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Retail Crime

Volume 736: debated on Wednesday 19 July 2023

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Scott Mann.)

I appreciate the opportunity to open this Adjournment debate so early in the day. At the outset, I want to register the fact that I am a member and officer of the all-party parliamentary group on retail crime. Given the debate that we have just had, it is very important that I do so. I have no pecuniary interest in that matter: it is about ensuring that our high street is protected, and that parliamentarians are aware of issues that are important to high street independent retailers and consumers. I believe that the APPG plays a vital role in doing that and in giving a voice to voiceless people on those important issues.

I thank the British Independent Retailers Association, which is one of the consumer voices for thousands of retail shops across the length and breadth of the United Kingdom. It tries to make representations for those groups and bring together their views. I also thank the Association of Convenience Stores, which represents thousands of businesses across the country—small businesses, shopkeepers and traders—and aims to make sure that their issues are properly represented. I will make a prediction, Madam Deputy Speaker: my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) will intervene on me at some point this evening. I think it is important that that happens, and I look forward to it, but I am glad that other colleagues have indicated their interest in this matter, because it is something that affects the entire United Kingdom and every single one of its component parts: Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland.

This is a matter of concern because, quite frankly, the high street is under threat from a host of things. The modern way in which we shop has driven people from actual shopping to online shopping, which has an impact on retail trade. That, in turn, has an impact on the issue that I hope to bring to the attention of the House: retail crime. Survey after survey shows that the public feel it is important that we have a thriving local high street, and that they prefer to shop at smaller independent businesses that are unique—that have a connection to the local community and offer uniqueness, opportunities and, importantly, choice to the consumer.

However, independent retail shops such as those represented by the British Independent Retailers Association have indicated that they are under threat from a number of challenges. Those businesses are working on tighter and tighter margins, not only because of the lack of a level playing field with online retailers, but because of retail crime. Retail crime is not a victimless crime: it costs the UK economy approximately £1.9 billion a year, and policing it and putting protections in place costs businesses about £600 million a year.

I congratulate the hon. Member on securing tonight’s Adjournment debate. Something I have noted from conversations with retail workers in my constituency is a reduction in the provision of security guards by many companies, despite increasing crime rates. While I understand the budgetary considerations, does he agree that companies need to take their duty of care to both workers and customers more seriously?

I thank the hon. Member for raising that point. The protection of workers is very important to us all—I suppose we could all recount stories where members of staff in high street shops have been verbally or physically abused. That has to be taken seriously. Of course, with crime increasing, the availability of cash has also depleted. ATMs have moved inside shops and away from banks because banks on the high street have closed, and consumers are now charged for taking their money out of those cash machines. All those knock-on effects have an impact on retail trade and crime up and down the country. Those matters will bear heavily on shops.

I want to put that statistic on record again: retail crime costs the UK economy £1.9 billion a year, and it costs businesses about £600 million a year—over half a billion pounds—to put protections in place. Retailers across the UK report that one of the biggest threats to their businesses is customer theft, which comes as no surprise. Customer theft affects the productivity and competitiveness of smaller shops, not least because if those shops make a claim against their insurance, their premiums increase. Because they are working on margins of 4% to 5%, any theft impacts the profitability of a business. So a shopkeeper or retailer is actually discouraged from claiming off their insurance, which is there to protect them from this, because it will have such an impact on their profit margin that it could ultimately put them out of business, and that matter is incredibly important.

Of course, we all know that the cost of living crisis means that more people are desperate, and despair can cause desperate measures. However, that cannot mean people have free rein. On that point, I for one will not draw a distinction in saying that, because there is a cost of living crisis, that will make people want to steal. That is not the nature of the average citizen in this kingdom. The average citizens in this kingdom are good people and they want to do good things. But there are increasing pressures that drive other people to crime and I think we have to be very clear about that. The cost of living crisis is affecting everyone and it is affecting shops. More people have less to spend and, if retail crime is left unchecked, businesses will just buckle and fold.

Retailers do take responsibility and arm themselves against this type of crime by investing in loss prevention measures, as the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) has said. Loss prevention measures include CCTV, special mirrors, panic alarms, shutters, high-value items secured behind counters and overhead gantries. However, many independent businesses do not have the financial capability or the size of store to invest in the same way that large national chain companies are able to do and that have a physical security presence. Even if they do, the £1.9 billion cost is passed on to the consumers. Again, that highlights that this will drive the cost of living crisis even further, so it is a vicious circle. We in this House have an opportunity to challenge it and I hope the Minister, through his actions—I know that the Minister is committed to this—has the ability to help to break that vicious chain.

In addition to the financial loss, there is also the emotional impact. If the shop worker is unable to go back to work after they have been verbally abused, spat at or physically abused, that has a dire impact on the economy of that family or of those people. The fact is that 47% of retailers have reported that vulnerable customers are not visiting their shops at night due to the fear of crime, which again reduces their ability to participate in the community, because shops are about community. They are about the high street flourishing and about people within the community meeting and greeting, and engaging in business.

First, can I congratulate my honourable colleague and good friend? He is right to outline all the things that shops can do in relation to, No. 1, safety for their workers and, No. 2, safety for their customers. I have been the representative for Strangford in this House since 2010, but I was a Member of the Legislative Assembly before that and a councillor. Over those years, I have watched the shops in my constituency and seen shop workers who have been verbally abused, who have been attacked with knives and who have had to call the police after having been beaten up in their shops. Yet, with all the precautions that are taken in a shop, and it is right to take those precautions, it only ever works if the police are accessible, and the problem for us in many cases is that the police are so busy that they are not able to attend incidents in shops at the time when the people need them to be there. CCTV can retain the evidence, but the police need to be there. Has my hon. Friend experienced that in his constituency as well?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I think he has over 26 or 27 years of elected experience between these two bodies, and with that on Ards Council, over 30. I think it is telling that he has probably, like me, seen an increase in this and an increase in the threats to shops. Of course, that has been impacted by the things I mentioned earlier: the change in shopping habits with online shopping and therefore the inability sometimes to invest in some of these issues.

Everyone who works in a shop has the right to feel safe behind their counter and that their livelihood is not under threat. That is why I am pleased to be a co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on retail crime, safe and sustainable high streets and to be leading on this debate and pushing the matter forward. We want to ensure that high streets remain at the heart of our community, but unless shop theft is regarded as a serious crime, it will continue to grow. We need to flag up that this is not shoplifting and this is not petty; it is serious and at times organised and it must be addressed. We are talking here about serious and organised crime: this is a serious crime and we must deal with it.

I went through the history of parliamentary questions asked on this issue. From the response to a written question by the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) to the Ministry of Justice in 2018 we learned that a perpetrator of retail crime would, appallingly, have to be convicted 30 times before they were given a custodial sentence, up from 27 in 2017. In 2016, one offender received their first custodial sentence after—wait for it—435 previous offences; in 2017, the figure was 279 previous offences, and in 2018 it was 287 previous offences. For a prolific daily offender it took hundreds and hundreds of offences before they received a custodial sentence. What message does that send out to the kleptomaniac and the person who says, “I just need that item”? It sends the message that they will probably get away with it.

That is not good enough, and this issue is not being treated seriously enough. It is therefore no surprise that according to the British Retail Consortium only 15% of shoplifting crime is reported, and a majority of businesses—over 56%—say that they believe the police operate “poorly” or “very poorly” when dealing with retail crime. I understand that. I deal with the police regularly in my constituency, and this refers to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). Talking exclusively about Northern Ireland, when police budgets have been driven down and when the chief constable rightly puts out the message that people will notice the lack of policing because those budgets have been driven down, this sort of crime is only going to go one way—up. I know the situation in England and Wales is slightly different because the police here have been given additional support, which is very welcome. I would love for that support to be cross-applied to Northern Ireland. I have deliberately not made this debate specifically on Northern Ireland because that would let the Government take the easy path of saying that calling the Assembly back would lead to this being sorted out. That is not the resolution, however; this is about budgetary support from the Home Office for policing. We do not have that support and we require it.

So what needs to happen? All of this means that the retail industry feels largely unprotected. Unfortunately, that is the case across the entire country. From Abbott’s in Devon to Mackays of Cambridge and across to Fermanagh in Ulster, many members of the British Independent Retail Association have been campaigning on retail crime and have given evidence directly to the Home Office on this issue. They have found that, even with video evidence, there just is not the interest or imperative for some of the authorities some of the time to get involved. They feel ignored and let down. We must address that, because it is not in the interests of us as lawmakers or of those of us who want this country to flourish. We want to make sure that the law is seen to apply, is seen to apply fairly and, where it has to be, is seen to apply strictly and to punish people engaged in this crime.

Reductions in resources available to police forces are undoubtedly posing challenges, but, more pertinently, there is still a lack of consistency in responses to retail crime across the country. This has not happened by introducing the crazy £200 arbitrary figure that the Government set in the guidelines to the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, which advises police forces that they do not need to respond if the value stolen was below that figure. A written question from the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), who is a fellow vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on retail crime, safe and sustainable high streets, showed that the percentage of shop thefts dealt with by the justice system stands at 13%, down from 36%. That is simply not acceptable and I hope the Minister agrees.

Prosecuting shoplifting needs to be quicker, easier and cheaper from the point of view of police forces and retailers. With the use of compelling CCTV evidence and technology, processes can and should be modernised to increase the conviction rate. At the moment, data protection often means that shoplifters are protected from identification, even though they are a danger to the public and other retail businesses. That needs to change. I am not saying that we need to put “wanted” posters up all over the country, but sometimes we feel like that when we know that a particular person in our village or high street is a menace. In the town of Ballymena, the shops have a radio connection so that when certain people are seen in the town it goes around like wildfire: “So-and-so’s in the town today. Try to prevent them coming into your shop and, more importantly, be alert and make sure they don’t do it.”

When an arrest is made, the punishment must reflect the seriousness of the crime. With that in mind, it would be much better if part of the process for reporting this type of crime was a mandatory victim impact statement so the court can hear the dilemma shop owners and shopworkers are placed in and the pain they feel. It would help to ensure that criminals are more likely to get the sentence they deserve if the real impact of their crime is laid before the courts and the judge hears the impact it has had on the community. All retail crime needs to be treated seriously. We need to expunge the words, “This is just shoplifting”. It is not. That phrase has to be removed from our lexicon. That type of terminology implies that it is somehow less of a crime and not as important.

I will leave those thoughts with the Minister. I understand that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) wishes to make a contribution. He spoke to me earlier behind Mr Speaker’s Chair and I am more than happy to agree to that. In conclusion, this is an important issue on which we can have cross-party co-operation. Let us show retailers that that is the case and implement these simple solutions that will help our retailers live and thrive, and help the high street thrive again.

I am very grateful to the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) for letting me make a short—perhaps uncharacteristically short, some might say—contribution rather than interventions. I agree with everything he said. I just want to focus on one particular aspect, which is the use of security guards in shops and a recent incident that happened in my constituency, and also attacks on retail workers. The Home Affairs Committee did a report on that a little while ago and pushed to make it an aggravated crime, in particular when retail workers are attacked because they refuse to sell restricted goods such as alcohol or tobacco to people because of their age and are effectively policing that in place of the state.

I had an incident in my constituency a couple of weeks ago that went viral for all the wrong reasons. I will not go into great detail, because although it is not currently subject to any legal action it may become so. A Co-op store in my constituency has, I am afraid, something of a reputation for shoplifting, particularly by gangs of young people who have been causing problems in an area close to a railway line recently. Somebody, a teenager, was drunk and blatantly shoplifting in front of a security guard who declined to do anything about it. A member of the public stepped in to say, “Hold on, you shouldn’t be doing that.” She was assaulted and then the teenager legged it. Somebody who had witnessed that then drove around the corner, where there was a police car with a PCSO sitting in it. He pulled up to the police car and happened to have his dashcam on. He recorded a conversation where he said, “You need to get round to the Co-op sharpish, because there is an incident going on”, only for the officer—I am not going to pre-judge, because this incident is being looked at—basically to say, “I cannot get involved.” What was supposed to happen there? Obviously the police need to be called and should intervene, but they had not arrived at that stage, although they did later. A member of the public was being attacked. A security guard who had been employed by the Co-op to look after the goods in that store should surely have intervened.

The Co-op is a good store, a good employer and it does some good things. The Co-op lobbied members of the Home Affairs Committee and we took evidence from it in particular about attacks on retail workers, but it needs to do its bit, too. We were told that retail workers would be fitted with bodycams, so that they could record the evidence to prosecute people. I have to say that in Sussex, largely down to our police commissioner, Katy Bourne, the Co-op has taken the lead on taking shoplifting—or however we want to term it, and I entirely agree with the hon. Member for North Antrim that we should not downplay the importance of the act. It is being taken far more seriously, and the police will now respond to shoplifting incidents more rapidly and with greater seriousness than they perhaps have in the past. It is not enough, but it is better than it was.

The hon. Gentleman is making a valuable point, and I am delighted that these proactive measures are being taken. One of the points that concerns me is that some shops and businesses will not be able to afford to take them. That is the problem. We have got to have something holistic that allows the small retailer the same benefit as those retailers that are better off. What he talks about is an expediential step in the right direction.

Absolutely. I agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman said earlier about how we underplay the significance of this issue, which acts as a green light for other people to come in saying, “Nobody is being prosecuted.” If, as in the case the hon. Gentleman mentioned, it is taking 400 times before somebody is actually incarcerated, it sends out a strong message that nicking from a supermarket or a store is fairly easy and people will probably get away with it. I am afraid that is the message that has been sent out from stores such as the one I have mentioned. They are not doing enough to prevent shoplifting by employing people to intervene—where they do employ security guards—so that a clear message goes out, saying, “We take shoplifting seriously here, so please do not try it.”

My point is that companies such as the Co-op need to employ security guards where there is a problem, but they need to be security guards who can intervene. There is nothing in the law that would stop that security guard intervening, restraining the person responsible for the incident I just mentioned, and detaining them until a police officer arrives and can take appropriate action. They chose not to, and that is policy in certain stores. That is not protecting the goods in the store or members of the public who were in danger, and, in this case, were assaulted by this person, allegedly. It is also not protecting the staff.

My ask out of all of this is that the police do more. We need to do more to up the conviction rates to show that this is an important crime. Stores, particularly larger stores, need to do more to ensure that where they do employ security guards, they are security guards with a purpose who do not just stand there and say, “I cannot intervene”, which is completely and utterly useless.

Another branch in my constituency does not employ security guards at all. On Friday evenings, as I have recently found out, two young women are in charge of that store. People are coming in, potentially aggressive or drunk or to commit crimes. Retailers, particularly the bigger ones, need to take this issue seriously and step up to the mark if they want to protect their customers and their goods, and particularly if they want to protect their staff. I hope that the Co-op has heard that, because I have invited it to come down urgently to my constituency to talk about the problem that we have with stores in the area. It is sending out entirely the wrong message and creating a bigger problem for the future.

I am grateful for the opportunity to hijack and leap on this debate, because it is an important subject that is not treated with the importance that it needs.

I am, as always, grateful to the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) for securing this important debate. It is of course relevant to my ministerial responsibilities, but I should add that my first formal paid employment at the age of about 16 was in a supermarket in south London, close to my constituency, so I greatly sympathise with the issues raised. Years later, I ran a business that supplied convenience stores up and down the country, so it is a topic close to my heart.

I would like to start by saying clearly that any form of retail crime is completely unacceptable. I agree with the hon. Member about the importance of emphasising that this is a serious form of crime and that it should not, at any point, be dismissed or treated by the police or anyone else as somehow minor or to be disregarded. That is important because shop workers often get assaulted, which is serious for them. The hon. Member pointed out the enormous financial losses that result from widespread shoplifting and, if it is left unchecked, it simply escalates. What might start off as pilfering or what some would wrongly describe as low-level theft can escalate into something much more serious and widespread.

We have seen that elsewhere in the world—I think in particular about San Francisco, as well as other American cities—where both the police and store security guards appear not to intervene and, as a consequence, stores are raided and stolen from on a large scale multiple times a day. In San Francisco, a number of shops have had to close down completely because shoplifting has become so rampant and out of control. For all those reasons, it needs to be taken extremely seriously. There is a very compelling case for doing that.

The Government do take it seriously—I certainly do, as does the Home Secretary. In fact, just a couple of days ago—I think it was on Monday—I chaired a meeting of the national retail crime steering group, bringing together the retail industry and law enforcement to sharpen our response to retail crime. It was attended by, among others, the British Retail Consortium, the Association of Convenience Stores and representatives of all kinds of retailers, as well as police and crime commissioners and various people from the policing family. We discussed a number of things, one of which was the impact of section 156 of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, which made assaulting a public-facing worker—particularly retail workers, but also others, such as bus drivers—a statutory aggravating factor. That, again, is designed to send a signal to the public as well as to the police and the judiciary that such crimes are taken seriously. During that meeting, we considered an article that appeared over the weekend in The Times by Dame Sharon White, the chair of John Lewis, raising concerns about this matter. We talked about the need for a proper police response at all times when shoplifting occurs.

The hon. Member mentioned resources. Of course, we now have more police officers across England and Wales than at any point in history—149,572 police officers, which is about 3,500 more than the previous peak in 2010—so there are extra resources, certainly in England and Wales. I take his point about Northern Ireland being a bit different. With all those officers in place, I do expect, as Policing Minister, an appropriate response, by which I mean that proper investigations should occur, as do the public and Members of this House.

There is often CCTV footage of somebody shoplifting. We now have extremely advanced and capable means of matching images taken on CCTV cameras against the records held on the police national database, and there is often a match. That is what I would expect to happen in every case. Where there is a lead, I would expect it to be followed up.

Similarly, I would expect an appropriate police response where an incident is unfolding of the kind that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) mentioned. I would expect the police to attend. From what I have seen in the video he refers to, it was not handled appropriately. Where an incident is unfolding, the police should respond. If the police need to attend to gather evidence that requires their physical attendance, they should do that.

Obviously, the police are operationally independent and I do not have the power to direct them, nor should I. However, I will convene a further meeting with the National Police Chiefs’ Council leads in this area, together with the British Retail Consortium, the Association of Convenience Stores and others, to make sure that there is an appropriate response at all times, that those crimes are investigated and prevented, and that there is appropriate prosecutorial follow-up.

Under section 176 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, where the shoplifting relates to goods under £200 in value and the defendant pleads guilty and does not want the case heard in a Crown court, it is treated as summary only. In fact, the police can charge it. That change was made, but there was categorically no requirement set out in legislation or guidance that offences where the amount of goods stolen is under £200 should in any way be ignored. They should certainly not be ignored.

I welcome the Minister’s point, which needs to be driven home to local police services and, importantly, to shop owners. On the group that he set up and is taking advice from, it is brilliant that progress will be made, but I encourage him to invite the British Independent Retailers Association and the Association of Convenience Stores to that group, so that smaller businesses can have their voice heard.

The Association of Convenience Stores was at the meeting on Monday and will come to the subsequent meeting that I referred to. I will be happy to invite the other group that the hon. Gentleman referred to. Officials are listening and will make sure that the invitation is extended.

To repeat the point on goods that are stolen with a value under £200, the previous Policing Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse), wrote to all chief constables and police and crime commissioners to make it clear that section 176 does not restrain the police’s ability to arrest and prosecute. Further to that, in 2020 the National Business Crime Centre surveyed police forces in England and Wales, asking if they had a policy of not responding to shoplifting where goods are worth less than £200. No police force said that it had any such policy, which is reassuring. However, I want to make sure that the practice on the ground is appropriate. I was concerned by the points raised by Dame Sharon White, the chair of John Lewis, in her article in The Times over the weekend, saying that she felt the police response was not adequate. That is why I will have further discussions with the relevant NPCC leads and others in the near future.

I would like to address the short but excellent speech by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham. I have touched on the incident he mentioned, but he also made a point about security guards, and he is right to say that even though they are not warranted police officers, security guards have the right, under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, to physically intervene when there is no police constable on the scene and a crime is being committed. They can make a citizen’s arrest, as any member of the public can.

Interestingly, I was refreshing my memory about section 176 of the 2014 Act, which I mentioned. When the crime of stealing goods worth less than £200 was made summary-only, it would have fallen outside the scope of offences where a member of the public, including a security guard, can make a citizen’s arrest, were it not for an express provision in section 176 that makes it clear that shoplifting goods under the value of £200 does still trigger the right to make a citizen’s arrest under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act. Back in 2014—I was not a Member of Parliament then, but my hon. Friend was—Parliament legislated expressly to allow that power of citizen’s arrest to apply specifically to shoplifting when the goods are worth less than £200.

Of course we need to be conscious of the safety of security guards, but I would urge them to intervene when they see someone shoplifting. If they do not, that simply allows shoplifting to go unchecked, and people will be almost encouraged to shoplift if they think it will go unpunished. I have seen plenty of video footage from the United States in which store security guards do not intervene—perhaps because people in the United States often have guns, which, thankfully, is not normally the case here—and the problem escalates out of control. I agree with my hon. Friend that security guards should intervene appropriately, unless they really believe that their safety will be at risk, because that acts as a deterrent. As I have said, they have the legal powers to do so.

There are also some very good technical solutions that retailers can adopt to be proactive. One company that works in a number of retail stores, including the Co-op in parts of the south of England—it is a private sector company, so I will not name it—uses a live facial recognition system that hooks into the CCTV cameras. It is connected to a database containing images of known prolific shoplifters. When one of them walks into the store, an alert is triggered so the staff know that a prolific shoplifter has just walked in. The company recommends that a staff member should approach the shoplifter and do nothing more than say, politely, “Excuse me, sir, can I help?” The mere act of doing that often acts as a deterrent, and the shoplifter simply leaves, knowing that he or she is being observed.

The company has shown me data revealing that the number of assaults against retail stores deploying the system has dropped by about 20%, while in the stores that have not deployed it the number rose. In the stores where it has not been deployed, there has been a significant rise in the incidence of theft—part of the wider increase that we have discussed—whereas in those that have deployed it, there has been a very slight decline. The system was recently scrutinised by the Information Commissioner’s Office for the usual data protection and privacy reasons, and, following lengthy consideration, the company is being allowed to proceed. I think that systems of that kind can be extremely helpful.

I do not want to try the House’s patience by going on for too much longer. Let me conclude by reiterating my agreement with the view of the hon. Member for North Antrim that this is a serious form of crime that causes enormous financial loss, leads to many assaults on hard-working staff members and, if it goes unchecked, escalates to a point at which widespread disorder permeates society. For all those reasons, I think that we need to do more, and I commit myself to doing that through the meetings to which I have referred. I thank the hon. Member again for drawing the matter to the House’s attention.

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I think a point of order is the only way in which I can say this. I want to thank the Minister, because his was one of the most helpful responses I have ever received during an Adjournment debate. I just wanted to put that on the record.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. It was rather removed from the actual Standing Orders, but there we are; I am sure that the Minister appreciated the hon. Gentleman’s words.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.