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Retailers tell MPs of security response

The Home Affairs Committee of MPs has heard today from retail sector figures, giving evidence about violence and abuse against shop workers. Among those giving evidence this morning were, from high street retailers, Iona Blake, Security and Incident Manager at Boots; and Paul Gerrard, Campaigns and Public Affairs Director at The Co-op, who have described in passing what security the high street chains have in place to counter such crime.

Both retailers offer counselling for shop staff victimised by violence. Paul Gerrard described how the Co-op will offer paid time off; or moving staff into a different part of the store. The retailer has encouraged colleagues to report as many incidents as happen: “That is why we have seen an increase in incidents.” He added that the Co-op has tried to create a ‘transparent culture’ whereby staff report to team leaders and managers. Where shoppers regularly are violent or criminal, the Co-op will make store bans. As police response has, he said, been ‘quite poor, we have been left to what we can do’.

As for Boots, Iona Blake spoke of the work to make stores including pharmacies ‘covid secure’; and that the enforcing of the wearing of face covering is important. But, some are using coverings to avoid capture for shop theft, and she spoke of police not pursuing cases where in-store CCTV did not give a full ‘facial’ of the suspect. As a sign of how the police are not the whole story, but everything has to work in the criminal justice ‘pipeline’, she added: “We have seen some really good police response to some of the spitting incidents; sadly, that has not always been supported by the justice system later on down the line.”

As for Boots’ work on crime prevention, besides assistance for employees after an attack, stores and particularly pharmacies have been connected to the centrally managed CCTV monitoring centre; staff can press a panic alarm to get an immediate response from the centre, where an operator can broadcast a warning in store that police have been called. In a ‘safer cities’ programme, Boots has been trialling some body-worn cameras for even non-security retail staff. She said: “We are seeing real benefits from what we have introduced in that space.”

When asked about the lifting of covid restrictions by the Labour MP for Hull Dame Diana Johnson, Iona Blake replied that after previous restrictions the retailer had seen an increase in incidents; ‘and I don’t see that changing’.

The witnesses did praise others that they work with – in Boots’ case, the police’s National Business Crime Centre (NBCC); for the Co-op, its security contractor Mitie. Gerrard said that the Co-op had spent £140m over the last six years, ‘to keep shops and colleagues safe’, a spend per store twice the average for the sector, he added. The best undoubtedly, he went on, is ‘a physical presence’, whether of guards or of the physical lay-out of a store (to make shoplifting more difficult). The Co-op has head-sets for staff (‘that gives them a sense of greater security because they are more connected’).

The Co-op, too, has issued body-worn cameras, and has found them important; rolling them out across several hundred stores, Gerrard said. Body-worn undoubtedly deters bad behaviour when a camera is turned on, he said. As for Mitie, Gerrard pointed to incident footage, whether body-worn or of store CCTV, made into evidence ‘packages’ by the security contractor, with witness statements, and passed to the police, for prosecutions to proceed. Of 100 Co-op prosecutions since January, over 80 per cent have come from such packages produced by Mitie, Gerrard said.

Answering a question from the Scottish Nationalist MP Stuart McDonald, Gerrard and Iona Blake each acknowledged the displacement of crime, if some on the high street are spending on security; Gerrard in particular pointing to the risk to family-run independent convenience retail ‘next door’ to a Co-op. James Lowman, chief executive of the Association of Convenience Stores, was an earlier witness; the ACS‘ annual crime survey is featured in the May print edition of Professional Security magazine. McDonald, and earlier the Conservative MP for Shoreham, Tim Loughton, mentioned visiting a Co-op in their constituency, to hear about crime.

Winding up the two-hour evidence hearing, committee chair and senior Labour MP Yvette Cooper asked each witness what more could be done. Iona Blake asked for ‘a review of everything’; also aired was the inconsistency of official response – Tom Ironside of the British Retail Consortium (BRC) asked for a consistency of approach by police and crime commissioners (PCCs); many do not even mention business crime, let alone crime against retail, in their crime plans. Iona Blake praised the West Midlands Police rehabilitation programme run by PC Stuart Toogood (featured in the February 2020 print edition of Professional Security magazine), for retail thieves who shoplift to fund a drug habit. And Iona Blake wished for ‘early intervention’ against offenders, before it was too late to help them. She warned that people might not want to work in retail, because of violence. Paul Gerrard seconded her about the rehab programme, as having a ‘genuine impact’ on offenders.

Gerrard said: “This is not an insoluble problem; this is about the will.” The Co-op, he said, has worked with the Sussex PCC on a One Touch Reporting trial scheme, to make the reporting of crime against retail easier. Gerrard hailed early success – leading to five prolific offenders being arrested in the first two weeks. But, as in other cases, for every good piece of work, in other places police do not take crime against business as seriously; he described one force that does not even tag a crime as specifically against business – how can such crime be measured, or anything done about it?!

As for the retail sector-wide spending on crime prevention – rising, according to the recent annual BRC crime surveys, mentioned by Tom Ironside – he added that such spend to make sure that employees are safe is not getting to the point of addressing some of the underlying problems, or of a long-term solution. The ‘missing piece of the jigsaw’, he suggested, is the police and subsequent justice response (or rather lack of it).

More in the June print edition of Professional Security magazine.

Photo by Mark Rowe; Boots pharmacy, suburban north Bristol.


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