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House of Commons Hansard
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Assaults on Retail Workers (Offences)
16 March 2020
Volume 673

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

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I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make certain offences, including malicious wounding, grievous or actual bodily harm and common assault, aggravated when perpetrated against a retail worker in the course of their employment; to make provision about the sentencing of persons convicted of such aggravated offences; and for connected purposes.

I bring in this Bill at a time of significant national importance. It is a change from the main subject for this week and coming weeks, but pertinent in the light of the significance that retail workers have in our lives and will continue to have in that period.

I would like to start by giving voice to Phillip, a Co-op staff member who had this to say about his experience of violence at work:

“I was hospitalised for over a week with broken ribs and a collapsed lung after being kicked to near death by three shoplifters who stole a £10 bottle of spirits, on another occasion a shoplifter clearly high on drugs had a medieval mace on a chain and was swinging it around attacking myself and a colleague, it struck my colleague’s face and ripped apart her cheek, tore off her nose and damaged her eye so much she lost sight in that eye, she never returned to work.”

There are people like Phillip and his colleague in frontline retail work the length and breadth of the country. That is what today’s Bill is about: the 3 million people who serve us day in, day out. It is about those shopworkers because they are quite literally under attack every single day.

Experience of abuse, threats and violence can have long-term effects on the physical and mental wellbeing of shop workers. That worry is exacerbated by the increasing use of weapons, especially knives, to threaten staff. If those were isolated, random acts of violence, they would rightly command our attention, but they are not: shopworkers and those across the retail sector face a daily barrage of threats, attacks and peril in all our constituencies, every single day. One such attack took place in a Co-op store in my constituency in January, in which Matt was subject to a terrifying and horrific attack. It is a massive relief that no one was permanently injured and that the perpetrator has now been jailed for three years.

The British Retail Consortium’s most recent annual crime survey, published at the start of the month, shines a light on the staggering scale of the situation, which is growing rather than diminishing. The survey shows over 400 incidents of violence or abuse against retail staff every day—a 9% increase on last year, despite a record £1.2 billion being spent by the industry on preventive measures. In Co-op stores alone across the UK, there has been a 420% increase in violent incidents and an astonishing 3,000% rise in abuse since 2017. We all know the retail industry plays an invaluable role in our country’s economy, contributing £96 billion annually and employing more than 3 million people. Retailers and their staff are a cornerstone of our local communities, yet every day hundreds of retail workers are suffering shocking abuse at work.

Despite the exponential rise in violence, we are seeing an ever-decreasing response from our police forces, so stretched by 10 years of cuts, especially to neighbourhood policing teams. The National Federation of Retail Newsagents highlighted that, drawing on the answer given to the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) by the Ministry of Justice that showed that the percentage of shop thefts being dealt with by the justice system stands at 13%—barely one in eight incidents—down from 36% a decade ago. That is why for the second time in 18 months, I am putting before the House legislation to ensure that shop workers across the UK are afforded the protection they need and deserve.

As I do so, I feel well supported. Dozens of hon. Members offered to sponsor my Bill, and I have no doubt that I will lose friends in various parties by only being able to pick 11. A Member representing every single party in this place offered to be part of it. Special mention should go to my hon. Friends the Members for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) and for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury) for their efforts already in this Session, as well as to David Hanson, who led our parliamentary charge in the previous Session. I follow him on this issue and, hopefully, in his style. David always focuses on critical issues, builds a broad base of support for his campaigns, and handles everything with class and grace—a model for us all.

What we need is legislation tailored to protect our shop workers and robust enough to deter those who would threaten them in their place of work. The Bill would introduce just that. Attacking a retail worker should be classified as an aggravated assault, and those convicted must face tougher penalties and increased sentences. That would send a clear message to perpetrators or would-be perpetrators that such acts will not be tolerated and that the punishment will fit the crime. The Bill would also send a clear message to retail workers that the Government and the law are on their side, providing them with better protections and ensuring justice for duty.

There are two key reasons why I am presenting this Bill. The first is the point of principle: I believe that when this House lays specific obligations to uphold or implement the law on a specific group of people, we should provide additional protection. We are familiar with the additional protection rightly given to our police officers, but hon. Members may be less aware that in 2005 additional protections, in the form of discrete offences, were extended to officials in Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs in section 31 of the Commissioners for Revenue and Customs Act 2005. I think the same should apply to shop workers, because we in this place ask them to restrict sales of dozens of potentially dangerous products, particularly on the ground of age.

Those of us who have worked in retail know how difficult it can be to challenge individuals. Perhaps we remember when we were about the age of majority, meeting people from our school trying to buy something from the shop. No doubt we have all heard from constituents about how that moment of challenge is causing violent incidents in our shops. If we continue to expect shop workers to implement the law, and if we continue to put more burdens on them—no doubt we will—we should, as a point of principle, afford them additional protection when carrying out what are, in that moment, public duties. We ask that they do certain things; we should show them that we have their back when we do.

Secondly, often legislation can signal what the country believes is and is not acceptable and can reset our societal norms. A reset is clearly needed around violence and abuse in the retail sector, and we need to send a clear message that it is not part of any shop worker’s job to suffer abuse and violence. We must ask ourselves as legislators whether the experience of this shop worker is one we can accept:

“I heard a commotion and lots of shouting at the front of the store. When I went to investigate, I found a male who I had previously excluded from the store for shoplifting. He had run in and started kicking all the stock off the shelves. He was screaming and shouting, “What are you going to do now you fat bastard!”

The account continues:

“he then tried to grab me by the throat. I tried to block his arm and with the help of a customer he was removed from the store. He was threatening to come back and see me at the end of my shift at 10 pm.”

That shop worker has carried that experience of physical and mental abuse with them ever since.

I believe that putting in place new legislation to make certain offences aggravated offences can be the beginning of real change in the experience of shop workers, so that they feel properly cared for. As I say, we have a responsibility in this regard. Of course, new legislation would not function in isolation. Businesses have to continue to invest in protecting their employees because the primary responsibility for keeping shop workers safe when at work lies with those businesses. The work of the Association of Convenience Stores to support its members is worthy of great praise, but businesses, the likes of the Co-op or Boots, are making investments in their stores to keep their workers safe. That is welcome, but it must be continued. Equally, the resources need to be made available to the police and to the wider criminal justice system to implement new legislation such as this, and at the moment that is not happening.

In closing, what has struck me most powerfully while I have been working on this issue is that, whether it is businesses or unions, colleagues or management, big stores or local corner shops, everyone is united in their call for action. I have found exactly the same unity across party lines while gathering support from my colleagues. I was delighted when the Prime Minister committed in this Chamber to meet me and a number of affected shop workers, although I understand that that meeting will be delayed now. Next week, I am meeting the Minister for Crime and Policing, who I am glad to see in his place, to take the case further. I hope that today this House answers the call positively and that, in time, the Government will follow our lead.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Alex Norris, Chris Elmore, Grahame Morris, Gareth Thomas, Alison Thewliss, Louise Haigh, Jessica Morden, Jeff Smith, Preet Kaur Gill, Jim McMahon, Mr William Wragg and Philip Davies present the Bill.

Alex Norris accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 24 April, and to be printed (Bill 112).