It feels like in the last year we have moved from putting an extra six eggs in the shopping basket you haven’t paid for to organised gangs shoplifting to order in a way I find profoundly shockingSharon White, Chair of John Lewis
It’s tempting to think that making sentences more punitive or creating new offences will resolve crime, but it’s not that straightforward. You’ve probably seen a spate of recent media articles and statements from politicians about the scourge of shoplifting and assaults on shop workers. Labour have accused the government of decriminalising shoplifting by encouraging police not to prosecute people who take goods under £200 in value. Labour have also supported a campaign to create a new crime of assaulting a shopworker. Meanwhile the government, having presumably decided they have run out of time for new legislation, have issued a retail crime action plan. This commits the police to attending incidents in some circumstances, and following reasonable lines of inquiry such as recovering CCTV. These seem like good police practice rather than anything new.
Shoplifting and assaults on shop workers have been a problem ever since shops existed. The new Shadow Lord Chancellor Shabana Mahmood’s father ran a corner shop and she recently related how his till got stolen so many times that he decided to do without. But retailers say things are currently worse than ever, with thefts and assaults at epidemic level. The exact extent of retail crime is pretty difficult to pin down since most is not reported to the police. More shoplifting has been reported to the police in the last year and prosecutions have increased – though this may be explained by the fact that shoplifting (understandably) reduced during Covid lockdowns.
The phenomenon cited by shopkeepers as new is shoplifting planned by organised gangs which target particular goods. But again maybe it’s just more of the same. Didn’t Fagin ask his gang of destitute boys to thieve to order – “you’ve got to pick a pocket or two”? What is new is extensive media coverage and government focus on the issue. And it is clear that many shop-keepers and staff are having a terrible time – losing significant amounts of valuable stock and suffering daily abuse and attacks from shoplifters apprehended in the act.
So should politicians be listening to the siren calls to punish more and understand less? Not if they want to reduce shoplifting effectively:
This doesn’t answer how to reduce attacks on shop workers – a serious and increasing problem, part of a trend of attacks on public-facing workers. NHS, prison and police unions campaigned for an increase in the punitiveness of sanctions for assaulting an emergency worker and succeeded – maximum sentences have been increased from 6 months imprisonment to 2 years. The retail trade wants the same for shop workers, a specific offence of assault shop-worker with a more punitive maximum sentence than the current offence of common assault. They believe this will deter assaults on shop workers. If only. There is no evidence that increasing punishments deters people from committing any crime, let alone one which is often triggered by addiction, mental ill health and/or spontaneous anger.
The up-tariffing of sentences for assaulting an emergency worker has not led to any reduction in assaults and has led to a backlash from Crown Court judges who feel their time should be devoted to very serious crime, not incidents where someone shoved a police officer. We need to deal with such behaviour against police or shop workers, but many such incidents, like shoplifting, would be better resolved out of court. The reoffending rate for those who are convicted of assaulting an emergency worker is much lower if they are given a caution, than if given a court sanction. Above all, if we want to reduce retail crime we need to look at what causes it and address those, not reach for the seemingly easy but ineffective solution.