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Shopworkers: Protection from Assault

Volume 686: debated on Monday 14 December 2020

Mr Speaker, before I answer the question, may I apologise to you and to the House for having used the word “granular” in my previous answer? If it is not unparliamentary language, then it ought to be.

The Government’s response to the call for evidence on violence and abuse towards shopworkers was published in July. We are working with retailers on a programme of work to drive down this crime. We are developing communications materials to give the message that abuse is not tolerated, encouraging retailers to report these crimes and provide better support to victims.

Like many colleagues, I support USDAW’s Freedom from Fear Campaign and recently visited and met staff at my local Co-op. I was astonished to hear that, across its 12 stores in Cambridge, some 3,000 incidents have been reported already this year. That is an incident in every store every day, so how much worse does it have to get before the police take this more seriously and the Government take some action?

I join the hon. Gentleman in being appalled at the level of abuse and, indeed, violence that shopworkers often face. We are doing a huge amount to try to deal with it. Along with the retail crime steering group, we are working closely with police forces to press down on this particular issue. I have written to all chief constables in recent months outlining the need to ensure that every crime that takes place in a shop is investigated as much as it possibly can be. Interestingly, just last week, I met the head of security at the Co-op to talk about the work that it is doing with a company called Facewatch, which is using facial recognition technology to alert staff to repeat offenders who are entering the store, allowing them to intervene before the interaction is likely to become violent and abusive.

In a recent survey of its members, the shopworkers’ trade union USDAW found that 85% had been verbally abused, 57% had been threatened and 9% had been assaulted this year. Given those shocking statistics and noting the unsung role that these retail staff have played in ensuring that shops remain open during the pandemic, does the Minister agree that they need greater protection, and does he support the private Member’s Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris), which seeks to create new offences for assaults on retail workers?

I do agree with the hon. Gentleman that shopworkers deserve all the protection that we can afford to them in the conduct of their duty, which has never been more crucial than during the recent pandemic and the lockdown where we saw the critical part that they play in making sure that the nation is fed. Having said that, we do not yet see the case for a specific offence of assault on a shopworker, notwithstanding the fact that conviction for an assault on those performing a public service—a category that such workers would fall into—is already an aggravating factor in sentencing. The Sentencing Council is, I gather, shortly to begin its work in reviewing the sentencing of assault. I urge the hon. Gentleman, with whom I have discussed these matters many times, to put his evidence into that consultation, as will the Government, to ensure that those who assault people working in a retail environment receive a commensurately serious offence such that others will be deterred from doing the same.