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Retail crime survey highlights growing concerns over workplace violence

Tellingly, those surveyed regarded violence and abuse as the single most important issue for retailers – ahead of robbery, fraud and cyber-crime.

The annual British Retail Consortium (BRC) Crime Survey is described as “the largest and most reliable barometer on the state of play of crime in retail”. We examine its recent key findings — which cover the first year of the pandemic (1 April 2020 to 31 March 2021) and consider what steps can be taken to diminish the risks both to retailers and their employees.

The scale of the problem

The survey was drawn from retailers who between them employ 1.2 million workers and are responsible collectively for a financial turnover of £170 billion.

Tellingly, those surveyed regarded violence and abuse as the single most important issue for retailers — ahead of robbery, fraud and cyber-crime:

  • 2020/2021 saw an average of 125 incidents of violence towards retail workers each day — of which 21 involved physical injury.
  • An average of 1,301 incidents of violence and abuse occurred daily — rising from 455 incidents during the previous year. This is despite fewer shops being open.
  • Retailers lost £1.5 billion to crime and spent £715 million on preventative measures.
  • 60% of those surveyed described the police response to reports of violence/abuse as either “poor” or “very poor”.
  • Of the cases reported to the lice, only 4% resulted in a criminal prosecution.

Causes and why are violent incidents increasing?

We examined in our previous article, (“Violence at Work — is it time for specific legislation to protect Retail workers?”), how the main underlying cause of retail violence/abuse resulted from theft — in part driven by organised crime groups and in part by substance misuse/addiction. Challenges to underage sales of alcohol and tobacco were also a factor fuelling incidents.

The need by retailers to manage social distancing measures to include face coverings undoubtedly increased the likelihood of tension and conflict between retailers and customers during the period of the survey. However, we believe it is possibly naïve to attribute the rising levels of violence and abuse solely to the pandemic. As has been seen in other areas, the pandemic has served to accentuate pre-existing trends.

Duties imposed upon employers and legislation

Employers have a duty to assess the risk to employees posed by workplace violence and abuse. If the risk is regarded as “foreseeable”, then employers must document and then take steps to mitigate these risks.

Whilst the HSE recognises that there is no “one size fits all” approach for employers, steps required of employers could include:

  • Training — teaching employees to spot early signs of aggression and the identification of customers/clients with a history
    of violence/abuse.
  • Physical security measures, for example CCTV, body worn cameras and/or raised floors counter side.
  • Avoiding “lone worker” situations.
  • Ensuring that incidents are logged and consulting with staff to ensure current arrangements are effective.

More broadly, the BRC points to the work it has done in lobbying the Government to bring about changes in the Police Crime Sentencing and Courts Act which makes violence and abuse shown to all workers providing a public service (to include retail workers), an aggravating factor which must be considered by the courts when sentencing offenders in England and Wales.

Following a Private Members Bill introduced in the Scottish Parliament in 2021, retail workers in Scotland have the benefit of the Protection of Workers Against Harassment Act.

It remains too early to determine whether either piece of legislation will have a deterrent effect and help to reduce incidents.

The future

The retail sector plays a vital role in the UK’s economy, employing three million and having a financial turnover estimated at £465 billion (2021). The survey highlights two worrying issues. Firstly, that the majority of retailers and their employees perceive the current police response to workplace violence and abuse to be inadequate. Secondly, there is currently a very low level of offenders who are prosecuted — just 4% of incidents reported to the police.

It is hoped that the Government’s promise of extra police officers will allow forces to re-prioritise and respond more effectively to reported violence and abuse in the workplace. Furthermore, we would hope to see the level of prosecutions increase from a very low base of 4% and that this will serve as a deterrent.

The relaxation of social distancing measures will help in the short term to reduce tensions, conflict and help depress incidents. However, the current and growing “cost of living crisis”, alongside rising levels of substance addiction/misuse (Adult Substance Misuse Treatment Statistics 2020-2021 — Office for Health, Improvement and Disparities — November 2021), may equally result in rising retail crime and incidents of both violence and abuse directed towards retail employees.

Any effective solution is likely to involve a multi-faceted approach, to include the increasing use of technology — for example, the introduction of Digital Age Verification would help reduce incidents which result from under-age sale challenges. Increasing the use of body worn cameras by retail staff will accurately catalogue and evidence incidents which will help in the prosecution of offenders. This will need to stand alongside effective deployment of police resources and tougher criminal sentencing.

Retailers rightly consider violence and abuse to be their number one issue, and given their vital contribution to the economy, it is only fair that they and their employees are given broader support.

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