Protection of Retail Workers Debate

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Department: Home Office

Protection of Retail Workers

Grahame Morris Excerpts
Monday 7th June 2021

(3 years, 1 month ago)

Westminster Hall
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Grahame Morris Portrait Grahame Morris (Easington) (Lab)
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Thank you for calling me in this important debate, Mr Gray. It is always a pleasure and a privilege to serve under your chairmanship. I thank the Petitions Committee and the hon. Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) for the way in which he initiated the debate. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) for all the excellent work he has done, over a number of years, in promoting the Freedom From Fear campaign. I also want to give a shout-out to USDAW, the GMB and the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union, who have been very much involved in speaking up for their members who face assaults and in the campaign to end abuse and violence towards retail staff.

Whether it is clapping for NHS staff or thanking our key workers, such gestures are worthless if not substantiated with meaningful change by this House. I look to the Minister here. Time and again the Government sympathise with but ignore workers facing cuts to their pay and terms and conditions. I am thinking of businesses, many that have received substantial sums in taxpayer-funded support, using fire and rehire tactics as a form of industrial blackmail. Unless the Government act, they are failing our retail workers because, sadly, workplace abuse and violence have been normalised and are now accepted as part of the job.

My hon. Friends the Members for Ogmore (Chris Elmore), for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) and for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris) and others have referred to the USDAW survey, so I will not repeat that, but the British Retail Consortium revealed that there were 455 incidents of abuse and violence every day in the year to March 2020. Indeed, covid has not improved the situation, with the enforcement of Government covid regulations being a major trigger alongside the more traditional confrontation points, such as challenging customers over ID for age-restricted products like alcohol, or encountering shoplifters. Clearly, the Government have placed additional responsibilities on retail workers. Failing to ID customers for age-restricted products can lead to a criminal conviction for a retail worker, a fine, or even being sacked.

Clearly, challenging people can lead to threats of violence. Where the Government place extra demands on retail workers, it is surely reasonable for those workers to expect that when they are placed in harm’s way they are provided with greater protection under the law.

I want to refer to a survey by the Home Affairs Committee, in which 42% of respondents said,

“More or improved security measures in/around the premises”

would help

“prevent future incidents…from occurring”.

I hope the Minister has noted that. People working in convenience stores are particularly vulnerable, potentially being a lone worker or working in a small team of young staff. The Association of Convenience Stores estimated that there were 50,000 incidents of violence in the sector, a quarter of which resulted in injury.

I want to make some promises to our key workers and our frontline shopworkers: people such as Loraine Fox from the GMB who works at the Peterlee Asda in my constituency and Alan Kell and his colleagues in USDAW. I want to do more than clap on the doorstep for key workers. I will not say thank you and then vote against protecting workers in Parliament. I say to the Minister: you have a choice. Will the Government introduce legislation to protect retail workers, or will they ignore the epidemic of abuse and violence in our retail sector? Will the Minister sit on his hands and leave shopworkers unprotected in the workplace?

--- Later in debate ---
Chris Philp Portrait Chris Philp
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Thank you. The Committee surveyed 8,742 people, whom I believe were retail workers, asking if they had been assaulted, and many had been. They were asked whether they had reported the offence, and 87%—not quite 100%—of respondents reported it to the employer. The Committee then asked whether they had reported the offence to the police, and only 53%—half of those retail workers who suffered an assault—had done so. In 12% of cases there was an investigation and arrest. That 12% figure is clearly too low, as the shadow Minister and the hon. Member for Blaydon pointed out. Putting a new criminal offence on the statute book does not fill the gap. It is about investigation and prosecution, and that has to start with reporting.

Grahame Morris Portrait Grahame Morris
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I raised the Home Affairs Committee report in my brief contribution. I still think that we need to have a specific offence to deter people—my people in Peterlee should not be any less well protected than the people in Peterhead, which is what is happening at the moment. The Committee suggested improved security. Body cameras have been mentioned, and they should be a factor, to give staff confidence, should they challenge someone, that they have a witness to take forward a prosecution, if necessary. Does the Minister agree?

Chris Philp Portrait Chris Philp
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I agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is vital that more people report such offences and that we support the retail community to take steps to detect such terrible crimes that are being committed. The national retail crime steering group—of which the Policing Minister is a co-chair or leading member—is doing exactly that kind of work. The Home Office has also invested £40,000 in the ShopKind campaign, which aims to move in the direction mentioned by the hon. Member for Easington.

On the reasons why people do not report incidents—and why only half of victims report them to the police—there is some data in the Home Affairs Committee survey. By the way, I commend the Select Committee for putting that together. It found 3,444 people who did not report their incidents. That is a lot of people. Of the reasons given—people clearly gave more than one—the top one, cited by 35% of those victims who did not report, was:

“I did not believe the employer would do anything about it”.

That is terrible. The first thing we need to do is to say to employers, “If your employee is assaulted in any way, it is your duty as an employer to make sure that it gets reported to the police.”

Secondly, 32% said:

“I believed it was just part of the job”.

Clearly, it is not. That is obviously a terrible perception, so we need to send out a clear message that assault of anyone is unacceptable. Others said:

“I considered the incident too minor to report”,

so we need to make sure that such assaults are criminal offences and that they are aggravated when the victim is providing a service to the public. Another reason, given by 28% of respondents, was:

“I did not believe the police would do anything about it”.

The Policing Minister is working on that. Of course, every time one of those incidents gets reported, the police should take action.