Protection of Retail Workers Debate

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Department: Home Office

Protection of Retail Workers

Liz Twist Excerpts
Monday 7th June 2021

(4 months, 1 week ago)

Westminster Hall

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Home Office
James Gray Portrait James Gray (in the Chair)
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We come now to Mike Amesbury, but he has not been here for the debate, so theoretically we should not call him. On this occasion, as we have some time in hand and he probably has perfectly good reasons for not being here, we will call him towards the end of the debate. That brings us to Liz Twist.

Liz Twist Portrait Liz Twist (Blaydon) (Lab)
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It is an honour to serve with you in the chair, Mr Gray. I am particularly keen to take part in this debate because my constituency of Blaydon has a huge proportion of retail workers, what with the Metrocentre at one end and lots of small district centres, so I know that retail workers are crucially important to our local economy and deserve to be treated properly.

At the beginning of the year, I was appalled to hear that one of my staff had witnessed a shop worker in a local store—an Iceland store, I believe—being spat on when trying to enforce mask wearing in the shop. I raised this issue in business questions and was told by the Leader of the House that of course it was awful, but that there were already many ways to prosecute, which is important.

This is another example that was reported to me from my constituency:

“A colleague asked a customer for ID as they were attempting to buy an age restricted product. The customer began verbally abusing the colleague, calling her a fat slag.”

Retail workers have been at the frontline of this pandemic and they need to be protected and valued. This petition calls for specific legislation to protect retail workers and has attracted over 100,000 signatures, including many from Blaydon. It is clear that something has to be done, as the current situation is simply not acceptable.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) for raising the issue through private Member’s Bills. As he mentioned, in 2018 the former Member for Delyn, Sir David Hanson, also attempted to raise the issue. I credit them with building this campaign from that time. We now have an opportunity to make assault on retail workers a crime in its own right through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. Sadly, it seems the Government remain unpersuaded by this, but the Bill is an opportunity to address the issue.

I will not go into the details of the USDAW survey, as many hon. Members have already referred to them, but it provides a shocking picture. Shop workers just from Tyne and Wear provide the following testimony:

“Punched by customer under the influence.”

“Threats from men to ‘kick my head in’, spat at twice.”

“Most customers are polite and keep their distance, however I have had verbal abuse shouted at me.”

We need stronger protection for these staff. Too few cases are prosecuted, and we really need to do something about that.

As I understand it, the Government say that there are already means of prosecuting people. Let us look at what happened with the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018. From a starting point that not many would be prosecuted, we find that 50 assaults on emergency workers have been prosecuted. If the offence is there, it will be pursued. I urge the Government to consider their position.

Grahame Morris Portrait Grahame Morris (Easington) (Lab)
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Thank you for calling me in this important debate, Mr Gray. It is always a pleasure and a privilege to serve under your chairmanship. I thank the Petitions Committee and the hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) for the way in which he initiated the debate. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) for all the excellent work he has done, over a number of years, in promoting the Freedom From Fear campaign. I also want to give a shout-out to USDAW, the GMB and the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union, who have been very much involved in speaking up for their members who face assaults and in the campaign to end abuse and violence towards retail staff.

Whether it is clapping for NHS staff or thanking our key workers, such gestures are worthless if not substantiated with meaningful change by this House. I look to the Minister here. Time and again the Government sympathise with but ignore workers facing cuts to their pay and terms and conditions. I am thinking of businesses, many that have received substantial sums in taxpayer-funded support, using fire and rehire tactics as a form of industrial blackmail. Unless the Government act, they are failing our retail workers because, sadly, workplace abuse and violence have been normalised and are now accepted as part of the job.

My hon. Friends the Members for Ogmore (Chris Elmore), for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) and for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) and others have referred to the USDAW survey, so I will not repeat that, but the British Retail Consortium revealed that there were 455 incidents of abuse and violence every day in the year to March 2020. Indeed, covid has not improved the situation, with the enforcement of Government covid regulations being a major trigger alongside the more traditional confrontation points, such as challenging customers over ID for age-restricted products like alcohol, or encountering shoplifters. Clearly, the Government have placed additional responsibilities on retail workers. Failing to ID customers for age-restricted products can lead to a criminal conviction for a retail worker, a fine, or even being sacked.

Clearly, challenging people can lead to threats of violence. Where the Government place extra demands on retail workers, it is surely reasonable for those workers to expect that when they are placed in harm’s way they are provided with greater protection under the law.

I want to refer to a survey by the Home Affairs Committee, in which 42% of respondents said,

“More or improved security measures in/around the premises”

would help

“prevent future incidents…from occurring”.

I hope the Minister has noted that. People working in convenience stores are particularly vulnerable, potentially being a lone worker or working in a small team of young staff. The Association of Convenience Stores estimated that there were 50,000 incidents of violence in the sector, a quarter of which resulted in injury.

I want to make some promises to our key workers and our frontline shopworkers: people such as Loraine Fox from the GMB who works at the Peterlee Asda in my constituency and Alan Kell and his colleagues in USDAW. I want to do more than clap on the doorstep for key workers. I will not say thank you and then vote against protecting workers in Parliament. I say to the Minister: you have a choice. Will the Government introduce legislation to protect retail workers, or will they ignore the epidemic of abuse and violence in our retail sector? Will the Minister sit on his hands and leave shopworkers unprotected in the workplace?

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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.

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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.