17 April 2024

Assaulting a retail worker is already illegal

By Jimmy Nicholls

For all that the British banged their pots for the NHS every Thursday during the Covid pandemic, it was the retail sector that kept most of us alive. While many people would have died if it wasn’t for the healthcare being provided, everyone would have died if we couldn’t eat.

More than that, supermarkets and convenience stores became many households’ sole contact with the outside world. And as cabin fever set in, staff working in those shops were forced to deal with a disproportionate amount of abuse from increasingly deranged shoppers.

These problems have continued well beyond the end of lockdowns. The latest data from the crime survey of the British Retail Consortium (BRC) showed that incidents of abuse and violence rose to 1,300 a day for the year to September 2023 – up from 870 for the previous year and 455 for the pre-pandemic year 31 to March 2020.

It’s therefore understandable that the retail sector demanded a response from the Government, with staff in some cases afraid to come to work, or even being stalked back to their homes. And earlier this month the campaigners got their wish, with the Government promising to make assaulting a retail worker a separate offence in England and Wales, following the example set by Scotland.

Under the new rules, those committing common assault face up to six months in prison, an unlimited fine, and a ban from returning to the stores where offences were committed. A five year sentence is also available for breaches of criminal behaviour orders which bar a perpetrator from returning to a given store, while grievous bodily harm with intent carries a potential life sentence. 

This was welcomed by BRC Chief Executive Helen Dickinson, who said it would protect the ‘hard-working’ victims which include ‘teenagers taking on their first job, carers looking for part-time work, parents working around childcare’. ‘This announcement sends a clear message that this abusive behaviour will not be tolerated,’ she added.

But how does it change things compared to current legislation? Assault has been illegal for centuries in the UK, and rules making it an aggravating factor if the victim is a public facing worker were introduced in June 2022. For common assault, the maximum sentence is already six months’ imprisonment and an unlimited fine, while actual bodily harm can result in five years in jail. 

This is to say that nothing much is changing in punitive terms. It’s the reason why the Home Office said as recently as October that it did not think that ‘more legislative change is required or will be most effective’, in response to a petition calling for a standalone offence.

This was a good position: don’t introduce laws that merely repeat what is already on the books. However, the Government has succumbed to campaigners’ demands to ‘send a message’ to crooks, to repeat a phrase that has echoed around the mouths of retailers, politicians and policemen.

While I’ve misplaced my copies of Edward Coke’s Law Reports, my impression is that laws are not a public relations tool. The proper use of them is to reduce or otherwise control crime, whether it’s through punitive or rehabilitative measures. And given the backlog in the courts and overflow in the prisons, writing laws that are redundant on arrival actually runs counter to that goal.

Even as a means of bolstering a press release, it’s hard to see whether crooks will even receive the message. Most shoplifters do not subscribe to criminal law reviews. And even if they do hear of the law change, most will be aware that the police are struggling to even enforce the existing rules.

Evidence gathered by the Home Affairs Committee noted that retailers and their staff simply didn’t believe that police would do much about assault and shoplifting, so much so that many had just stopped reporting it. Shockingly, police can’t even be relied on to attend the scene when the store in question has apprehended the criminal.

Other measures the Government is intending to introduce are likelier to reduce crimes against retail workers. Most notable is the £55.5m investment due over the next four years into facial recognition technology, which includes £4m for bespoke mobile units which will be deployed in high streets.

In other provisions that form part of its Retail Crime Action Plan, the Government is also planning to expand electronic monitoring of prolific shoplifters, make it easier to report and share information about crime, and help retailers share best practices around preventing crime.

Perhaps these measures will reverse the explosion in retail violence of recent years. But given that similar trends have been seen in the likes of Germany and the US, one suspects that cutting back on these crimes will require a stronger focus on root causes, including the increasing bite of poverty, drug addiction, and other shortcomings in the police force. 

But whatever the solution, we can be confident of one thing. Copying and pasting existing laws from one statute to another will help not one jot.

Click here to subscribe to our daily briefing – the best pieces from CapX and across the web.

CapX depends on the generosity of its readers. If you value what we do, please consider making a donation.

Jimmy Nicholls is a trade journalist, politics commentator and host of the Right Dishonourable podcast.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.