Talk about a long time coming. Last night, policing minister Kit Malthouse announced that the government had finally acted to give shopworkers in England the better protection they have long fought for.
Malthouse wrote to the National Retail Crime Steering Group, which includes members such as the BRC and the ACS, confirming the Home Office has put forward its own amendment to the government’s flagship crime bill that will make attacking a retail worker an aggravated offence. Which, for offenders, means a longer time behind bars.
So it’s cheers all round as shopworkers get one step closer to working fear-free. And it’s a victory for trade bodies, unions and retailers who have long battled against the rising tide of retail crime, even before the pandemic took abuse and violence towards staff to abhorrent new lows.
At least now government is paying back its debt to shopworkers who have fought to keep shelves stocked and the nation fed. As Co-op campaigns and public affairs director Paul Gerrard says: “It sends a very strong message that the government cares.”
But the truth is, the amendment is just a piece of paper. While we hope it will lead to a more effective police response and deterrent to criminals, it doesn’t mean that the lives of shopworkers will automatically become easier. Crime is still rife. And the conditions for crime are significant. As ACS CEO James Lowman puts it: “It’s just one piece of the puzzle.”
A key element in keeping staff safe lies with retailers. It’s not all down to the police. Accurate reporting is vital. We already know that only 30% of retail crime is reported by retailers to the police, according to the ACS Crime Report 2021. Retailers must look at ways to encourage regular reporting – such as Scotmid’s ‘The Hive’ crime logging platform, which aims to do just this.
Security measures, such as CCTV, guards and body-worn cameras, may also now play a bigger part in preventing retail crime. While it’s sad these measures were deemed necessary in the first place, they will be even more vital now to ensure police have all the evidence and resources available to prosecute properly when instances do occur.
There’s also the burden of repeat offenders, because stronger sentencing won’t necessarily be the most effective measure for everyone. As Lowman explains: “We know that lots of incidents are driven by a drug or alcohol addiction, and the best way of stopping reoffending for many of those people is effective rehabilitation, rather than prison time or a fine.”
There’s the rub. If the root of the problem is not tackled, chances are offenders will do it again. As Co-op’s Gerrard echoes: “Part of sentencing has got to be, where it’s appropriate, rehab – so that people can break the cycle and get back to productive lives.”
There’s no denying this amendment will be welcomed. In fact, it could not have been much better timed, amid concerns that Tuesday’s reintroduction of facemask wearing would result in increased violence towards shopfloor workers, before we head into a very busy Christmas. But needless to say, shopworkers shouldn’t hang all their hopes on a bill. It needs the backing of the Bill as well.