September 6, 2021

Call from British Retail Consortium for better protection of retail workers

To increase protection for these workers, Scotland has this year introduced new legislation. England and Wales have however so far decided the additional protection is not necessary.

The new Scottish legislation

The new legislation in Scotland (Protection of Workers (Retail and Age-restricted Goods and Services) (Scotland) Act 2021) was brought into force this year with the aim to increase protection for workers in the retail sector.

The legislation makes it a specific, new criminal offence to:

  • assault retail workers
  • threaten or abuse retail workers
  • obstruct or hinder retail workers.

Additionally, if the offence was committed because the retail worker was applying an age-restriction (for example, asking for proof of age because the customer is buying alcohol), this would count as an “aggravation” and potentially make the offence more serious.

Initially, concerns were raised that creating a new law was unnecessary as workers were covered by existing protections already, namely section 38 of the Criminal Justice and Licencing (Scotland) Act [2010]. However, the new legislation criminalises obstructing or hindering of a retail worker. This legislation provides additional protection for retail workers than what is already provided at common or statute law. Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (Usdaw), estimates that instances of violence, threats and abuse have doubled since the pandemic started. Therefore, it is clear that more needs to be done to protect retail workers.

In short, it is now a criminal offence in Scotland for a person to assault, threaten or abuse another person who is a retail worker and who is engaged at the time of the offence in retail work.

Will England and Wales follow suit?

The BRC is calling for this legislation to be introduced in England and Wales. To date, the Government has chosen not to act, rejecting calls for new legislation saying that current legislation is enough.

In England and Wales, existing criminal offences can be used to prosecute violence and abuse towards retail workers, such as:

  • theft, robbery or burglary under the Theft Act 1968
  • assault, unlawful wounding or grievous bodily harm under the common law or the Offences Against the Person Act 1861
  • harassment or putting people in fear of violence under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997; and
  • affray or threatening or abusive behaviour under the Public Order Act 1986.

The Government believes that instead of specific new legislation, retail staff need to be encouraged to report abuse to their managers and to the police. The BRC analysis found that of the 54% of incidents of violence and abuse reported to the police only 6% ended in prosecution, and only 3% get prosecuted as aggravated offences. There is clearly an argument that the current law could be more effective.

At the moment, it is too early to know whether the new legislation in Scotland will deter abuse towards retail workers. It is clear that retail workers will need to report incidents of violence and abuse in the course of their work for the legislation to start having the desired effect. If it does, perhaps Westminster will reconsider their position and better protection for retail workers in England and Wales will be formed.

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