Criminalising abuse will not help protect retail staff, says minister

Government claims current legislation is sufficient and calls for increased police reporting as threats to and assaults on shop workers skyrocket during pandemic

Ministers have rejected calls for new legislation to protect retail staff and other frontline workers from abuse, saying current legislation was enough.

Responding to calls from retailers and unions to do more to stem an increase in verbal abuse, threats and assaults faced by retail workers since the start of the pandemic, Chris Philp, parliamentary under secretary of state at the Home Office, said creating a specific offence would not solve the problem because such an offence already existed.

Instead, more effort should be made to encourage staff to report abuse, said Philp, citing a Home Affairs Committee survey that found of the 87 per cent of retail workers who reported an offence to their employer, just half (53 per cent) reported the issue to the police.

The same poll found just 12 per cent of cases led to arrests.

Philp added that Sentencing Council guidelines had been recently updated to “expressly recognise that those people providing a service to the public, including retail workers, are doing a different kind of job, and that somebody who assaults them deserves a higher sentence”.

“What is clearly needed is not to criminalise the behaviour; it is criminal already. It is not to elevate the penalty given to those people who are convicted; it is elevated already. What we need to do is to get more convictions, and that starts with reporting,” he said.

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Philp’s comments were made during a Westminster Hall debate in parliament yesterday, called in response to a petition from Paddy Lillis, leader of the shop workers' trade union Usdaw, to introduce specific legislation to create a specific offence for abusing, threatening or assaulting a retail worker. The petition gained more than 100,000 signatures.

Ahead of the debate yesterday, Tesco CEO Jason Tarry issued a statement in support of specific legislation protecting shop workers.

He said in the three months to May this year, 6,962 incidents of abuse were reported by Tesco staff – an increase of 27 per cent on the same period in 2020, and of 43 per cent over the same period in 2019. The supermarket has resorted to introducing body-worn cameras and headsets and installing protective screens to keep members of staff safe.

Tarry added that an amendment proposed for the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill to be heard by parliament in the next few weeks could add specific protection from violence and abuse for retail workers, and called on Tesco staff to write to their MPs to show support for the amendment.

“We already know that these protections can be introduced. Earlier this year, Scottish parliament passed a bill that enshrined protections for shop workers in law and made it a specific offence to assault, abuse or threaten retail staff,” he said.

Scottish government passed the Protection of Workers (Retail and Age-restricted Goods and Services) (Scotland) Bill in January, which made it a specific criminal offence to threaten or abuse, obstruct or hinder, and assault a retail worker while they are doing their job. The bill became law on 24 February 2021.

Commenting on the debate, Rachel Suff, senior policy adviser for employment relations at the CIPD, said HR had an “important role to play” in protecting workers from unpleasant and threatening behaviour, including from customers.

HR teams needed to take the lead in communicating expected standards of behaviour around dignity and respect, she said, and ensure store managers are trained in how to communicate these in stores and deal “firmly and appropriately” with any incidents.

“Working with recognised trade unions and staff forums on these issues will help to ensure they are taken seriously. All workers also need to have access to health and wellbeing support such as an employee assistance programme if they do experience unfair treatment at work,” Suff said.

Chris Brook-Carter, chief executive of retail industry charity Retail Trust, said alongside providing formal training on how to deal with confrontation, employers should encourage managers to check in with their team before the end of every shift.

“No one should go home without having had a debrief, as often just the simple act of talking about what you have experienced that day makes you leave feeling better and more supported,” he said.

Brook-Carter added that the introduction of a specific statutory offence would provide some of the protection and certainty retail workers now needed to carry out their jobs without fear of being abused or assaulted.

A report by Usdaw, surveying 2,729 shop workers across the UK in 2020, had also found that almost nine in 10 (88 per cent) respondents had experienced verbal abuse; three in five (60 per cent) had been threatened by a customer; and 9 per cent had been assaulted.

Most notably, four in five (79 per cent) respondents said they felt violence and abuse had worsened since the start of the pandemic.