Retail therapy

george-foulkes4x3.jpgGeorge Foulkes on changing the law to give shop workers greater protection from abuse and assaults

Somewhat surprisingly, the last fortnight has marked a new phase in David Cameron’s leadership of the Conservative Party. Phase one, back in the heady days of opposition, was all about hugging hoodies and stroking huskies. Phase two, and in government, was reverting to type: the return of the nasty party.

It is phase three, initiated last week however, which is the most interesting. The Tories new governing philosophy seems to be to try and implement Labour’s most popular policies: “dangerous ideas” previously attributed to rabid Marxism and economic illiteracy. It appears the red tide has now claimed comrades Cameron and Osborne. U-turns have followed on pay-day loans and cigarette packaging, not to mention announcements on childcare and the voluntary energy price freeze that never was. 

It is in this new found spirit of solidarity with the our Party that I am asking Ministers to look again at an issue, that doesn’t require any ideological affinity (just simple plain commonsense and decency), faced on a day to day basis by shop workers. Every year, well over 100,000 of our fellow citizens are assaulted while working on the frontline of the retail industry. But our current legal system doesn’t provide these men and women with the protection they deserve, nor does it do justice to their suffering. Indeed, in  far too many instances, the police and CPS seem to be deciding that it isn’t worth proceeding with these cases of common assault (which is how such offences are usually categorised) because assailants could end up with as little as a £50 fine. 

Often, sentences are disproportionately lenient. In one case, a man out celebrating not going to prison for a previous assault on someone with learning disabilities received a 12 month suspended sentence for racially abusing and assaulting a woman in front of her children. Another individual meanwhile, received a community order for punching a shopkeeper in the face and racially abusing him just because he’d been asked for ID. 

This is why later today I will move an amendment to the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill to make the assault of a worker in the course of their employment a separate offence. If enacted, it would elevate the seriousness of such a crime above common assault in the sentencing guidelines, increasing the range of penalties available – and encouraging a higher number of prosecutions. 

Peers from all parties and the crossbenches have already approached me to express their support. Some have rightly pointed out that the workers to whom the amendment applies are often charged with enforcing the law on products such as alcohol and cigarettes, or offences such a shoplifting. They do so at great personal risk.  In fact, 30% of violent and abusive incidences occur when customers are challenged on age-restricted items, and 15% when staff confront shoplifters. 

In Scotland, similar protective measures for emergency workers have led to a decline in incidents and over 1,000 prosecutions. The time has come to provide shop workers, health workers and teachers, public transport and local government staff, government agency staff, postal workers and catering staff with a higher level of protection. If the government really is on the side of hard working people, it should start by joining with us to give them the peace of mind and support they deserve. 

Lord George Foulkes of Cumnock is a backbench Labour Peer

Published 4th December 2013

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