The last 5 years has seen a shocking rise in attacks on retail workers. The Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) found that 89% of individuals working in local shops had experienced some form of abuse. The British Retail Consortium reported that the number of incidents recorded last year amounts to the equivalent of one a minute during a typical shopping day. The appalling truth is that for millions of shop workers verbal abuse and physical violence is becoming a too frequent reality, fuelled by organised crime and substance abuse, which is not being taken sufficiently seriously, and where a stronger police response is needed.
Shop workers are the lifeblood of local high streets and communities. During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic those in essential retail continued to work and kept our communities going. So it is appalling that abuse and assaults against shopworkers went up during the pandemic and staff faced abuse for enforcing Covid restrictions. It is completely unacceptable that violence and abuse towards retail workers is becoming endemic in British society.
The Committee has heard repeatedly that the policing response to retail crime is failing to match the rising tide of violence and abuse against shop workers. On far too many occasions retail workers are being left alone to manage dangerous situations which put both their physical and mental wellbeing at risk. When the police fail to attend or follow-up serious incidents it undermines trust and confidence in them, discouraging reporting and weakening the deterrent for repeat offenders, leaving shopworkers more vulnerable.
Improvements in reporting and responding to violence and assaults against shopworkers are urgently needed. We welcome the Government’s work to provide better guidance on reporting retail crime. We agree that you cannot manage what you do not measure. However, we also need a much stronger and more serious response from the police when these incidents are reported. We recommend that it is made mandatory for the police formally to flag offences committed in a retail environment, including assaults on retail workers, to give a consistent indication of the scale of the problem to help improve the police response and to allow police forces better to understand patterns of local crime.
Local police leadership on this issue is also urgently required. As local representatives Police and Crime Commissioners are well placed to understand the specific issues facing the retail community in their area. We call on them to work with local retailers to establish or strengthen Business Crime Reduction Partnerships in every area. Chief Constables need to ensure that all forces are taking violence against shopworkers much more seriously and improve their response to retail crime.
The lack of capacity in neighbourhood policing teams to build relationships with retailers, identify prolific offenders and respond swiftly to incidents of retail crime has damaged the confidence of retail workers. We call on Chief Constables to ring-fence a proportion of their additional policing capacity to expand neighbourhood teams.
As well as improving the response to retail crimes when they do occur, there must also be renewed focus and action on the causes of retail crime. Drugs play a significant role in a large number of these crimes and fuel a cycle of prolific offending. Sustainable increased funding is urgently needed for local drug rehabilitation services.
Retail workers are placed at an increased risk of violence and abuse compared to members of the general public. They are responsible for enforcing laws with regard to age-restricted sales and restricted goods, and conflict over these types of sales is a key trigger for violence and abuse. Other categories of workers, such as emergency workers and customs officers, have rightly been afforded extra protection by the law in recognition of the service they provide to the public and the responsibility placed upon them by Parliament. We believe that retail workers must also be recognised, and that offences against them must be treated with additional seriousness, with extra protection from the law.
Violence and abuse towards retail workers is a complex issue and any meaningful solution will involve a package of measures from Government, the police, employers, retail workers and the public. However, we found that the patchwork of existing offences for prosecuting incidents of violence and abuse against individuals is not adequate to address the escalating scale of offences. The Government should consult urgently on the scope of a new standalone offence. A clear message must be sent that nobody should feel unsafe at work.