulance service. What was so heartbreaking was that he told a story about how he loved playing football with his son and loved going mountain biking. He said, “Jack, I’ll never be able to do that again.” He is a fine young man, and he is never able to do that again.
We see the consequences nationwide, including on Erdington high street, where there are increasing problems of violence against shopworkers and crime and antisocial behaviour. One of the impacts of that is that I get people saying to me, “I am reluctant to shop locally because I fear going down the high street.” That cannot be right.
What can we do? My right hon. Friend has focused on the need for action. First, shopworkers are public servants. They are entitled to be treated with dignity and respect. Secondly, violence against shopworkers needs to be properly and fully recognised in local police plans. The statistics read out earlier are shocking, but not entirely surprising if 21,000 police officers have been taken off the streets. The statistics need to be recognised in police plans. Thirdly, we need more prosecutions, sending an unmistakable message that those who commit violence against shopworkers do so at their peril. Fourthly, a clear message needs to be sent by the law. On the one hand, there is the nonsense of the £200 limit—my right hon. Friend ably advocated for tackling that—but on the other, we have a legal framework with three categories of crime and culpability and 19 aggravating factors. We need a specific offence that sends an unmistakeable message.
My right hon. Friend was also right about the importance of preventive measures. My experience is like his: some of those involved in shoplifting and violence are themselves vulnerable individuals and everything possible needs to be done to deter and deflect them from the path of crime, in particular crime against shopworkers.
In conclusion, my right hon. Friend was right to make an appeal to Government. There is common ground that such crime is completely unacceptable, but it must be tackled with the urgency it requires, including—crucially—resource and more prosecutions. I hope that when the Minister responds, he says, “We get it and we are determined to act.”
I am grateful to you, Mr Betts, for giving me the opportunity to speak. Like others, I praise my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (David Hanson) for once again bringing the House’s attention to this important issue. He rightly took time out to praise USDAW, the campaigning union. It is a particularly strong campaigning union on this issue, and I acknowledge the financial support it gives me. He also rightly praised the work of the Co-operative Group, which I know well as a member of the Co-operative party. The work of USDAW and the Co-op Group has, in very different ways, served to push the issue up the political agenda, and long may that continue, given what little action has been taken to date.
The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) rightly raised the impact of retail crime on small businesses in our communities. Looking at the small businesses, as well as the big retail concerns, in my constituency, we can see that Harrow is no longer a manufacturing town. The businesses based in Harrow are predominantly retail. Many of them work on very small margins, which he alluded to, and the significant increase in shoplifting has put some of those businesses at risk. I will come back to that in a moment.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn set out, the rise in violence has had a profound impact on many of those who work in our shops. They are public servants, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) rightly said, and they deserve the protection of all of us in this place. Retail crime impacts not only on the individual shop worker or business, but on our communities. There is a sense that the area is less safe to enjoy and that businesses might leave, and the strength of district shopping centres is deteriorating, which is what drew me to this debate. During a conversation with a manager, I was staggered to hear that, in the 18 months following the announcement that the major police station in my constituency would be closed, there was a 20% increase in shoplifting. According to UKCrimeStats, the number of shoplifting offences in my constituency since 2011-12 has trebled, which is a remarkable increase, by any stretch of the imagination.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn rightly raised the issue of violent crime. In my constituency, the number of violent incidents has almost doubled, which is hardly surprising given that considerable cuts to Metropolitan police funding have resulted in 30% of police officers disappearing from the streets of Harrow since 2010. We need stronger deterrents against attacks on retail workers. I join my right hon. Friend in urging the Government to update us on the scale of the responses to the call for evidence that closed in June. I remain strongly of the view that we need a clear deterrent against violence in shops. I do not understand why a specific offence cannot be created. It is staggering that the losses resulting from retail crime and the counter-crime prevention measures that businesses have to take amount to almost £2 billion. Mothercare is the latest example of a major chain potentially having to go into administration, and that brings home the scale of the impact not only on individual members of staff, but on our communities.
Finally, I have two specific points. An extra £1 million from the Metropolitan police budget for Harrow West would enable a return to the ward-based teams of a sergeant, two police constables and three police community support officers, who could gather intelligence about crime within our area, find out who is committing it, and react more quickly when retail crime takes place. Our courts need more resources to handle cases more quickly. Working with police and crime commissioners, they need to be able to direct efforts to tackle the root causes behind some of the retail crime, including the drug dependency and mental health issues that others have mentioned.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (David Hanson) on outlining the major points.
I want to say one thing to the Minister: the £200 de minimis level is now so counterproductive that it is causing as many problems as it solves. I accept that it is not easy to get a prosecution. It has to go through the police and the Crown Prosecution Service, but the problem now, as was said earlier—and I have talked to numerous people—is that I face losing shops. Perhaps £200 does not sound much, but a succession of £200 losses causes difficulties because the same businesses get hit time after time. I have had instances where people who take whatever they take wave at the CCTV camera on the way out, and a member of the shop’s staff has to decide whether to intervene, with the possibility of violence against them, or allow the perpetrator to leave. That is why the £200 de minimis level is wrong. If someone steals, they should face the possibility of prosecution, no matter what the shop’s circumstances are. It is particularly problematic for smaller shops, because they are hit much more regularly. The bigger shops have the means to bear down and prosecute in their own right if the police choose not to prosecute.
I want to commend two organisations. The all-party parliamentary group on retail crime has been very valuable. There are many all-party groups. They spread themselves around and dilute our ability to do things, but the APPG on retail crime has been valuable. I am close to the Association of Convenience Stores. I have met representatives on many occasions, and I am told that shops in Stroud have lost an estimated £184,816 because of retail crime. The appeal has to be made to police and crime commissioners, although they cannot deal with the operational stuff. We have a very good police and crime commissioner in Gloucestershire. Martin Surl has taken up this issue and made it clear that he will be supportive, but we lack police numbers. Far too often the police either do not turn up at all or they turn up very late. They are incredibly sympathetic because they know what has happened and they know about the impact on the owners and staff, but they say it is impossible to do much about it.
We need to get rid of the de minimis level. We have to be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime, as was said some years ago. All the issues to do with mental health and drug and alcohol abuse are integrated into the whole problem, but we cannot allow the crimes to carry on, or most of our convenience stores will disappear. That would be tragic in a rural area, because that store is often the last shop in the village, and such stores serve a community purpose. Can we therefore get rid of the £200 de minimis level? If the Minister agrees, I will be happy as I go through the election.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, Mr Betts. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson) on securing it. There are not many debates in Westminster Hall when he and I are not together, and I am very pleased to participate in this one, so I thank him for securing it. I also thank him for all the hard work he did when he was a Northern Ireland Minister and I was on the council—which was not yesterday.
As I have previously highlighted in this Chamber, although the costs in my constituency are not massive, retail crime does have massive consequences. Whether someone steals biscuits from the local pound shop or creates and distributes fake money in the lead-up to Christmas, it affects our local businesses.
Over the weekend, a shop in the town centre of Newtownards contacted me about a spate of petty crime involving the theft of alcohol. Such crimes are committed by young men who do indeed wave to the CCTV camera on the way out. They seem oblivious to the possibility of getting caught, although they have changed their tactics slightly and now use young girls to go and do the same thing. The shop staff are fearful of stopping them. The ladies who mostly man the counters are reluctant to try to detain someone, for fear of violence. They did not sign up to confront people, but to work in the store and do what they do. The Library has supplied information. The issue of the £200, which the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) and others have mentioned, needs to be addressed.
The businesses on our high streets need every penny they earn. I encourage people to shop locally when possible. I once saw a sign saying that research shows that £10 spent in a local independent shop means that up to an additional £50 goes back into the local economy. That is simply because those shop owners put the money we spend back into the local community by going to local pubs and restaurants and so on, thus circulating the money and allowing the community to thrive. Some of us shop locally to sow into our local economy, so retail crime is a local issue. People abuse and steal from their own community and it cannot be tolerated.
The Business Crime Partnership launched its business crime survey in September. I look forward to reading the responses. I agree with the development manager of the Federation of Small Business Northern Ireland, Mairaid McMahon, who said:
“Crimes against small firms, contrary to what some may think, are certainly not ‘victimless’. The average cost of a crime to a business is almost £3,000…and when additional negative impacts such as reputational damage, lost time and delayed business activity are factored in, it quickly adds up to a significant barrier to growth, or in the worst cases a threat to their survival.”
That is certainly what it means for small shops. She went on to say:
“Having worked with the Business Crime Partnership we know that tackling these crimes are a priority for the justice system, but we need a stronger evidence base to ensure that resources are being targeted effectively. We encourage all businesses to complete the Survey to enable us to capture the true impact of these crimes right across Northern Ireland.”
If the Minister remains in post after the election, perhaps he could look at that survey and factor it into the process.
Aodhán Connolly, the director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium said:
“For our members the combined cost of spending on crime prevention and losses from crime to the retail industry across the UK is substantial and more importantly every day, including weekends, 115 colleagues are attacked, with many more threatened. That is why we are members of the Northern Ireland Business Crime Partnership, to make NI a safer and more competitive place to do business and that is why we are encouraging retailers and all businesses to fill in this survey.”
In short, fill in the survey, ensure that the information is there, and work off the back of that evidentially. He went on to say:
“To fight crime we need to understand how, when and where it is happening and that’s how you can help shape the response to business crime.”
This is an issue for our local businesses. To keep the high street thriving, businesses must be able to pay their bills and wages, and that can happen only if we cut down on retail crime, working hand in hand with the local police force. I was glad to hear that funding will be released for more community policing. That means that officers will be able to arrive quickly at the scenes of crimes, and it sends the message that these small crimes will not be tolerated and that prosecuting them is a priority. We must do all we can to keep our high streets thriving and our local people in employment.
I am proud that I can honestly say that I have never shopped online; I buy only from my local high streets. My wife, of course, will say, “You don’t very often go shopping with me,” but any shopping that I do is probably specific. That is usually what men do. Although I absolutely support our local entrepreneurs with online presences, my pounds are content on the high street. I have a wonderful constituency in Strangford. I do not need to expound the values of Strangford: everyone knows that it is a premier place to go shopping and has everything to offer. Members will understand why I do not need to go any further. We must play our part in tackling high street retail crime, and send the clear message that we support local businesses in spirit, financially and with the full extent of local police, hand in hand together.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (David Hanson) on securing this important debate, and on all the work that he has done on this issue. I draw attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests regarding previous support from the trade union GMB. As we are in the run up to Christmas—as well as something else that is on the horizon—I pay tribute to all those who work in retail, not just at this time of year but all year round, for the important work that they do. I also pay tribute to police officers and community support officers across the country for all that they do in the fight against retail crime to keep our communities and shops safe.
As we have heard, retail crime is becoming increasingly serious and frequent in today’s society. As my right hon. Friend said, the British Retail Consortium’s 2019 retail crime survey reported that last year the total cost to retailers of crime and crime prevention was a staggering £1.9 billion, up 12% from the year before. Customer theft was also up 31% on the previous year. A survey of more than 3,000 retail workers by the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, responding to the Government’s call to evidence on retail crime earlier this summer, showed that 62% of respondents had been subjected to verbal or physical abuse, and 80% believed that violence and abuse towards staff have increased in recent years.
Many thousands of retail workers are dedicated, longstanding employees who work in stores that are important assets to their communities, be they small or large. In many areas, such stores are the only place to buy essentials such as milk and bread, to withdraw cash or to send and receive post. The services that many retail workers provide and facilitate are invaluable to local communities, and they should not have to deal with retail crime of any kind, be it verbal abuse, assault or theft. Nobody deserves to go about their job in fear: fear of who may come into the store that day and what may happen; fear that they may be fired from a cruel so-called flexible or zero-hours contract for being the member of staff on the shop floor when cash or stock was lost through theft; or, worst of all, fear of what happens if the police are unable to respond to the incident.
The Government can and must do more, and commit to providing greater protection for retail workers. Constant cuts to police numbers and resources over the past decade—21,000 police officers lost since 2010—with police officer numbers at their lowest levels since the 1980s, have stretched our local police beyond measure and forced such immense pressure on them that they simply cannot attend to incidents being reported. They cannot always maintain visibility in the community, with a presence in town centres or high streets, to protect and reassure retail workers and to deter potential criminals from committing an offence in the first place. Cuts to our local councils have meant that there is now even less funding for them to work with the police and other partners to manage antisocial behaviour and reduce crime, and there are fewer youth workers, social workers and education welfare officers to work with people to ensure that they never turn to crimes such as shoplifting and vandalism.
Retail crime is a serious issue across the country. According to new national crime statistics, in my constituency of Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney 567 incidents of shoplifting were reported over the past year. Tory cuts to my local police forces, South Wales Police and Gwent Police, have had a devastating impact on the ability of officers to prevent incidents of retail crime, as they are already stretched in so many other areas. A good number of local schemes are in operation in our communities to prevent and tackle retail crime, such as Shopwatch, but that responsibility should not be solely with the communities or retail workers themselves.
The responsibility is on the Government to introduce legislation for greater legal protection for retail workers, and to give our local police forces the support that they so desperately need to respond to, and prevent, incidents of retail crime, and to reverse the appalling record on it. Today’s debate shows much cross-party support for a solution. The Government can and must do more. Hopefully we will hear some positive news from the Minister about what he plans to do to address this important issue.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (David Hanson) for introducing this important debate. Even on the last day of this Parliament, it is important that both sides of the House look at the position of shopworkers in the run-up to Christmas, because crime and violence against them has got worse.
I pay tribute to USDAW, having worked on its Freedom from Fear campaign for many years, and having been instrumental in setting that up. USDAW surveyed its members recently, and found that 80% believe that crime and violence against them are getting worse. It was bad 20 years ago and, as Members across the House have described, we are now seeing more incidents of violence and threatening behaviour with weapons. That is not good enough for shopworkers, who provide a valuable service—whether on our high streets, which desperately need our support, or in community shops on the edges of towns or in villages.
I am chair of the all-party parliamentary small shops group. We hear from people across the country about the vulnerable position those staff and business owners can be in, and I pay tribute to them. As our retail shops decline, and sole shops decline as well, we see a decline in our communities. High streets are important for bringing us together. Small shops are often the only place that people in those communities get to speak to someone. A shop owner told us at one of our recent events that an old lady said to him that the only time she touched another human being was when he gave her her change. Those stores are so important to their communities and to people across the country, so it is particularly important that we see them not just as profit-making businesses, but as providing a service. Most of the shopkeepers in my constituency say that they do not do it for the money, but because they love their community, and the community values them as well.
Those shopkeepers are on the frontline. More and more prolific offenders are targeting small, isolated shops, and more and more of the shopkeepers in my constituency are having to take on and tackle offenders themselves, which is a position that nobody should be in. Both through my work with USDAW and locally, I have met shopkeepers and shop workers who have been traumatised for life by the experiences they have had to go through. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) described the case of Barry, who I know; when he spoke with my hon. Friend at the USDAW conference, it was an incredibly moving experience.
The trouble is that our justice system is letting these people down. It is not just that police numbers are decreasing and that the response to incidents is not improving: by the time that I left the union, Barry, who I have known for many years, had still not seen the perpetrators in his case brought to justice. The court case was delayed again and again, and he was left knowing that those perpetrators were out there committing more offences, and feeling that he was in danger as a witness.
In my community, we have seen the amount that police can do to tackle prolific offenders reduced. Our local magistrates’ court in Buxton closed in 2015, and the local police cells have now been closed because there is not so much need for them now that we do not have a magistrates’ court. That makes it far harder for those police who are still there to deal with offenders. The number of community orders has decreased by a third; prolific offenders travel across county lines, knowing how to evade different police forces and evade justice, and our police have had to invest enormous amounts of resources in trying to bring those perpetrators to justice.
As we know, 20,000 police officers have been lost, but I ask the Minister what his party proposes to do about the staff who are so often crucial to bringing successful prosecutions. In Derbyshire, not only have we lost just over 300 police officers, but over 400 support staff. Those police community support officers, investigating officers and detectives are often the ones who do the work to ensure that criminals are not only caught, but successfully prosecuted. Without those support staff, that work is very difficult and ties the hands of police officers. I pay tribute to the Derbyshire police and crime commissioner; this year, through additional council tax, we had the funding to hire another 120 officers and staff. We got 58 additional police officers from that, but also 62 support staff including PCSOs, investigating officers and detectives. That is making a real difference to the ability of my local police force to bring perpetrators to justice, which we must never forget is an extremely important part of policing.
This issue is not just about political headlines or the number of police officers, but about the experience of communities. It is about people feeling that they are on the frontline and are not getting the response from Government, the police or society that they need to protect them and to keep those valuable community stores running.
In the run-up to Christmas, all Members will want to pay tribute to shop workers. Those people can expect an extremely busy time, but also, unfortunately, an increase in abuse by people who are stressed, and an increase in violence and in thefts by criminals who seek to take advantage of this time of year, with the extra stock and extra money in the tills. I hope that in spite of the election, we can send a message to our communities and to police forces and shop workers everywhere that we are going to act.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I too declare an interest, in that I am a member of USDAW, the Co-op and the GMB. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (David Hanson) on all the work he has done on this issue and on having secured today’s debate, which is probably the last opportunity we will have this year to debate this important subject, ahead of Christmas—when the problem will be at its worst—and, indeed, ahead of the general election. I feel that in the past four years, I have been a parliamentary candidate more often than I have been to the dentist.
Many other right hon. and hon. Members have shared stories of some of the truly terrifying situations that shop workers are put in as a result of retail crime. It is a cruel injustice that so many people across the UK go to work in absolute fear of being physically or verbally attacked just for doing their job. I pay tribute to USDAW for its Freedom from Fear campaign, which for many years has been raising awareness of this issue, both in this House and in all of our constituencies. Most of us have had the obligatory Freedom from Fear photo taken before Christmas; in my case, it is always taken in Morrisons. USDAW recently reported that 62% of shop workers have been the victim of verbal or physical abuse: that is shocking, and needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. The UK Government must step up and provide the resources to give retail workers the protection they deserve.
A step in the right direction would be for the Home Office to publish its response to its call for evidence on violence towards shop staff, which took place earlier this year. That consultation closed in June, and received over 800 responses from individual shop workers, small shopkeepers, unions and businesses, all detailing their experiences of the growing problem of violent crime. We were originally promised a response by this month, but there has been nothing so far. In light of the current political situation, I hope that some clarity will be provided before this Parliament comes to an end. I am clearly not alone in seeking that clarification, as the Association of Convenience Stores has written to the Minister calling for an urgent response. With an estimated 200,000 assaults or threats to retail and wholesale sector staff in the period since that call for evidence closed, the Home Office must stop delaying, show some leadership, and commit to introducing tougher penalties for the perpetrators of those crimes.
Retail crime has multiple victims, from the retailers who suffer the losses to the staff who face abuse that makes them fearful of turning up for work. Every MP has this issue in their constituency; in Swansea East, retailers have lost nearly £200,000 through shoplifting just this year. However, although we are all well aware of the effects of retail crime on individuals and businesses, we need to start paying more attention to its causes. All of us have been sat in a pub and witnessed someone come in with a bottle of perfume, a DVD, a joint of meat or a slab of cheese, which are quite clearly stolen goods. All too often, those people are simply desperate to make a few pounds to feed an addiction, whether to alcohol, drugs or gambling. If we seriously want to see a reduction in retail crime, we need to do something about its catalysts. Addiction services are desperately underfunded, and the Government need to rectify that by providing sustainable resources for rehabilitation programmes and diversionary activities that will support those facing addiction and therefore protect our wider community.
Many retailers have raised concerns that the scale of the problem has escalated since the coalition Government introduced a £200 threshold for low-level shoplifting back in 2015, effectively decriminalising it. With police resources stretched to their limits, it is understandable that that is happening, but that does not make it right. Simply, we need more police officers on our streets. The Government have proudly announced their plan to recruit 20,000 more officers, which I am sure we would all be delighted about, if they had not spent the last nine years inflicting a series of cuts. That effectively means that their plan to get police numbers up would only replace what they have taken out since they took office.
People need to feel safe. Police patrolling the streets in our neighbourhoods would make a substantial difference. The Welsh Labour Government have funded an extra 500 police community support officers across the country, who have helped to reduce the impact of retail crime. It would be welcome if the UK Government were to replicate that.
I hope that the Minister has truly listened to the contributions of hon. Members and that he understands that violence against shop workers is a growing problem that needs to be urgently addressed. Nobody should fear going to work, but that is the reality for many retail staff. We need a commitment from the Government about their plans to tackle the issue. Frontline retail staff in our communities deserve more than empty gestures and broken promises. We need change—they need change—and we need it now.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, albeit in a different forum from the last one we met in. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson) on securing the debate about a matter that he has worked on for some time. He worked closely with my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), now the Minister for Safeguarding and Vulnerability, who took the matter seriously. I listened carefully to the contributions of all hon. Members and I will try to address some specific points that were raised.
As I hope hon. Members realise, the Government recognise the significant impact that retail crime has not only on businesses and those who work for them but on shoppers, consumers and the wider community, as we have heard from several hon. Members. That is why we co-chair the national retail crime steering group to bring together the Government, trade organisations and enforcement partners to ensure that the response to crimes affecting the retail sector is as robust as possible. We have seen the benefits that that group can achieve in its recent response to the issue of violence and abuse towards shop workers, which was overseen by my hon. Friend the Minister for Safeguarding and Vulnerability, but we know there is more to do.
The right hon. Member for Delyn raised the issue of violence and abuse toward shop staff. I pay tribute to his work on raising awareness of the issue. I am aware of his discussions with Home Office Ministers on the topic during the passage of the Offensive Weapons Act 2019 in the last parliamentary Session, to which he referred. Violence and abuse remains the biggest concern for retailers and we are determined to tackle it.
Every day, we ask shop workers to deal with whatever comes through their door, whether that involves enforcing an age restriction on certain products or confronting shoplifters. Like anyone else, shop workers have the right to feel safe at work without fear of violence or intimidation. That is why, on 5 April, we launched a call for evidence to inform our response—I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his submission. We sought information on four key areas: prevalence and data, prevention and support, enforcement and the criminal justice system, and best practice.
As was mentioned, the call for evidence closed recently. We received more than 800 responses, including many first-hand accounts from shop staff. Although Home Office officials have completed an initial analysis, we have not yet published our response. That will disappoint hon. Members who referred to it, but we want to ensure that the detailed responses received are subject to a thorough and accurate analysis. Given that Parliament is about to be dissolved, I will take the opportunity to share our initial findings with hon. Members and to reassure them that we are engaging with key organisations to consider the next steps.
An initial analysis of the responses shows a widespread belief that violence and abuse towards shop staff has increased in recent years. The most common reason given was in the context of challenging individuals committing shop theft. Many respondents felt that a lack of a suitable response from the police resulted in offenders not fearing repercussions. Many felt unsupported by their organisation’s policies and management when dealing with verbally abusive customers. A significant number of respondents stated that they felt that incidents were becoming more violent and that they had experienced threats from individuals with knives, needles or other sharp objects.
That is obviously unacceptable. Nobody should be subjected to such violent attacks, especially in the workplace, and I reassure hon. Members that we are keen to take action in those areas, and in some cases, we already are.
Before the Minister moves on, is it his gut instinct that, if he were returned, as opposed to my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris), he would legislate for a stronger legislative solution to the offence?
I will come on to that. I am not wholly convinced that we are without the tools that we need to deal with the issue, but we might need to address whether we are using them correctly.
On serious violence, we published the serious violence strategy, which has a particular focus on early intervention, in April 2018, so there has been action in that area. We allocated £22 million to the early intervention youth fund and, in the long term, £200 million to the youth endowment fund to ensure that those most at risk are given the opportunity to turn away from violence and to lead more positive lives. We launched a public consultation on a new multi-agency public health approach to tackling serious violence, following which we announced that we would introduce a new legal duty on statutory agencies to plan and collaborate to prevent and reduce serious violence. We gave the police extra powers to tackle knife crime through the Offensive Weapons Act, including new knife crime prevention orders.
Those wider measures will help, but we recognise the importance of focusing our efforts on measures that are specifically targeted on tackling retail crime. This year, the Home Office provided £60,000 for a targeted communication campaign, led by the Association of Convenience Stores, to raise awareness of the existing legislation to protect shop workers. We published guidance on gov.uk about the use of the impact statement for business, which provides victims with the opportunity to tell the courts about the impact that a crime has had on their businesses. We also worked with the police to develop guidance for staff and retailers to use when reporting emergency and violent incidents.
The right hon. Member for Delyn and other hon. Members have asked the Government to consider introducing a new offence of attacks on shop staff, or to increase the severity of existing offences. I hope that he is aware from previous discussions that powers are already available to the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to deal with that type of offending and to provide protection to retail staff.
There are a number of assault offences and corresponding differences in maximum penalties. At the higher end of the scale, causing grievous bodily harm with intent and wounding with intent carry maximum penalties of life imprisonment. The sentencing guidelines on assault include an aggravating factor of
“offences committed against those working in the public sector or providing a service to the public”,
which should be taken into account by the courts when deciding what sentence to impose and may be applied to retail staff conducting their duties. In addition, the Sentencing Council is reviewing its guidelines on assault. A consultation on the revised guidelines is anticipated in 2020. I advise hon. Members to respond to that consultation with a specific focus on assaults on retail workers.
Let me turn to some of the specific points raised. Several hon. Members called for me to publish the review of the call for evidence as quickly as possible. The fact that we are going into an election will make that quite difficult, but I give my undertaking that, as soon as we come back, if I am in the job, we will try to get it out as quickly as possible. Obviously, the five-week election campaign gives officials a bit of an easier time, so they can digest the responses and get it out as soon as they can.
The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) raised the issue of facial recognition technology. Obviously, we are supporting the police as they trial the use of new technology across the country. It has become clear that facial recognition technology has significant crime-fighting possibilities. A recent court case established that there is a sufficient legal framework for its use and operation in this country, but as its use is expanded, possibly by police forces, in the months and years to come, I have no doubt that it will have to come to the House for some sort of democratic examination at some point. Thus far, however, where it is being deployed, we are seeing significant benefits from it.
I am pleased that the Minister believes that there will need to be a full debate about facial recognition technology in the House. He will be aware of concerns about personal privacy and the possibility that it is, in some respects, discriminatory against certain groups. If he and his party are returned to government, will he commit to ensuring that the House has an opportunity to have that full debate?
There has already been a debate in the House on the use of facial recognition technology, and it is obviously within the purview of Members and Select Committees and others to examine the issue. It has just been through the courts—South Wales Police has been challenged on its use of facial recognition technology, and the courts found the current framework satisfactory. I have no doubt that when we get back from this election there will be an urge for the issue to be debated in the House, given the enormous success that is being seen with facial recognition technology.
The right hon. Member for Delyn raised the issue of local police plans, suggesting that we put pressure on police and crime commissioners to include retail crime in their plans. If this was a pressing issue in the high street, one would hope that the police and crime commissioner would commit to having it in their plan anyway. However, we have created a new National Policing Board, which is looking at systemic issues across the country that should be addressed by the whole policing family in a concerted effort, and one area we are looking at is neighbourhood crime. What we put into that basket has yet to be fully agreed, and I will certainly consider putting retail crime in there.
I am very alive to the connection between drugs and alcohol misuse and the impact on shops and retail crime. First, on alcohol, I hope Members will have noticed that we are planning to roll out alcohol abstinence monitoring orders across the whole country. From memory, we have been given about £22 million to do that. The orders have been very successfully used in Croydon and in a pilot in Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and Humberside recently. They are for low-level offending and those convicted of a crime where alcohol was the compelling factor in its commission. Compliance rates with that disposal are up at 93% or 94%, and there is enormous potential there.
With drugs, we have been given some money to start to combat the awful scourge of county lines, which is causing mayhem in many small towns across the country, not least in my constituency. I hope that when we return after the election we will see even more assertive action on that.
There is more that we can do on treatment and rehabilitation for those who fall into drug addiction. We must look imaginatively at schemes around the world that can be used to divert from offending those who have been convicted of a drug offence and are out in the community on probation. I point Members to a very interesting programme in Hawaii called the HOPE programme—Hawaii’s opportunity probation with enforcement—which I would be very keen to try to establish in this country as a way to deal with people who are low-level offenders because of a drug addiction. That could be managed in a much better way than I think we are managing it at the moment.
A number of Members mentioned the £200 threshold. I hope they are aware that police can still prosecute somebody who steals something worth less than £200.
I met Chief Constable Lee Freeman of Humberside Police and raised the £200 threshold. As other Members have pointed out, it causes great concern, particularly to small shopkeepers. He pointed out that the police are flexible in how they interpret the guidance in Humberside. Will the Minister make sure that other forces up and down the country treat the matter in a much more serious way? It is very serious for small shopkeepers. The flexibility that Humberside is showing should be replicated elsewhere.
That is exactly right. If a chief constable decrees that it is a problem in their area, it is perfectly possible for them to have a policy of prosecuting thefts of a value under £200. I am certainly willing to make sure that chiefs across the country are aware of that.
Given the depth of concern expressed this morning, if I am returned to this job after the election, I am happy to look at the data and see what it tells us about the operation of that policy, now that we are four or five years in. I do not think there is any problem with us reviewing that data internally and deciding whether the policy is working, and then promulgating some kind of best practice.
A number of challenges were made on the recruitment of 20,000 police officers. The right hon. Member for Delyn asked me when they would be recruited—recruitment has already started. A number of police forces are recruiting, not least because we have 3,000 police officers to recruit from last year’s budget settlement. With the allocations to all forces, we have already signalled what the recruitment targets should be over the next 15 months or so.
We expect the first 6,000 of the 20,000 to be recruited by the end of the financial year next year, 8,000 in the year after and the final 6,000 in the year after that. It will not be a straight progression, not least because police officers tend to retire at unpredictable times. When we add in retirees, we have to recruit somewhere between 45,000 and 50,000 police officers over the next three years, which will be a huge job. Nevertheless, we have been given £45 million in-year this year to start, and I hope we will be announcing the allocations of that money relatively soon.
Some forces are going for this in a big way straightaway. I know the Met police is recruiting between 300 and 400 police officers a month at the moment, which is all good news. However, I would just counter the direct connection that a number of Members make between levels of crime and numbers of police officers, because the connection is not just about inputs; it is also about what we are doing. I remind Members that, notwithstanding the fact that we have fewer police officers today, overall crime is 35% lower than it was 10 years ago. For example, police officer numbers were much higher in the ’80s and ’90s than in the ’50s and ’60s, yet crime was much higher too. Focus and priority is as important as the number of police officers.
One of the problems in the retail sector now is that some shopkeepers are just giving up reporting the crime. The Government have to grasp the issue of serious under-reporting.
I always say the same thing when people tell me about under-reporting, which is that we must urge everybody to report every possible crime, because modern policing is all about data. The police respond to numbers. If they see numbers, feel the numbers and see the pattern of behaviour, they will respond. It is a bit like that old philosophical aphorism: if a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, did it actually happen? If a crime is committed, particularly in a large rural constituency such as mine, and it is not reported, as far as the police know, it never happened. Data is absolutely key. I urge all shop owners to report every crime.
The right hon. Member for Delyn raised the impact of serious and organised crime. He is quite right that high-profile thefts by serious and organised crime need to be addressed, not least the demolition and stealing of cash machines, which we see in quite a lot of rural constituencies, including my own. As I hope the right hon. Gentleman knows, we are undertaking a serious and organised crime review over the next few weeks, which I hope will give us some strategy and point us to the future.
I am grateful to hon. Members for what has been an important debate. I hope that I have outlined some of the work that the Government have done, and will hopefully do more of in future, to make sure that everybody—shop workers and shoppers alike—will have fun and will exchange money for presents and gifts in the run-up to Christmas, safely and happily, now and in the years to come.
I thank all Members for their co-operation in keeping to the time guidance. I call David Hanson to wind up.
I am grateful to you, Mr Betts, for chairing this session, and to the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) for their responses. I will take one point from what the Minister said: if he is returned, he has agreed to review the £200 threshold on shop theft, which I know my hon. Friend will do, should she be returned to office.
This issue is extremely important and will not go away. It is about ensuring that staff who uphold our laws are protected by our laws; it is about ensuring that they live free from fear. I suspect that every retailer in the country in response to the consultation will have said that they want a separate offence and for assaulting a staff worker to be an aggravated offence. I hope that whoever forms the Government after this election will look at the consultation responses and bring forward measures. It is within our grasp now. The people who work in shops, the people who manage, run and own shops, and consumers have the same objective—to allow shop workers to be free from fear and to go about their business supported by the state, upholding the laws of the land; to ensure that members of the public who attack them face an aggravated offence; and to ensure a greater police presence on the streets if needs be, more neighbourhood policing and strong interventions to tackle some of the problems that drive people to undertake those shoplifting and attack offences in the first place.
This is an important issue. I am grateful that so many hon. Members have turned up on the last Tuesday of Parliament to put down a marker to whoever forms the next Government that this issue will not go away and will be dealt with by Parliament.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered prevention of retail crime.