Assaulting a retail worker to be made a standalone criminal offence

Serial or abusive shoplifters will face tougher punishments as the Prime Minister sets out tough new action to crack down on retail crime and protect the UK’s high streets.

Apr 10, 2024
By Paul Jacques
Picture: BRC

Assaulting a retail worker will be made a standalone criminal offence, sending a clear message that there will be tough consequences for this unacceptable behaviour, said Rishi Sunak.

Perpetrators could be sent to prison for up to six months, receive an unlimited fine and be banned from going back to the shop where they committed their crimes, with Criminal Behaviour Orders barring them visiting specific premises.

Breaching an order is also a criminal offence and carries a five-year maximum prison sentence. For the most serious cases of assault, such as causing grievous bodily harm with intent, offenders could face a life sentence.

The move to create the new offence follows longstanding campaigning on this issue from Matt Vickers MP, and some of the biggest retailers, calling for more action to better protect their staff.

The Government is also stepping up action to clamp down on offenders who repeatedly target the country’s high streets, with serial offenders forced to wear tags to track their movements.

“These tags will be a constant and physical reminder to offenders that the Probation Service can find out where they have been and when, and that they risk being sent to prison if they refuse to obey the rules,” said the Home Office.

Under an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill, if an offender is found guilty of assaulting staff three times, or is sentenced for shoplifting on three separate occasions, they should be made to wear a tag as part of any community order.

Ahead of this legislation coming in, the Government will partner with a police force to pilot a bespoke package of community sentencing measures, which can be used by judges to tackle high levels of shoplifting, sending a clear message that repeat criminality will not be tolerated.

The Government is also ramping up the use of facial recognition technology to help catch perpetrators and prevent shoplifting in the first place.

Backed by a £55.5 million investment over the next four years, the police will be able to further roll-out this technology. This will include £4 million for bespoke mobile units that can be deployed to high streets across the country with live facial recognition used in crowded areas to identify people wanted by the police – including repeat shoplifters.

The mobile units will take live footage of crowds in towns and on high streets, comparing images to specific people wanted by the police or banned from that location. Police in the area will then be alerted so they can track down these offenders.

The Prime Minister said: “Since 2010, violent and neighbourhood crime in England and Wales has fallen dramatically, showing our plan to keep our streets safe is working. Yet shoplifting and violence and abuse towards retail workers continues to rise.

“I am sending a message to those criminals – whether they are serious organised criminal gangs, repeat offenders or opportunistic thieves – who think they can get away with stealing from these local businesses or abusing shopworkers, enough is enough.

“Our local shops are the lifeblood of our communities, and they must be free to trade without the threat of crime or abuse.”

The crackdown builds on the police’s Retail Crime Action Plan, which was commissioned by the Crime and Policing Minister, Chris Philp last year.

This included a range of measures, such as a police commitment to prioritise urgently attending the scene of shop theft involving violence against a shop worker, where security guards have detained an offender or where attendance is needed to secure evidence, which is showing signs of progress.

Home Secretary James Cleverly said: “There is quite simply no excuse for threatening behaviour or stealing – which can run other people’s livelihoods into the ground, while being traumatic for workers.

“To turn a blind eye to retail crime shakes the foundations of law and order which protect our society and that is unacceptable. We are enhancing our plan and doubling down on the zero-tolerance approach needed to fight back.

“The number of offenders being charged for these crimes is increasing and while I want to see more people face consequences for their actions, our plan is designed to help put a stop to these crimes happening in the first place.”

The Government has driven forward significant efforts to tackle retail crime in the past year, bringing together policing and business to commit to “smarter, more joined-up working” to reduce criminal behaviour and rebuild public confidence in the police response when it does occur.

Crime and Policing Minister Chris Philp said: “Sadly if you speak to anyone working in retail, they will tell you of the verbal abuse and sometimes violent assaults they’ve been victims of, simply for trying to do their job.

“In no other work place would this be accepted. I have been driving forward action to improve the police response to retail crime since I became Policing Minister, because nothing less than a zero-tolerance approach will do.

“That’s why today we’re sending a clear message to criminals that enough is enough bringing forward further measures to protect retail workers and crack down on those who continuously disregard the law.”

A specialist new police team set up last year is building intelligence on organised retail crime gangs funded through ‘Pegasus’, a first-of-its-kind business and policing partnership backed by 14 of the UK’s biggest retailers, National Business Crime Solutions and the Home Office. It was launched to “radically improve” the way retailers are able to share intelligence with police to identify more offenders.

The unit forms part of Opal, the national police intelligence unit for serious organised acquisitive crime.

Where CCTV or other digital images are secured, police are committed to running this through the Police National Database, as standard, to aid efforts to identify prolific offenders or potentially dangerous individuals.

This builds on the pledge by police forces across England and Wales that they will follow up on all lines of inquiry, where there is a reasonable chance it could lead them to catching a perpetrator and solving a crime.

All police forces across England and Wales made another significant commitment last year to prioritise police attendance at the scene of a retail crime incident where violence has been used towards shop staff, where an offender has been detained by store security, or where evidence needs to be secured and can only be done by police personnel.

The National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for retail crime, Superintendent Alex Goss, said: “Retail crime has a devastating impact on businesses and communities and we welcome the continued partnership working between policing, retailers, police and crime commissioners and government to tackle it.

“Since the launch of the Retail Crime Action Plan and Pegasus Partnership in late 2023, we’ve made significant progress in our policing response to shoplifting and it was encouraging to see much higher levels of confidence from retailers in policing at last week’s roundtable.

“The proposed new standalone offence for assaults on retail workers demonstrates that violence will not be tolerated and we hope it will enable swift justice for those subject to this shocking and disturbing behaviour.

“Furthermore, Opal, our national policing intelligence unit for serious and organised acquisitive crime, is this week beginning training for retailers to demonstrate how the team will work with forces, retailers, businesses and organisations to gather information that will be instrumental in identifying and tackling the organised crime groups responsible for a large proportion of retail crime.

“From May 1, the newly created team will begin taking referrals which is another positive step forward in fight against retail crime.”

Paul Gerrard, campaigns and public affairs director of the Co-op Group, said: “The Co-op sees every day the violence and threats our colleagues, like other retail workers, face as they serve the communities they live in.

“We have long called for a standalone offence of attacking or abusing a shopworker and so we very much welcome the Government’s announcement today.

“The Co-op will redouble our work with police forces but these measures will undoubtedly, when implemented, keep our shopworkers safer, protect the shops they work in and help the communities both serve.

Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium (BRC), added: “After relentless campaigning for a specific offence for assaulting retail workers, the voices of the three million people working in retail are finally being heard.

“The impact of retail violence has steadily worsened, with people facing racial abuse, sexual harassment, threatening behaviour, physical assault and threats with weapons, often linked to organised crime. The BRC 2024 Annual Crime Survey showed record levels of violence and abuse, with incidents soaring to over 1,300 per day last year, compared to 870 the year before.

“Victims are ordinary hardworking people – teenagers taking on their first job, carers looking for part-time work, parents working around childcare.

“This announcement sends a clear message that abusive behaviour will not be tolerated and it is vital the police use this new legislation to step up their response to incidents.

“Together, we must stamp out this scourge in crime that has been sweeping the nation and ensure retail workers are given the vital protections they deserve.”

The National Business Crime Centre (NBCC), the police-led national coordinating body for crimes against business, including retail crime, welcomed the news that assaulting a shop worker will be made a standalone offence.

NBCC lead Superintendent Patrick Holdaway of City of London Police said: “We welcome the introduction of a specific offence which recognises violence against shopworkers.

“At the moment any assault against shopworkers is recorded under a generic crime category which means it is difficult to assess the true extent of the problem.

“By recording violence against shopworkers as a specific offence, we will have a much clearer picture of how many incidents are happening and better understand the level of police and partner resources needed to tackle the issue.

“The NBCC will work with police, partners and retailers to start to build a national intelligence picture as the data is captured.”

Independent retailers also welcomed the announcement from the Prime Minister that assaulting a shopworker is to be made a separate offence.

Muntazir Dipoti, the national president of the Federation of Independent Retailers, said: “We have been lobbying the Government for years for better protection for those who work in shops, for any form of attacks on shop workers to be taken more seriously and for the penalties for those who commit such crimes to be more stringent.”

He added: “We campaigned successfully in Scotland for the establishment of a standalone offence for those who abuse or use violence against retail workers.

“Last year we were pleased to see an amendment tabled to the Criminal and Justice Bill which would have made assaulting retail workers a separate offence and we had called on MPs of all parties to support it. It was of huge disappointment when this fell through.

“Shop workers have to deal with physical and verbal threats on a near daily basis. This, along with unprecedented levels of shop theft, seriously affects the lives of ordinary, innocent people who are simply doing their jobs.

“Having campaigned for so long, Federation members are pleased that tackling retail crime is to be finally given the energy and priority it deserves.”

Sharon White, chair of the John Lewis Partnership, said: “Retail crime is never victimless – it costs retailers over £1 billion every year and can have a huge impact on the shop workers involved.

“We’ve long called for violence towards retail workers to be recognised as a standalone offence so welcome this announcement, which sends a clear message that abuse will never be tolerated. It will help deter acts of aggression, and allow police to drive prosecutions should instances escalate.”

Jason Towse, managing director of Business Services at Mitie, said today’s announcement is “a clear signal that violence or threat of abuse to retail workers will not be tolerated”.

“It is positive to see the Government listening to both the retail and security industries who have been campaigning for more stringent measures,” he said.

“As well as tougher sentences, it is encouraging to see an enhanced plan published by the Government to fight back against retail crime, building on the police’s Retail Crime Action Plan. We know that with multiple drivers of retail crime, a consistent, multi-layered approach is required to truly clamp down on it.

“The use of technology is key to catching organised criminal gangs and repeat offenders, so the earmarking of funding for bespoke units to identify criminals wanted by police, including repeat offenders, is a good first step.

“Yet we can do even more when the police and the industry collaborate. Pegasus, a new initiative launched in late 2023, brings together a powerful combination of industry leading technology with highly trained specialists.

“Through Pegasus, the sharing of anonymised information between 13 retailers, including Boots, M&S and the Co-op, is already starting to build a bigger picture of retail crime across the UK.

“Crime hotspots and patterns are being mapped and we can track the activities of organised crime groups from Liverpool to Leicester to Llandudno to create a whole picture. Data is already being shared with the police to secure convictions.

“By looking to this smarter, more joined-up way of operating as the new normal, we can deploy a future-proof, zero-tolerance approach to retail crime, deterring potential offenders and enhancing the protection and safety of our shopworkers and security professionals.”

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