In the dying days of last week’s Parliament the government finally quietly agreed that shopworkers alongside other workers who serve the public should get greater protection from abusive customers.
Ministers are using the Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill to make it an aggravated offence to assault or abuse people who are serving the public. At present it is up to the judges’ discretion whether it is under the present sentencing guidelines.
It follows years of campaigning by USDAW, the retail workers union, to get more protection for shopworkers and growing evidence, sadly, of more violence, abuse and threats, from customers to staff.
The government chose the House of Lords to amend the bill last Wednesday night.
Baroness Williams of Trafford, a junior home office minister, said: “The amendment places in statute the aggravating factor applied by the courts in cases of assault where an offence is committed against those providing a public service, performing a public duty or providing a service to the public.
…..”This includes assault occasioning actual bodily harm, wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm, malicious wounding and threats to kill, as well as an inchoate offence in relation to any of these offences. These are the assault offences most likely to be experienced by front-line workers. Importantly, the provision also allows the court to apply the aggravating factor to any other offence, where the court considers this factor relevant.”
“This amendment will reinforce in statute the seriousness with which the courts should treat these offences. It will send a very strong signal to the public that assaults of this kind are totally unacceptable. The Government want to ensure that all those who serve the public can feel protected from abuse when working.”
Baroness Trafford added: “
“During the pandemic we have all seen some appalling stories of how shop workers have been treated. USDAW has been really good in standing up to that.
I pay tribute to John Hannett, the former general secretary of USDAW, to Paddy Lillis, the present general secretary, to the staff and to the many hundreds of thousands of USDAW members who have not let this issue rest. I also pay tribute to some really good employers, the supermarkets that understand the problems their staff have. The Co-op, Tesco and many others have stood up and backed the union and its members. This amendment has also been led by the work of Daniel Johnson MSP in Scotland. He got his Private Member’s Bill through last year. “
The move was welcomed by all peers include Lord Coaker, who as Vernon Coaker was Labour MP for Gedling in Nottinghamshire, and an USDAW member, who proposed a specific offence to protect shopworkers resulting in one year’s imprisonment.
The union itself described it as ” a step in the right direction” after years of campaigning for it.
Former Tory minister Baroness Neville-Rolfe said: ” That is against a background of 455 security incidents a day, according to the BRC,[British Retail Consortium] and very few prosecutions.
Inadequate police response
“The police response to these incidents has historically been inadequate. We need to ensure that the police have the right resources and can put a higher priority on prosecuting these retail crimes. This is particularly important given the role of retail workers in enforcing Covid restrictions such as masks, but also in addressing knife crime and shoplifting23>
She succeeded, in getting a promise from the minister to review how the new measures were working in a year’s time.
This was backed up by Lord Dholakia, a Liberal democrat peer, who said: “forces such as Thames Valley Police inform local shops that they will not send out officers to deal with shoplifters who steal less than £100-worth of goods. How can this foster trust and build confidence? It cannot; it means that many businesses feel as if they are alone in this fight—a fight that is a risk to their very business.”
Green Party peer Baroness Natalie Bennett also pressed the minister whether the change in the law would cover threats over the phone or on line. The minister thought it would.
One extraordinary omission in this debate was any reference to the fact that Therese Coffey, the work and pensions secretary, is about to submit an application from the United Kingdom to ratify the International Labour Organisation’s new convention outlawing violence and harassment at work.
This change in the law speaks directly to both the spirit and letter of the new convention and will certainly be used as an example that the UK is complying with it. Yet it seemed to have passed ministers and peers by. Perhaps this government is so disjointed that Therese Coffey has not talked about it with Priti Patel, the home secretary. Given all the furore on everything else perhaps she forgot to tell her.
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