MPs vote against additional legal protection for shopworkers

But the government commits to addressing retail violence when the bill returns to the House of Lords

Retailers in the UK are facing disappointment as the government voted against an amendment to introduce further legal protections for shopworkers.

Co-operative retailers, colleagues, members and customers have been asking MPs to back three amendments to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill to provide greater protection for frontline shopworkers in the face of unprecedented levels of abuse and violence. The amendments were debated today (Monday 5 July), but were voted down.

If the amendments had been backed, the bill would have included new offences meaning that someone assaulting, threatening or abusing a retail worker doing their job (including applying a statutory age-restriction) would be liable, on summary conviction, to imprisonment, a fine, or both.

In the first quarter of 2021, the Co-op Group alone saw almost 400 incidents of weapons used against shopworkers, with more than half (56%) of those involving either sharp implements, such as a syringe or knife or a bottle. 

The Co-op Group has invested more than £140m in technology to help keep colleagues safe, including body-worn cameras which can send real-time audio and visual footage to a security operation centre

In 2020, the retailer 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.

“No one should have to go to work and face these unprecedented levels of violence, abuse and anti-social behaviour,” said Jo Whitfield, Co-op Food CEO, ahead of the vote. “Frontline workers have been coughed on, spat at and threatened with knives and syringes – it is not acceptable and should not be part of the job.”

Ms Whitfield welcomed the publication of the Home Affairs Select Committee Report on retail violence which called for a new criminal offence that would “send a powerful and long overdue message that assaults on retail workers will not be tolerated”. In May she, together with 30 other major retailers and industry bodies, wrote to UK prime minister Boris Johnson asking him to give English and Welsh retail staff greater protection in the workplace. The Co-op Group also backed a joint CEO letter sent by the British Retail Consortium in July ahead of the debate.

“Extremely disappointed that the House of Commons voted against protecting our shop workers this evening,” she tweeted after the result. “The fight continues to the next stage and we will not give up. Thanks to those MPs in our corner. #NotPartOfTheJob.”

In Scotland, the Protection of Workers (Retail and Age-restricted Goods and Services) Act became law in February 2021 following a unanimous vote.

The issue was recently addressed at Co-op Congress, held online and in Manchester on 25 June. Central England CEO Debbie Robinson spoke about how this was a live issue for all retailers, and how the UK co-operative retail societies had come together to campaign on colleague safety. “Each day, 450 shopworkers suffer abuse and violence. […] We won’t stop as co-operatives until the law changes and our colleagues are better protected. Because we believe everybody has the right to go to work and return home safely. That’s not too much to ask,” she said, urging delegates to write to MPs and ask them to support the amendments to the bill.

The most recent amendment was tabled by Matt Vickers, Conservative MP for Stockton South. It was supported by MPs in all parties and particularly championed by the Co-op Party, whose general secretary, Joe Fortune, said: “Over the past few days, our supporters and members have sent thousands of emails to MPs on this issue. Through the course of this campaign, supporters have signed petitions, submitted evidence to consultations, shared our posts and rallied their friends. You have stood up for the shopworkers in our communities, and your voice has been heard.

“We know the government are starting to feel the pressure: they have committed to ‘addressing’ the issue of retail violence when the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill returns to the House of Lords [and] we need to hold them to account on that promise. This issue is not going away and neither will we: we won’t stop until shopworkers have the protections they need and deserve.”

Alex Norris, Labour & Co-operative MP for Nottingham North, added: “Tonight all of those who have campaigned for better protection of shopworkers have taken the issue to the point of a vote on a new law. It is hugely disappointing that the Government has not listened to the public, the retail sector, other parliaments, and even those on their own benches and opted to not support this issue. Thank you to Sarah Jones (shadow policing minister) and all those involved in this effort. We will continue this fight in the House of Lords.”

In April, Paul Gerrard, campaigns and public affairs director at the Co-op Group, gave evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee in support of the amendments.

“Frontline workers have been unsung heroes throughout the pandemic, and yet there is a minority of people who think it ok to assault, abuse and maim them,” he said, adding that the bill would have been an “opportunity for MPs to protect shopworkers in their communities” that sent out a “loud and clear message that criminal behaviour in our communities will not be tolerated”. 

“We are disappointed we didn’t get there tonight but, thanks to Matt Vickers in the House this evening, the campaign has got one step closer with the Government promising to address this when the bill gets to the Lords,” he said. “It’s clear we are winning the argument because there is government acceptance that they need to act. For the first time, it feels like ‘when’, not ‘if’.”

Additional stories on the impact of the PCSC Bill to follow.