Anna McMorrin (Cardiff North) (Lab)
It is a pleasure, Mr Gray, to serve under your chairship.
I thank the hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) for introducing this timely debate on the protection of retail workers from abuse, threats and violence—an issue he has experience of, having worked in retail. I also place on the record my thanks to the Petitions Committee, and I give a massive thanks to the thousands of signatories and those who have championed this petition. I also pay tribute to USDAW, the co-operative movement and the GMB, who have all worked tirelessly to ensure that this issue is rightly given the time that it deserves to be debated in.
We have heard strong and passionate contributions from right across the political divide, showing the need to drive forward this issue. I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris), who has worked tirelessly on this issue, including on the recent introduction of his own 10-minute rule Bill.
There is a growing epidemic in the heart of our communities of abuse and violence against key workers, who are the backbone of this country. In this difficult year, they have shown the significant value that they add to our communities and our lives up and down the country. This is a crisis. Like so many other crises we must confront, we have a solution to tackle and deter unacceptable behaviour and violence, and deliver justice for victims. If anyone is in any doubt about the scale of the problem across the country in 2021, we have heard some of it today: 88% of retail workers experienced verbal abuse last year, up from 77% the year before. Some 10% were assaulted—that is 300,000 out of a 3 million-strong retail workforce. There were 455 incidents of violence and abuse each day, yet only 6% of those incidents resulted in prosecution. That is shocking.
Covid pressures and restrictions have certainly driven that increase, but that is by no means a justifiable excuse. This crisis and grave miscarriage of justice has long existed and cannot be ignored. Retail staff are key workers: they are our sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, friends and neighbours. They are those who have kept our country fed throughout this pandemic. They may be the only smile or conversation our grandparent may have that day. They may be the person who returned a lost wallet, who comforts a child when they are separated. They are retail workers, but they are so much more. They are counsellors, friends and heroes.
Let us be clear that any and all forms of abuse, threats and violence, whether physical, verbal or mental, are unacceptable. No one should have to face harm at the hands of a stranger at work. No one should be treated with disrespect, spat at, bitten, grabbed, sexually harassed or discriminated against, and no one should have to mentally prepare themselves before a shift. No one should be forced to take self-defence classes because the law fails them. No one should have to take time off because of trauma or injury. Retail workers should not have to wear body cameras to carry out their work, yet so many are so fearful, traumatised and badly neglected by the authorities and the law that they feel there is no alternative.
For many retail workers across the country, that is their daily experience and their battle. They already face insecure and precarious working conditions: they are paid disproportionately lower wages; they have fire and rehire tactics used against them; and a third are under the age of 25 and particularly vulnerable. Let us look at a few examples. Take Ian Robson from Gateshead: he was dragged and punched repeatedly with a knuckle duster after asking a customer to wear a face mask. A shop worker in Northamptonshire had part of her ear bitten off. Others often have needles pulled out at them in store. Another in west Yorkshire was spat at in the face, thumped in the chest and head butted. When she was visibly pregnant, she was repeatedly knocked by a customer with a trolley and chased down the aisle. That is not normal. The situation is untenable.
Retail workers should be free from worry, fear and anxiety. It is so easy to get lost in the statistics, but many people across the country, including from my own constituency, have contacted me demanding change. That is why we are here today. We know that that feeling is shared across the country. Worse still, too many victims feel that the system does not work to protect them. Who can blame them, when so few cases lead to prosecution and a quarter of cases go unreported altogether? This must be tackled with sustained and meaningful action.
It is a damning failure of this UK Government not to listen to the voices from the frontline, not recognise the exponential rise in abuse of retail staff, and not protect our heroes. Labour has long campaigned for, and brought forward, credible, achievable and non-partisan legislative proposals to improve conditions for millions. All were hindered by consecutive Conservative Governments, including this one, whose own consultation—not a year old—said that
“it does not consider that the case is yet made out for a change in the law.”
The first question the Minister must answer today is: if the Government truly believe that there is a serious issue, why continue to delay necessary action to protect workers? I am sure we will hear plenty of warm words from the Minister, but they will all be hollow platitudes until his Government bring forward the necessary legislation, and work together to make progress on this issue by passing our amendment tabled to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.
The Government consultation last year reads like a devastating charge sheet of failings. These included a lack of response by police to threats, inadequacies within the criminal justice system, concern over ineffective powers to deal with abuse in the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, and the recognition that victims themselves have a lack of awareness of their rights under the victims’ code—a consequence of the Justice Secretary, his predecessor, and his predecessor’s predecessor breaking promises to reinforce victims’ rights and bring forward a Bill.
Those points in the consultation were all accepted and recognised by this Government, yet they have failed to act. All this evidence points to the clear need for tighter legislation along the lines of the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018, introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). Will the Minister work with us now, as his predecessors did then? Will he explain what steps the Government are taking to ensure the safety of retail workers, why they believe there is no case for a change in the law, and how they will deal with the appallingly low prosecution rate?
Time and again, we have heard warm words and grand gestures, but seen little action. Through our amendment, we have put the option for progress on the table: a stand-alone offence and a 12-month prison sentence for abuse, threats and violence against retail workers is here and ready to go. We will do what is necessary; we have cross-party support. The Government must stop aiding and abetting offenders, and improve this law to protect our retail workers—our key workers, who have worked hard during this pandemic—and they must ensure that this system delivers justice.