James Lowman is Chief Executive of the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS). This is a sponsored post by the ACS.
Last year, almost 10,000 people working in convenience stores were the victim of violence while doing their job, with similar numbers reported by big retail stores. The circumstances of these offences are simply responsible businesses and their employees upholding the law and keeping their communities safe by enforcing age restrictions, refusing to serve intoxicated customers or dealing with shop thieves.
Retailers have invested millions to protect their stores. Regrettably this essential action increases costs for consumers and despite significant investment, the tide of violence and abusive behaviour has continued. Soon the new Prime Minister will appoint their new team, and possibly a new Home Secretary and Justice Secretary, who will need to deal with this massive human and societal problem, face up to this challenge and give local shops the support they need.
Over the last 12 weeks, retailers have had the opportunity to tell the Home Office directly about the impact of violence and abuse faced by them and their staff as part of a formal call for evidence. This is more than just a data gathering process, it matters because these incidents rarely get reported. Low reporting rates means official figures understate the problem, so resources get allocated elsewhere. Thousands of stores have now sent in their stories of dealing with violence and abuse, some on an almost daily basis, and the message is clear: this is serious issue facing many thousands of people, and it isn’t a problem that’s going away on its own. So, this is the plan the Government needs to implement.
Firstly, when the perpetrators of crimes against retailers and shop workers are caught, there’s an inconsistent and usually unsatisfactory response from the justice system. People who work in shops are on the front line, enforcing the law on age-restricted sales and serving as part of their community. If a shopworker is attacked while just doing their job, we believe that offenders should receive tougher sentences in line with what they would have received if they had attacked emergency workers. This is a bold recommendation requiring changes to sentencing guidelines and new legislation, but there needs to be a clear message that attacking a shopworker is unacceptable, and that their contribution in upholding the law is valued.
The second thing we need is a fundamental review of the out-of-court disposals system for low-level offences like shop theft. Tougher sentencing does not matter if offenders aren’t getting to court in the first place. Fixed penalty notices and cautions as they currently work are not deterring offenders from committing further crimes which often become more serious and more violent. As Sir Brian Leveson told Radio 4’s PM programme last week using the example of repeat shop thieves, there must be sufficiently significant and meaningful penalties or offenders will not change their behaviour, nor will the cause of that behaviour – usually addiction to drugs or alcohol – be recognised and treated.
To break the cycle of offending, better interventions are needed. The Centre for Social Justice’s ‘Second Chance’ programme is a good starting point for new interventions that could make real difference to offenders and the communities they live in. If courts aren’t intervening, through support or sanctions, we shouldn’t then be surprised when those individuals can no longer feed their habit through theft, and threaten shopworkers with syringes, knives and hammers in order to steal £50 – a scene that unfolds daily across the country.
We also have to confront some hard truths about the resources and priorities of police forces. Chief Constables simply don’t have the personnel, time and support to investigate every incident of violence and intimidation in our members’ stores. Conveniently, the Government can point to Police and Crime Commissioners’ resource prioritisation as the reason why so many incidents aren’t investigated. But if people working in our communities are the victims of violence every day, and the police can’t find the time to investigate, then they’re either adopting very strange priorities, or more likely they haven’t got the resources to do their job. Fret about politicising crime as much as you like, the reality is the trauma felt by those victims of violence, far too many of whom aren’t seeing justice, and who feel that under-resourcing, inaction, and indifference is making it more likely that they and their colleagues will be a victim again in the future.
You can look at the recommendations we, along with many others in the retail sector, have made to the Minister here, and I trust that Conservative Party members will engage with these policy suggestions and respond appropriately to this serious challenge to the community in which we all live, and the shop staff that work within it.