Co-op Group director Paul Gerrard was among the retail industry experts who briefed MPs today on the growing problem of store worker abuse.
Mr Gerrard, campaigns and public affairs director at the Group, said the retailer had stepped up its efforts to protect colleagues as the problem continued to escalate during the Covid-19 crisis. But he said police needed to do more to tackle offenders.
His appearance before the Home Affairs Committee is the latest response from the co-op sector to the epidemic of abuse and violence against store workers. Retail co-ops and the Co-op Party have been campaigning alongside trade unions and the wider retail sector for a change in the law to protect shop workers. Retail co-ops, including the Group, have also been devising a range of protections for colleagues over the past few years.
Mr Gerrard told the committee, which is gathering evidence in response to calls for action, that the Group has spent £140m over the past six years to keep colleagues safe, “twice the sector average”.
This is necessary, he said, with attacks on the rise even before the pandemic – so that now, the Group reports 10 attacks on workers each day, five involving a weapon. Those attacks have seen an increase in racism, homophobia, misogyny, and the weaponising of Covid-19, with colleagues spat on.
Responses taken by the Group include hiring guards, changing store layouts, giving staff headsets so they can stay connected to each other, and fitting them with bodycams as a deterrent.
Bodycams also gather useful evidence when an attack does happen, added Mr Gerrard. “We can package up that evidence and pass it on to the police,” he said, easing demand on officers’ time and allowing them to move forward with arrests and prosecutions.
But this doesn’t eliminate crime, he said – it just means offenders target other shops which cannot offer the same protections. Mr Gerrard gave the example of independent stores supplied by the Group, such as those under the Nisa banner, “which don’t have the resources we have”.
This means a “holistic, whole sector approach” is needed, he says – with specific legislation but also a stronger police response. He said the risk associated with retail crime “has disappeared as police response at best is variable”, while there are growing numbers of prolific offenders who are either funding substance abuse or working for criminal organisations.
Covid has now become “the predominant trigger for abuse and violence,” warned Mr Gerrard. This was initially sparked by restrictions on the number of specific items the could be bought and now sees hostile reactions from members of the public who are resistant to social distancing measures such as masks.
He said the Group supports colleagues who have been attacked with counselling, time off or moving their role to a different part of the store. These provisions are likely to remain important as Mr Gerrard is not expecting crime levels to drop as Covid restrictions lift.
As the committee considers options for a law on retail crime, Mr Gerrard argued for “the greatest protection we could get for my colleagues” with a wide category of offences.
In terms of policing, he said the Group only reports the most serious offences but even in those cases, only a third draw police attendance. Mr Gerrard gave the example of a man removed from a store after he became abusive, but stayed outside the the stop making threats against the store’s female manager. Even in this case, police did not attend but made a call the following day.
This means colleagues do not challenge shoppers who come in without a mask to avoid putting themselves in “unecessary danger”, he said.
And when the Group made a Freedom of Information request for crime figures, it found that two out of three police and crime commissioners (PCCs) do not recognise retail crime as a separate category and do not have a tag for it. which means they were unable to provide statistics.
Mr Gerrard said there was a real issue around how seriously police and PCCs take retail crime but the problem is not insoluble. He gave the example of Sussex Police, who worked with the Group on a data sharing pilot which has seen five prolific offenders prosecuting in just a few weeks.