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Retail violence review: ‘Warm Words Not Enough’

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A year after the Home Office closed a Call for Evidence on violence and abuse towards shop staff, there’s little to show for it, in the Government’s eventual response, writes Mark Rowe.
The Government has published its response – and has turned down the idea of a change in the law to make it a specific crime to assault shop staff.

At the trade body the Association of Convenience Stores, chief executive James Lowman said the ACS was disappointed. “Warm words and working groups are not enough; we need tougher penalties for attacks on shop workers and more police resource to stamp out violence.”

The consultation in April to June 2019 was specifically about whether there should be an offence of assaulting a shop worker, similar to the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018. The Government’s response is of nothing concrete – on the point that many in retail complained of ‘a general lack of faith in the way in which these crimes were dealt with, either by the police or their employer’, the Home Office proposes more research; into how drugs are fuelling violence.

The retail trade union Usdaw has complained of the Home Office’s delay in acting on the ‘call for evidence’, and of violence against shop staff during the tense period of the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown, and retail shortages in late March.

The Home Office has made much of a National Retail Crime Steering Group (NRCSG), for example wanting to know more of retailers’ work with prolific offenders. As for many replying to the consultation complaining that they did not report incidents to the police – because nothing came of it, or police did not even ever attend – the Government could only say ‘that these crimes, when they take place, should be reported to the police’. Again, the Home Office said it would work with the NRCSG, ‘to develop communications for both employees and employers to make clear that violence and abuse of shop workers is not tolerated’, and to ask ‘what may be discouraging business from reporting crimes’.

Otherwise the Government response was in the blandest terms, such as describing evidence as ‘invaluable in developing a stronger understanding of the issue’, and describing it all as ‘the beginning of a process …. to ensure we develop and deliver an evidence-based response to these crimes’. On slow, or no, police response to crimes against retail, the Home Office passed the buck, saying it was ‘for Chief Constables and Police and Crime Commissioners’ (PCCs).

As for some responses to the consultation complaining of brazen shoplifters because of an impression that thefts of goods worth less than £200 are not taken to court, the Home Office in reply merely said that policing minister Kit Malthouse would write to police chiefs and PCCs.
On sentencing, the Home Office said that ‘prolific offenders, including shoplifters, generally have multiple and complex needs which are linked to their offending behaviour’ and plans a new law on sentencing, ‘for tougher community sentences’. On support for employee victims of crime; again, Mr Malthouse will write to police forces.

Tom Ironside, Director of Business Regulation at the trade association the British Retail Consortium (BRC) and Co-Chair of the National Retail Crime Steering Group, said the BRC welcomed the publication of the response. “The BRC Retail Crime survey reported there were 424 incidents of violence or abuse toward retail staff every day – a rise of 9pc on the previous year. Violence in retail leaves a lasting impact on all those affected, as well as their colleagues, families and the local communities they work hard to serve. We are thankful that the report recognises that violence and abuse can impact mental health as well as physical and we support the work on addressing the levers of violence; the need to overcome barriers to data sharing; support for victims; and better communication. Retail staff have been among the heroes of the ongoing pandemic, and they deserve our protection from harm.

“Retail crime also bears a significant economic cost, with £1 billion lost to retail crime and a further £1.2 billion spent on crime prevention; a £2.2 billion cost to the industry. Recently, there have been many threats of coughing and spitting on staff during the coronavirus lockdown – over 100 a day in the case of one national retailer.

“The Government response acknowledges the need for an improved police response – something the BRC has long called for. However, we are disappointed that the Call for Evidence does not to seek to introduce a specific offence for attacking shop workers, despite the evidence gathered in the report and the support of retailers, business groups and MPs for a proposed Bill.

Recommendations to look at the Sentencing Council Guidelines and Sentencing legislation are welcome, along with the indication that offences against shopworkers can already be treated as aggravated, even though they seldom are. Moreover, this is no substitute for the message that a change in the law would send.

“A number of joint retail/Home Office task and finish groups have already been established by the other co-chair of the NRCSG, Kit Malthouse MP – Minister for Policing – to take forward some of the recommendations of the response – including reporting attacks; supporting victims; barriers to data transfers; and better communication of the impact. These should provide some practical proposals for the short term.”

Home Secretary Priti Patel said: “As the daughter of shopkeepers, I know what a vital role they play within our communities and just how tirelessly they have worked during the coronavirus pandemic. I will not tolerate violence and abuse against any shopworker and it’s right that those who commit these crimes must be caught and punished.”

And Kit Malthouse, Home Office Minister of State for Crime and Policing said: “Shopworkers are the beating hearts of our communities and violence or abuse against them is utterly unacceptable. Through the NRCSG, we are developing solutions which address concerns highlighted by the retail sector.

“We are determined to drive down these crimes and crucially, ensure that shopworkers are fully supported in reporting incidents to the police. The government is taking action to tackle violent crime of all types, including by recruiting 20,000 new police officers over the next three years.”

Original article found here

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