At long last, shopworkers have the shield they so desperately need in their long – and often dangerous – retail crime battle.

Under an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill, assaulting retail workers will soon be made a standalone criminal offence in England and Wales.

It’s certainly a bittersweet victory for shopworkers, given such measures are deemed necessary in the first place. But at least a strong message is now there to defend them against abusive behaviour.

In short, a standalone offence makes it easier for the police and courts to investigate, prosecute, and sentence offenders.

It will also create a more transparent datapoint in recording how many incidents are happening and the level of resources being used to prosecute offenders. That’s a key barrier in existing powers aimed to protect shopworkers against violence and abuse.

Currently, under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, assaults against shopworkers are recorded under a generic crime category and an aggravating factor is only considered by the judge when making sentencing decisions. Which, in reality, makes it difficult to know if it has ever been used.

With a standalone offence, it will elevate the seriousness at the point of the attack in the eyes of the law, which will hopefully lead to more prosecutions and convictions of offenders.

Scotland’s retail crime protections

That’s what Scotland’s Protection of Workers Act sets out to do. It’s almost three years since it became law, making it a statutory offence to assault, threaten or abuse a retail worker. It also provides tougher penalties if staff are carrying out statutory duties such as ID checks for age-restricted sales at the time of the attack.

And it’s working – at least to a degree. According to Police Scotland, there has been a 61.7% detection rate for the 10,295 cases reported by retailers under the act so far, whereby the police have identified the person responsible for the attack.

In comparison, less than 10% of violence and abuse cases against shopworkers end up in arrest in England and Wales, which shows far more incidents are being acted on by police when there is a standalone offence.

But the truth is, the law in Scotland is not a complete silver bullet. New figures from the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service reveal just 11.6% of the incidents reported by retailers have resulted in conviction under the act so far.

It’s disappointing to know so many shopworker victims in Scotland are still waiting for justice, especially considering it’s primarily driven by a backlog in the courts.

That lack of faith is also hampered by poor police response times. According to the Scottish Grocers’ Federation’s latest crime report, 55.7% reported police response times to violence incidents against staff were either unsatisfactory or significantly delayed.

That’s despite 37% of retailers reporting incidents involving a weapon, such as a knife, club or firearm, occurring at least once a month. It’s needless to say Scottish ministers must pump more money into its police force to ignite the urgency of these crimes.

Shopworker abusers wearing tags

Ultimately, there is a lack of resource available in the police and justice system which, as the SGF puts it, is a “political decision by Scottish ministers not to prioritise tackling retail crime”.

It goes to show the amendment to Criminal Justice Bill in England and Wales is just one piece of the puzzle, which makes it even more critical that government upholds its other measures to tackle retail crime.

A big part of that was its promise to improve police attendance in shoplifting instances where violence has been used, as part of the Retail Crime Action Plan announced in October. There’s also the swathe of mechanisms announced this week alongside the standalone offence that PM Rishi Sunak laid out in the retail crime crackdown. 

This includes government clamping down on offenders who repeatedly target the country’s high streets, with serial offenders forced to wear tags to track their movements.

These tags would be a constant and physical reminder to offenders that the Probation Service can find out where they have been and when, and that they risked being sent to prison if they refused to obey the rules.

It’s clear government has listened to the retailers, trade bodies, and unions who have long campaigned to stop the rising tide of retail crime, and for that, government deserves credit.

Combine all these efforts, alongside the standalone offence, and retailers can finally get back to serving their communities free of fear.