Retailers have backed plans to give new powers to volunteer police as crime statistics reveal the highest level of shop theft since 2003.

According to annual figures from the Office for National Statistics, volumes of shop theft rose in the year ending September 2015, with 9,000 more incidents of shop theft recorded (332,277).

Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) chief executive James Lowman said: “These figures are disappointing. Government must be clear that shop theft is a serious offence. Police forces must prioritise shop theft.”

The Home Office last week announced a number of reforms to the powers and roles of police staff and volunteers that could increase the number of volunteer special constables on the streets.

The reforms will give volunteers powers without becoming a special constable. Under the plans, chief officers will be able to designate a wider range of powers to police staff and volunteers, and volunteers can be designated powers in the same way as paid staff.

Home Secretary Theresa May said: “We value the essential role police officers carry out, but they cannot do this on their own. We want to help forces create a more flexible workforce, bring in new skills and free up officers’ time to focus on the jobs only they can carry out.”

Malcolm Crump, owner of Spar Compton in Wolverhampton, said: “Anything to do with increasing police staff has to be a good thing. In an ideal world we would have more qualified police staff, but we live in the real world where budget is a restraint and this could be a great way of increasing a police presence on the street. Even if they don’t have all the same powers of arrest, they would still act as a deterrent.”

James Wellwork, manager at Spar stores in Todmorden Road and Pike Hill, Burnley, said: “To have a regular presence on the street and outside targeted businesses would really impact on people and make them think twice before committing crimes.”