The government’s response to a call for evidence on violence towards shopworkers has left the retail industry disappointed.

A year ago, the Home Office appealed for evidence on the issue and received more than 4,000 responses including those from convenience retailers and their staff.

It outlined its commitment to protecting shopworkers through actions such as Crime and Policing Minister will write to all PCCs and Chief Constables highlighting the issue of violence and abuse towards shop staff and asking them to continue to work closely with local businesses to understand the scale of the issue locally and to develop suitable responses to it.

It also set out that the theft of goods valued up to £200 from a shop should be prosecuted as a criminal offence. What triggered the disappointment was the lack of changes to the law to deter those who commit thousands of incidents of threats, violence and abuse against people working in retail.

According to the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) Crime Report published in March, 83% of workers in the sector have been subject to verbal abuse over the past year while in its Covid-19 Impact Study, 40% of retailers saw an increase in violence and abuse since the start of lockdown.

‘Warm words not enough’

ACS chief executive James Lowman said: “We are disappointed that it has taken the Home Office over a year to acknowledge the overwhelming body of evidence showing the extent of violence and abuse against shopworkers. Warm words and working groups are not enough; we need tougher penalties for attacks on shopworkers and more police resource to stamp out violence.

“The government is rightly approaching Police and Crime Commissioners and Chief Constables to encourage better handling of incidents affecting shopworkers, but this must be followed to ensure proper enforcement. This must not become a blame game with national and local authorities passing responsibility to one another; this is a critical issue affecting the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, and ministers must build on the Home Secretary’s leadership today and take ownership of this problem.

Paddy Lillis, general secretary of shopworkers’ union USDAW, expressed “deep disappointment” at the lack of action by the government. “They have failed to listen to the voices of shop workers and retailers, who had jointly called for a simple stand-alone offence that is widely recognised and understood by the public, police, CPS, the judiciary and most importantly criminals.

“Our message is clear, abuse is not part of the job. Life on the frontline of retail is normally pretty tough for many shopworkers and has become much worse during the coronavirus emergency. Shopworkers are on the frontline of feeding the country, providing an essential service in very difficult circumstances, working long hours in busy stores, facing abuse from customers and of course concerned they may contract Covid-19.”

Tom Ironside, director of business regulation and co-chair of the National Retail Crime Steering Group echoed these concerns.

“The Government response acknowledges the need for an improved police response – something the BRC has long called for,” he said. “However, we are disappointed that the Call for Evidence does not to seek to introduce a specific offence for attacking shop workers, despite the evidence gathered in the report and the support of Retailers, business groups and MPs for a proposed Bill. Recommendations to look at the Sentencing Council Guidelines and Sentencing legislation are welcome, along with the indication that offences against shopworkers can already be treated as aggravated, even though they seldom are. Moreover, this is no substitute for the message that a change in the law would send.

Shop theft threshold

National Federation of Retail Newsagents national president Stuart Reddish welcomed the £200 shop theft threshold. “I am very pleased that the Federation’s campaign to highlight the weaknesses of having a £200 threshold for shop theft has been recognised by the government, who are now ‘writing to PCCs and Chief Constables setting out that the theft of goods valued up to £200 from a shop should be prosecuted as a criminal offence and therefore should not constrain the ability of the police to arrest or prosecute someone in the way they feel is most appropriate’.”