Assaulting shop workers to become specific offence in new legislation

A few months ago ministers said it wasn't necessary, but now the government has made assaulting shopworkers a specific offence after a spike in violent attacks. ITV News Political Correspondent Harry Horton reports

Assaulting a shopworker is going to be made its own criminal offence after the government has rowed back on its previous position following a long-running campaign.

Ministers had previously ruled out legislating to create a new offence, saying in response to a parliamentary petition in October they did not think it was “required or will be most effective”.

But on Wednesday, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced that his government will be amending its Criminal Justice Bill to bring in the new offence, which will apply to England and Wales.

He said: “I am sending a message to those criminals – whether they are serious organised criminal gangs, repeat offenders or opportunistic thieves – who think they can get away with stealing from these local businesses or abusing shopworkers, enough is enough.

“Our local shops are the lifeblood of our communities, and they must be free to trade without the threat of crime or abuse.”

Rishi Sunak's government has announced that the new crime will carry up to a six-month jail sentence or an unlimited fine. Credit: PA

The new offence will carry a maximum sentence of six months’ imprisonment or an unlimited fine, the same sentence for the existing offence of common assault.

Repeat offenders could also be forced to wear an electronic tag, as could consistent shoplifters, under amendments to the Bill currently making its way through Parliament.

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The government also plans to pilot community sentencing measures with an as-yet unnamed police force to tackle high levels of shoplifting, along with greater use of facial recognition technology to identify people wanted by the police in crowded areas.

Judges already have the power to ban repeat offenders from certain shops under criminal behaviour orders, with breaches bringing a maximum sentence of five years.

The move to create a separate offence follows a long-running campaign from major retailers and Conservative backbencher Matt Vickers amid rising violence against retail workers.

Over the past six months, more than 47,000 people have signed a petition calling for the creation of a separate offence of assaulting a retail worker.

But an initial response published last October said: “The government is committed to supporting hardworking retail workers, who can suffer intolerable violence and abuse, but we do not think more legislative change is required or will be most effective.”

The response added that the government had already legislated in 2022 to make assaulting a “public-facing worker”, including retail staff, an aggravated offence for sentencing “to emphasise that these types of assaults are totally unacceptable”.

Earlier this year, the British Retail Consortium (BRC) published a report saying violent and abusive incidents against shopworkers had increased 50% between 2021/22 and 2022/23.

Helen Dickinson, chairwoman of the BRC, welcomed the announcement, saying that “the voices of the three million people working in retail are finally being heard”.

She said: “The impact of retail violence has steadily worsened, with people facing racial abuse, sexual harassment, threatening behaviour, physical assault and threats with weapons, often linked to organised crime.

“Victims are ordinary hardworking people – teenagers taking on their first job, carers looking for part-time work, parents working around childcare.”

Paddy Lillis, general secretary of retail union Usdaw, said the government’s U-turn was “long overdue”.

He said: “The dither and delay of this government on this issue, over many years, has led to thousands of shopworkers needlessly suffering physical and mental injury.

“I hope that whatever the government is proposing will be substantial and effective in giving shopworkers, key workers in every community, the respect that they have long deserved and regrettably too often do not receive.”

Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper has slammed government plans as a 'pale imitation' of Labour's own. Credit: PA

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said the government’s proposals are “a pale imitation” of her own party’s plans.

She said: “Under the Tories too many communities and high streets are being blighted by staggering increases in shoplifting, up 30% in the last year alone.

“Labour has been calling for tougher action against those who assault shopworkers for more than 10 years. The Tories opposed and voted against our plans for better protection. Why has it taken them so long to act?”

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