Violence and abuse towards retail workers Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

The scale of the problem

1.No one should encounter violence at work. The last 5 years has seen a shocking rise in attacks on retail workers. We find it very disturbing that violence and abuse towards those working in the retail environment is becoming endemic in British society. The appalling truth, exposed comprehensively by data from the industry, is that for millions of shop workers verbal abuse and physical violence is becoming a too frequent reality. We are particularly alarmed by evidence of the increased use of weapons during incidences of theft. A robust response led by Government is urgently required to break this escalating cycle of violence. Shop workers are often 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. It is unacceptable that they should regularly face abuse and violence at work. (Paragraph 10)

2.The appalling abuse suffered by retail workers on a daily basis is completely unacceptable. Abuse should never be “simply part of the job” or accepted as a “norm” in any workplace. The unique vulnerability of retail workers, who face being confronted with repeat offenders who live in their local area, compounds the severity and regularity of these offences. (Paragraph 15)

3.Where shopworkers are confronted by hate-motivated abuse in the course of their employment this should be taken seriously by employers and reported to the police. It is vital that the police, in dealing with these incidents, manage them with sensitivity and give them the attention that they deserve. We support calls for future iterations of the Home Office Commercial Victimisation Survey to include questions on incidents of hate related violence and abuse to help build a clearer picture of the prevalence of this form of abuse. We support calls for future iterations of the Home Office Commercial Victimisation Survey to include questions on incidents of hate related violence and abuse to help build a clearer picture of the prevalence of this form of abuse. (Paragraph 25)

4.There are several factors driving the increase in violence and abuse towards retail workers over the last 5 years. However, the primary factor appears to be increasing levels of acquisitive theft which are linked to both organised crime and prolific offenders with substance addiction problems. By comparison, conflict over the sale of age restricted products has been a consistent trigger for violence and abuse over a much longer period. We are particularly concerned by evidence which suggests failures in the police response are fuelling the increases in offending. (Paragraph 29)

5.It is unconscionable that violence and abuse towards retail workers has further increased during the Covid-19 pandemic. These are individuals who have been working on the frontline and have put their lives at risk to ensure that the public could access essential items such as food and medicine. At a time when they have most deserved our respect and gratitude they have instead faced violence and abuse. (Paragraph 36)

6.We welcome the revised guidance from the Sentencing Council which makes the despicable act of deliberate spitting or coughing an aggravating factor for common assault. However, we note that incidents of offenders threatening to spit or cough would not be covered by its terms and regret that the sentencing guidelines took over a year from the start of the Covid crisis to be introduced. (Paragraph 37)

7.A lack of clarity with regards to Government guidelines on mask wearing and social distancing exacerbated an already difficult situation for retailers in the early days of the pandemic. If in future new public health restrictions are required the Government must learn the lessons from this pandemic, and work with retailers to ensure there are workable systems in place and clear guidance for the public.

The policing response

8.The Committee has heard overwhelming evidence that the policing response is simply failing to match the rising tide of violence and abuse against retail workers. The evidence also suggests that the response varies significantly between police forces: while there are examples of good practice, 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. We recognise that policing has been increasingly overstretched and that officers are working hard to respond to rising demand with constrained resources. Nevertheless, police forces and the Home Office need to ensure that officers are better able to respond to rising threats and crimes against shopworkers. The police’s failure to attend or follow-up serious incidents undermines trust and confidence, discourages reporting crime, and weakens the deterrent for repeat offenders leaving shopworkers more vulnerable and letting down victims of crime. (Paragraph 56)

9.We welcome the guidance for retail workers on when to use emergency and non-emergency numbers when seeking a police response and, in particular, setting out risk factors which will help the police respond appropriately to incidents. However, we do not believe that two A4 pages of guidance is a sufficient response to tackle the damaging perception that the police “don’t care” about retail crime. (Paragraph 57)

10.We welcome the Government’s work to provide better guidance and support for retail workers on reporting retail crime. However, it is deeply disappointing that the main thrust of the Government’s response to shopworkers, who have lost confidence in the police response, is to demand increased reporting to the police without also requiring the police to improve its response. It is a serious problem that police forces could not even tell us the scale of reported assaults against shopworkers because they do not currently record the data in a way that allows it to be measured, nor do they keep effective records regarding retail or business crime. We agree that you cannot manage what you do not measure. The police must play their part in ensuring the scale and nature of the problem is fully understood by improving their own crime recording practices. (Paragraph 70)

11.As a starting point, we recommend that it is made mandatory to add a “business crime flag” to offences committed in a retail environment, including assaults on retail workers. This simple step would give an important early indication of the scale of the problem and allow police forces better to understand patterns of local crime and the risks shopworkers face. (Paragraph 71)

12.However, we recognise that the current broad definition of “business crime”, which encompasses cybercrime, fraud or theft at an unoccupied business premises has limitations when it comes to tackling assaults on shop workers. The broad definition does not distinguish between crimes which result in financial loss to businesses and crimes of violence towards individual retail workers, meaning the immediate human cost is not always recognised. We are concerned that the perception of “business crimes” as “victimless crimes” disguises the hugely damaging impact of violence and abuse on individual retail workers. (Paragraph 72)

13.We therefore recommend that the National Business Crime Centre work with the National Police Chiefs’ Council to agree a better long-term way to identify and properly measure the violence and abuse suffered by retail workers in the crime statistics gathered by local police forces. We appreciate that the definition of business crime is not the most appropriate for the offences that have been reported to us in evidence. We therefore urge the Government to look at a more appropriate flag, such as retail business crime, which more accurately reflects the nature of the abuse we have described in this report. (Paragraph 73)

14.As local representatives Police and Crime Commissioners are well placed to understand the specific issues facing the retail community in their area and to ensure police forces focus attention on this critical issue. Collaboration between police and retailers to identify repeat offenders is a powerful tool in crime prevention. We welcome early reports regarding the pilot one-touch reporting process introduced by Katy Bourne in Sussex. We encourage all Police and Crime Commissioners to use their unique position to help improve data sharing, build trust and bridge the gap between local businesses and police forces. We call on all Police and Crime Commissioners to work with local retailers to establish or strengthen Business Crime Reduction Partnerships and to develop local retail crime reduction plans, including arrangements for local reporting, identifying patterns of crime and prolific offenders to be targeted, and re-building confidence in the police response to violence and abuse against shopworkers. (Paragraph 78)

15.We strongly support calls for Police and Crime Commissioners to make action on violence and abuse towards retail workers a priority in police and crime plans. We are very concerned how few appear to have prioritised this in past plans, or to have recognised the human cost of retail crime. The resetting of police and crime plans, following the Police and Crime Commissioner elections in May 2021, presents a valuable window of opportunity to ensure that this previously neglected crime is properly prioritised in future. We also encourage Police and Crime Commissioners to set out in their police and crime plans how they will measure their police force’s performance in response to violence and abuse towards retail workers. A particularly effective approach for building confidence would be for local police forces, retailers and Police and Crime Commissioners to discuss and agree a performance metric for the policing response which is tailored to the challenges faced in their local area. (Paragraph 79)

16.Chief Constables must do much more to demonstrate that they recognise the human cost of escalating violence and abuse against shopworkers. They need to ensure they have proper systems in place for monitoring and recording. Most importantly, they need to ensure that officers are not underestimating the seriousness of these crimes because they take place on business or retail premises. All forces should review the response priority given to these kinds of crimes in line with the new Government guidance to make sure they are taking it seriously enough. All forces should conduct an assessment of the level and patterns of violence and abuse against shop workers in their areas, and identify a lead officer to work with local businesses and local authorities in partnership on reducing crime. (Paragraph 80)

17.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. It has made it harder to maintain close relationships between the police and local high street retailers, or to pursue community relationships, which has had a significant impact on crime prevention work. These teams play a vital role in identifying and addressing the specific challenges facing retailers on their local high street. We believe it is extremely important that neighbourhood policing teams are prioritised for new resource as part of the 20,000 police officer uplift programme. Both Police and Crime Commissioners and Chief Constables should make neighbourhood policing a priority. Chief Constables should examine their current resourcing arrangements and ring-fence a proportion of their additional policing capacity to expand neighbourhood teams. (Paragraph 85)

18.There is clearly an issue with the consistency of the policing response to retail crime across the country. In light of this finding, the Committee was disappointed to learn that the Government is no longer directly funding the work of the National Business Crime Centre. The National Business Crime Centre is well placed to ensure the sharing of best practice approaches, improve links with the business community and drive up consistency. At a time when violence in retail and business settings is increasing rapidly, the decision to discontinue direct funding for an established and well-respected body tasked with strategic oversight of the issue seems nonsensical. (Paragraph 89)

19.The Home Office work to tackle violence and abuse against shopworkers over the last twelve months has been welcome. But the temporary working groups they set up to draw up new guidance are not sufficient to deliver sustained change or provide continual national leadership. We recommend the Home Office provide central funding for the continued operation of the National Business Crime Centre. (Paragraph 90)

20.Business Crime Reduction Partnerships have huge potential to improve communication and collaboration between the police, local retailers and local authorities on the issue of retail crime. Tailoring the policing response to areas of particular vulnerability, identifying repeat offenders, and developing joint preventative plans are effective measures for improving the police response. Closer collaboration may also have a positive impact on retailer confidence and reporting of incidents. Smaller retailers in particular, who do not have the security support and expertise that bigger corporations do, are particularly reliant on support through local partnerships. There is considerable potential for these to do far more on every high street including better investment in CCTV and communication networks, supporting small shop owners who may be working alone. We recommend that the Government provides greater support for the creation of Business Crime Reduction Partnerships including actively encouraging partnerships to cover smaller town centres and areas where there are many independent shops with less capacity to organise local security and crime prevention. We also recommend involving shopworkers themselves as well as major employers in crime reduction partnerships as they will often have the clearest idea both of the human cost of crime and of the local measures that could make a difference. (Paragraph 95)

21.We welcome the additional money available to local authorities and Police and Crime Commissioners to spend on preventative measures via the Safer Streets Fund. However, we note that none of the funding rounds have placed any emphasis on preventative measures for violence and abuse towards retail workers. We recommend that the Home Office make clear that they welcome bids to the current Safer Streets Fund for measures that will improve the safety of shop workers, and actively encourage local councils, communities and business partnerships to draw up bids which directly tackle violence and abuse in retail settings and on high streets. We also recommend that a future round should set this as a priority. (Paragraph 96)

The role of employers

22.Employers have a duty of care and play a vital role in ensuring their employees have the confidence to report incidents, and the appropriate support to deal with difficult situations. Evidence from our public survey, and the Government’s 2019 call for evidence, suggests that many retail workers are not getting the support they need from their employers. (Paragraph 106)

23.We welcome the Government’s creation of downloadable digital assets for the #ShopKind campaign which we hope will raise awareness amongst the public about retail crime and its impact on shop workers. However, we think this action completely fails to address the problem of employers who do not support their workers to report abuse, ban repeat offenders or access counselling or training. The language around “options that may be provided” by your business will be of little use to the many retail workers whose employers do not provide those services. We recommend the Government sets out clearly in its guidance, addressing itself directly to employers, the actions they should be taking to support retail workers in the context of retail crime. This should state:

24.We applaud the work of the Suzy Lamplugh Trust in creating Suzy’s Charter, a far more effective and useful tool than the Government’s guidance for securing the safety of retail workers. The Government’s lacklustre endorsement of the Charter, a fleeting reference that “this could be used to benchmark what your business has in place” with a link to the website is very disappointing. We recommend that the Home Office strengthen its action by working with the National Retail Crime Steering Group to agree an Employers Charter using Suzy’s Charter as a template, which is specifically targeted at retail workers and retail crime. This approach would help drive best practice, it would ensure that retail workers know what they should expect and can put pressure on employers who do not meet these standards. (Paragraph 108)

25.Smaller retailers are much less likely to have access to security expertise or investment in technology and, as many have been heavily affected by the pandemic, they may also struggle to find additional funds to invest in the area. Small local high street shops sometimes have only one member of staff and we heard from the Association of Convenience Stores about the added vulnerability of workers in small local stores. Those shopworkers are in even greater need of the kind of technological and organised support. (Paragraph 116)

26.The Committee was impressed by this range of solutions and the potential of new technology to improve both the safety of retail workers and the ability to gather evidence about incidents of retail crime. The methods described above, such as body worn video cameras, headsets for internal communication, counselling services and central command and control systems, represent a best practice approach. However, we acknowledge that many of these solutions will not be financially viable for many businesses. (Paragraph 117)

27.The guidance provided by the Government and the National Retail Crime Steering Group, published nearly 10 months after the response to the call for evidence, amounts to eight A4 pages of highly general advice followed by 10 pages of example statements and reports. While elements such as the short de-escalation training video and links to tool kits and guidance provided by the Information Commissioner’s Office are certainly useful, we feel these resources reflect a distinct lack of urgency on the part of Government to address the scale of problem. (Paragraph 118)

28.We recommend that the Government’s resources, which would be particularly beneficial for independent shops and small businesses, additionally include specific ‘tool kit’ style material to support all employers to take the following actions:

29.We also encourage large national retailers to play a leading role in local business partnerships, working with local councils and the police to encourage and include small independent high street retailers in security measures including CCTV or local communication networks for sharing intelligence on incidents or repeat offenders. We welcome the further rounds of the Safer Streets Fund which should also be used to help improve safety and support for staff working in small and independent retailers. We recommend that local authorities work with local retailers and with the police to identify smaller high streets and areas with many small independent shops which have less capacity to tackle security issues and draw up plans including bids to the Safer Streets Fund to support shopworkers in those areas. (Paragraph 119)

The link between addiction and prolific offending

30.The Government has acknowledged that drugs play a significant role in a large number of crimes and with prolific offending in particular. Yet, one year on from the Government’s response to the call for evidence on violence and abuse toward shop staff, work to develop the evidence base regarding the role of drugs and alcohol in retail crime is only just beginning. We welcome the work the Government is undertaking to address drug addiction via the five ADDER programmes. However, the Minister has admitted that it will be years before these programmes could be rolled-out at a national level. This intervention lacks urgency and fails to address the gravity of the escalating violence and abuse faced by Britain’s retail workers on a daily basis. Retail workers need action now to break the escalating cycle of abuse. (Paragraph 131)

31.We welcome the new funding the Home Office will be providing for drug treatment. However, it is only for one year, when sustainable increased funding is needed for ongoing services. We recommend that the Government makes central funding available for rehabilitation programmes such as the Offender2Rehab model adopted in Birmingham. We further recommend that until national drug rehabilitation programmes have been comprehensively rolled out, the Government should provide additional ring fenced funding, under the Police and Crime Act 2002, to enable Police and Crime Commissioners to work with local councils to restore drug rehabilitation services in their local area. (Paragraph 132)

The legal framework

32.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. (Paragraph 143)

33.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. (Paragraph 150)

34.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. (Paragraph 151)

35.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. (Paragraph 152)

36.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. (Paragraph 162)

37.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. (Paragraph 163)

38.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:

39.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. (Paragraph 165)

Published: 29 June 2021 Site information    Accessibility statement