Why facial recognition technology is coming to Yorkshire's high streets: James Cleverly

Whomever it was who called England a nation of shopkeepers was wrong if they meant it as an insult. Retail is the lifeblood of our economy.

Even with the rise of online retail, shops still sit at the heart of our communities. During the pandemic, the quiet, all-too-often unsung heroism of shopworkers and delivery drivers kept this country going.

They deserve our respect and gratitude. They also deserve to be safe at work. That’s why this government is cracking down on the unacceptable abuse that these workers experience on a regular basis and stamping down on shop theft.

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This affects all of Yorkshire, just as it is affecting the whole country. In Leeds, staff at the Burley Street Co-op have been threatened with needles and knives and sadly this is all too common. The latest British Retail Consortium Crime Report estimated that there were 1,300 incidents of verbal abuse and assaults each day in shops across the UK. 

Home Secretary James Cleverly on Crawley High Street during a visit to Sussex Police in Crawley. Picture: Gareth Fuller/PA WireHome Secretary James Cleverly on Crawley High Street during a visit to Sussex Police in Crawley. Picture: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire
Home Secretary James Cleverly on Crawley High Street during a visit to Sussex Police in Crawley. Picture: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

This should never be an accepted part of the job and I won’t tolerate it.

Last October we commissioned the police to devise a targeted Retail Crime Action Plan. Central to the plan was a commitment from the police to increase attendance at shoplifting incidents where there has been violence or if an offender has been detained, so they can significantly increase the number of criminals getting caught and facing consequences for their actions. They also committed to increasing targeted hotspot patrols in badly affected areas to prevent this crime happening in the first place. 

To support these efforts, the Government has put a record £18 billion into policing and increased the number of police officers by 20,000 – including 1,742 additional officers across North, South and West Yorkshire.

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I know West Yorkshire Police, for example, have made significant strides in tackling retail crime. In just one week of targeted action in February, 140 officers – some undercover – were deployed across neighbourhoods in Leeds, Bradford, Kirklees, Calderdale and Wakefield, which led to the arrest of a number of suspects wanted for serial shoplifting.

But the Prime Minister and I want to go further and faster, because anything less than a zero-tolerance approach to assaulting a retail worker, or shop theft, threatens the very foundations of law and order that protect our society.

We had already made sure the courts could dish out the maximum penalty for assault in such instances, but we are today confirming that we will make it a specific criminal offence to assault a retail worker, to reflect the significance of this vile crime.

The offence will come with a potential six months in prison, or an unlimited fine. It is expected that the courts will also attach a Criminal Behaviour Order to a conviction, which could bar offenders from visiting affected shops or premises – and where breaching the Order carries five-year maximum prison sentence.

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And for those who are determined to continue down this aggressive path we will impose electronic tagging after a third sentencing for assaulting a retail worker, restricting perpetrators further to prevent more criminality. For the most violent of offenders, there are already custodial sentences available of up to life in prison.

But even non-violent retail crime needs to be dealt with firmly. It is a comparatively small number of people are responsible for a great deal of crime, so we will also toughen the law to step up the use of electronic tagging for serial shoplifters, making sure they too face punishment by imposing a presumption for tagging those who have been sentenced three times or more.

Over the next four years we’ll be investing £55million across the country, including in Yorkshire, to ramp up police use of facial recognition technology – a vital tool proven to help catch criminals more quickly. This will include £4m towards bespoke mobile units that every police force can access to deploy live facial recognition in crowded places like Burley Street, to identify more suspects wanted by the police.

Our plan is working. Both retailers and police are reporting improvements in police response and the volume of people facing charges for shoplifting offences is increasing. But we’re going further and doubling down on this crime to better protect our nation’s shopkeepers.

We all depend on them – in Yorkshire and beyond. They need to be able to depend on the law to protect them. Under this government, they can.

James Cleverly is the Home Secretary

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