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Violence and Abuse towards the Retail Workforce

Volume 742: debated in UK Parliament, Westminster Hall, on Tuesday 5 December 2023.

Full Westminster Hall debate challenging the Government to amend the law and make it a specific criminal offence to assault or abuse front line retail employees who are carrying out their duties serving the general public.

Although the current UK government recognises the fact that theft, (shoplifting) from UK retail outlets is rising along with the growing violence and abuse towards retailers, there are no plans in the near future to amend the law in line with the recently amended law in Scotland which makes it a specific offence to assault or abuse any retail worker whilst they are performing their duties serving the public.

Over recent years violence, abuse and theft towards UK retail outlet are at record highs with, Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, (UDSAW) and the British Retail Consortium, (BRC) have reported record highs in violence, abuse and theft towards UK retailers, up as much as 50% in some areas costing retailers and the public millions of pounds year on year with upto 800 retail personnel assaulted or abused whilst working serving the public.

Policing minister, Chris Philip said, "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".

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