[James Gray in the Chair]
Before I call the Member in charge of the debate to propose the motion, I point out to Members both physically here in Westminster Hall and virtually that we have a total of 15 Back-Bencher speakers. Allowing 43 minutes for those speeches, that gives us less than three minutes per head for Back Benchers. I do not intend to impose a formal time limit, because I think that substitutes quality for quantity, but we should all limit ourselves to a maximum of two—perhaps three—minutes for Back-Bench speeches.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 328621, relating to the protection of retail workers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray.
I thank the petition creator and all those who signed it, giving us the opportunity to debate this hugely important issue. As of last Friday, 104,354 signatures were on the petition, so I think it is fair to say that this something that a lot of people up and down the country care greatly about. Having worked in retail, it is one that I, too, care deeply about. Over the past year, while most of us have retreated to the safety and comfort of our own homes, many of our retail workers rolled up their sleeves and got on with it, making sure that our shops remained stocked so that we could all access the essentials we needed as we bunkered down to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
We have asked a lot of our retail workers over the past year: not only have we asked them to brave the pandemic, potentially putting themselves at risk from the virus, but we have asked them to implement the measures that were designed to keep us all safe, such as mask wearing and social distancing. As a result, violence and abuse directed towards retail workers has gone through the roof.
Recently, I met some amazing, passionate ladies who work in retail: Jo who works for the Co-op in Northumberland, Kate who works for Primark in Worcester and Jane who works at Tesco in north Wales. Each told me that since the pandemic began, the number of incidents of abuse had increased noticeably. They told me about the fear and the risks faced by ordinary men and women who go to work in shops in all our communities across the country, echoing the issues I have heard from my own constituents.
I heard from responsible retail businesses as well, such as Morrisons, the Co-op, Asda, Sainsbury’s and many others. They are investing millions of pounds trying to protect their staff and are desperate for more to be done. A recent survey by the British Retail Consortium has shown that a staggering 455 incidents of abuse and violence are now directed towards retail workers, not each month or each week, but every day—yes, 455 incidents every day. Men and women go to work—some of them young people or even students in their first job, some of them mothers, trying to manage a job around family life, some of them semi-retired, in the later years of their life, but all trying to earn a living—and are subjected to disgusting abuse as a result.
Another survey, by USDAW, the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, found that the top triggers for abusive incidents were enforcing social distancing at 24%, queuing to get into stores at 17%, and wearing face masks at 15%. Nobody likes having to queue to get into a shop or to wear masks, but that is absolutely no reason to be abusive, threatening or violent to someone who is just doing their job. There is never a reason to do any of those things to someone who is trying to earn a living. When I was talking to USDAW members, they told me shocking stories about how people have weaponised covid during the pandemic, spitting at them and threatening to infect them with the virus.
The issue, however, was not created by the pandemic; it pre-dates it. I have heard the terrible stories of people being on the receiving end of vile abuse for having the temerity to do their duty of checking ID when selling drinks, or being assaulted when they step up and try to stop a shoplifter. The problem is rife. In the words of one retail worker—an ordinary person working in an ordinary store on the streets of a constituency like mine or yours:
“I have been dragged out of the store and battered by a group of five men, punched and kicked by a gang of teenagers, followed home after late night shifts, had a knife pulled on me three times, had to wrestle needles out of drug addicts’ hands to prevent harm to colleagues, and that doesn’t include the verbal abuse I receive on a daily basis.”
We need to send a clear message to the people that this is unacceptable. Retail staff must be able to do their jobs without the fear that they will be on the receiving end of abuse or worse at any time throughout their shift. That is why I wholeheartedly support the demands in the petition. We need a punishment for these crimes that shows that we stand by our retail staff and that acts as a proper deterrent. Often, instances are sparked by retail staff doing the duties that we in Parliament have asked them to do. If we are going to put the burden of statutory responsibilities on them, we need to give them statutory protections too.
As well as protecting retail workers, we need to ensure our shops are safe for everyone. They are the hearts of our communities. Not everybody has friends and family they can talk to nearby. They might not go to the pub, but they will go to shops, and sometimes the interaction with the person at the checkout is the chat they need to prevent isolation. We cannot have our shops—the hearts of our communities—turning into something like the wild west where anything goes. We need to make them safe for everyone.
I know that putting in greater protections for retail workers does not require a feat of legislative gymnastics. Looking just north of the border, the Scottish Parliament recently passed a Bill, now an Act, put forward by Daniel Johnson MSP. It is decisive and sends a clear message that these actions will not be tolerated, but it now means that retail staff are better protected in Dumfries than they are 30 miles south in Carlisle. I would like to see similar action taken in England so that retail workers in my patch are just as safe doing their jobs as their counterparts in Edinburgh or Glasgow.
When I read the Government’s response to the petition, I was glad to see that they said:
“Everyone should feel safe at work”.
That is a sentiment that we can all agree on, but I was disheartened to see that they were not persuaded that a specific measure is needed to protect the retail workforce, particularly when prosecutions are so low and the role played by retail workers in upholding the law and their statutory duties was considered an aggravating factor in only three in 100 cases.
The Government are correct that there is a wide range of offences to hold offenders to account, but if those offences were a sufficient deterrent, incidents would not continue to rise. We need to look again and do something stronger. However, we still have the chance to make things better. I hope the Government will work with me and Members from all corners of this House to support the provisions in this petition and look again. Let us send a message that this Government have retail workers’ backs.
What a pleasure it is serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, even though it is remotely. I have been a member of the Co-operative party and a Labour and Co-operative Member of Parliament for all my long parliamentary career, and I have a particular affinity for the small co-operative shops—real grassroots community facilities—that are essential to local communities. Of course, the Co-op is not the only small business working in local communities; there are many more. We must seek to protect all workers in all those shops.
Yes, we would like legislation; yes, we want this petition to be successful; yes, we want to give as much protection to workers in England and other parts of the United Kingdom as those in Scotland have. But we need to go further than that. The small shop is absolutely central to our communities—it is the life of the community. Workers in small shops that stay open late at night, are there when people need them and are very close to home so that people do not need a car to get large amounts of goods in order to be a customer—vital neighbourhood facilities—should be protected as well as workers in the large stores. Some large stores are well managed and have security that is very good indeed. Others are less efficient at keeping a well-managed shop and protecting the workers who work there. I want a change in the law to protect workers, but that is not all. These are designated key workers, who have been key in the first wave of fighting against covid and all the problems of this past miserable year, so I want them to be protected; I want them to be looked after, whether in a big store or a small store. I do not go to as many shops as many people, because I am a married man, and all the research data shows that if a woman takes a man to a shop with her, her bill when they get to the checkout is 20% higher than if she goes on her own. That might be a bit of a sexist comment, but it is my personal experience.
I want to change the culture. This is not about every consumer, but about a small minority of people who do not like obeying the laws that we pass in this Parliament. They do not like the fact that there are age restrictions on buying alcohol, restrictions on buying tobacco, or the special restrictions on buying too many items of one good that were introduced during the covid epidemic. Most customers are good, well-behaved, excellent people, going about their business, buying things and being nice—the sermon in my church on Sunday was about, “Let’s get back to being nice to one another.” We need a cultural change, speaking up when we witness verbal abuse or any abuse in our local shops or supermarkets. Let us work together to change culture: let us make sure that we drive out the antisocial behaviour, whether verbal or physical abuse, that is becoming far too common.
As I have walked through my lovely constituency of Huddersfield, I have talked to many workers who have not only been in fear during working hours, but fear being followed home and having stones thrown through their windows. This is a real problem for many workers, and I came into Parliament to protect workers and workers’ rights. We need better laws and better police regulation and response, but we also need a changed culture.
Mr Gray, as ever, it is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair. I shall do my best to follow your instruction, although I cannot guarantee any greater degree of quality if I get rid of quantity. Following the recollection by the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) of the sermon he heard at the weekend, I agree wholeheartedly that we should all be nice to one another, but I also hope that men and women alike will go and spend what they can at our shops as we emerge from the covid pandemic. The Co-op being a theme of today’s debate, there are two pioneers here today—if I can use that phrase, borrowed from the Rochdale pioneers of the co-operative movement. Those are my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers), who gave a fine exposition of the issues in his opening speech, and the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris), who is further down the call list and has done a great deal of work in this area.
If I have any time left after those opening remarks, I will be very brief. Last Wednesday, I was fortunate to visit the newly opened Co-op store in my constituency, on Church Lane in Marple. They are doing a great job there, regenerating that part of the town and improving that end of Market street. I was able to hear at first hand from Nick, Julie and Melissa about their experiences, particularly during the pandemic—which have been ably explained by others—but also more generally. As an example, workers at the Sainsbury’s in my constituency now wear a body cam as they limit the queues going in. What a sign of the times! Many of us have been able to exist in a degree of comfort and convenience during the pandemic, but those on the frontline—on the shop floor—have had to bear witness and have been assaulted in all manner of ways. It is simply intolerable.
I am not one to recommend a change in the law lightly. The first step, as has been shown by some police and crime commissioners, is to enforce the existing law properly, particularly against prolific offenders. I think that an example in Sussex showed recently that a targeted approach, whereby the police are able to take this matter as seriously as they should, yielded strong results and gave shop workers the confidence that their daily experience is being taken seriously. However, if that is not enough, then a change in the law is necessary and I would support assaults on retail workers becoming an aggravated offence.
However, as I have said, and as I am sure the Minister will ably seek to reassure us in his summing-up at the end of this debate, the existing law must be enforced. Mr Gray, doing my best to follow your instruction, I hope that if the existing law cannot be enforced, the law can be changed and we must give all retail workers the absolute assurance that we take their difficulties seriously, and will make that change if necessary.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray.
I thank the Member in charge, the hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers), for agreeing to lead the debate for the Petitions Committee. In doing so, I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris), who has worked on this issue since he joined the House in 2017. I was proud to support his ten-minute rule Bill—I think that was well over a year ago—highlighting the realities of working in the retail sector and the abuses that too many people who work in the sector face.
I will place something on the record as a former worker in the retail sector. For those who do not know, I was a trainee butcher in Tesco; you would not believe the number of times I have said that, Mr Gray. That was my first proper job and I received abuse from members of the public; it was nothing unusual to have meat quite literally thrown at us in shops. It was really very common for customers to think it perfectly normal to shout at staff on a regular basis and to think nothing of making threats of physical and verbal abuse.
I also stand here proudly as an USDAW-supported Member of Parliament; I have been for many years and it is in my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. USDAW does Freedom From Fear work every year. Its last survey was in 2020. Of the respondents, nine in 10 shop workers confirmed that they had been verbally abused; 60% said that they had reported threats of abuse; and 9% had been physically assaulted. Those figures are stark and deeply concerning, showing that when someone goes to work they live with the fear of either being threatened or actually physically assaulted.
I pay tribute to USDAW for the work that it has done over decades to try and improve this situation. When I was working in retail some 20 years ago, this work was going on then. Actually, it has gone on too long—this abuse is simply unacceptable. I agree, as I do occasionally, with the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr Wragg), that if the law cannot be enforced, I hope that the Minister will tell us today that there can be a meaningful change in the law to protect retail workers, in the same way that we protect other frontline workers in the NHS, the police, the ambulance service and the fire service. Retail workers really are frontline workers who deserve our support.
In closing, I will briefly pay tribute to another organisation. There has been much talk of the Co-op in everyone’s speeches so far; I think that is a theme that shows the positive work that the Co-op does to engage with Members of Parliament. I have many Co-ops across my constituency; I think I have met staff from all of them. The truly concerning thing is that they all say the same thing: abuse is commonplace; it is something that they have come to accept; and it is something which they almost tolerate as part of the job. Covid has only increased that abuse, because a lot of people see shop workers as fair game. I hope that the Minister, in his closing remarks, will set out how the Ministry of Justice will deal with this abuse, because it has to stop. Enough really is enough.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and I hope that connection with Coatbridge will buy me an extra 30 seconds in this debate.
I commend the hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) for leading this debate today.
Throughout the coronavirus crisis, key workers across the retail sector have played an invaluable role in our communities, ensuring that we can maintain our basic right to access food. Without their incredible contribution, it is undoubtedly clear that we would have failed to get through this unprecedented global crisis in the manner we have. However, despite their heroic efforts, it is incredibly disappointing that the coronavirus crisis has resulted in a significant increase in abuse, threats and violence towards our retail workers. It is high time that we tackled such abuse and provided retail workers with the proper protections and respect that they deserve, especially given the current climate.
Weekly data released by the representative body of the UK’s retail sector, USDAW, show that abusive incidents towards shop workers have doubled since the outbreak of covid-19. Respondents to its survey reported being spat at, coughed at and sneezed at when asking customers to practise social distancing—I am sure every Member will agree that that really is abhorrent. When averaged across all 3 million workers across the retail sector, it amounts to a staggering 3,500 assaults every single day. Although not all shop workers suffer to this extent, some experience much worse, with one in six reporting being abused on every single shift. These are not mere statistics; this issue affects our parents, our partners, our brothers and sisters, and our children, who are needlessly suffering just for carrying out their job.
Many incidents arise as staff carry out their legal duties, including age verification and, more recently, the implementation of covid safety measures. We must all recognise that outwith our NHS, the biggest body of work throughout this pandemic has been undertaken by these undervalued and underpaid workers, who have been tasked with implementing, and ultimately enforcing, many of the guidelines that affect our daily lives. Despite retailers and businesses spending enormous sums on crime prevention, the situation is getting worse. Retail workers are employed in one of the sectors most vulnerable to violence, yet they are still being neglected and ignored. Of course, we are seeking to put that right.
In Scotland, we have said that enough is enough. As ever, we are leading the way in the protection of shop workers by passing the Protection of Workers (Retail and Age-restricted Goods and Services) (Scotland) Act 2021. Scotland has sent a clear message that the rise in violence and abuse towards workers in the sector must end, and the rest of the UK must now follow suit. Despite clear evidence showing the escalation of violence and abuse against retail workers, time and again the Government have chosen not to act. This place must now stop dragging its feet and take the necessary action to protect retail colleagues from harm, and I urge the UK Government to follow the lead of the Scottish Government and enact legislation to protect our retail workers, who have been at the very heart of fighting for us all throughout the whole of this pandemic.
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate with you in the Chair, Mr Gray. I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and note that I am a proud member of USDAW, which does so much great campaign work on this issue.
The pandemic has shown once and for all how vital retail workers are. They have been largely unsung heroes on the frontline of the pandemic—dealing with the public, keeping us supplied and keeping our society going, yet they are regularly abused and assaulted. We have heard some of the shocking statistics from hon. Members, and things have got worse over the last year. In Co-op stores alone in the first quarter of 2021, there have been almost 400 incidents where weapons have been used against shop workers, and more than half of those have been sharp implements such as a syringe, knife or bottle. That is just in the first quarter of 2021.
As today’s report from the Home Affairs Committee says, many incidents go unreported. Some of the people who are reluctant to report incidents said in their evidence to the Committee that it is part of the job, but it should not be part of the job. When I discussed this issue with local shop workers in Didsbury in my constituency, it was clear that this was a really big problem. Despite what the Daily Mail might think, Didsbury is an enviably nice, welcoming, cosmopolitan and mainly middle-class area—and a no-go zone for no one—but we have had issues in recent years with gangs of young people shoplifting. The fear is that when they are challenged, they then become aggressive and abusive, or worse.
A couple of years ago, I wrote to the regional managers of the bigger stores in the area, asking for their support for better security and engagement with the local traders association. Most of them were positive and responsive, but not all, and it should not be down to the attitudes of individual employers or owners for retail workers to be properly protected. The Government need to introduce a framework of protection for workers, which means ensuring that people understand that there are consequences for abusing or assaulting retail workers. As the petition asks for, we need the creation of a specific new criminal offence of assaulting, threatening or abusing retail workers. That is supported across the country by staff, by unions and by shop owners, from small businesses to retail giants. We have heard that, in Scotland, legislation to protect shop workers from violence will come into force on 24 August. I congratulate everyone who has made that happen, but if it is good enough for Scotland, why not for the rest of the UK? We have an opportunity. We do not need to wait for a full Bill to pass through Parliament. If we can support new clause 45 as tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones) to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, we have an opportunity to make a real difference for retail workers, so let us take that opportunity. Let us help the people who should not be scared just by going to work. “Freedom From Fear”, the USDAW campaign slogan, should not be just a campaign slogan. It should be reality for the people who serve us.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) on introducing this really important debate.
As the first woman to speak in the debate, I would like to take issue with the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) when he was making his points earlier. I have to tell him that my husband is actually a much better grocery shopper than I am and much better at seeking out the bargains. Where I agree with the hon. Gentleman is that what is really needed is a change of culture and a change in attitude towards shop workers.
Like the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore), I draw on my own experience. Twenty years ago, I was working in a bookshop and I had those experiences of facing customers every day. I also know that the experience in the last year for people working in supermarkets in particular has been really difficult. I know that because both my brother and my brother-in-law are supermarket workers. They have been on the shop floor every day during the pandemic and they have had, along with their colleagues, a really hard time. I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to everyone who has kept our grocery sector going at this time.
In common with many other hon. Members, I have been speaking recently to a constituent whose daughter has not been able to work because she is suffering post-traumatic stress disorder after a knife was pulled on her during a shift she was working in a shop not far away. The impact that that kind of behaviour has on young people, on women and on vulnerable people is really serious, and that is why I support calls for the Government to introduce a specific law.
It is really important to recognise that we are asking shop workers to enforce the law themselves; they are enforcing the law on age-restricted products such as alcohol, games, DVDs—all sorts of things. We need to recognise that, during the pandemic, they have been called on to enforce all the extra regulations and the social distancing and they have played a really important part in managing shortages. That, of course, has created a great many difficult situations for them. They have put themselves at risk, in harm’s way, to protect the public from the impact of the pandemic, and I think it is high time that we recognised the role that retail workers play in keeping us all safe.
I also want to mention the really important role—again, we have noticed this more and more during the pandemic, but we knew about it already—that retail workers play in maintaining our communities. The biggest issue that so many of us have been dealing with in our constituencies over the last 18 months has been loneliness and isolation, and our retail workers have been the ones to really make a difference in that. Whether we are talking about the lady on the cash register or checkout, or the person bringing groceries to someone’s front door, it is that human connection that has made all the difference to many of our constituents. That is why I think it is high time that we recognised the important role that retail workers play in every community in the land and that to pass this law, or to make the amendment to the Bill that the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) mentioned, would be a real step forward. What is absolutely critical is to demonstrate to the public how much we value our retail workers. That will be critical in changing the culture, as the Member for Huddersfield mentioned, and that to me is the most important thing.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank the hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) for introducing the debate on this petition.
I pay tribute to all the retail workers in Liverpool, West Derby for everything that they have done for our community, especially during the pandemic. There are many examples of how, during the height of lockdown, retail workers went over and above the call of duty to ensure that there was a service to the local community. Despite the shortages of personal protective equipment across the sector and the fear of the unknown consequences of covid-19, retail workers were at the coalface, ensuring that services stayed open, and played a vital role in pulling the country through this period.
I often hear the words “retail work” and “low skilled” in the same sentence. That term must be consigned to the dustbin of history. It devalues the workers in roles that are vital to our communities; the people in those roles should be acknowledged as such. The term also plays into a perception of a lesser worth, which may lead some to try to justify the behaviours that people have been speaking about. Some 164 people in my constituency signed USDAW’s petition to protect retail workers from abuse, threats and violence, and many also wrote to me directly.
Even before the pandemic, threatening behaviour towards retail workers was increasing; USDAW’s annual survey showed an increase of a third in workers threatened during the course of their duties between 2015 and 2019. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the situation has got even worse, with USDAW’s 2020 survey finding that 88% of workers experienced verbal abuse, 61% were threatened by a customer and 9% were assaulted. Those experiences can be especially traumatic as retail staff usually have to work every day in the same situation in which they were attacked. Staff have reported anxiety and panic attacks on returning to the workplace after an assault and the constant worry that they will be attacked again, leading some to leave the profession entirely, losing their livelihood as a result.
The signatories to the petition and USDAW demand specific legislation to tackle this. Action from the Government cannot wait when there are an estimated 455 violent or abusive incidents in retail workplaces every single day of the year. Will the Government listen to my constituents; will the Minister work with the trade unions and others to bring about this legislation; and will the Minister commit to taking the words “low skilled” out of any future literature?
As a former retail worker myself, I very much wanted to participate in the debate, because I know first-hand how important it is that those working in retail feel safe and protected while doing their jobs. The vast majority of those whom retail workers come into contact with are polite and reasonable, but it only takes one incident of abuse or violence to leave a worker in the retail industry feeling distressed, afraid, shaken and threatened as they go about their job.
The petition calls on the UK Government to protect workers from abuse, threats and violence. Of course, the Minister will be aware that the Scottish Parliament has already passed the Protection of Workers (Retail and Age-restricted Goods and Services) (Scotland) Act 2021, which will come into force very soon. It creates an offence of assaulting, threatening or abusing retail workers and will provide statutory aggravation of that offence where the retail worker is enforcing a statutory age restriction. As someone who spent almost a decade working in betting shops, I absolutely appreciate the value of that protection, and I know that other workers delivering age-restricted services will too. Scotland is leading the way, and I urge the Minister to study that legislation closely, as it gives greater protection under the law to retail workers in this field. The British Retail Consortium and more than 65 chief executives have called on the UK Government to follow Scotland’s lead.
In addition, the Scottish Government have launched a new awareness-raising campaign, delivered by Crimestoppers, Fearless and the Scottish Grocers’ Federation, highlighting the impact of abuse, threats and violence on retail staff. We know that threats toward and abuse of retail workers have increased as a result of covid safety measures. Retail workers are on the frontline, trying to ensure that customers comply with covid safety measures on their premises; requesting ID when age-restricted products are sought by customers; and having to confront those who seek to shoplift. They have demanding jobs and too often do not get the credit or, indeed, the pay that they should.
I hope the Minister will seriously reflect on what he has heard in the debate and will support specific legal protection for our retail workers, who have served us so well during the difficult period of the pandemic, as they have always done. They deserve our support and our thanks. It is time for the Government to catch up with the Scottish Government and do more to support our retail workers.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Gray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) on the excellent way in which he introduced the debate, and I particularly thank the 104,354 people who signed the petition, thereby triggering the debate. The violence and abuse our shop workers face is a source of national shame, and it is well beyond time that we acted.
According to the Association of Convenience Stores, there have been 40,000 violent incidents in the past year, with one in five resulting in injury. On top of that, there are a staggering 1.2 million incidents of abuse, and nearly nine out of every 10 shop workers have been affected. They are key workers, doing their job, keeping us fed and watered, and that is what they have to face daily.
This is such a significant issue, and it calls us to act. As parliamentarians, we have a special responsibility to do so. When do many of those flashpoints happen? When shop workers enforce age or similar restrictions—alcohol, cigarettes, acids, knives: 50 different categories of things that we have asked them to restrict. Those are important restrictions, and in that moment the staff act as, yes, employees of their retailers, but also as public servants. We put them at risk while they do so: we ought to have their backs.
What could we do? I hope that the Minister has had the chance to read the excellent “Breaking the Cycle” report carried out by Dr Emmeline Taylor in conjunction with the Co-op Group, which is doing outstanding work on behalf of its staff in this area. I am proud to have provided an introduction to that report, but I assure colleagues that it gets better after that bit, so keep reading on. The report provides tangible ways in which to tackle the epidemic, with particular regard to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, from the better use of civil tools to improvement in the ways in which probation and prison services respond to offenders.
I will finish by focusing on one suggestion, which is to replicate the excellent Protection of Workers (Retail and Age-restricted Goods and Services) (Scotland) Act 2021, introduced by our colleague Daniel Johnson. That Act created a new offence in Scotland regarding violence and abuse targeted at shop workers, with an enhanced aggravating factor when age restrictions are involved. I have introduced a private Member’s Bill in each of the two previous Sessions along the same lines, with the support of excellent trade unions such as USDAW, of which I am a member.
Like no other campaign, this has united companies and their unions, management and their staff, big retailers and the independents—they all think that that is the right thing to do and they all want to act now. My good friend, Sir David Hanson, pressed for similar during proceedings on the Offensive Weapons Act 2019, the Government asked for time for the case to be proven through the call for evidence. That evidence was overwhelming. Since then, things have worsened, and have been turbo-charged by the pandemic. I hope that when the Minister sums up, he will announce that the Government are ready to bring forward their own amendment, or to accept the amendment mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) to move the issue forward. The time is now, we have proven the case and we can wait no longer. It is time to act.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I, too, declare an interest, as a proud member of both USDAW and the Co-op party.
I am an ardent support of USDAW’s Freedom From Fear campaign, as 2020 was a year like no other. As the pandemic took hold, we realised what services and occupations we relied on most. Our shop workers were and still are vital frontline key workers. For too long, they have been undervalued. The pandemic exacerbated that. We have to acknowledge the contribution that those workers make, and ensuring their safety and protecting them from violence and abuse is a good place to start.
Nothing would please me more than to be able to share with hon. Members a decline in the incidence of abuse but, unfortunately, I cannot. Our shop workers put themselves at risk of covid so that we can have our essential supplies, but abuse of staff have worsened. Each year, USDAW conducts a survey of the violence and abuse experienced by members and those working on the frontline of the retail sector. The 2020 survey found that 88% experienced verbal abuse, 61% were threatened by a customer and 9% were assaulted, and that abuse, threats and violence doubled in the first few months of the pandemic.
I will share some of the shocking first-hand experiences of shop workers:
“I’ve had customers say they’ve got covid-19 and then cough in my face because they were asked to stand behind a marked line”;
“Customers grabbing my arm to verbally abuse me”;
“Pushed, shoved, coughed at and not given any social distancing”;
“I was filmed in work and threatened to be posted all over Facebook. Sworn at for refusing a return with no proof of purchase.”
I am sure we can all agree that such accounts are beyond appalling and that nobody should be exposed to that level of abuse. We would not tolerate that abuse of any other frontline occupation. It is time that shop workers were afforded the same consideration as other professions.
The abuse and violence stands at an unacceptably high level. It is essential that we take action to reduce incidence of abuse. Like others, I will continue to support USDAW’s Freedom From Fear campaign and the calls for legislation to help shopworkers against these acts of abuse, threatening and assault. I urge the Minister to listen the many contributions of hon. Members, to the 104,000 people who signed the petition and to the shopworkers who were subject to this vile treatment. Our shopworkers’ safety is paramount. We do not need empty words; we need change and we need it now.
We come now to Mike Amesbury, but he has not been here for the debate, so theoretically we should not call him. On this occasion, as we have some time in hand and he probably has perfectly good reasons for not being here, we will call him towards the end of the debate. That brings us to Liz Twist.
It is an honour to serve with you in the chair, Mr Gray. I am particularly keen to take part in this debate because my constituency of Blaydon has a huge proportion of retail workers, what with the Metrocentre at one end and lots of small district centres, so I know that retail workers are crucially important to our local economy and deserve to be treated properly.
At the beginning of the year, I was appalled to hear that one of my staff had witnessed a shop worker in a local store—an Iceland store, I believe—being spat on when trying to enforce mask wearing in the shop. I raised this issue in business questions and was told by the Leader of the House that of course it was awful, but that there were already many ways to prosecute, which is important.
This is another example that was reported to me from my constituency:
“A colleague asked a customer for ID as they were attempting to buy an age restricted product. The customer began verbally abusing the colleague, calling her a fat slag.”
Retail workers have been at the frontline of this pandemic and they need to be protected and valued. This petition calls for specific legislation to protect retail workers and has attracted over 100,000 signatures, including many from Blaydon. It is clear that something has to be done, as the current situation is simply not acceptable.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) for raising the issue through private Member’s Bills. As he mentioned, in 2018 the former Member for Delyn, Sir David Hanson, also attempted to raise the issue. I credit them with building this campaign from that time. We now have an opportunity to make assault on retail workers a crime in its own right through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. Sadly, it seems the Government remain unpersuaded by this, but the Bill is an opportunity to address the issue.
I will not go into the details of the USDAW survey, as many hon. Members have already referred to them, but it provides a shocking picture. Shop workers just from Tyne and Wear provide the following testimony:
“Punched by customer under the influence.”
“Threats from men to ‘kick my head in’, spat at twice.”
“Most customers are polite and keep their distance, however I have had verbal abuse shouted at me.”
We need stronger protection for these staff. Too few cases are prosecuted, and we really need to do something about that.
As I understand it, the Government say that there are already means of prosecuting people. Let us look at what happened with the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018. From a starting point that not many would be prosecuted, we find that 50 assaults on emergency workers have been prosecuted. If the offence is there, it will be pursued. I urge the Government to consider their position.
Thank you for calling me in this important debate, Mr Gray. It is always a pleasure and a privilege to serve under your chairmanship. I thank the Petitions Committee and the hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) for the way in which he initiated the debate. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) for all the excellent work he has done, over a number of years, in promoting the Freedom From Fear campaign. I also want to give a shout-out to USDAW, the GMB and the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union, who have been very much involved in speaking up for their members who face assaults and in the campaign to end abuse and violence towards retail staff.
Whether it is clapping for NHS staff or thanking our key workers, such gestures are worthless if not substantiated with meaningful change by this House. I look to the Minister here. Time and again the Government sympathise with but ignore workers facing cuts to their pay and terms and conditions. I am thinking of businesses, many that have received substantial sums in taxpayer-funded support, using fire and rehire tactics as a form of industrial blackmail. Unless the Government act, they are failing our retail workers because, sadly, workplace abuse and violence have been normalised and are now accepted as part of the job.
My hon. Friends the Members for Ogmore (Chris Elmore), for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) and for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) and others have referred to the USDAW survey, so I will not repeat that, but the British Retail Consortium revealed that there were 455 incidents of abuse and violence every day in the year to March 2020. Indeed, covid has not improved the situation, with the enforcement of Government covid regulations being a major trigger alongside the more traditional confrontation points, such as challenging customers over ID for age-restricted products like alcohol, or encountering shoplifters. Clearly, the Government have placed additional responsibilities on retail workers. Failing to ID customers for age-restricted products can lead to a criminal conviction for a retail worker, a fine, or even being sacked.
Clearly, challenging people can lead to threats of violence. Where the Government place extra demands on retail workers, it is surely reasonable for those workers to expect that when they are placed in harm’s way they are provided with greater protection under the law.
I want to refer to a survey by the Home Affairs Committee, in which 42% of respondents said,
“More or improved security measures in/around the premises”
“prevent future incidents…from occurring”.
I hope the Minister has noted that. People working in convenience stores are particularly vulnerable, potentially being a lone worker or working in a small team of young staff. The Association of Convenience Stores estimated that there were 50,000 incidents of violence in the sector, a quarter of which resulted in injury.
I want to make some promises to our key workers and our frontline shopworkers: people such as Loraine Fox from the GMB who works at the Peterlee Asda in my constituency and Alan Kell and his colleagues in USDAW. I want to do more than clap on the doorstep for key workers. I will not say thank you and then vote against protecting workers in Parliament. I say to the Minister: you have a choice. Will the Government introduce legislation to protect retail workers, or will they ignore the epidemic of abuse and violence in our retail sector? Will the Minister sit on his hands and leave shopworkers unprotected in the workplace?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank the 104,000 who signed the petition and my good colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris), who has been such a vocal champion for this cause.
This debate comes nearly a year and a half after I led a Westminster Hall debate on the very same vital subject over a year ago. Thanks to the engagement team from USDAW, the Co-op, and the British Retail Consortium, we received powerful, often very distressing, stories from retail workers across the country of their experiences of abuse in the workplace. As has been documented in the debate today, the challenges facing retail workers since the previous debate, especially in the early days of the first lockdown, have been extraordinary. It is no surprise to hear that enforcing public health measures such as social distancing and face coverings, and dealing with stock issues, have been big triggers for abuse over the past year. More than ever, we have relied on our shop workers to enforce important laws—not just those relating to alcohol, knives and other potentially dangerous goods, but those relating to social distancing, mask wearing and ensuring that household items are not hoarded.
Shop workers in Cheshire told USDAW that they have had cans thrown at their heads, and have been spat on and kicked by customers. Refusing to sell alcohol to a customer resulted in verbal abuse. Such incidents clearly deserve prosecution, but very few get to that point. That is why we need specific protections. If it is good enough for Scotland—a law was introduced on 24 August—it is certainly good enough for the people of Runcorn and our nation. I look forward to the Government doing the right thing and legislating now.
It is a pleasure to see a fellow Glaswegian in the Chair, Mr Gray—our city is the centre of the universe, as you are aware. I thank the hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) for presenting this debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee. I pay tribute to my colleagues for their fine speeches. This has been an excellent debate, and I commend my hon. Friends the Members for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Steven Bonnar) and for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) for their excellent contributions.
I should declare—other hon. Members have mentioned their careers—that my first job when I was at school was working for the then supermarket chain Presto. I was still at school, but I worked for Presto two evenings a week, and I was assigned to the paperware department. For those watching these proceedings who do not know what the paperware department is, it is the toilet rolls. My responsibility was to stack the shelves of toilet rolls where I lived—obviously, I moved up in my career to soup tins and the rest. But some of the issues then apply now.
We should start from the basic principle that no one should have to experience violence and abuse while doing their job. The Scottish National party supports the effective legal protection of retail workers and is urging the UK Government to take action on this issue and strengthen other workers’ rights. As many hon. Members have said, retail workers carry out an important role in serving the needs of our communities, and it is only right that they receive effective legal protection. As many colleagues have said, that is going to exist very shortly in Scotland.
The Scottish Government not only supported the Bill that gives greater protections in law to retail workers, but are assisting with a new awareness-raising campaign to highlight the impact of the abuse, threats and violence on retail staff. The campaign is being delivered by Crimestoppers, Fearless and the Scottish Grocers’ Federation and is backed by £50,000 of Scottish Government funding.
The British Retail Consortium and more than 65 chief executive officers wrote to the Prime Minister in February calling for legislation to make assaulting shop workers a separate offence in England and Wales. I really am staggered to see that the Government’s first response to the petition on 15 September 2020 was to say that that they were not persuaded that a specific offence was needed as a wide range of offences already exist covering assaults against any worker, including shop workers. I hope the Minister will perhaps give us an indication of why that is the case, because it is certainly not what is being said by many Members in this debate.
Verbal abuse and violence against all staff has been increasing for some time. A British Retail Consortium survey finds that that has accelerated as a result of covid safety measures and is now up to 455 incidents a day. Major triggers for these incidents, as we have heard from many colleagues in this debate, include challenging customers for identification and encountering shoplifters. The Scottish Grocers’ Federation crime survey last year indicated an increase in verbal or physical abuse in 2020 in the retail sector. Such appalling behaviour is completely unacceptable. Like everyone else, shop workers are fully entitled to work free from the threat of violence or abuse.
I have read the USDAW briefing and I think that some of the evidence presented to us by the trade union should be read out. I will read out extracts from the presentation given to us about what has happened in Scotland; I think that will show why the legislation was needed in Scotland and why it is needed in the rest of the United Kingdom.
A worker in central Scotland said:
“I challenged a customer under Think 25. He threw his shopping at me and tried to grab me.”
Another worker was punched in the back by a customer when they were filling shelves,
“just to ask me if I am busy”.
There is verbal abuse. An USDAW member in Glasgow said:
“A customer swore at me and hit me with a sandwich. The abuse I receive varies from comments”—
I will not say some of the words used, but again it is verbal abuse. There is finger-pointing in the face and being poked at with a finger. Another worker said:
“Customers tried to punch me on the body.”
USDAW members in the highlands and islands who asked people politely to keep a two-metre distance were met with verbal abuse and told to get on with their work. People have thrown money at retail workers. There is verbal abuse, mainly from people influenced by drugs and alcohol.
USDAW members in Lothian say:
“People get stroppy about wearing face coverings. Customers have called me an idiot for asking for identification.”
There has been sexual assault of workers in the retail sector. USDAW members in mid-Scotland and Fife say:
“Customers take their frustration out on staff, being verbally abusive for no reason and treating us like dirt. Threats, coughing in my face and rants at having to wait in a queue.”
USDAW members in the north-east of Scotland talk about
“Shoplifters angry at being challenged. An attempted armed robbery. Verbal abuse from shoplifters, verbal abuse from intoxicated customers and verbal abuse from people who have been asked for ID.”
USDAW members in the south of Scotland talk about
“Covid-related abuse about social distancing and queues at checkouts…Get verbal abuse asking for ID, customers being nasty, shouting in front of the rest of the queue and shouting abuse when we carry out Challenge 25.”
Finally, this is from USDAW members in the west of Scotland:
“Drunk people unable to accept service refusal, usually verbal, being spat at and threats. When we are politely explaining our refund policy, some people get very abusive when they find out they cannot exchange without a receipt.”
If people think that this law should only be law in Scotland and that what I have just read out—testimonies from USDAW workers in Scotland—does not apply in the rest of the United Kingdom, then I have magic beans to sell them, because it is quite clear that this legislation should be introduced across the United Kingdom. I hope that the Government will do that.
However, there is a thread here that is of concern to me—the UK Government’s failure to deliver. As the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris), I think, quite rightly asked, where are the protections for workers since covid and as a result of covid? Where is the Employment Bill that was in the last two Queen’s Speeches as a result of the Taylor review, which should deal with exploitative contracts and short-term shift changes—both features of the retail sector? Where is the Bill to ban fire and rehire, as proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands)—which, again, is a feature in the retail sector? It is not there. I have a real concern, as the hon. Member for Easington rightly pointed out, that this Government give platitudes with one hand but do not deliver protections and legislation with the other.
If we are to build a fairer society, it needs to enhance and protect the workers’ rights that were hard-fought for. Frankly, if the UK Government will not provide those employment rights, they should devolve the responsibility to the Scottish Parliament—the Scottish Parliament will ensure that it does provide them.
It is a pleasure, Mr Gray, to serve under your chairship.
I thank the hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) for introducing this timely debate on the protection of retail workers from abuse, threats and violence—an issue he has experience of, having worked in retail. I also place on the record my thanks to the Petitions Committee, and I give a massive thanks to the thousands of signatories and those who have championed this petition. I also pay tribute to USDAW, the co-operative movement and the GMB, who have all worked tirelessly to ensure that this issue is rightly given the time that it deserves to be debated in.
We have heard strong and passionate contributions from right across the political divide, showing the need to drive forward this issue. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris), who has worked tirelessly on this issue, including on the recent introduction of his own 10-minute rule Bill.
There is a growing epidemic in the heart of our communities of abuse and violence against key workers, who are the backbone of this country. In this difficult year, they have shown the significant value that they add to our communities and our lives up and down the country. This is a crisis. Like so many other crises we must confront, we have a solution to tackle and deter unacceptable behaviour and violence, and deliver justice for victims. If anyone is in any doubt about the scale of the problem across the country in 2021, we have heard some of it today: 88% of retail workers experienced verbal abuse last year, up from 77% the year before. Some 10% were assaulted—that is 300,000 out of a 3 million-strong retail workforce. There were 455 incidents of violence and abuse each day, yet only 6% of those incidents resulted in prosecution. That is shocking.
Covid pressures and restrictions have certainly driven that increase, but that is by no means a justifiable excuse. This crisis and grave miscarriage of justice has long existed and cannot be ignored. Retail staff are key workers: they are our sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, friends and neighbours. They are those who have kept our country fed throughout this pandemic. They may be the only smile or conversation our grandparent may have that day. They may be the person who returned a lost wallet, who comforts a child when they are separated. They are retail workers, but they are so much more. They are counsellors, friends and heroes.
Let us be clear that any and all forms of abuse, threats and violence, whether physical, verbal or mental, are unacceptable. No one should have to face harm at the hands of a stranger at work. No one should be treated with disrespect, spat at, bitten, grabbed, sexually harassed or discriminated against, and no one should have to mentally prepare themselves before a shift. No one should be forced to take self-defence classes because the law fails them. No one should have to take time off because of trauma or injury. Retail workers should not have to wear body cameras to carry out their work, yet so many are so fearful, traumatised and badly neglected by the authorities and the law that they feel there is no alternative.
For many retail workers across the country, that is their daily experience and their battle. They already face insecure and precarious working conditions: they are paid disproportionately lower wages; they have fire and rehire tactics used against them; and a third are under the age of 25 and particularly vulnerable. Let us look at a few examples. Take Ian Robson from Gateshead: he was dragged and punched repeatedly with a knuckle duster after asking a customer to wear a face mask. A shop worker in Northamptonshire had part of her ear bitten off. Others often have needles pulled out at them in store. Another in west Yorkshire was spat at in the face, thumped in the chest and head butted. When she was visibly pregnant, she was repeatedly knocked by a customer with a trolley and chased down the aisle. That is not normal. The situation is untenable.
Retail workers should be free from worry, fear and anxiety. It is so easy to get lost in the statistics, but many people across the country, including from my own constituency, have contacted me demanding change. That is why we are here today. We know that that feeling is shared across the country. Worse still, too many victims feel that the system does not work to protect them. Who can blame them, when so few cases lead to prosecution and a quarter of cases go unreported altogether? This must be tackled with sustained and meaningful action.
It is a damning failure of this UK Government not to listen to the voices from the frontline, not recognise the exponential rise in abuse of retail staff, and not protect our heroes. Labour has long campaigned for, and brought forward, credible, achievable and non-partisan legislative proposals to improve conditions for millions. All were hindered by consecutive Conservative Governments, including this one, whose own consultation—not a year old—said that
“it does not consider that the case is yet made out for a change in the law.”
The first question the Minister must answer today is: if the Government truly believe that there is a serious issue, why continue to delay necessary action to protect workers? I am sure we will hear plenty of warm words from the Minister, but they will all be hollow platitudes until his Government bring forward the necessary legislation, and work together to make progress on this issue by passing our amendment tabled to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.
The Government consultation last year reads like a devastating charge sheet of failings. These included a lack of response by police to threats, inadequacies within the criminal justice system, concern over ineffective powers to deal with abuse in the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, and the recognition that victims themselves have a lack of awareness of their rights under the victims’ code—a consequence of the Justice Secretary, his predecessor, and his predecessor’s predecessor breaking promises to reinforce victims’ rights and bring forward a Bill.
Those points in the consultation were all accepted and recognised by this Government, yet they have failed to act. All this evidence points to the clear need for tighter legislation along the lines of the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018, introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). Will the Minister work with us now, as his predecessors did then? Will he explain what steps the Government are taking to ensure the safety of retail workers, why they believe there is no case for a change in the law, and how they will deal with the appallingly low prosecution rate?
Time and again, we have heard warm words and grand gestures, but seen little action. Through our amendment, we have put the option for progress on the table: a stand-alone offence and a 12-month prison sentence for abuse, threats and violence against retail workers is here and ready to go. We will do what is necessary; we have cross-party support. The Government must stop aiding and abetting offenders, and improve this law to protect our retail workers—our key workers, who have worked hard during this pandemic—and they must ensure that this system delivers justice.
As always, Mr Gray, it is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I join others in paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) for the aplomb and elegance with which he introduced this afternoon’s debate. I add a tribute to the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) who, as many other Members have said, has been campaigning on this issue for a very long time. The strength of feeling on this topic is palpable and, of course, is evidenced by the 104,000 people who signed the petition.
To add my own CV reference to those of others, my very first salaried job when I was aged about 16 or 17 was working in a branch of Sainsbury’s in south London—very close to my now constituency—so I have had that experience of working in retail myself. Thankfully, I never got assaulted, although I was frequently ridiculed by customers on the rare occasions I was allowed to operate the till instead of stacking shelves, due to my complete inability to recognise various rudimentary forms of fruit and vegetable. This was in the days before barcodes, and I was completely unable to recognise most of the fruit and vegetables that people were buying. That caused a lot of merriment and, on occasion, ridicule—all of which was entirely deserved, I should add.
Many Members have paid deserved and justified tribute to retail operatives and retail workers for the work that they have been doing, particularly during the pandemic. They serve the public and our communities, as many Members have eloquently and powerfully set out. Of course, violence against such workers has a significant impact on individuals. It can leave them with physical effects, but it also has a significant bearing on their overall emotional and mental stability. No worker should suffer abuse or violence in providing service to members of the public—that is completely unacceptable. For more than a year, the pandemic has resulted in some shop workers feeling more vulnerable and susceptible to even worse behaviour and treatment than they might have experienced before, so we completely understand the motivations and concerns that have brought so many Members to this Westminster Hall debate, and we understand what motivated 104,000 people to sign the petition.
It is worth laying out the law as it currently stands, because some speeches might have suggested that there are no provisions in place to protect emergency workers from these kinds of terrible assaults, but that is of course not the case. A number of existing criminal offences cover many of the terrible attacks of the kind that we have heard described, which inflict harm on people both physically and psychologically. The entry level offence is common assault, which carries a maximum sentence of six months’ imprisonment, but a lot of offences go beyond that. Many of the examples of offences that we have heard described would, in fact, not be charged as common assault; they would be charged as much more serious offences. The hon. Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin) described several incidents, but two in particular stuck in my mind. She mentioned a terrible example—I think it was in the north-east—of someone being dragged, punched with knuckle-dusters and kicked, and another terrible case where somebody’s ear was bitten. That would not be charged as common assault, because it is much more serious than common assault.
That would apply in Scotland as well. The law in Scotland applies to the common assault-type offences. Much more serious offences, such as those I have just mentioned, would be charged as something different. For example, actual bodily harm, or section 20 grievous bodily harm, carries a maximum sentence not of six months or 12 months, as is the case with the new law in Scotland, but of five years. More serious offences—for example grievous bodily harm with intent to commit—carry a maximum sentence not of a year, as per the new law in Scotland, but of 10 years.
I agree that there is an issue with the number of prosecutions. I will come to that in just a few moments’ time. I will address that point—I am not trying to duck it, because I am coming to it next.
Points have been made about knives and people producing a bladed article in a shop. Again, if somebody makes a threat with a knife, it is not charged as common assault and it would not be charged under the new offence in Scotland. It would be charged as making a threat with a bladed article, which carries a four-year maximum sentence and, for adults, a six-month minimum sentence. All of these offences exist, and many of them carry higher sentences than the new Scottish law, and higher sentences than common assault.
That does not, however, answer the question that many Members have raised. They have made the point that attacks on retail workers are different, because the retail worker is providing a service to the public. In some cases, the retail worker is effectively enforcing the law on our behalf—for example, by asking questions about whether somebody is over the age of 18 when buying cigarettes, alcohol and similar. Many Members have made the point that retail workers are different and that for that reason the offence should be taken more seriously. Members are right to say that.
In responding to that reasonable and legitimate question, I point colleagues to the Sentencing Council guidelines for common assault, which, as it happens, were refreshed and updated just last week—I think the updated version came out on Thursday of last week. The section on common assault also covers racially and religiously aggravated assault and the common assault of an emergency worker. One of the listed aggravating factors for common assault, which would lead to a sentence going up relative to what would otherwise be the case, is an
“Offence committed against those working in the public sector—”
“or providing a service to the public or against a person coming to the assistance of an emergency worker.”
The Sentencing Council guidelines, refreshed just last week, expressly recognise that those people providing a service to the public, including retail workers, are doing a different kind of job, and that somebody who assaults them deserves a higher sentence. That is what aggravating factor means.
That applies not only to the common assault offence; it is also to be found in the list of aggravating factors for actual bodily harm, grievous bodily harm and so on. That list of aggravating factors is not long; it is about 15 bullet points. Those concerns are recognised, as is deliberately spitting or coughing. Some Members mentioned that, during the pandemic, people have spat at or coughed on retail workers in a deliberate attempt to give them covid, to threaten to give them covid or to give them the impression that they might be at risk of covid. “Deliberate spitting or coughing” is the very first non-statutory aggravating factor on the list, so again, that is accounted for.
It is worth saying that these aggravating factors do not apply only to retail workers but to any public sector worker, quite rightly, and to other people providing a public service, including transport workers. The debate has focused on retail workers, who are special and deserve protection and who suffer terrible abuse, as everyone has said, but we should not forget people who work on buses, trains or the London underground, or postmen, teachers or social workers. I would not like to say that they should be overlooked if they are assaulted as they go about their work. They are just as important as retail workers. The Sentencing Council aggravating factor sets out that people who assault retail workers, teachers, postmen and people working on trains and so on will get a heavier sentence.
I will now come to that critical point, which the shadow Minister also raised. I hope I have demonstrated in my foregoing remarks that, first, the criminal offences to prosecute assaults on emergency workers are already on the statute book, and secondly, that where prosecutions are secured, a longer sentence will already be given owing to the aggravating factors I have just read out. Creating a new offence does not answer the question, because the offence exists already. The aggravating factor exists already. The issue is prosecutions, as the shadow Minister and the hon. Lady have raised.
I have some data. I am not sure whether it came from the USDAW survey or another source. I got it through the Home Affairs Committee’s survey. I am not sure whether that is the same one or a different one.
Thank you. The Committee surveyed 8,742 people, whom I believe were retail workers, asking if they had been assaulted, and many had been. They were asked whether they had reported the offence, and 87%—not quite 100%—of respondents reported it to the employer. The Committee then asked whether they had reported the offence to the police, and only 53%—half of those retail workers who suffered an assault—had done so. In 12% of cases there was an investigation and arrest. That 12% figure is clearly too low, as the shadow Minister and the hon. Member for Blaydon pointed out. Putting a new criminal offence on the statute book does not fill the gap. It is about investigation and prosecution, and that has to start with reporting.
I raised the Home Affairs Committee report in my brief contribution. I still think that we need to have a specific offence to deter people—my people in Peterlee should not be any less well protected than the people in Peterhead, which is what is happening at the moment. The Committee suggested improved security. Body cameras have been mentioned, and they should be a factor, to give staff confidence, should they challenge someone, that they have a witness to take forward a prosecution, if necessary. Does the Minister agree?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is vital that more people report such offences and that we support the retail community to take steps to detect such terrible crimes that are being committed. The national retail crime steering group—of which the Policing Minister is a co-chair or leading member—is doing exactly that kind of work. The Home Office has also invested £40,000 in the ShopKind campaign, which aims to move in the direction mentioned by the hon. Member for Easington.
On the reasons why people do not report incidents—and why only half of victims report them to the police—there is some data in the Home Affairs Committee survey. By the way, I commend the Select Committee for putting that together. It found 3,444 people who did not report their incidents. That is a lot of people. Of the reasons given—people clearly gave more than one—the top one, cited by 35% of those victims who did not report, was:
“I did not believe the employer would do anything about it”.
That is terrible. The first thing we need to do is to say to employers, “If your employee is assaulted in any way, it is your duty as an employer to make sure that it gets reported to the police.”
Secondly, 32% said:
“I believed it was just part of the job”.
Clearly, it is not. That is obviously a terrible perception, so we need to send out a clear message that assault of anyone is unacceptable. Others said:
“I considered the incident too minor to report”,
so we need to make sure that such assaults are criminal offences and that they are aggravated when the victim is providing a service to the public. Another reason, given by 28% of respondents, was:
“I did not believe the police would do anything about it”.
The Policing Minister is working on that. Of course, every time one of those incidents gets reported, the police should take action.
As I laid out in the first half of my comments, the laws exist already. The law criminalises every example of the behaviour—terrible behaviour—that Members have laid out this afternoon. They are criminal offences already, each and every single one. Most of them, including the two examples given by the shadow Minister, would not be prosecuted under the new Scottish law; they would be prosecuted as more serious assaults. The criminal offences exist and they are, in the Sentencing Council guidelines, already aggravated where the victim is a retail worker or, indeed, a transport worker. In any case, if we passed a measure focusing only on retail workers, it would obviously neglect train and bus drivers and everyone else. However, they are already covered by those aggravating factors.
What is clearly needed is not to criminalise the behaviour; it is criminal already. It is not to elevate the penalty given to those people who are convicted; it is elevated already. What we need to do is to get more convictions, and that starts with reporting. That is the work that the national retail crime steering group is doing. I have participated in this debate from the Ministry of Justice point of view, while the steering group and policing sit with my hon. Friend the Policing Minister, so I will take away a clear message for him and the national retail crime steering group: these terrible offences, which have an enormous impact on retail workers, need to have a significantly elevated focus, in terms of getting more reporting, as we have just talked about, and making sure the police follow them up in every case. The Government obviously agree that these are serious offences and that they need to be investigated and prosecuted. I can give a firm undertaking to hon. Members that I will take that message back to the Policing Minister.
I thank the Minister for his gallantry. When he talks about reporting, it sounds as if he is asking the shop workers to put right the problem that they are facing. To me, that is definitely not acceptable. We need to look at ways of supporting them, which is why we are all asking the Minister to look again at this issue.
The police can only respond to and investigate crimes that are reported, so any investigation starts with the report by the victim or, in this case, the employer. We heard evidence in the survey report that many victims do not report the crime because they think that their employer will not support them. Clearly, we need to ensure we are actively encouraging reporting and that it is then actively followed up and investigated.
That is the message I will take away from this debate and give clearly to the Policing Minister. I undertake that I will ensure that that message is heard by him and by the steering group, so that steps can be taken to make sure that more of these offences are reported and prosecuted. That is how we can ensure that justice is done and victims protected.
I thank the Minister for his response and the Government for continuing to actively consider how we best tackle this growing and abhorrent problem. I thank hon. Members for their contributions and for sharing the many harrowing experiences of their constituents. I particularly thank the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) for his campaigning.
The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) made an important call to be more kind. Let us make it our mission as parliamentarians to go out and make the world a kinder place, by pushing this issue up the agenda in every way possible. Let us ensure that the retail workers in our communities get the respect they so rightfully deserve.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 328621, relating to the protection of retail workers.