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Tackling violence on the high street

Every day, 115 employees within the UK retail sector are attacked in their place of work. I personally found this statistic from the British Retail Consortium (BRC) to be shockingly high. As someone who has never got into a situation that has led me to harass or attack someone working in a store (or anywhere else, for that matter), I’ve been somewhat ignorant to the fact that retail crime comes in many forms. It’s not just burglaries in the dead of night when no-one is around, but there are also many instances where those at the coal-face are in real-time, threatening situations.

This news got me thinking back to many moons ago when I worked in a high street store myself. For a brief stint in my teens I worked in a shoe shop. Thinking back, one of the main reasons why I only stayed there for six months was to do with the way I was treated by customers: often spoken down to, and sometimes getting the brunt of a shopper’s frustration at not finding the right item or something not being in stock.

While I was lucky enough to not be on the receiving end of any acts of violence during my time working in a retail store, as BRC’s report shows, many aren’t so lucky.

Between 1st April 2017 and 31st March 2018, BRC recorded just over 42,000 violent incidents for the industry. “When we look in more detail at the nature of the incidents, something which simple data cannot illuminate fully, we see a trend towards incidents becoming more violent and frightening, with an increasing willingness to use weapons to intimidate, even for relatively small amounts,” outlines BRC.

These trends are despite record spending on crime prevention by retailers, estimated by the BRC at over £1 billion per year. And now, a group of businesses and trade bodies representing the retail sector have written to the Government, urging them to do more to tackle widespread violence and abuse against shopworkers.

In the letter addressed to the Home Secretary, Lord Chancellor and Minister for Crime, the group says: “Retail is the largest single private sector employer in the UK, with roughly three million direct employees. Perhaps uniquely, it is woven into the fabric of each and every community and constituency in the country.

“As an industry, retail faces a range of challenges, but perhaps the most pressing and difficult is the rising tide of violence against retail workers.”

“Shop staff play an important role in our communities. Everyone has the right to feel safe at work”
Victoria Atkins, the Home Office

Alongside BRC’s statistics on retail crime, the letter highlights a number of shocking revelations from other sources. The Association of Convenience Stores’ research estimates there were almost 10,000 incidents of violence in convenience stores in the last 12 months. Usdaw’s work highlights that, on average, a shopworker is abused, threatened or assaulted 21 times a year – that is once a fortnight. According to research by the Charity Retail Association, one quarter of charity retailers report that incidents of violence against volunteers have increased in the past two years and nearly a third of charity retailers report that incidents of verbal abuse against volunteers have increased in the past two years. The Home Office’s own Commercial Victimisation Survey shows the retail sector consistently suffers several times more crime per premises than any other business sector surveyed.

Call for evidence

The evidence these multiple retail organisations are providing is in response to a Call for Evidence from the UK Government, which was seeking the views of organisations and individuals who wished to “contribute to its understanding of the problem of violence and abuse toward shop staff in England and Wales”.

The Government said it wanted to “understand the true scale of the issue of violence and abuse toward shop staff” so it could put in place measures which may help prevent these crimes and find out the extent to which existing legislation is being used to tackle them. It also plans to identify examples of best practice.

“Shop staff play an important role in our communities, however, unfortunately we know they can be the victims of crimes such as shoplifting, or suffer violent or abusive behaviour,” said Victoria Atkins, Minister for Crime, Safeguarding and Vulnerability, in the Home Office’s Call for Evidence information pack. “This is clearly unacceptable, and the Government is clear that everyone has the right to feel safe at work. As Minister for Crime, Safeguarding and Vulnerability, I understand the significant impact that these crimes can have on victims. In addition, the impact of violent and abusive incidents is also felt by colleagues, retailers, the wider community, and customers.”

She adds: “The Government works closely with the retail sector, police, and others to help tackle this issue, including through the National Retail Crime Steering Group which I chair.”

The consultation period for the Call for Evidence ended on 28th June, 2019, so we can expect to hear more about the Home Office’s findings soon.

“Retail is the largest private sector employer in the UK, with roughly three million employees spread across each and every community, and violence against employees is the most difficult issue it faces”
Helen Dickinson OBE, BRC

Meanwhile, looking deeper into Usdaw’s Freedom From Fear survey, over the past year more than two-thirds of shopworkers were verbally abused, 37% were threatened and around 265 were assaulted every day.

The group works with employers to achieve safety and security improvements in stores, and to raise the issues of neighbourhood policing, retail crime and underage sales. They also lobbied the government to enact a new law, creating a specific offence relating to assault on people who work in a face-to-face public role.

Respect for Shopworkers Week is an important part of Usdaw’s Freedom From Fear campaign. Every year, its reps take the campaign to the public by running stalls in their workplace, aiming to spread the message that abuse is not part of the job.

Helen Dickinson OBE, chief executive of the BRC, comments: “Retail is the largest private sector employer in the UK, with roughly three million employees spread across each and every community, and violence against employees is the most difficult issue it faces.

“These are not victimless crimes: they impact upon the skilled, passionate, committed individuals who make the industry so vibrant, as well as their families and loved ones. That is why so many of our members and aligned groups have come together to ask the Government to do more to tackle this problem, and do it now.”

Paddy Lillis, Usdaw general secretary, adds: “Evidence from employers, police and shopworkers shows that violence, threats and abuse against retail staff is a persistent and increasing problem. Usdaw’s own survey revealed that on average a UK shopworker can end up on the wrong side of a verbal or physical assault nearly once a fortnight. Our message is clear, abuse is not a part of the job.

“We continue to call for stiffer penalties for those who assault shopworkers and the introduction of a simple stand- alone offence that is widely recognised and understood by the public, police, courts and most importantly criminals.

“Retail staff have a crucial role in our communities and that role must be valued and respected, they deserve the protection of the law.”

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