Protection of Retail Workers Debate

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Department: Home Office

Protection of Retail Workers

Chris Philp Excerpts
Monday 7th June 2021

(11 months, 2 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall
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Chris Philp Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Chris Philp)
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As always, Mr Gray, it is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I join others in paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) for the aplomb and elegance with which he introduced this afternoon’s debate. I add a tribute to the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) who, as many other Members have said, has been campaigning on this issue for a very long time. The strength of feeling on this topic is palpable and, of course, is evidenced by the 104,000 people who signed the petition.

To add my own CV reference to those of others, my very first salaried job when I was aged about 16 or 17 was working in a branch of Sainsbury’s in south London—very close to my now constituency—so I have had that experience of working in retail myself. Thankfully, I never got assaulted, although I was frequently ridiculed by customers on the rare occasions I was allowed to operate the till instead of stacking shelves, due to my complete inability to recognise various rudimentary forms of fruit and vegetable. This was in the days before barcodes, and I was completely unable to recognise most of the fruit and vegetables that people were buying. That caused a lot of merriment and, on occasion, ridicule—all of which was entirely deserved, I should add.

Many Members have paid deserved and justified tribute to retail operatives and retail workers for the work that they have been doing, particularly during the pandemic. They serve the public and our communities, as many Members have eloquently and powerfully set out. Of course, violence against such workers has a significant impact on individuals. It can leave them with physical effects, but it also has a significant bearing on their overall emotional and mental stability. No worker should suffer abuse or violence in providing service to members of the public—that is completely unacceptable. For more than a year, the pandemic has resulted in some shop workers feeling more vulnerable and susceptible to even worse behaviour and treatment than they might have experienced before, so we completely understand the motivations and concerns that have brought so many Members to this Westminster Hall debate, and we understand what motivated 104,000 people to sign the petition.

It is worth laying out the law as it currently stands, because some speeches might have suggested that there are no provisions in place to protect emergency workers from these kinds of terrible assaults, but that is of course not the case. A number of existing criminal offences cover many of the terrible attacks of the kind that we have heard described, which inflict harm on people both physically and psychologically. The entry level offence is common assault, which carries a maximum sentence of six months’ imprisonment, but a lot of offences go beyond that. Many of the examples of offences that we have heard described would, in fact, not be charged as common assault; they would be charged as much more serious offences. The hon. Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin) described several incidents, but two in particular stuck in my mind. She mentioned a terrible example—I think it was in the north-east—of someone being dragged, punched with knuckle-dusters and kicked, and another terrible case where somebody’s ear was bitten. That would not be charged as common assault, because it is much more serious than common assault.

That would apply in Scotland as well. The law in Scotland applies to the common assault-type offences. Much more serious offences, such as those I have just mentioned, would be charged as something different. For example, actual bodily harm, or section 20 grievous bodily harm, carries a maximum sentence not of six months or 12 months, as is the case with the new law in Scotland, but of five years. More serious offences—for example grievous bodily harm with intent to commit—carry a maximum sentence not of a year, as per the new law in Scotland, but of 10 years.

Anna McMorrin Portrait Anna McMorrin
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What the Minister fails to recognise is that the current law is not fit for purpose. Only 6% of incidents result in prosecution. There is a real failure in the system, and that is recognised by his own consultation.

Chris Philp Portrait Chris Philp
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I agree that there is an issue with the number of prosecutions. I will come to that in just a few moments’ time. I will address that point—I am not trying to duck it, because I am coming to it next.

Points have been made about knives and people producing a bladed article in a shop. Again, if somebody makes a threat with a knife, it is not charged as common assault and it would not be charged under the new offence in Scotland. It would be charged as making a threat with a bladed article, which carries a four-year maximum sentence and, for adults, a six-month minimum sentence. All of these offences exist, and many of them carry higher sentences than the new Scottish law, and higher sentences than common assault.

That does not, however, answer the question that many Members have raised. They have made the point that attacks on retail workers are different, because the retail worker is providing a service to the public. In some cases, the retail worker is effectively enforcing the law on our behalf—for example, by asking questions about whether somebody is over the age of 18 when buying cigarettes, alcohol and similar. Many Members have made the point that retail workers are different and that for that reason the offence should be taken more seriously. Members are right to say that.

In responding to that reasonable and legitimate question, I point colleagues to the Sentencing Council guidelines for common assault, which, as it happens, were refreshed and updated just last week—I think the updated version came out on Thursday of last week. The section on common assault also covers racially and religiously aggravated assault and the common assault of an emergency worker. One of the listed aggravating factors for common assault, which would lead to a sentence going up relative to what would otherwise be the case, is an

“Offence committed against those working in the public sector—”

quite rightly—

“or providing a service to the public or against a person coming to the assistance of an emergency worker.”

The Sentencing Council guidelines, refreshed just last week, expressly recognise that those people providing a service to the public, including retail workers, are doing a different kind of job, and that somebody who assaults them deserves a higher sentence. That is what aggravating factor means.

That applies not only to the common assault offence; it is also to be found in the list of aggravating factors for actual bodily harm, grievous bodily harm and so on. That list of aggravating factors is not long; it is about 15 bullet points. Those concerns are recognised, as is deliberately spitting or coughing. Some Members mentioned that, during the pandemic, people have spat at or coughed on retail workers in a deliberate attempt to give them covid, to threaten to give them covid or to give them the impression that they might be at risk of covid. “Deliberate spitting or coughing” is the very first non-statutory aggravating factor on the list, so again, that is accounted for.

It is worth saying that these aggravating factors do not apply only to retail workers but to any public sector worker, quite rightly, and to other people providing a public service, including transport workers. The debate has focused on retail workers, who are special and deserve protection and who suffer terrible abuse, as everyone has said, but we should not forget people who work on buses, trains or the London underground, or postmen, teachers or social workers. I would not like to say that they should be overlooked if they are assaulted as they go about their work. They are just as important as retail workers. The Sentencing Council aggravating factor sets out that people who assault retail workers, teachers, postmen and people working on trains and so on will get a heavier sentence.

Liz Twist Portrait Liz Twist
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The Minister refers to the sentencing guidelines, but they are only of any impact if we actually get the prosecution. That is the issue that we are all trying to raise.

Chris Philp Portrait Chris Philp
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I will now come to that critical point, which the shadow Minister also raised. I hope I have demonstrated in my foregoing remarks that, first, the criminal offences to prosecute assaults on emergency workers are already on the statute book, and secondly, that where prosecutions are secured, a longer sentence will already be given owing to the aggravating factors I have just read out. Creating a new offence does not answer the question, because the offence exists already. The aggravating factor exists already. The issue is prosecutions, as the shadow Minister and the hon. Lady have raised.

I have some data. I am not sure whether it came from the USDAW survey or another source. I got it through the Home Affairs Committee’s survey. I am not sure whether that is the same one or a different one.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris
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It’s a different one.

Chris Philp Portrait Chris Philp
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Thank you. The Committee surveyed 8,742 people, whom I believe were retail workers, asking if they had been assaulted, and many had been. They were asked whether they had reported the offence, and 87%—not quite 100%—of respondents reported it to the employer. The Committee then asked whether they had reported the offence to the police, and only 53%—half of those retail workers who suffered an assault—had done so. In 12% of cases there was an investigation and arrest. That 12% figure is clearly too low, as the shadow Minister and the hon. Member for Blaydon pointed out. Putting a new criminal offence on the statute book does not fill the gap. It is about investigation and prosecution, and that has to start with reporting.

Grahame Morris Portrait Grahame Morris
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I raised the Home Affairs Committee report in my brief contribution. I still think that we need to have a specific offence to deter people—my people in Peterlee should not be any less well protected than the people in Peterhead, which is what is happening at the moment. The Committee suggested improved security. Body cameras have been mentioned, and they should be a factor, to give staff confidence, should they challenge someone, that they have a witness to take forward a prosecution, if necessary. Does the Minister agree?

Chris Philp Portrait Chris Philp
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I agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is vital that more people report such offences and that we support the retail community to take steps to detect such terrible crimes that are being committed. The national retail crime steering group—of which the Policing Minister is a co-chair or leading member—is doing exactly that kind of work. The Home Office has also invested £40,000 in the ShopKind campaign, which aims to move in the direction mentioned by the hon. Member for Easington.

On the reasons why people do not report incidents—and why only half of victims report them to the police—there is some data in the Home Affairs Committee survey. By the way, I commend the Select Committee for putting that together. It found 3,444 people who did not report their incidents. That is a lot of people. Of the reasons given—people clearly gave more than one—the top one, cited by 35% of those victims who did not report, was:

“I did not believe the employer would do anything about it”.

That is terrible. The first thing we need to do is to say to employers, “If your employee is assaulted in any way, it is your duty as an employer to make sure that it gets reported to the police.”

Secondly, 32% said:

“I believed it was just part of the job”.

Clearly, it is not. That is obviously a terrible perception, so we need to send out a clear message that assault of anyone is unacceptable. Others said:

“I considered the incident too minor to report”,

so we need to make sure that such assaults are criminal offences and that they are aggravated when the victim is providing a service to the public. Another reason, given by 28% of respondents, was:

“I did not believe the police would do anything about it”.

The Policing Minister is working on that. Of course, every time one of those incidents gets reported, the police should take action.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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I do not usually make much of a case for employers, but the British Retail Consortium and 65 CEOs in the United Kingdom are asking the UK Government for a specific law for retail workers. Why does the Minister believe that to be the case?

Chris Philp Portrait Chris Philp
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As I laid out in the first half of my comments, the laws exist already. The law criminalises every example of the behaviour—terrible behaviour—that Members have laid out this afternoon. They are criminal offences already, each and every single one. Most of them, including the two examples given by the shadow Minister, would not be prosecuted under the new Scottish law; they would be prosecuted as more serious assaults. The criminal offences exist and they are, in the Sentencing Council guidelines, already aggravated where the victim is a retail worker or, indeed, a transport worker. In any case, if we passed a measure focusing only on retail workers, it would obviously neglect train and bus drivers and everyone else. However, they are already covered by those aggravating factors.

What is clearly needed is not to criminalise the behaviour; it is criminal already. It is not to elevate the penalty given to those people who are convicted; it is elevated already. What we need to do is to get more convictions, and that starts with reporting. That is the work that the national retail crime steering group is doing. I have participated in this debate from the Ministry of Justice point of view, while the steering group and policing sit with my hon. Friend the Policing Minister, so I will take away a clear message for him and the national retail crime steering group: these terrible offences, which have an enormous impact on retail workers, need to have a significantly elevated focus, in terms of getting more reporting, as we have just talked about, and making sure the police follow them up in every case. The Government obviously agree that these are serious offences and that they need to be investigated and prosecuted. I can give a firm undertaking to hon. Members that I will take that message back to the Policing Minister.

Liz Twist Portrait Liz Twist
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Will the Minister give way?

Chris Philp Portrait Chris Philp
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I was about to conclude, but it would be ungallant not to give way to the hon. Lady.

Liz Twist Portrait Liz Twist
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I thank the Minister for his gallantry. When he talks about reporting, it sounds as if he is asking the shop workers to put right the problem that they are facing. To me, that is definitely not acceptable. We need to look at ways of supporting them, which is why we are all asking the Minister to look again at this issue.

Chris Philp Portrait Chris Philp
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The police can only respond to and investigate crimes that are reported, so any investigation starts with the report by the victim or, in this case, the employer. We heard evidence in the survey report that many victims do not report the crime because they think that their employer will not support them. Clearly, we need to ensure we are actively encouraging reporting and that it is then actively followed up and investigated.

That is the message I will take away from this debate and give clearly to the Policing Minister. I undertake that I will ensure that that message is heard by him and by the steering group, so that steps can be taken to make sure that more of these offences are reported and prosecuted. That is how we can ensure that justice is done and victims protected.