Calls for specific legislation grow as retail violence increases
We examine the annual BRC surveys findings and consider the implications for retailers and their employees.
Amidst increasingly strident calls by retailers to curb the levels of abuse and physical violence experienced by their employees, we examine whether England and Wales should follow Scotland’s path in creating a specific offence for those abusing or assaulting retail workers
Rising levels of retail violence
Although the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) have published no summary statistics concerning violence in the workplace for the past three years, the British Retail Consortium (BRC) publishes a comprehensive, annual crime survey.
The 2023 survey covered the period 2021 and 2022 and revealed episodes of violence and abuse had risen to 867 incidents on average a day – from 450 a day in 2019 with incidents of violence with injury averaging 29 each day.
Separately, the Co-operative Group announced in an article on its own website on 27 July 2023 that in the six months to June it had logged almost 1,000 incidents of retail crime a day – the highest level ever recorded and a rise of 35% compared to the same period in 2022. The article accused criminals of having the “freedom to loot” with what it called ‘rampant levels of out of control crime’.
Tesco, the UK’s largest supermarket chain – employing 300,000 people in 280 stores - is reported (Mail on Sunday, 3 September 2023) to have seen physical attacks on staff rise by a third on last year’s levels.
Alongside the Co-operative and the John Lewis Partnership, it now issues body worn cameras in an effort to deter offenders. Tesco alone have spent £44 million over the last four years on security measures such as door access systems, protection screens and digital radios.
The Times separately reports that shop owners have now resorted to locking their doors during opening hours as they report “the theft epidemic intensifies across London”.
What is driving retail violence?
The causes are multifactorial but go beyond simple acquisitive theft or the ongoing cost of living crisis. Substance addiction is at its heart, alongside organised crime and challenges to under-age sales.
Recent media coverage has shown examples of brazen theft akin to looting and ransacking stores with perpetrators seemingly operating without fear of consequences.
The British Retail Consortium (BRC) has long campaigned for a more effective police response. Their 2023 survey revealed, (adjusted per capita of employees) that:
- 55% of retailers viewed the police response negatively.
- 64% of respondents said that ‘a lack of belief anything would come of reporting’ was the major obstacle in reporting retail crime to the police.
- Only 32% of all retail crime is reported.
- Only 7% of incidents of violence and abuse result in a prosecution.
Whilst accepting that police resources are finite and noting that in many areas they are under-resourced, the low conviction rates achieved undoubtedly send a message to offenders that on the balance of probabilities, conviction and sentencing is “unlikely”. This combined with a “non-intervention” instruction to staff by a number of retailers has emboldened perpetrators.
The position in Scotland
As from August 2021, under the Protection of Workers (Retail and Age-Restricted Good and Services Scotland) Act 2021, it became a specific offence to threaten, abuse or assault retail workers. Should England and Wales follow Scotland’s example?
At a joint campaign between the BRC and the Union USDAW, the Government amended the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act to make the abuse or assault of any “frontline worker” (to include retail staff) an aggravating factor. This in theory ought at least to increase the criminal sanctions face by convicted offenders, though as the BRC points out, the Home Office currently does not track the use of this amendment, making it impossible to understand if the changes are having any impact.
It is perhaps too early, given the lack of empirical data, to consider whether Scotland’s legislation has reduced incidents of violence and abuse or rendered the increase less marked than that seen in England and Wales.
The creation of a specific offence does however permit analysis of offences and conviction rates in a much simpler and more effective way. It also sends two important messages to retailers and staff. Firstly, that they are valued and important, in marked contrast to the often daily torrent of abuse they experience at work. Secondly, it will give them confidence to report incidents which ought to materialise into higher conviction rates.
Finally, it is perhaps instructive that the All Party Parliamentary Committee on retail crime were in favour of specific legislation to mirror Scotland when they last considered the matter in 2020.
Retail crime cost stores £950 million in 2022. Judged by the release of statistics by a number of individual supermarkets, abuse and assaults to retail staff are continuing to increase despite the removal of all social distancing measures believed to have been a strong contributor to the high levels recorded in 2020 and 2021. They remain significantly higher than the pre-pandemic position.
Retailers are clearly investing substantial sums in a variety of areas, in an effort both to protect employees’ safety and to reduce the cost of retail theft. If, however, issues are to be taken seriously and tackled head on, police response and confidence rates need to improve, which will increase confidence in retailers and staff reporting incidents in the first place.
Perhaps the creation of Retail Crime Units would help in addition to ensuring that the police are properly funded and resourced. To follow Scotland’s example would on its own be a small step but would be a signal that the Government is committed to ensuring that retailers and staff alike remain safe.