Violence and abuse towards retail workers Contents

5The legal framework

133.A variety of existing criminal offences can be used to prosecute violence and abuse towards retail workers. Key examples include the following:

134.Sentencing guidelines also require that the courts treat offences committed against those working in the public sector, or providing a service to the public, as an aggravating factor, making the offence more serious. On 27 May 2021, following a public consultation, the Sentencing Council published new guidance for sentencing common assault which included a revised aggravating factor of “offence committed against those working in the public sector or providing a service to the public, or against a person coming to the assistance of an emergency worker” which provides for increased sentences for assaults on an individual providing a service to the public.243 The Sentencing Council’s expanded explanation of the factor further clarifies the wide scope of its application:

The factor reflects:

135.In its response to the public consultation, the Sentencing Council said:

A significant proportion of responses were from representatives of workers not covered by the recent statutory provisions relating to emergency workers, who argued that higher sentences should be applicable to non-emergency workers in public facing roles. This would already be possible with the existing guideline which provides for an assault on a person providing a service to the public to be treated as an aggravating factor.244

Calls for legislative change

136.The overwhelming majority of the stakeholders who gave evidence to this inquiry support the introduction of greater protections in legislation for retail workers. Helen Dickson, CEO of the British Retail Consortium, has called for “a standalone offence of assaulting a shopworker” which would deter would-be criminals and “provide our colleagues with the protections they need”.245 The Association of Convenience Stores is “campaigning for the Government to introduce tougher penalties for attacks on shopworkers in the Police, Crime, Courts and Sentencing Bill.”246 The Institute of Customer Service told us the “introduction of a simple stand-alone offence of assaulting a customer-facing worker is required to really send a message to workers, police, courts and offenders that this will not be tolerated”.247 In July 2020 USDAW launched a parliamentary petition calling for “new legislation to protect retail workers from abuse, threats and violence”. Over 100,000 people have signed the petition for legislation to “create a specific offence of abusing, threatening or assaulting a retail worker”.248

137.In the 2019–21 parliamentary session, a Private Member’s Bill entitled the ‘Retail Workers (Offences) Bill 2019–21’ was introduced by Alex Norris MP. It would have made certain offences—including malicious wounding, grievous or actual bodily harm and common assault—aggravated when perpetrated against a retail worker in the course of their employment. The Bill was unable to complete its consideration by the end of the parliamentary session and therefore did not become law. There was also debate on whether an offence of assaulting a member of shop staff should be created during the passage of the Offensive Weapons Act 2019. Those in favour argued that shop staff were often at the forefront of efforts to enforce the law.249 More recently, campaigners have highlighted the Scottish Parliament’s unanimous passing of the Protection of Workers (Retail and Age-restricted Goods and Services) (Scotland) Act which became law on 24 February 2021.250 The Act created a new statutory offence of assaulting, threatening, abusing, obstructing or hindering a retail worker and allows for aggravation of that offence where the retail worker is enforcing a statutory age restriction.

138.The policy memorandum noted that although the Scottish Parliament’s Act criminalised obstruction or hindering of a retail worker for the first time, other elements of the new offence overlapped with existing offences. These included assault, breach of the peace and threatening or abusive behaviour.251 The memorandum also noted that potential benefits of the Act may include:

139.It noted a further benefit in that the existence of statutory offences relating to specific classes of victim could “make it easier to identify how many individuals had been charged with and prosecuted for relevant offences”, and that this could “provide an indicator of progress made in reducing the instances of retail crime”.253 Describing the Bill on its third reading in January 2021, Daniel Johnson MSP said:

It will act as a clear signal of the seriousness with which such crimes will be regarded and it will ensure that we are able to measure such crimes, which it is currently difficult to do. We are able to do so through the Emergency Workers (Scotland) Act 2005, which is used on average 300 times every single year, but it cannot stand alone, so I was pleased to hear confirmation from the Minister for Community Safety [..] that the Scottish Government is committed to developing an awareness-raising campaign to coincide with the implementation of the bill.254

140.Giving evidence to the Committee, Policing Minister Kit Malthouse MP told us he had an “open mind” about introducing a new offence.255 Previously, the Government has said that it does not consider “the case is yet made out for a change in the law” and that the existing legislation that may be applied to violence and abuse committed against shop workers is “sufficient”.256 In its written evidence to the Committee in January 2021, the Home Office further stated that “a wide range of offences already exist which cover assaults against any worker” and highlighted that the “current guidelines for assault offences specify that it is an aggravating factor for an offence to be committed against a person who works in the public sector or who is providing a service to the public, such as a shop worker”.257

141.However, many stakeholders to this inquiry cited the sheer number of offences and the escalating nature of violence and abuse as a clear statement that the current legislation is not sufficient to ensure the police and courts take it seriously enough.258 USDAW told us that the Government’s response lacked “urgency” and was “inadequate” given clear evidence of the scale of the problem.259 Joanne Cairns highlighted that “far too many incidents just don’t reach the point where the aggravating factor is considered” as there is not enough reporting and not enough prosecutions.260 The Association of Convenience Stores told us that with incidents of verbal abuse, threats and physical violence continuing to rise “existing penalties and sentencing guidelines” are “quite simply” not sufficient.261 British Retail Consortium analysis found that of the 54% of incidents of violence and abuse reported to the police only 6% reach the courts, and only 3% get prosecuted as aggravated offences.262 They told us the system is “clearly failing.”263

142.The Co-op shared data relating to a small sample of offences taken successfully through the courts in 2020. It showed that three offenders, with a long history of theft and violence, committed 65 offences between them (including violent assault) and received sentences which in total amounted to 91 weeks–around 10 days per offence.264 They told us such sentences “do not provide any kind of deterrence or punishment”, “nor do they address the underlying reasons for the offending.”265 Dixon’s Carphone also told us it was frustrated with “low rates of capture and prosecution” and the “relatively low penalties” that are served on successful prosecution.266 Dunelm Soft Furnishing said the experience of shopworkers across the UK is that the current legal framework does not provide adequate redress. They told us the situation has “deteriorated to the point that only a new aggravated offence will stop the perpetrators.”267 Pets at Home said:

The escalation in violence, whether that be physical or verbal, is unacceptable. The COVID19 pandemic has undoubtedly escalated the frequency and the severity of offences and the current sanctions are obviously not a credible deterrent.”268

143.The everyday experiences of retail workers show that the current framework is too often failing to protect them from abuse, provide justice for victims or a deterrent for offenders. With prosecution rates vanishingly small, the existence of an aggravating factor in the sentencing guidelines is not sufficient to deal with the scale of the challenge.

Are retail workers a special case?

144.Stakeholders to the inquiry raised the existence of dedicated offences, designed to protect specific groups of workers, as evidence that the Government accepts the existing legislative framework is not always sufficient:

145.Emergency Service workers are given extra protection under the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018. This provides for a new offence and covers offences which would previously have been classified as common assault or assault on a constable which are summary offences. Crown Prosecution Service guidance makes clear that police and prosecutors should “cease charging the existing offences of common assault, battery, assaulting a police officer in the execution of their duty and other existing similar offences” where the complainant is an emergency worker and instead charge under the provisions of the 2018 Act.271

146.Industry and union representatives called for a similar approach to be taken to assaults on shopworkers. However, the police representatives we spoke to raised concerns about the long list of workers in other sectors who may feel they should also be afforded similar protections if a new offence is introduced for retailers. Patrick Holdaway, Chief Inspector, Hampshire Police told the Committee:

I deal a lot with retailers but equally I deal with many in the banking sector as well—another element—and we also have other groups. Customer services groups say they are seeing an increase in abuse and so on. There is a challenge that if you go down one route, what do you do for someone else?272

147.Many stakeholders told the Committee that the nature of the work carried out by retail workers puts them in a position of increased risk relative to members of the general public.273 The National Federation of Retail Newsagents highlighted that its members work in their stores from early in the morning until late in the evening, often with only one or two members of staff on duty and, lacking the security back up that would be found in larger stores, they are “extremely vulnerable to those who would rob the store or attack the staff”.274 The British Retail Consortium told us shopworkers are in a “different situation from many other victims” because their job requires them to return to the same situation day after day and face the “fear that the next customer could be violent or abusive”. Worse still, some of its members have reported instances of threats from offenders who live in the local area and claim to know where a store worker lives and incidents of psychological intimidation such as stalking shopworkers when they leave the premises at lunchtime.275 In some cases, workers are too traumatised by an assault to be able to return to the workplace which means they lose their jobs and their livelihoods as a result of the abuse.276 USDAW told us:

Many staff are put in the way of danger by their work. Retail workers frequently have to deal with people who are drunk, aggressive or trying to break the law. They can be working late at night, sometimes on their own, and in areas of anti-social behaviour, which most people voluntarily avoid for their own safety. Retail workers at shops in these areas do not have this option.277

148.The Association of Police and Crime Commissioners said:

When a retail worker becomes a victim of violence and abuse, it is largely unique to other forms of violence due to the proximity of where they are–the incident has happened in their workplace where they spend the majority of their working life to make a living and provide for themselves. In many instances, for smaller and independent retailers, violence and abuse against them in their store also takes place in their home from which they cannot escape.278

149.We heard another key aspect which sets retail workers apart is the requirement to enforce legislation as part of their role. Retail workers must obtain proof of age for a number of products which are subject to age-related sales legislation. Their role has further expanded during the Covid-19 pandemic in which retail workers were given responsibility for ensuring adherence to Covid-19 safety measures such as social distancing and wearing of face coverings. We have repeatedly heard that these checks can be triggers for abuse, threats and violence. If staff fail to obtain proof of age for age restricted sales, they may be liable for prosecution resulting in a heavy fine, loss of a job or possible loss of licence for the workplace.279 USDAW highlighted to us that police officers have the discretion to only enforce the law providing it does not present a clear and present danger to their own safety. This discretion is not provided to retail workers.280 Paul Gerrard, representing the Co-op, said there is a point of principle that “if Parliament expects individual groups of people to uphold the law that Parliament makes, Parliament should also give those people additional protection.” He told us that, pre-Covid, a quarter of all the incidents in Co-op stores were related to age-restricted sales.281 Other workers such as hospitality or transport workers may also be drawn into enforcement roles. The Institute for Customer Service told us it believed protection under any new offence “needs to be expanded beyond retail” as its research had “clearly shown that instances of hostility span multiple sectors.” It proposed using an offence of assaulting “a customer-facing worker.”282

150.Retail workers, by the very nature of their employment, are placed at an increased risk of violence and abuse compared to members of the general public. They are vulnerable to repeat offenders who are able to return time and again to stores, compounding abuse and leaving them feeling trapped and fearful in their place of work. The uniquely local nature of their employment means that retail workers face the terrifying prospect of offenders following them home or extending abuse into other parts of their lives in the local community.

151.Retail workers are responsible for enforcing laws with regard to age-restricted sales and restricted goods such as medicines or weapons. It is well established that conflict over these types of sales is a key trigger for violence and abuse. The Covid-19 pandemic has seen retail workers take on even more responsibility, enforcing Government legislation on social distancing and mask wearing, while putting their lives at risk working in public facing roles on the Covid frontline. 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.

152.We believe there is a strong case for extra protection in law for retail workers through a specific offence. The Government should consult urgently on the scope of the offence, recognising the particular pressure on those in different occupations who are asked to enforce the law.

Strengthening the legal framework

153.Policing bodies we spoke to favoured focusing on sentencing provisions, including strengthening sentencing guidelines for aggravated offences against shopworkers rather than introducing a new offence. Patrick Holdaway, Chief Inspector, Hampshire Police told the Committee:

The [sentencing] guidance already talks about an offence against an employee. I think it is probably more implicit and it needs to be more explicit.283

154.Amanda Blakeman, Deputy Chief Constable, Gwent Police said:

I am not for one minute suggesting that a violent attack against a shopworker is not a serious matter or should not be taken seriously, but there are other sectors that we see through the calls to service that are coming in that would have a similar view. That would then somewhat dilute the very purpose of looking at aggravating circumstances of an assault. The place to start is being more explicit in the sentencing guidelines.284

155.Ian Dyson, Commissioner of the City of London Police, said:

I recognise the symbolic significance of this for the retail sector, but for the reasons my colleagues have articulated, my position is with them on starting with the aggravating factors in sentencing and disposal.285

156.Alison Hernandez, Police and Crime Commissioner for Devon, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly said she was “not convinced of the need for this at this time” instead recommending prioritising “improvements in reporting and recording practices” so that we can get “a clearer picture of the scale and scope of the problem”.286 Transform Justice also felt “there is not a good case for a new offence of assaulting a shop worker” and cited research showing that “more punitive responses do not aid deterrence and can actually have higher reoffending rates.” Instead they supported preventative measures such as “use of out of court disposals including rehabilitative programmes instead of prosecution.287

157.Policing Minister Kit Malthouse MP, told us he did not think that introducing a new offence would “particularly focus the mind” because “the challenge for policing does not necessarily change” and they will still have to make “awful decisions about demands, what they respond to on an immediate basis and where the most harm is likely to be.”288 However, industry bodies were united that a new criminal offence would send a clear message to the public and the police that abuse and violence towards shop workers is unacceptable and cannot be committed with impunity.

158.The British Retail Consortium told us that introducing a new criminal offence would “increase the number of incidents reported” and “make it easier to identify how many individuals have been charged with, and prosecuted for, relevant offences” and therefore would help the Government to monitor progress in reducing this type of crime.289 The Association of Convenience Stores said a specified offence would “provide confidence and assurance to retailers”, give them a “layer of protection when carrying out their statutory duty” and help “secure an appropriate response from police forces and the justice system”.290 James Lowman, ACS, said:

I think that that a specific offence would have the effect of drawing more of these offences through into the criminal justice system, motivating colleagues and businesses to report and the police to take them forward into the criminal justice system. At the moment, so many cases seem to fall out at each stage. It is only by having more decisions made about how to tackle those offenders that I think we will start to see some progress.291

159.The Nationwide Building Society said a new offence would “embolden and encourage” retail workers and give them confidence that their complaints would be taken seriously.292 Paul Gerrard, of the Co-op, told us that legislation is often used to “reset expectations in society” and this his colleagues “wonder at times whether Parliament cares about the fact that they are being abused and attacked every single day.”293

160.We also saw evidence that targeted legislation on specific groups has worked to increase the police and prosecution focus on those crimes and also to increase prosecutions. We heard that since the creation of a specific offence of assault on emergency workers, there has been a significant increase in prosecutions. In 2019, the first full year in which data was available for this offence, there were 11,300 prosecutions, 9,400 convictions and 9,100 offenders sentenced. As a result, violence against the person was the offence group with the largest increase in prosecutions—up 26%. Previously, these offences would have been classified as ‘common assault’ or ‘assault on a constable’ which are summary offences. In comparison, between 2018 and 2019 there were large falls in the number of defendants prosecuted for theft offences (13% decrease to 65,900 defendants). The Ministry of Justice statistics state that this continues a downward trend observed since 2014.294

161.Several stakeholders acknowledged that new legislation would not be a “panacea” for all the issues facing retail workers.295 James Lowman described the legislation in Scotland as “a template” for bringing legislation in Westminster but also stated “it is not a solution

Figure 10: Prosecutions, convictions and conviction ratio for violence against the person offences, 2009 to 2019

Source: Table: Q3.2a, Q3.2b and Q3.3 Criminal Justice Statistics quarterly

in itself” but would broaden the options available to the courts and the police for pursuing cases.296 Similarly, Paul Gerrard told us a new offence would have to “work in concert with other things”297 and David Jamieson, former West Midlands PCC, said:

Legislation is part of the solution, but it is not a silver bullet. Violence and abuse in these space does not exist in a vacuum, and any serious response to abuse of shopworkers cannot be considered in isolation from its drivers. Be they addictions, substance abuse, or mental health in offenders, steps must be taken in tandem with enhanced legislative protections to address the root causes of offending within offenders themselves.298

162.Violence and abuse towards retail workers is a complex and multi-faceted issue and any meaningful solution will involve a package of measures from Government, the police, employers, retail workers and the public. Legislation can only ever be one part of the picture. However, we believe that the introduction of a new standalone statutory offence would play an instrumental role in resetting expectations among the public, retail workers and the police. It would send a clear, powerful, and long overdue message that abuse and violence towards retail workers will not be tolerated.

163.Early data following the introduction of the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018 suggests that the creation of a new offence is having a positive impact on prosecution rates for that crime. We note that even though it was possible previously to prosecute assaults on emergency workers using other offences such as common assault, in practice the fact of creating a distinct offence appears to have been effective in getting the police, courts and agencies to take incidents and assaults against emergency workers much more seriously and to make it simpler to bring them before the courts. Retail workers deserve the same kind of focus to protect them from growing violence and abuse.

164.The patchwork of existing offences for prosecuting incidents of violence and abuse against individuals is not effective enough to address the escalating scale and nature of offences committed in the retail setting. Introducing a new statutory offence would bring the following benefits:

165.The text of the Protection of Workers (Retail and Age-restricted Goods and Services) (Scotland) Act, having undergone lengthy consultation and close scrutiny, provides a potential starting point. As we have previously recommended, 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.

239 Theft Act 1968; Crown Prosecution Service, ‘Theft Act Offences’, 25 November 2019

241 Protection from Harassment Act 1997; Crown Prosecution Service, ‘Stalking and Harassment’, 23 May 2018

244 Assault Offences Guidelines, Response to consultation, May 2021

245 Crime Survey, British Retail Consortium, May 2021

246 Crime Report 2021, Association of Convenience Stores

248 Closed petition, Protect Retail Workers from Abuse, Threats and Violence

251 Scottish Parliament Policy Memorandum Protection of Workers (Retail and Age-restricted Goods and Services) (Scotland) Bill SP Bill –58–PM

252 Scottish Parliament Policy Memorandum Protection of Workers (Retail and Age-restricted Goods and Services) (Scotland) Bill SP Bill –58–PM

253 Scottish Parliament Policy Memorandum Protection of Workers (Retail and Age-restricted Goods and Services) (Scotland) Bill SP Bill –58–PM

254 Scottish Parliament, Stage 3 debate, 19 January 2021

256 Government Response, Call for evidence – Violence and Abuse Toward Shop Staff, July 2020

257 Home Office (VTR0035)

258 Anonymous (VTR0017)

259 USDAW (VTR0016)

262 Crime Survey, British Retail Consortium, May 2021

264 Co-op Group (VTR0027)

265 Co-op Group (VTR0027)

266 Dixons Carphone (VTR0012)

268 Pets at Home Plc (VTR0009)

269 UK Public General Acts UK Borders Act 2007 30 October 2007

270 UK Public General Acts Commissioners for Revenue and Customs Act 2005 7 April 2005

271 Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018, Crown Prosecution Service, 26 February 2021

273 Pets at Home Plc (VTR0009)

276 USDAW (VTR0016)

277 USDAW (VTR0016)

279 Usdaw (VTR0016)

280 Ibid

Published: 29 June 2021 Site information    Accessibility statement