Background

Retail crime such as theft from shops or violence against shopworkers is covered by a number of existing general criminal offences.  However, there are calls both inside and outside the House of Commons for the Government to introduce specific measures to tackle retail crime.

Official statistics on retail crime are set out in the Home Office’s annual Commercial Victimisation Survey, the most recent edition of which was issued in September 2019.

Statistics are also published by retail associations including the British Retail Consortium, which conducts an annual Retail Crime Survey, and the Association of Convenience Stores, which publishes an annual Crime Report.

Existing criminal offences

A variety of existing criminal offences can be used to prosecute retail crime.  Key examples include the following:

There is no specific offence of shoplifting.  This would normally be prosecuted using the offence of theft under section 1 of the Theft Act 1968.  Section 1 is normally an either-way offence and can therefore be tried in either the magistrates’ court or the Crown court, depending on seriousness. 

However, section 22A of the Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980 (inserted by section 176 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014) provides that “low level” shoplifting – defined as involving stolen goods worth £200 or less – is to be treated as a summary offence and tried in the magistrates’ court.  Section 22A sets out an exception for defendants who elect trial by jury – such cases can still be tried in the Crown court. 

The Home Office has published guidance for the police on tackling low level shoplifting using this provision.

Calls for change

Concerns have been expressed both inside and outside Parliament that more needs to be done to tackle retail crime.

Press reports have highlighted retailers’ concerns that the introduction of a £200 threshold for “low level” shoplifting under s22A of the Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980 may have inadvertently led to an increase in such activity.  Some suggest that low level shoplifting has effectively been “decriminalised” by s22A as it is not treated as a policing priority. 

There have also been calls for a new criminal offence for people who “intentionally obstruct” retail staff who are attempting to enforce legal age restrictions on the sale of certain products (such as knives). 

David Hanson tabled two new clauses to this effect at Report Stage of the Offensive Weapons Bill, although neither clause was ultimately added to the Bill.  He argued that shopworkers are “at the frontline” in enforcing age restrictions and that they should therefore be given legal protection when doing so.  The Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers supported the new clauses as part of its “Freedom From Fear” campaign.

Home Office minister Victoria Atkins resisted the new clauses on the basis that abusive or threatening behaviour towards shop workers was already covered by existing criminal offences, and that there was “no gap” in the law.  She did, however, invite interested Members and organisations to attend a Home Office roundtable on the issue.  The roundtable took place on 11 December 2018.

Further calls for change were made in a Westminster Hall debate on retail crime on 11 April 2019.

Government response

Following the roundtable, and a subsequent meeting of the National Retail Crime Steering Group in February 2019, the Home Office announced that it would be taking the following steps on retail crime:

  • a call for evidence to gather data on violence and abuse towards shop staff; and
  • £50,000 of funding for a sector-led communications campaign to raise awareness of the existing criminal offences that can be used to tackle such behaviour.

Both measures have been welcomed by the Association of Convenience Stores.

Further details of the communications campaign are available on the Crimestoppers website.

Further details on the call for evidence were issued on 5 April 2019 and it closed on 28 June 2019. The Government is analysing responses. In the April 2019 Westminster Hall debate the Minister said it was her intention to publish the Government’s response in the autumn. In answer to a Parliamentary Question on 8 October 2019 the Home Office said it intended to publish the response in due course.

Further details of the communications campaign are available on the Crimestoppers website.  


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