Philip Dunne is MP for Ludlow and chaired the party's Retail Crime Commission, which reported yesterday. He will be discussing the issues raised here at a the British Retail Consortium-sponsored fringe meeting at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester at 10am on Monday 5th October.
For all Labour’s tough talk on tackling crime and the causes of crime, there is mounting evidence that after 12 years of Government rhetoric, high streets and local neighbourhood shopping areas are suffering record levels of theft. As if this wasn’t bad enough, violent theft is also rising – up 11% in the last year for which statistics are available.
Theft from retailers also provides one of the principal sources of funding for drug abuse. Britain now ranks third worst out of 28 industrialised countries in the prevalence of serious drug use amongst adults as well as 15-16 year olds. The drugs menace accounts for many of the social ills afflicting young people, their families and their communities.
All of this has a debilitating impact on local communities. People become fearful of visiting their local shops where the threat of anti-social behaviour in and around retail premises and violence and abuse can become routinely accepted by shop staff, who often have to suffer the added perception of crime in retail premises as victimless.
But retail crime is not 'victimless'. Shop staff and their customers should not be subject to intimidation and violence. Retail businesses suffer, reducing profitability and forcing up costs to consumers. Repeated anti-social behaviour directed towards shops can force closure, depriving a community of retail convenience and reducing the quality of life for residents. This has the greatest impact on the most vulnerable, particularly elderly or young families.
Labour’s response has been pitiful. Retail crime has been downgraded in importance by the Government in its latest Policing Green Paper and is not even included within the existing monitoring or performance regime for police forces. Meanwhile fixed penalty tickets issued by Police Forces for shop theft have increased by 14% in the last year. Yet these sanctions are routinely abused with many offenders, especially serial offenders, refusing to pay their fixed penalties.
Retailers’ concerns are being ignored, which is why I agreed to set up and chair the Retail Crime Commission to make recommendations to the Conservative Party. Our proposals are set out in the report published yesterday and available to view online.
The cost of crime against business now stands at a staggering £12.6 billion with retailers suffering the highest number of crimes amongst all business sectors in 2008.
Evidence we received from retailers revealed that 92% saw an increase in retail crime during the last 12 months, with 83% attributing the increase to the recession. We even had anecdotal evidence that theft of food has risen in the recession.
The report calls for a more explicit commitment to make community-led retail crime reduction a priority, with Home Office support. Each Crime & Disorder Reduction Partnership should have an obligation to consult businesses in their area as part of the formulation of a specific business/retail crime strategy.
Police should be obliged to record where crime occurs in retail premises and to include this in crime mapping. Local police forces should be encouraged to collaborate and share information to address increasing criminal activity against retailers which crosses police force borders.
We received several examples from across the country of good local initiatives delivering results. We are recommending the Audit Commission should take responsibility for identifying and encouraging the spread of best practice in local crime reduction initiatives when reviewing partnerships.
Sanctions for offenders need to be more effective. Community based sanctions can be more widely used where appropriate for first time offences, helping restore confidence to the public and social responsibility among perpetrators. The existing sanctions regime should be reformed so that Fixed Penalty Notices (14% more of which were issued for shoplifting last year) are only used for first time offences and are recorded to ensure repeat offenders are identified.
Persistent offenders should receive custodial sentences, but prisons should have a responsibility for rehabilitation and they and others who rehabilitate offenders should be paid according to their success in preventing criminals offend again.
Our recommendations are designed to change the culture of apathy surrounding retail crime, promote collaboration and information sharing and reform the existing sanctions regime.
The report argues that retailers are at the heart of most flourishing neighbourhoods, providing jobs, vital on the door-step local services and aiding community cohesion.
A community-led retail crime reduction priority should be central to restoring the retail heart of our local communities to rude health, ensuring residents feel safe in their own neighbourhoods.