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Shop Workers: Protection

Volume 795: debated on Wednesday 23 January 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the protections in place to prevent shop workers from being verbally abused, threatened with violence, or attacked.

My Lords, everyone has the right to feel safe at work. I have enormous sympathy for shop workers, who can face intimidation, threats and in some cases violence. I can confirm that, to understand this issue in more detail, the Government will take forward a call for evidence on violence and abuse towards shop workers. This is intended to help us fully understand the problem and look at all options for addressing it.

My Lords, it is a depressing fact that too many shop workers suffer physical assault. USDAW, the shop workers’ union, says that shop workers are on the receiving end of 230 assaults each day. The recent measures announced by the honourable Member for Louth and Horncastle, such as the call for evidence, are a step in the right direction. However, they fall short in failing to recognise the need for specific legislation to make it an offence to assault a worker enforcing the new age-related restrictions on acid and knives, which are set to come into force as a result of the Offensive Weapons Bill. Will the Minister explain why the Government will not accept that new legislation is needed, in spite of the concerns expressed by many organisations and on all sides of this House? Will she agree to meet USDAW and other organisations representing the retail sector, ahead of Report on the Offensive Weapons Bill in this House, to discuss the issue in detail?

My Lords, I am very happy to meet USDAW, which I fully expected might be one of the things I would do during the passage of the Offensive Weapons Bill. The noble Baroness will know that attacking a person serving the public is already an aggravating factor in sentencing guidelines. The Minister for Crime, Safeguarding and Vulnerability will be discussing the way forward on the call for evidence with the national retail crime steering group. We do not have a closed mind on a way forward and I look forward to meeting USDAW and hearing its concerns about this serious matter.

My Lords, when shop workers enforce the law—for example, on the sale of age-restricted items—they are acting as law-enforcement officers. Does the Minister think that when shop workers perform these duties, they should have similar legal protections to those afforded to other law enforcers?

I do not agree that they are acting as law-enforcement officers. One could take that to its ultimate conclusion and say that everyone who upholds the law is acting as a law-enforcement officer. They are simply saying that, for example, the sale of alcohol, tobacco and, in future, corrosive substances, to underage people is against the law. As I said to the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of Cradley, the call for evidence will bottom out exactly what is needed in the future. Nobody wants to see shop workers or any workers who deal with the public being abused in any way. I look forward to a constructive way forward on this.

My Lords, the Offensive Weapons Bill would rightly ban the sale of knives, bladed items and acids to under-18s, with penalties for those who break the law and sell those items. In addition to USDAW, the British Retail Consortium, the Co-op, the Association of Convenience Stores and others are supporting calls to protect shop workers who uphold the law via a specific offence for those who threaten shop workers who are doing their job and upholding the law by not selling the items in question. Why is it too much to ask the Government to protect shop workers at the same time as creating new laws and offences for selling such items?

My Lords, I fully support what the noble Lord says about protecting shop workers. A number of laws to protect them are already in place; we need to explore this issue more to see what we can add to that. We are funding targeted communications going forward and refreshing the national retail crime steering group, which the Minister got up and running in December. As I said, there is no excuse for shop workers or anyone working with and serving the public being abused in any way.

My Lords, while I recognise the very real concerns of shop workers and their calls for stronger sanctions against those who attack them, does the Minister recognise that placing more children and young people in prison is not an effective response? If there must be a strengthening of sanctions, community sentences will protect more shop workers in the long run because they are much more effective in preventing reoffending.

I agree with the noble Earl that putting young people in custody is not the answer every time. Obviously, magistrates have a range of sentencing powers open to them but I believe that our current work on prevention and early intervention—all the things the noble Earl talks about—is the most effective way to tackle this problem.

My Lords, my noble friend will be aware that under the Licensing Act, the Home Office is consulting on a call for evidence to stop abuse against coffee shop workers and those working in other outlets at airports. Can she give a date on which the Licensing Act will apply in order to stop such abuse and disruptive passengers boarding planes, sometimes causing huge economic expense through diversions? This is a very serious matter, and we want that law to come into force before the summer season.

As my noble friend said, the call for evidence is open; therefore, we must go through that process. I do not disagree with her about the behaviour that goes on in airports when people are intoxicated. I look forward to the results of the call for evidence.

My Lords, I recall the outcry from certain parts of the community about the attack on civil liberties when street cameras were introduced a few years ago. Does this Question not prove the value of using modern technology in the prevention and detection of crime?

The noble Lord is absolutely right. As legislators, we must be consistent in protecting the public from the harms of crime and other things that take place on our streets. There is a balance to be struck between civil liberties, and protecting the public and keeping criminals off our streets.