>>the dire consequences of decriminalising theft - francis chaney, finance director, Spar retailer Lawrence Hunt

You have to look back at the 1960s to understand why this country is where it is today, with crimes that carry inadequate punishment and new shoplifting legislation that threatens to make things worse.
Back then, a White Paper was issued stating that it was “unnecessary to build further prisons, or indeed modify existing prisons because, by the year 2000, the country will be so affluent that crime will have virtually disappeared”.
Oh dear. It is now easy to see that the real reason for the reduction in custodial sentences is overcrowding in prisons.
When drink-driving became an offence, it was difficult to change the mindset of many of that current generation who were unable to view drink-driving as a crime. The general view could be summed up as:‘Surely you can’t bracket a driving offence with a criminal act like stealing from a shop?’ It was the attitude of the next generation of drivers that made the new legislation acceptable.
Unfortunately the reverse is true with the introduction of spot fines for shoplifting, in that the offence has been decriminalised. This is an insidious change for current and future generations because any sense of shame and stigma attached to stealing disappears. It is now in the same league as a minor speeding or parking offence.
The new law says that anyone caught shoplifting for the first time will be fined £80. Quaint indeed, for just who the hell is going to catch them?
It is now far, far easier to catch a speeding motorist than a shoplifter. The habitual thief caught for the first time has probably shoplifted on at least 100 previous occasions and knows that the chances of being caught are slim. However, once caught the thief will be fined £80. But how will the fine get paid in view of the fact that the majority of people who steal do so because they have no money? The overall payment rate is only 70%, even after non-payers are taken to court. Believe me, even that pathetic rate will soon sound brilliant.
The legislation states that thieves who pay their fine within three weeks will not receive a criminal record. But today’s casual thief doesn’t care about a criminal record. More than two in 10 shoplifters in the UK are under the age of 18, they lack respect for anything and see a system of fines as nothing but a licence to increase their activities. And with the increased incidences
of shoplifting will come not only bigger losses for retailers (the total loss to British shops was £600m last year) but also increased abuse and violence towards staff. This will make recruitment and retention of staff more difficult than it already is.
The following story is an extreme example of where unpunished shoplifting can lead. A few years ago, we banned a group of youths from one of our stores because they had shoplifted. As a result, they abused staff over a long period of time for refusing to serve them. This abuse included head-butting them, burning them with cigarettes, smashing their car windscreens and gouging their cars with a key.
So we employed security staff, but soon one was attacked with a machete. He defended himself and was subsequently prosecuted and convicted of assaulting the youth wielding the machete. By then we had had enough and found a purchaser for the store, informing him of the problems and selling at a reduced price to reflect the risk (discount 60%, equating to £250k).
The final insult came when the local police chief rang and questioned my conscience because, he said, the sale to a new owner of ethnic origin would have an inflammatory effect on the local community and require vastly increased policing requirements. That was all he was worried about! And he even asked for the purchaser’s telephone number because he said he intended to call him and warn him off the purchase.
I appreciate my view is hardly an optimistic view of the effects of the new shoplifting laws. I hope I am wrong.