Abuse of shop workers must end; here’s a plan of action – Yvette Cooper

A SHOP owner I talked to one Saturday morning in Normanton town centre told me how nervous she was feeling.

What more can, and should, be done to combat retail crime? Senior MP Yvette Cooper poses the question.

There had been an assault on a shop worker further up the street, but the police had not been by to talk to her, she worked on her own, and she felt vulnerable.

In that case the culprit was later caught, but it shows the distress that these kind of attacks cause, and no one should feel unsafe at work. I’ve heard of many more cases where shop workers experienced violence or abuse but where no action was taken at all – either the employer didn’t report it, or the police didn’t respond, or the case just petered out.

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A shopper steals a bottle of Champagne - what more can be done to tackle retail crime?

That’s why I launched a Parliamentary inquiry into violence and abuse against shop workers, and our report out this week has found a shocking increase in assaults that just aren’t being taken seriously enough.

Urgent action is needed to protect shop workers – including more police on our high streets, more community prevention and stronger laws.

Violence and abuse towards shop workers has gone up in the last five years. Nine out of 10 convenience store workers say they have experienced some form of abuse. The British Retail Consortium reported that the number of incidents recorded last year is the equivalent of one every minute during a typical shopping day.

The Co-op told us they had seen a four-fold increase in violent incidents in five years. Those attacks can be devastating – leaving people traumatised and fearful of returning to work. We must never let this become normal.

West Yorkshire MP Yvette Cooper is chair of Parliament's Home Affairs Select Committee.

Shamefully it got even worse during the Covid crisis. The people who kept vital shops open so we could still put food on the table or get the medicines we needed deserve our thanks and gratitude. instead many of those key workers experienced increased abuse, spitting and assaults.

Our inquiry also heard worrying evidence that these crimes just aren’t being taken seriously enough. The 
police response fails to match the 
scale of the problem. That must 
change. When the police fail to attend or follow-up serious incidents, it undermines trust and confidence in them, discourages reporting, and weakens the deterrent for repeat offenders. We cannot let those who commit these awful crimes off the hook, able to reoffend with impunity.

After a decade of cuts to neighbourhood policing, the impact is being felt on our high streets. That’s why we urgently need expanded neighbourhood policing teams who can work with local shops, identify and charge repeat offenders. Employers 
need to do their bit with proper 
security measures, training and 
support – all outlined in an Employers Charter.

The police, local shops and the council need to work together in Business Crime Reduction Partnerships to cover every high street with extra support for 
small independent shops. And 
we need renewed crime prevention 
work, especially to tackle the drug addiction that is driving some of the crime.

What more can be done to combat retail crime?

But we also believe the law needs to be stronger. If there was a separate 
offence to cover assaults on retail workers, we believe that would send a strong signal to the police and retailers that these offences have to be taken seriously.

Shop workers face particular pressures – they often have to enforce 
the law on age restricted sales and 
during the Covid pandemic on mask wearing and social distancing, too. 
That kind of enforcement can be a 
trigger for abuse and violence, but they don’t get any added protection under the law.

Other workers who have to undertake enforcement action like customs officials do get added protection. And there’s evidence that this kind of change to the law would improve the police response, too. When the new law against assaulting emergency workers was brought in, prosecutions went up.

We need a similar powerful message to shop workers that crimes will not be tolerated, and the Government should consult on the scope for a new, standalone offence.

The Government, police and employers must work together to ensure that shop workers have the protection, support and justice they deserve.

Yvette Cooper is chair of Parliament’s Home Affairs Select Committee and Labour MP for Pontefract, Castleford and Normanton.

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