Retail co-ops welcome government’s plan for new law on retail crime

Soaring levels of violence against store workers prompted a long campaign by the Co-op Group and other retail societies, alongside the Co-op Party, Usdaw and wider grocery industry

Plans announced by the government today to make attacks on store workers a standalone offence have been welcomed by the Co-op Group and independent retail societies, following their long campaign on the issue.

The legislation, to be made part of the Criminal Justice Bill, comes after a record year for retail crime, which has been at rising to alarming levels over recent years. Retail co-ops have been ramping up their security measures and working with their local police forces and crime commissioners, and have been lobbying the government for new laws, alongside the Co-op Party, Usdaw union and the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS)

The Co-op Group described today’s move as a victory for co-operation, with the campaign backed by member-owners and shopworkers in communities across the country.

Under the plans, perpetrators could be sent to prison for up to six months, receive an unlimited fine and be banned from going back to the shop where they committed their crimes, with criminal behaviour orders barring them visiting specific premises. 

Breaching an order is also a criminal offence and carries a five-year maximum prison sentence. For the most serious cases of assault, such as causing grievous bodily harm with intent, offenders could face a life sentence.

Earlier this year, the Group revealed that retail crime had hit record levels and commissioned a hard-hitting report from City, University of London criminology professor Emmeline Taylor. Her report set out a 10-point plan focused on turning the tide on prolific offenders. 

Related: Co-op Group urges ten-point plan to tackle record levels of retail crime

Central to the report’s recommendations is making an attack on shopworkers a stand-alone offence which is something the co-op movement has campaigned for since 2018.

Co-op Group CEO Shirine Khoury-Haq said: This announcement will resonate with shopworkers the length and breadth of the country.

“As a co-op, we exist to make a genuine difference for our 5 million member owners and the issues they care about. This change shows the true power of co-operation, with our member-owners having called for this urgent change to ensure no shop worker should face violence or abuse as part of their job.   

“It will make a real difference to the lives of not only thousands of our Co-op colleagues, but also shopworkers across the nation and it sends a strong and clear message to shopworkers that they have been listened to, and a warning to criminals that their unacceptable behaviour will no longer be tolerated.”

Paul Gerrard, director of public affairs and campaigning at the Group, said: “Co-op sees every day the violence and threats our colleagues, like all retail workers, face as they serve the communities they live in. We have long called for a standalone offence of attacking or abusing a shopworker and so we very much welcome the government’s announcement today.

Related: Report from the Co-op Retail Conference

“Co-op will re-double its work with police forces but these measures will undoubtedly, when implemented, keep our shopworkers safer, protect the shops they work in and, help the communities they serve.”

The Group has invested more than £200m over recent years in colleague and store safety and security, this includes the latest interactive CCTV; body-worn cameras – which Co-op has used since 2019 to capture real time audio and visual footage at the touch of a button; the roll-out of fortified kiosks; use of dummy (or empty) packaging to deter bulk-theft and, covert (undercover) and non-covert guarding – with the tactical use of specially trained guards able to detain criminals.

Other retail co-ops have been taking their own measures, and joining the lobbying effort for the law change. For instance, thousand of members and colleagues at Midcounties have been writing to their local MPs in support of the move.

“Today’s announcement is the culmination of a long and hard-fought campaign,” said Midcounties CEO Phil Ponsonby, “which demonstrates the power of co-operation in action and is a testament to how our members, colleagues and customers are doing good together.

“Making assaults against retail workers a separate criminal offence should help to make our communities safer and I’d like to express our sincere thanks to all of our members, colleagues and partners who have taken an active part in this campaign and helped to achieve this major breakthrough.”

Midcounties is still working closely with local police to bring offenders to justice and earlier this month announced it would be providing a £2,000 reward for information leading to an arrest over an incident in its Eynsham store, which saw a colleague having to attend hospital after being sprayed with cleaning fluid in store.

In the past two years, Midcounties has invested more than £1m in equipment and technology to protect colleagues, established close working relationships with local police forces across the region and taking a leading role in campaigning for a change in the law.

Central Co-op also backed the amendment, lobbying candidates for police and crime commissioner on the issue. Last year it allocated £460,000 for headsets across all its stores, deployed of body-worn cameras in 99 stores and rolled out the “Watch Me Now” programme in 126 stores.

CEO Debbie Robinson said: “Here at Central Co‑op, we’re standing firm in our commitment to safeguarding our colleagues and supporting our communities. In 2024, the rise of organised crime has become an all too familiar narrative which is why we are so pleased to hear the government’s decision to make assaulting a retail worker a standalone criminal offence.

“We are advocates of proactive measures aimed at protecting our colleagues, and recognising the gravity of the situation, we have undertaken a multifaceted approach in tackling retail crime at a Society level. You can find out more about Central Co-op’s retail crime initiatives in our recent whitepaper.

“At Central Co-op, we’ve long campaigned for this outcome and are welcoming the measures announced by the government today to keep shopworkers safe. Once this is implemented, we expect to see a better police response in support of our colleagues, and we won’t stop until we know everything that can be done is being done to keep our colleagues safe.”

Joe Fortune, general secretary of the Co-op Party, said: “Every day, shopworkers in co-operative retail societies stores face violence at work as serve their communities.

“Together with our co-operative retail societies, trade union Usdaw and thousands of members from the co-operative movement, we’ve long called for a change in the law. Thanks to our movement’s relentless campaigning, the government have been forced to listen.

“This is an important win for our campaign, and there can be no more delay in implementing it. The fight isn’t over until every shopworker can go to work with freedom from fear.”

Paddy Lillis, general secretary of Usdaw, said: “The scale of assaults, abuse and threats towards shop workers and extent of the retail crime epidemic has been a disgrace for many years. This has been made worse by police cuts and a failure to legislate to protect retail staff. Usdaw has long called for action that includes a standalone offence for assaulting a shopworker and that has been vehemently opposed by this government and their Conservative MPs on many occasions.
“This long overdue U-turn is the culmination of many years of sustained campaigning by Usdaw and others. Our members have had to wait too long for their voices to be heard and common sense to prevail. We will have to see the detail of what they are proposing and it must be at least what we won in Scotland three years ago. It also cannot fall short of Labour’s commitments to 13,000 more uniformed officers, patrols on high streets, banning repeat offenders and ending the perverse £200 threshold for prosecuting shoplifters.
“The dither and delay of this government, on this issue, over many years, has led to thousands of shopworkers needlessly suffering physical and mental injury. I hope that whatever the government is proposing will be substantial and effective in giving shopworkers, key workers in every community, the respect that they have long deserved and regrettably too often do not receive.”