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Violence and Abuse towards the Retail Workforce

Volume 742: debated on Tuesday 5 December 2023

[Relevant Documents: e-petition 647093, Make abuse or violence towards retail workers a standalone criminal offence; e-petition 328621, Protect Retail Workers from Abuse, Threats and Violence.]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of violence and abuse towards the retail workforce.

It is a pleasure to present this debate and to serve under your chairship, Sir Edward. I applied for the debate following a visit to a Tesco supermarket in Rowlands Gill in my constituency of Blaydon—other brands are available, of course. I also visited my local Co-op more recently to talk to the staff there. That visit took place to mark Respect for Shopworkers Week, the yearly campaign led by the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers in the run-up to the busy Christmas shopping period.

The campaign has several aims. First and foremost, it is about making it clear that the abuse of shop workers is not a part of their job and is not acceptable. It is about ensuring that employers, police and politicians are aware of the scale of the problem of violence and abuse against our retail workforce and do something about it. From an MP’s perspective, it is about listening to shop workers, recognising their concerns and looking at what we can do to support them.

From my visit, it was obvious to me that we are simply not doing enough. The shop workers I spoke to told me about the growing frequency of theft, which is an issue right across the country; figures from the British Retail Consortium show that there was a 26% rise in incidents last year. But the shop workers also wanted to emphasise that the kind of incidents has changed—not only are there more incidents of theft, but they are increasingly violent in nature. Shop workers are feeling intimidated and threatened. They fear going into the workplace, particularly when returning to work after experiencing or witnessing violent behaviour towards them or their colleagues.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I went with USDAW to see shop workers in my constituency of Putney. At the Co-op, I was also surprised to hear of so many incidents of violent attacks and the intimidation that so many people face just going to work. Does she agree that it is particularly disheartening that the Government continue to resist Labour’s plans to make violence against shop workers a specific criminal offence? That would make things much safer for shop workers across all our constituencies.

I most certainly do agree. My hon. Friend’s experience of visiting shop workers has clearly been the same as mine. She has heard the same stories, so we must do something to make such violence a specific offence.

I commend the hon. Lady for securing this debate. This is a massive issue in my constituency. My eldest son used to manage a local shop in the high street of the main town where I reside. He has made me aware of a few occasions when young people have gone in at night to steal items from the store and created a severe sense of fright and fear among the staff. A young girl who worked in the shop, a 19-year-old, was scared stiff—I use those words on purpose.

Does the hon. Lady agree that retail staff often face the most violent torrents of abuse and that more must be done to protect their security? That could include two things: panic buttons or immediate access to the police. Quite often, the police do not attend.

I thank the hon. Member, who is right to remind us that the issue is about not only supermarkets, but small shopkeepers; I think of some of the villages in my constituency.

I want to talk about some of the comments from shop workers in the north-east given in response to USDAW’s survey. I thank USDAW for sharing them with me. These are quotations. One person said:

“I have had name-calling, threats of being hit with bottles, needles and actual assault.”

Another person said:

“Shoplifters swing crutches, punches and bags. They have made threats on my life and talked of getting me jumped.”

Another said:

“There are homophobic insults, intimidating words and being spoken down to.”

Yet another said:

“I have been pushed over, punched in the head and jostled by a large group.”

I am sure that MPs across the House will agree that no one deserves to suffer such abuse simply for doing their job, and that is true whether someone has been working in a shop for 20 days or 20 years.

We should also highlight the fact that retail has a young workforce. More than one in four retail workers is under the age of 24 and more than 60% of new starters in retail are in that age bracket. Indeed, a small but significant proportion of retail workers are aged just 16 or 17. Retail offers fantastic opportunities for young people to get into employment and it is shameful that they might be deterred from doing so because of the abuse that might be inflicted on them. Many workers also have caring responsibilities that they fit around their shift patterns. It is unconscionable that they are experiencing such fear in their daily working lives.

I encountered these stories in my own constituency, but the figures suggest that this local picture is representative of national trends. In March this year, the British Retail Consortium published a report on the scale of the abuse and violence towards shop workers. It found that incidents including abuse, physical assault and threats with weapons had risen from 450 per day in 2019-20 to around 850 per day in 2021-22. It also found that only 7% of incidents of violence or abuse were prosecuted.

I am afraid to say that there are violent incidents towards shop workers in Harrow town centre, which I am privileged to represent, and also too many antisocial behaviour incidents. A couple of years ago, Harrow just missed out on securing a dedicated town centre police team, allocated by the Metropolitan police, which similar town centres across London are benefiting from. Will my hon. Friend encourage the Minister to use his influence with the current Metropolitan police commissioner to allocate a dedicated town centre police team to Harrow, which other similar-sized town centres across London already have?

I thank my hon. Friend for that comment. I hesitate to venture into other police areas, but we find this issue across a number of regions and I will come on to the issue of antisocial behaviour. Dedicated police teams can be very helpful, so I hope that the Minister will listen to that plea from my hon. Friend.

I am not the first person to bring this matter to the attention of the House; in fact, two Westminster Hall debates have considered similar motions in just the last five years, and one of them came from the Petitions Committee. Clearly, our constituents care enough about the subject to have signed a public petition that has secured over 100,000 signatures.

In 2020, the Government produced their response to a Home Office consultation, which had begun in April 2019, on violence and abuse towards shop staff. The response promised to address the roots of the problem and provide support to victims. In 2022, an amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill was enacted, meaning that if a victim of one of a range of specified offences had been providing services, goods or facilities to the public at the time of the offence, that would be considered as an aggravating factor for sentencing purposes. The Government have said that they consider the existing law sufficient to protect retail workers. That leads me to this question: which retail workers have the Government been asking? I say that because, having spoken to workers on the ground, it is clear to me that the protections already in place are insufficient.

Despite the debates and the consultation, incidents of violence and intimidation are still rising. USDAW’s survey of retail staff in 2023 found that two thirds of its members who work in retail suffer abuse from customers, 42% had been threatened by a customer and 5% had been assaulted. We are talking about being spat or coughed at, being slapped, punched or kicked, or being attacked with weapons. Shockingly, the executive chairman of Iceland has revealed that three Iceland workers are now HIV-positive as a result of needle attacks on staff. Last year, USDAW’s figures showed that four in 10 retail workers experienced anxiety about work and three in 10 were considering changing jobs as a result. That is why we are continuing to see them speak up about the conditions that they are working in.

As I said, the Westminster Hall debate in 2021 was prompted by a petition asking the Government to enact legislation that would create a specific offence of abusing, threatening or assaulting a retail worker. As I also said, it reached over 100,000 signatures, but still the epidemic of violence continued. Therefore, this year, another petition has started—it is still in force—calling for the same measure to be taken. There is a strong, consistent public demand for change.

From speaking to them, I know that shop workers in my constituency—and store managers, in fact—feel strongly that the creation of a specific offence is the right path to follow. They believe that that would not only recognise the scale of the problem but encourage police attendance, which they feel is lacking, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) has said. There is a widespread feeling within the retail sector that theft has been effectively decriminalised over the past 13 years of Conservative Governments.

I wonder whether my hon. Friend agrees with me on these two points. First, this is a very serious matter and impacts every single constituency in the UK. Secondly, tackling violence and abuse against shop workers does not seem to be a priority on the Government Benches; as far as I can see, there are no speakers from the Government Back Benches in this debate.

I certainly agree that the Government have failed to go far enough. They had the opportunity last year when they introduced the aggravating-factor legislation, but we need to go much further than that.

As I said, there is a widespread feeling within the sector that theft has been effectively decriminalised. In the same vein, another policy being criticised is the practice of issuing fixed penalty notices for shop thefts under £200. The failure to investigate those thefts leaves workers feeling as though the crimes that they have experienced, often involving abusive behaviour towards them, are not taken seriously by the police or the Government.

The lack of confidence in our institutions has been reflected by a drop in the reporting of incidents of violence and abuse. The British Retail Consortium notes that there has been a decline in reporting of such incidents to 32%, as workers have increasingly lost faith that the police will take action. The commitments made in the retail crime action plan, which tells police to prioritise incidents involving violence, are welcome, but we must ensure that local police forces are encouraged and supported to implement that approach on the ground. We must also ensure that they have the resources to respond. In my area, Northumbria police are still 400 police officers down from 2010, and it is the same in other parts of the north-east.

Retail workers find themselves at the frontline of antisocial behavioural issues, but the problem goes beyond shop floors. Across my constituency and the country, people are concerned about the antisocial behaviour taking place in their own communities. When my submission for this debate was accepted, it sparked a conversation in my office about times that, as customers, we have seen those acts of aggression play out. In the winter months, with the nights getting dark ever earlier, the worry of bad behaviour in shops will create not just a fearful situation for the staff but one that risks turning away customers.

Strikingly, USDAW’s most recent survey suggests that an estimated two thirds of abusive incidents are linked with addiction, yet we see nothing in the Government’s announcement of the Pegasus programme acknowledging that relationship or exploring the role that drug and alcohol treatment services have to play in tackling this issue. That is another area in which the Government’s promise to address the root causes of retail crime rings completely hollow. It is astonishing that, despite those statistics, the debate, the personal examples and the outcry from businesses and staff alike, workers still feel afraid of their place of work and are worried that, just by showing up for their shift, they will be putting themselves in harm’s way. The sector has long been calling out for more to be done on the issue, and I am proud that Labour is a party willing to listen to that call.

On a local level, I am pleased that our police and crime commissioner, Kim McGuinness, has been getting heads together within the retail sector and local police forces to identify what has been working and what has not—listening to our retail workers, so that they feel recognised and supported. There is also work to be done nationally. Labour will create a new specific offence of assault against retail workers. That has been called for by the likes of the chief executive officer of Tesco, Jason Tarry, who said:

“We want our colleagues to be safe at work. Creating a standalone offence not only sends a strong message to the small but violent group of people who abuse and attack shopworkers, but also makes it clear to shopworkers that as a nation we take protecting them seriously.”

Labour would go further, scrapping the £200 rule that stops shoplifting from being investigated and putting guaranteed neighbourhood patrols back into town centres, with 13,000 more neighbourhood police and police community support officers.

When it comes to the abuse and crime that affect our shop workers, the numbers do not lie. Sadly, they have become common practice and although so many across the industry are calling for something to be done, their calls are going unanswered. To put it simply, we need to do more to protect the retail workforce. No one should have to go to work in fear of being verbally abused, assaulted or victimised just for doing their job. I hope that the Minister will reconsider the seriousness of the situation and make this abuse a crime in its own right. That is what those people I spoke to in my constituency want. It is what the sector wants and what our retail workforce deserve.

I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as a proud member of the USDAW trade union.

Everybody deserves to be treated with respect and fairness at work. Nobody should have to carry out their job in fear of receiving verbal or physical abuse, but sadly that is becoming the reality for many of our retail workers. Abuse of and attacks on shop workers have doubled since 2019. In an excellent opening speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) set out the statistics: two thirds of USDAW members working in retail suffer abuse from customers, there has been a 25% increase in shoplifting in the past year, and the British Retail Consortium reports that there are 850 incidents of violence or abuse against shop workers every single day. Those figures are shocking.

Having to deal with violence and abuse at work has a far-reaching impact beyond the incident itself: there is the stress, anxiety and potential for injury, but there are also mental health issues down the line. I have been a supporter of USDAW’s Respect for Shopworkers Week and the Freedom from Fear campaign that it has run for many years. I congratulate USDAW on those campaigns. Like my hon. Friend, I visited a number of stores as part of the Respect for Shopworkers Week a couple of weeks ago.

I have been engaging on this issue for a number of years. I remember having a meeting a few years ago with retailers in Didsbury, in my constituency, to talk about the problem of gangs going from store to store shoplifting and how difficult that was to address. They set up WhatsApp groups and communication between the various stores and tried to contact the police, but the problem is difficult to resolve without some kind of offence that makes it easier to take action against the people perpetrating the crimes.

That was a problem in Didsbury, and I met trade unions, shop people and the police some time ago. It has eased off a little there, but in my constituency, as in many constituencies, there is a problem across the retail sector. A couple of years ago, I noticed that the shop assistants in my local Co-op, in Withington, were wearing headsets. I asked one of the staff what that was about, and he said, “We’ve had so much abuse and so many people giving us a hard time that we have to be able to communicate with one another and talk to the manager in the back.” The Co-op has done that in Withington and in a number of other stores. I spoke to staff in Tesco last week, I think, and it is doing a similar thing, improving its communications and the support it gives its staff. That is commendable—it is a good thing—but it should not be necessary.

Stores are doing what they can, but retailers often say the problem is that, when they report shoplifting, nothing happens. That is partly to do with the reduced numbers of PCSOs and police staff on the streets and in our district centres in recent years, with town centre patrols being cut. Perpetrators are also rarely sent to court, as charge numbers have plummeted. As my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon said, fixed penalty notices for shop thefts of under £200 have led to fewer crimes being investigated and prosecuted. A significant proportion of retail crime is thought to be linked to drug addiction, but—as my hon. Friend also pointed out—drug treatment services have been cut.

Seeing fewer uniformed officers patrolling shopping centres and other areas gives criminals more confidence, which I think is a key factor in the increase in retail crime. It is really disappointing that Conservative MPs have repeatedly voted down a protection of workers law—one already exists in Scotland—and that there was nothing in the King’s Speech to tackle the epidemic of abuse against retail workers.

In the run-up to Christmas, the pressure on shop workers is likely to ramp up even more. It is a busy and stressful time, and it is essential that customers treat these valued retail staff with respect. However, more than that, we need legislation and proper police resourcing. Labour’s community policing guarantee will put the police back in our town centres and neighbourhoods, making high streets safe again, with increased patrols and 13,000 more neighbourhood police and PCSOs on the streets. Labour would introduce a new protection of workers law, making violence, threats and abuse against retail workers a specific offence, with tougher sentences. That would make it simpler for the police to take action. It would also send a clear message from Parliament to the police and the public that this issue is being taken seriously and that we will not tolerate the abuse of retail workers.

That measure is backed by USDAW, of course. It is also backed by the Co-op, Tesco, the British Retail Consortium and lots of small convenience stores. There have been numerous opportunities to back the measure in Parliament, but time after time it has been voted down. I just make this request to the Minister and Government Members: I really hope that, in the face of the overwhelming evidence and testimony from retail workers and the retail sector, the Government will think again and introduce a specific offence of abuse and threats against shop workers, because if this Government will not, the next Labour Government will.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Edward. I congratulate my hon. Friend—my good friend—the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) on securing this debate. I declare to the House that I am a member of USDAW, the retail sector trade union. I worked in the retail sector for six years, so I was, and I remain, a member of USDAW. I also refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

In my constituency there are 9,000 retail workers, whose jobs make up 16.4% of those in the constituency. In my region, the north-west, there are 523,000-plus retail workers. Retail jobs are important in my constituency, in the north-west and across the UK. As part of the recent Respect for Shopworkers Week, I visited the Co-op on Castle Street. As on previous visits, I spoke to the managers and shop floor staff, and they told me about the incidents of antisocial behaviour, violence, sometimes threats, shoplifting and all of that. Often they feel that nothing is done. What are the police doing to tackle those issues? This is a serious matter, and it causes problems not just for shop workers but for customers who have to witness such incidents.

The stats were mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) and for Blaydon. There are about 850 incidents of violence or abuse against shop workers daily, so the figures are quite high. The recent survey by USDAW, which had about 3,000 responses from retail workers, found that 65% of retail workers had been verbally abused, 42% had been threatened and a shocking 17.5% had been assaulted, with 4.8% assaulted just this year. Those figures are staggering, and we need action rather than just warm words from the Government.

This debate is about violence and abuse towards the retail workforce, but I want to add a point about the value of retail jobs. These are important jobs. Often, they are low paid—they are not seen as well-paying jobs—and they involve long hours, and sometimes people are on zero-hours contracts. USDAW produced an updated report in July 2023 called “A Plan For The Future Of Retail Work”. I would be happy to give my paper copy to the Minister if he is interested, because these jobs should be good, well-paid jobs and people should be able to afford to bring up their families and look after their communities. Often, however, these jobs are difficult and, on top of the financial difficulties, staff face violence and a lot of abuse. That needs to be tackled.

I am sorry to say that the Government have failed us. Not only do we not have a specific offence for violence and abuse against shop workers, but we have seen significant cuts to my local force, Greater Manchester police, in the last 13 years of Conservative Government. The officers I speak to—just last week, I spoke to a senior Greater Manchester police officer in the Stockport district—do a difficult job. They have their own issues with regard to the workforce, the capacity of officers, the complexity of crimes, the rise in population, the rise in crime and all those issues, and they are often not able to support shopkeepers, shop workers or bigger stores with these incidents. We have seen a perfect cocktail of failure, where the Government have not legislated and there has been a massive increase in these crimes, but where there have also been cuts to police numbers. We need to address that.

The Freedom from Fear campaign, which is run throughout the year by USDAW, the retail sector trade union, is important. There is also Respect for Shopworkers Week, and USDAW’s general secretary, Paddy Lillis, was on the parliamentary estate earlier this year when my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington hosted him for a meeting with MPs. I met Mr Lillis last week and spoke to him about the concerns in the sector, and he told me that there are significant issues.

We need action from the Government, and we need to make sure that a specific offence is created. I worked in the retail sector for just under six years, and I had a good experience at a large national retailer. However, I did come across incidents where the customer was unpleasant or made derogatory, racist or sexist remarks. We need to make sure we legislate.

My final point is that Labour has made a specific commitment—and not just offered warm words about jam tomorrow—that it will table amendments to the Government’s Criminal Justice Bill to strengthen the law to protect retail workers. We need that, and we need it urgently. We also need to make sure that police forces, including Greater Manchester police, have the resources and the support they need to tackle the issues that make life difficult for shop workers and members of the community.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Sir Edward. I thank the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) for securing this important debate on violence and abuse towards the retail workforce. It is vital that we address a growing concern that is plaguing our communities and affecting the very fabric of our towns and cities. The scourge of retail crime cannot be ignored any longer: it threatens the safety of our hard-working retail staff, as well as the wellbeing of local businesses that are the lifeblood of local communities.

Shoplifting is not a victimless crime or an attack on a faceless business. At its core, it is an attack on a person—an individual who is simply carrying out the duties of their employment—and it brings with it long-lasting consequences in many cases. According to the annual Scottish retail crime report released last year, a staggering 100% of respondents reported experiencing shop theft at least once a day. That alarming statistic is accompanied by a harsh reality: virtually all retail staff will regularly endure some form of abuse, violence or hate speech throughout the course of a day’s work. From major retailers to local corner shops, the threat of violence, or actual violence, is never far away. That cannot continue.

Our retail workers deserve to be at their place of work and to carry out their duties without the fear of violence, abuse or intimidation. Disturbingly, violence and abusive attacks on retail staff have nearly doubled from pre-pandemic levels. According to the BRC’s crime survey, more than 850 incidents were reported daily in the UK between 2021 and 2022, including racial and sexual abuse, physical assaults and threats with weapons. In Scotland, we witness 70 incidents a day—a sharp increase from 45 attacks a day in 2019-20—so this is on the increase right across the UK.

The economic toll of retail crime is also staggering. The total cost reached £1.76 billion in the last financial year, with customer theft alone accounting for £953 million. Retailers are having to spend an additional £715 million on crime prevention measures.

Some 100 retail CEOs wrote to 41 police and crime commissioners in England and Wales last year, urging them to make retail crime a priority in local policing strategies. The Government failed to listen to them. In contrast, the Scottish Government have taken a key step forward, with the introduction of the Protection of Workers (Retail and Age-restricted Good and Services) (Scotland) Act 2021, which fully recognises the gravity of violence and abuse against retail and shop workers.

The private Member’s Bill introduced in Holyrood on this issue received widespread support across the Scottish Parliament. It was introduced by a Labour MSP, Mr Daniel Johnson—credit where credit is due—which proves that the SNP is an open and listening governing party. The Bill was enacted in 2021, passing through the Holyrood Parliament with no dissent, so congratulations on that.

Police Scotland figures reveal that nearly 8,000 cases of abuse and assault against retail staff were reported in the two years to August. National statistics office figures on criminal proceedings for 2021-22, published in October, indicate that progress is being made, with 543 of those charged under the Act receiving criminal convictions from 2021 to 2023. Twenty-six individuals were convicted in a Scottish court, with 13 receiving a custodial sentence under the Act.

I am sure the Minister will tell us that a specific law is not required in England and Wales for the protection of retail workers. However, it has been proven that, where there is confidence that, if someone reports a crime, it will be taken seriously, as is the case in Scotland, victims are far more likely to report the crimes, racial abuse or threats of violence they experience in their workplace to the relevant authorities. We ask the Minister to think again about that.

It is important that we stand united against the tide of retail crime that threatens our communities. We must ensure that our retail workers are safe, protected and free from the threat of violence and abuse. The Protection of Workers Act is a beacon of progress, and I urge the Minister to consider following it.

Finally, I would like to say to all the hard-working people employed in the retail sector across Scotland and beyond, “Thanks again for your service every day. The outstanding service you provided for us all throughout the pandemic should not be forgotten. We owe you huge gratitude still. If you suffer abuse, racism or any threat of violence at your workplace, please come forward and report it.”

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. It is also a pleasure to stand across the Chamber from the Minister for the first time. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) on securing this important debate, and I thank all the Members who have participated and put on record why it is so important.

I spent a great many years—about 10 years from the age of 14—working in retail. Granted, that was a long time ago, but I do not remember things being so bad for retail workers. The impact of the abuse of shop workers is far-reaching, whether that is the physical and emotional toll on those who suffer the abuse, the impact of theft on employers and retailers or the knock-on impact of those issues on our high streets, which lose out massively when local residents say they do not feel safe in their communities.

I pay tribute to the contributions made by my hon. Friends the Members for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) and for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) and the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Steven Bonnar)—I hope I have that right. Retail crime is a blight on our high streets and local communities. Anecdotally, it is felt by our constituents on a daily basis, but that is also borne out in the statistics, which reveal horrible and worrying trends. Retail crime, violence, threats and abuse towards shop workers have increased substantially in recent years, and my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon set out the harrowing levels of violence and assaults.

Research by the Co-op shows that there have been 300,000 incidents involving shoplifting, abuse and violence in its stores in the past year alone. Figures from the British Retail Consortium, the retail trade body, show that retail crime in England and Wales was up 26% in 2022, which equates to a staggering 850 incidents every day. That is goods being lifted and staff being abused physically or threatened with weapons. Of course, there is a cost to retailers and consumers too. The BRC estimated that, in 2021, even before the current peak in shoplifting incidents, stolen goods had cost retailers £1 billion.

If we talk to anyone in retail, they will say that it is not just petty thieves behind this, but serious and organised crime. Criminals operating in gangs are stealing large quantities of goods and selling them, and retail workers are operating on the frontline of this shoplifting epidemic. The Co-op sees an estimated 1,000 cases of shoplifting in its stores a day, and every day four or five staff members are physically attacked. As we have heard, they describe attacks involving syringes and knives; it is truly appalling. No worker should ever have to go into work in such fear or under such a threat of attack.

I pay tribute to the shop workers’ union, USDAW, for running a robust campaign on the issue to better protect its members, and to the retailers investing in anti-theft measures and better security for their stores. Shockingly, it has fallen to them to act, because retail crime and the abuse of shop workers has exploded under this Government. After 13 years of Tory Government, over 90% of crimes are going unsolved, meaning that criminals are less than half as likely to be caught than they were under the last Labour Government. More criminals are being let off and far more victims are being let down.

The Tories’ shoplifting charter means that offences involving goods under £200 are rarely investigated properly and criminals are rarely brought to justice. We have also had the decimation of neighbourhood policing, with town centre policing controls cut. Even when offenders are detained by security—as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon—the Co-op says that they are let go in 80% of cases in its stores because the police are stretched so thinly that they cannot attend the scene. It is therefore no surprise that, despite the amazing work of our police officers in testing circumstances, public confidence in the police has been on a downward trend since 2017, falling from 62% to just 55% in 2020.

It is the first duty of any Government to keep their citizens safe, and the Government are failing badly—that is the abysmal Conservative record on law and order. The Opposition are determined to end this chaos. Labour will not stand for any more failure to combat crime. To deliver on that, we have set out our community policing guarantee.

First, we will put police back on the beat. We will bring in proper neighbourhood policing, with 13,000 new police officers and PCSOs on our streets. That will mean more local officers embedded in and servicing local communities, with a named officer assigned to every high street. Secondly, we will have zero tolerance of antisocial behaviour, with repeat offenders banned from town centres. Thirdly, we will build pride in neighbourhood policing by giving local people and businesses a say in how their local area is policed and ensuring that there is proper career progression in the police for neighbourhood police officers. Fourthly, we will end the £200 shoplifters’ charter, reverse the Tories’ decision to downgrade such crimes, and properly crack down on all shoplifting once and for all. Finally, we will create a new specific offence of assault against shop workers. Everyone has the right to feel safe at work, and Labour will deliver on that promise.

I pay tribute to USDAW and to colleagues in the Co-operative party, who have fought hard, and continue to push, for this change. After years of this Government’s failure to tackle crime, Labour is determined to turn the tide on rising shop theft and antisocial behaviour, and to make the streets safer.

It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your august chairmanship, Sir Edward, and to follow—for the first time, I think—the hon. Member for Enfield North (Feryal Clark), whom I welcome to her place in the shadow Front-Bench team.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) for securing this important debate, which follows one on the Floor of the House. The Opposition day debate this afternoon was on a broadly similar topic, but it is good to have a further opportunity to discuss the matter in a little more detail and in slightly less heated circumstances.

Before I respond to hon. Members’ very good points, I want to say that I agree with the assessment that retail outlets are the lifeblood of our community. They are often centres not only for shopping, but for meeting others. They are far more vibrant than just buying something online and having it delivered to one’s doorstep in a cardboard box.

I also agree that it is unacceptable that retail workers are suffering from assaults and threats. I have particular sympathy with them because my very first job in south London was stacking shelves, among other things, in a Sainsbury’s not far from my current constituency, although I must confess that unlike Labour Members, I never joined a trade union.

I thank Members for their kind entreaties, but I will probably give it a miss.

This is a serious issue and the Government are taking it very seriously. Of course, crime in general is coming down. The crime survey for England and Wales, which according to the Office for National Statistics is the only reliable measure of long-term crime trends, shows that overall crime is down 10% year on year, and like-for-like crime is down 56% since 2010. That is very welcome, but—in common with other countries in the western world, including the United States, France and Germany—we have seen a worrying increase in shoplifting and assaults against retail workers in the past year or two. As I say, the phenomenon is not confined to the UK; it is wider than that.

Although it is welcome that prosecutions for shoplifting have increased by 29% since last year, the Government said in response to a number of retailers, including the Co-op and others, that more needs to be done. That is why I sat down over the summer with the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for serious organised and acquisitive crime—Amanda Blakeman, the chief constable of north Wales—to talk about developing a police action plan to do a lot more.

That action plan was published with the agreement of the police four or five weeks ago and was launched at No. 10 Downing Street. It contains a number of important components. The first is a commitment that the police will always follow up all reasonable lines of inquiry in relation to all crime. That is relevant to all kinds of crime types, but shoplifting is one of the most important. That means that if there is evidence that can be followed up, such as CCTV footage, the police will always do that regardless of the value of the goods stolen.

In the past six to 12 months, the artificial intelligence algorithm that enables facial matching has become a lot more sophisticated. If an image is received from a crime scene—it could be from a Ring doorbell, a dashcam, a mobile phone or CCTV anywhere, including in a shop—as it should always be under this new commitment, it can be run through the police national database, which contains millions of facial images from custody records. The algorithm is so good at matching now that even blurred or partially obscured images can be matched. The commitment always to follow lines of inquiry and always run images through the facial recognition database will lead to a lot more offenders being caught—shoplifters, but others as well. I set the target for police forces across England and Wales to double their use of facial recognition searches this year.

The first element is always to follow all reasonable lines of inquiry, with a particular emphasis on CCTV and facial recognition. Secondly, there is a police commitment to prioritise attending incidents of shoplifting in person where that is necessary to secure evidence; where there has been an assault on a retail worker, which is obviously relevant to today’s debate; and where an offender has been detained by, for example, store security staff. I heard statistics from the Co-op suggesting that where store security staff had detained an offender, the police had attended only in a quarter of cases. That is frankly unacceptable. We now have a commitment from policing to prioritise attendance in all cases where an offender has been detained. I would like Members of Parliament of all parties and police and crime commissioners to hold the police to account for delivering that.

Thirdly, the plan contains a commitment to use data analytics to identify and go after prolific offenders—that is, identifying what is often quite a small number of people committing a large volume of offences and specifically going after them. Fourthly—it may have been the hon. Member for Blaydon who mentioned this—there is an element of serious and organised crime, with organised criminal gangs targeting retail outlets. Project Pegasus, led by the Sussex police and crime commissioner Katy Bourne in partnership with 16 retailers, gathers data from those retailers and passes it to OPAL, which is the police data analysis centre for serious organised crime, including acquisitive crime, to identify the criminal gangs and go after them. That is partly funded by those retailers but is supported and organised by the police.

Those are the four components: following all lines of inquiry, including CCTV and facial recognition; targeting prolific offenders; attending incidents a lot more frequently; and going after serious and organised crime. That package together will lead to a significant increase in the number of offenders who are caught and the number of assaults prevented, and we will see that 29% increase in prosecutions go up considerably more.

I appreciate the points that the Minister has made about policing and meeting the Co-op. Will he give a commitment to the House that he will meet USDAW, which is the sectoral trade union for retail workers, because the people who are at the forefront of this crisis are the low-paid retail workers themselves?

Yes, I would be happy to do so—it would seem churlish to decline such an invitation.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned wages. I observe in passing that the minimum wage will go up by about 10% from next April to £11.44 an hour. That is quite a considerable increase, well above the rate of inflation. Of course, under the last Labour Government, it was only £5.93. If we adjust for inflation and the increase in the tax-free threshold, the take-home wages of someone working full time on the minimum wage are 30% higher than 13 years ago, which is welcome.

The Greater Manchester police were mentioned by, I think, the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith). I commend Chief Constable Stephen Watson, who is doing a great job with GMP and led the way by implementing this concept of always following up all evidence, which seems like common sense, but it was not being universally done. He implemented that in Greater Manchester about a year and a half ago, and it led to a 44% increase in arrests and prosecutions. It is exactly that approach that worked under Stephen Watson’s leadership that we are applying nationwide, including to shoplifting.

I will say a word or two on several other points raised in the debate. The first is the offence of assaulting a retail worker. We know that Scotland has a separate offence and that there have been calls to have a similar one here. Of course assaulting a retail worker is an offence: it is assault. It could be common assault, grievous bodily harm, grievous bodily harm with intent and so on. It is a criminal offence and, as I believe the hon. Member for Blaydon acknowledged, we legislated in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 to make it a statutory aggravating factor where the victim is a public-facing worker—that includes retailers and others. That means that a judge is obliged, in statute, to pass a higher sentence than they otherwise would, in recognition of the fact that the victim is a public-facing worker.

The problem is that if cases are not taken through to court for prosecution, that aggravating factor does not come into play. I think that what all of us here are arguing is that the assault itself against a shop worker should be seen as a particular offence.

Obviously, as I have said, that is already an offence—it is assault, it is illegal and it is a criminal offence. We need to make sure that the culprit is identified by the police and that those cases are then prosecuted. The retail crime action plan that I set out a few moments ago will increase the number of prosecutions of those who assault retail workers, as well as of those who steal from retail stores. I am confident that that will be the result of that action plan.

One or two hon. Members mentioned the £200 threshold. I want to make sure that everyone is clear about that. A change to the law in 2014 made the theft of goods valued at under £200 triable summarily only, which means triable just in the magistrates court. To be clear, it is still a criminal offence, it can still and should be prosecuted, and the maximum sentence is six months’ imprisonment, which is the maximum that a magistrate these days can impose. Stealing more than £200-worth of goods is triable either way, meaning that it can be heard in a Crown court. The maximum sentence upon conviction in the Crown court for that offence, of theft, is seven years. So, to be clear, stealing goods to the value of less than £200 is criminal; it can and should be prosecuted; and it is punishable by up to six months’ imprisonment.

I hope it is clear from my remarks that we are taking this issue extremely seriously. The increase in shoplifting in the past year or two in this country, as well as in the US, France and Germany, is of concern, which is why we are taking the action that I set out. We need a zero-tolerance approach, because if we do not have one, the problem just escalates. We have seen in some American cities, such as San Francisco, the situation getting completely out of control. Looting has become commonplace in San Francisco and elsewhere, and we cannot allow that to happen in the UK. That is why we have developed our plan, and why I have asked the police to take a zero-tolerance approach. I am sure that all of us, Members of Parliament and PCCs up and down the country, will hold the police to account to deliver the plan.

I was about to sit down, but as the hon. Lady secured the debate, it would be extremely discourteous not to give way.

I thank the Minister. Will he address the issue that I raised about the resourcing of the police? In my local Northumbria police area, we are still 400 police officers down. That is irrespective of whatever the picture is nationally, and the situation is the same across the north-east. Clearly, that affects the response of the police. What can he say about that? Can he commit to increasing the numbers in Northumbria?

I can confirm that across England and Wales as a whole, as I think the hon. Lady knows, we have 149,566 police officers; that is as of 31 March this year. The number is higher than it has ever been in history and it is about 3,500 higher than the previous peak in March 2010, so there is a record number nationally. As for each individual force area, the choices made by individual PCCs—

I am going to conclude, because I do not want to overburden the Chamber and I wish to finish answering the point. The numbers in individual force areas reflect choices made by individual PCCs over time, for example, about the precept and about the balance between officer numbers, police stations and so on. What we have done in government is make sure that there are record numbers nationally. We have also put more money into policing, so this year PCCs had £550 million more available to them than last year. In addition, we fully funded the 7% pay rise between 2.5% and 7%, which this year entailed an extra £330 million.

Those resources are going in. In addition, from next April we are funding—in every one of the 43 police force areas in England and Wales, including the hon. Lady’s—specially funded antisocial behaviour hotspot patrols. I would expect them mainly to concentrate on town centres and high streets, where shoplifting may also occur. Where we have piloted those in the past four or five months, including in Blackpool, parts of Staffordshire and parts of Essex, we have seen reductions of 20% or 30% in antisocial behaviour and other forms of criminality. We will therefore fund each force, in addition to its regular funding settlement, to have those hotspot patrols, which should deliver something like 30,000 hours of specialist patrolling in each force area each year from April. I think that that will make a real difference.

With regard to the Minister’s explanation of the differences and the choices that local police forces have made, I am sure he will know that the impact of increasing the precept and the value of housing in our local communities mean that authorities such as mine suffer disproportionately because of the way the precept is worked out. Choices there may be, but they are choices within the funding envelope.

I thank the hon. Lady for her final intervention. The police funding formula, which is rather old now, accounts for the council tax base as well as population, crime levels and so forth, but it needs reviewing and updating. As I said, when we lay out the police funding settlement for next year, which we intend to do this side of Christmas, I hope that police forces up and down the country, including in her area, will see that they will get a material resource uplift next year, as well as the special funding I mentioned for hotspot patrolling that has made a huge and visible difference in the areas in which it has been trialled.

This is a serious issue and the Government take it seriously. We have a plan, we have agreed it with policing, and we will now get on and deliver that plan operationally.

This has been an interesting debate, and a very important one to our retail workforce who are suffering violence and abuse, both verbal and physical. Clearly I am disappointed that the Minister has not gone a step further and agreed that violence and abuse towards the retail workforce should be a crime in its own right. I know that the shopworkers and retail staff in my constituency would very much welcome that recognition. Although there are other assault offences that can be used, this is a very specific one that needs to be addressed. I regret that the Minister has not made that change. Retail staff and I will continue to push for it to be recognised as a specific crime.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the matter of violence and abuse towards the retail workforce.

Sitting adjourned.