Retail crime is now a major concern not just in South Yorkshire, but nationwide.
Retail crime is about theft but also about aggression towards shopworkers. Nationally, shoplifting has increased by 25% in 2023 (Office for National Statistics) and as far as abuse goes, in the first eight months of this year, the Co-operative alone have seen a 41% rise with over 1,000 incidents every day. Physical attacks on staff rose by 25% with more than 100 staff receiving serious verbal abuse daily.
Last week we were attempting to raise awareness across the country of some of the dangers that retail staff are facing from thieves on a day to day basis in their places of work. I went to the Co-operative store in the Arbourthorne area of Sheffield to meet a number of people who have a direct involvement – store managers, Co-op regional officers, trade union representatives (from USDAW), together with South Yorkshire police officers whose responsibility is retail crime.
At one time the typical shoplifter might be an elderly person slipping a packet of tea into a shopping bag, stealing for their own consumption. Those days have long since passed into history. The store manager told me about the types of thief she now has to deal with.
There are those people who largely steal to fund an addiction. They come into the shop and in full view defiantly seize packets of meat – high value, easy to carry – and quickly make off with them. These are the sort of goods that can be sold in local pubs or on street corners, sometimes with the shop’s labels still attached. This is looting on a new scale. In a cost of living crisis it seems there is no shortage of people willing to buy stolen goods. When thefts are reported and there are convictions, many of these prolific thieves are out of prison within a matter of weeks or months and begin all over again, to the despair of the staff in the shop. The manager told me that she knows many of them not only by sight but also by name.
But increasingly there are also organised criminal gangs who make their way from store to store, coming in groups of three or more to terrorise the staff and make off with as much as they can. Again, they look for those items that are easy to carry and likely to fetch the highest prices. These people are frightening and threaten staff with physical harm. It is also terrifying for any customers who happen to be shopping at the time. The trade unions and Co-op officials had distressing statistics about the number of attacks made on staff across the country and, in some cases, the violent nature of them. The store managers said many of their staff come to work anxious and on edge as a result.
What astounded me the most was hearing how all the people the managers mentioned carry out their crimes when the store is open. They are not breaking in after hours to steal. They are brazen and there often seems little to deter them.
The Co-op officials and the unions recognised that the police cannot be round the corner from every shop all the time. They also recognised that shops themselves have to think about their own security and that of their staff and customers – as most of them clearly do. The cost of extra security, however, is one thing if you are part of a large chain, quite another if you are a small convenience store. It’s also another cost which has to be factored into the price of goods sold.
But such a big and growing national problem will require national solutions as well as local. Since late October there has been a Retail Crime Action Plan and a new national initiative called Operation Pegasus – which the big retailers are helping to fund. Pegasus is an agreement between the police and some of the big stores – such as the Co-op, Boots, M&S, Primark, John Lewis. – to share data and intelligence to give the police a clearer understanding of how the gangs operate so that they can be more effectively targeted. Under the Retail Action Plan, the police will make it a priority to attend those stores where staff are attacked and where juveniles have been detained. At some point I think the government will also have to look again at sentencing.
The missing link in all of this is how we stop members of the public becoming unwitting participants in these crimes by buying stolen goods. The gangs need a market and that market is us whenever we buy something in a pub or club without being curious as to where it came from or without caring about the retail staff who were intimidated and distressed along the way.
Whenever we buy in this way we become complicit in these retail crimes which are causing distress and harm to neighbours and fellow citizens.
Some years ago I went with a police team to a terraced house in the Rotherham district where intelligence had suggested cannabis was being grown. When we entered the house we found a man who spent his days and nights cultivating the cannabis plants that were growing in every room including the cellar. His bed was a filthy mattress on the kitchen floor. He had little food. There was no useable bath or shower. He was in the grip of an organised crime gang who had trafficked him from north Africa using a false passport and other fake papers. He had no English. He rarely left the building. I discovered afterwards that he was terrified at the thought of being sent back to his country of origin where the gang still operated.
This is just one example of what we mean by modern slavery and the frightening situations that some people find themselves in. Men, women and children are recruited and trafficked to be exploited for their labour, for sexual purposes, for domestic servitude and for criminal activity. It happens to people of all ages and nationalities. People are trafficked within the country as well as from other countries.
Last week I visited the Snowdrop Project in Sheffield. They are a small, local charity who provide long-term holistic support to those who have been helped to escape from this servitude and re-build their lives. Needless to say, those they help are often very traumatised and need a lot of help and support.
People sometimes ask me why those who are exploited in this way don’t just go to the police. The answer in many cases is that in the countries they have been trafficked from, the police are to be feared. But they are often anxious about contact with any of the authorities, fearing what the outcome might be.
The Snowdrop Project does invaluable work and I was pleased to help with a grant from the funds that South Yorkshire police have seized from criminal gangs.
I don’t know why they call their project Snowdrop. Perhaps it is because the snowdrop is a hardy plant that we see in winter months, a cheerful sign of better things to come.
They would welcome donations of any size: www.snowdropproject.co.uk
The new Home Secretary, James Cleverley, and the Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, both addressed a meeting of Police and Crime Commissioners and Chief Constables at a summit in London last week. After the turbulent relationship and very public disagreements between the last Home Secretary and the police it was something of a relief to hear the new one signal a significant change of approach. He said he would praise the police in public and criticise them in private. It was good to realise that both the Home Secretary and his Shadow have a constructive and collaborative approach after all the drama of the past couple of years.
Having said that, one longs for a bit of stability. I have been Police and Crime Commissioner for nine years and in that time I have had to deal with seven Home Secretaries: Theresa May, Amber Rudd, Sajid Javid, Priti Patel, Grant Shapps, Suella Braverman and James Cleverley. Even this list does not tell the whole story since one of those, Suella Braverman, was Home Secretary twice and Grant Shapps only managed a few days. I know that civil servants keep the Home Office show on the road, but the direction of travel is set by the person at the top, and if that person changes too frequently, it hardly contributes to sustainable and successful policy making.