Retail co-ops join industry call for new law on store worker abuse

The Co-op Group and a number of independent retail societies are among businesses backing a crime bill amendment to give special protection for shop colleagues

The Co-op Group, Central England, East of England, Radstock, Chelmsford Star, Lakes and Dales, Southern and Midcounties Co-ops have signed in industry call today urging more protection from crime for retail workers.

The letter – also signed by employee-owned John Lewis and Waitrose, and by Co-op Group subsidiary Nisa, urges MPs to back an amendment to a flagship government crime bill which would offer frontline workers greater protection from violence and abuse.

More than 30 retailers signed the petition, along with the British Retail Consortium.

The call for stiffer penalties for those committing assaults and attacks on shopworkers comes as a new report, Breaking the Cycle: Gaining the views of criminal justice practitioners and retail offenders on effective sentencing, is launched. The research – written by Dr Emmeline Taylor and funded through the Co-op Group’s Safer Colleagues, Safer Communities, campaign –  offers ways for the government to legislate to protect and support shopworkers.

Unions, trade and industry bodies have joined retailers in the campaign but the government is so far rejecting the calls stating that “it remains unpersuaded of the need for a specific offence”.

As previous legislation to protect shopworkers in England and Wales failed at the end of the last Parliamentary session, retailers are now urging government’to change its mind and bring forward an amendment – or new clause – to its Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill, which would deliver greater protection for all frontline shopworkers.  

The research supports the bill’s intention to increase the maximum penalty for assaulting an emergency workers from 12 months to two years imprisonment. But it argues that, in light of the increase in the frequency and severity of assaults against shop workers, it is understandable that those working in the retail sector want similar protection, which would send a clear signal to perpetrators that their behaviour in communities is unacceptable, while signalling to victims that these crimes will be taken seriously.

In Scotland, the Protection of Workers (Retail and Age-restricted Goods and Services) Act became law in February following a unanimous vote.

The Co-op Group revealed that in the first quarter of 2021, it has seen almost 400 incidents where weapons have been used against shopworkers, with more than half – 56% – of those involving either sharp implements, such as a syringe or knife or, a bottle.

Related: Co-op Group gives evidence to MPs on store worker abuse

Last year the Group saw a 76% increase in recorded anti-social behaviour and verbal abuse compared to 2019 – with more than 100 incidents every day. Over the last five years (since 2016) there has been a 35-fold increase in this type of incident.

It also saw a near 10% uplift in violent incidents in 2020 compared with 2019, which now means that assaults and attacks on its frontline shopworkers has increased by more than 650% over the same five-year period.

The latest Crime Survey (2021) from the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS), reveals almost nine-in-ten (89%) of those working in local shops had experienced some kind of abuse. Its report estimated some 40,000 incidents of violence in the sector last year, with 65% of respondents having seen Covid related threats to staff.

Co-op Retail CEO Jo Whitfield said: “Violence, abuse and anti-social behaviour towards shopworkers is unacceptable, and it is clear from our conversations that there is appetite across the political spectrum to bring forward new clauses to the government’s Crime (PCSC) Bill which would provide the protection that frontline shopworkers need and, deserve.

“Stiffer sentencing will send out a clear message that criminal behaviour in our communities will not be tolerated by society, and importantly lets shopworkers – who have gone to amazing lengths to feed and care for communities throughout the pandemic – know that they are being listened to and taken seriously.

“Assaults and abuse should not be part of the job, and by standing together, I am confident we can encourage the Government to change its mind and bring about greater protection for shopworkers in all our communities.”

Related: Co-op Group hands out forensic spray in latest anti-crime measure

Dr Emmeline Taylor, author of the report, said: No one can deny that criminal justice is in need of reform – when nearly two thirds of offenders released from short custodial sentences reoffend within a year it is clear that the system isn’t working.

“Given the alarming frequency and severity of assaults against shop workers, an amendment to the Bill to include them would signal that these crimes will be taken seriously. The legal leverage of the new Act could potentially improve the likelihood that offenders comply with treatment services and secure long-term change in their behaviour.”

ACS chief executive James Lowman said: “Retailers and their colleagues faced over a million incidents of verbal abuse and thousands of attacks over the last year, despite keeping their communities going throughout the pandemic. We are sending a clear message that these incidents will not be tolerated, and that those who attack shopworkers will not reoffend.”

Paddy Lillis, Usdaw general secretary, said: “We welcome another expert report from Dr Taylor, but deeply regret that her further intervention is necessary because of growing violence, threats and abuse against shopworkers. Usdaw’s 2020 survey showed that nine in 10 shopworkers had been abused last year and the situation had become much worse during the pandemic.

“So it is very disappointing that the government continues to resist calls from across the retail industry for new legislation to protect shopworkers. When major retail businesses and the shopworkers’ trade union jointly call for legislation, it is time for the Government to listen. In Scotland MSPs voted through a new ground-breaking law to give shopworkers greater protection. We are now looking for MPs to support key workers across retail and help turn around the UK Government’s opposition. Abuse should never be just a part of the job, shopworkers deserve respect and the protection of the law.”

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