Protection of Retail Workers Debate

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Department: Home Office

Protection of Retail Workers

Chris Stephens Excerpts
Monday 7th June 2021

(11 months, 2 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall
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Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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It is a pleasure to see a fellow Glaswegian in the Chair, Mr Gray—our city is the centre of the universe, as you are aware. I thank the hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) for presenting this debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee. I pay tribute to my colleagues for their fine speeches. This has been an excellent debate, and I commend my hon. Friends the Members for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Steven Bonnar) and for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) for their excellent contributions.

I should declare—other hon. Members have mentioned their careers—that my first job when I was at school was working for the then supermarket chain Presto. I was still at school, but I worked for Presto two evenings a week, and I was assigned to the paperware department. For those watching these proceedings who do not know what the paperware department is, it is the toilet rolls. My responsibility was to stack the shelves of toilet rolls where I lived—obviously, I moved up in my career to soup tins and the rest. But some of the issues then apply now.

We should start from the basic principle that no one should have to experience violence and abuse while doing their job. The Scottish National party supports the effective legal protection of retail workers and is urging the UK Government to take action on this issue and strengthen other workers’ rights. As many hon. Members have said, retail workers carry out an important role in serving the needs of our communities, and it is only right that they receive effective legal protection. As many colleagues have said, that is going to exist very shortly in Scotland.

The Scottish Government not only supported the Bill that gives greater protections in law to retail workers, but are assisting with a new awareness-raising campaign to highlight the impact of the abuse, threats and violence on retail staff. The campaign is being delivered by Crimestoppers, Fearless and the Scottish Grocers’ Federation and is backed by £50,000 of Scottish Government funding.

The British Retail Consortium and more than 65 chief executive officers wrote to the Prime Minister in February calling for legislation to make assaulting shop workers a separate offence in England and Wales. I really am staggered to see that the Government’s first response to the petition on 15 September 2020 was to say that that they were not persuaded that a specific offence was needed as a wide range of offences already exist covering assaults against any worker, including shop workers. I hope the Minister will perhaps give us an indication of why that is the case, because it is certainly not what is being said by many Members in this debate.

Verbal abuse and violence against all staff has been increasing for some time. A British Retail Consortium survey finds that that has accelerated as a result of covid safety measures and is now up to 455 incidents a day. Major triggers for these incidents, as we have heard from many colleagues in this debate, include challenging customers for identification and encountering shoplifters. The Scottish Grocers’ Federation crime survey last year indicated an increase in verbal or physical abuse in 2020 in the retail sector. Such appalling behaviour is completely unacceptable. Like everyone else, shop workers are fully entitled to work free from the threat of violence or abuse.

I have read the USDAW briefing and I think that some of the evidence presented to us by the trade union should be read out. I will read out extracts from the presentation given to us about what has happened in Scotland; I think that will show why the legislation was needed in Scotland and why it is needed in the rest of the United Kingdom.

A worker in central Scotland said:

“I challenged a customer under Think 25. He threw his shopping at me and tried to grab me.”

Another worker was punched in the back by a customer when they were filling shelves,

“just to ask me if I am busy”.

There is verbal abuse. An USDAW member in Glasgow said:

“A customer swore at me and hit me with a sandwich. The abuse I receive varies from comments”—

I will not say some of the words used, but again it is verbal abuse. There is finger-pointing in the face and being poked at with a finger. Another worker said:

“Customers tried to punch me on the body.”

USDAW members in the highlands and islands who asked people politely to keep a two-metre distance were met with verbal abuse and told to get on with their work. People have thrown money at retail workers. There is verbal abuse, mainly from people influenced by drugs and alcohol.

USDAW members in Lothian say:

“People get stroppy about wearing face coverings. Customers have called me an idiot for asking for identification.”

There has been sexual assault of workers in the retail sector. USDAW members in mid-Scotland and Fife say:

“Customers take their frustration out on staff, being verbally abusive for no reason and treating us like dirt. Threats, coughing in my face and rants at having to wait in a queue.”

USDAW members in the north-east of Scotland talk about

“Shoplifters angry at being challenged. An attempted armed robbery. Verbal abuse from shoplifters, verbal abuse from intoxicated customers and verbal abuse from people who have been asked for ID.”

USDAW members in the south of Scotland talk about

“Covid-related abuse about social distancing and queues at checkouts…Get verbal abuse asking for ID, customers being nasty, shouting in front of the rest of the queue and shouting abuse when we carry out Challenge 25.”

Finally, this is from USDAW members in the west of Scotland:

“Drunk people unable to accept service refusal, usually verbal, being spat at and threats. When we are politely explaining our refund policy, some people get very abusive when they find out they cannot exchange without a receipt.”

If people think that this law should only be law in Scotland and that what I have just read out—testimonies from USDAW workers in Scotland—does not apply in the rest of the United Kingdom, then I have magic beans to sell them, because it is quite clear that this legislation should be introduced across the United Kingdom. I hope that the Government will do that.

However, there is a thread here that is of concern to me—the UK Government’s failure to deliver. As the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris), I think, quite rightly asked, where are the protections for workers since covid and as a result of covid? Where is the Employment Bill that was in the last two Queen’s Speeches as a result of the Taylor review, which should deal with exploitative contracts and short-term shift changes—both features of the retail sector? Where is the Bill to ban fire and rehire, as proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands)—which, again, is a feature in the retail sector? It is not there. I have a real concern, as the hon. Member for Easington rightly pointed out, that this Government give platitudes with one hand but do not deliver protections and legislation with the other.

If we are to build a fairer society, it needs to enhance and protect the workers’ rights that were hard-fought for. Frankly, if the UK Government will not provide those employment rights, they should devolve the responsibility to the Scottish Parliament—the Scottish Parliament will ensure that it does provide them.

--- Later in debate ---
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.