Separate offence to be created for assaulting shopworkers in government U-turn

Assaulting a shopworker is to be made a separate criminal offence after a government U-turn following pressure from campaigners.

The government previously said “more legislative change” was not needed to tackle the “intolerable violence and abuse” faced by shopworkers, arguing it did not think it was “required or will be most effective”.

But Rishi Sunak is now set to announce that his government will be amending the Criminal Justice Bill to bring in the new offence.

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.”

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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.

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Back in October, a parliamentary petition called for abuse or violence towards retail workers to be a standalone criminal offence, but ministers said in response: “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.”

Under the plans, repeat offenders, including consistent shoplifters, could also be forced to wear an electronic tag.

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The government is also proposing to pilot community sentencing measures with a police force to tackle high levels of shoplifting, as well as greater use of facial recognition technology to identify offenders who are wanted by the police.

Judges already have the power to ban repeat offenders from certain shops under criminal behaviour orders, and those who breach them face a maximum sentence of five years.

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 “the voices of the three million people working in retail are finally being heard”.

“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,” she said.

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But Yvette Cooper, Labour’s shadow home secretary, questioned why it had taken the government “so long to act”, and called its plan “a pale imitation” of what her party would do.

Launching its own policy platform to “breathe new life” into high streets on Tuesday, Labour pledged to tackle the 30% rise in shoplifting and anti-social behaviour by allowing investigations into incidents where less than £200 of goods is stolen.

The party also wants to introduce banking hubs to address the decline of in-person facilities, and has promised to replace business rates with “business property taxations”, saying it will level the playing field with online retailers.

The party’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, said: “Our town and city centres are an untapped strength of Britain’s economy.

“Yet across the country the paint is peeling, the pavements are cracking, and people just aren’t getting what they want when they visit town.

“Tory chaos has cost the country dearly, and every region has paid the price. Labour will use the full force of government to get behind our high streets and spark the decade of national renewal that communities deserve.”

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Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats accused the new Tory policy of being a “gimmick”, and said the government had “failed to get even the basics right”.

The party’s home affairs spokesperson, Alistair Carmichael, said: “It is now vital the prime minister and the home secretary invest in proper community policing and ensure all shoplifting thefts are investigated.

“The government is currently letting organised criminal gangs off the hook and leaving shopkeepers hugely vulnerable.”