As the Minister for Crime Prevention - including business crime - I’m very pleased to have the opportunity to speak to you today and want to thank the British Retail Consortium for inviting me. I want to pay tribute to the British Retail Consortium for its work in raising awareness of the problem of crimes against business and to thank you for your efforts to tackle it. I am sure you agree with me that the BRC is a powerful voice for a very important sector. And it’s a good opportunity for me to continue a debate and discussion which Philip Hagon, Stephen Robertson and others have been having for a little while about retail crime.
Little more than twelve months ago the Retail Crime Commission reported to my Party in Opposition with recommendations on actions that might be considered. Whilst not being a member of the Commission, I sat in on a number of the evidence sessions and gained a clear impression of the challenges faced by shops and other retail businesses. Whilst the Commission’s Report was not formal policy, it did provide an important marker on some of the issues requiring attention.
One of the recommendations was that combating retail crime should be considered as a priority for the Home Office and that a named Minister be responsible. Little did I know that I would be standing before you a year later!
But I am here as a Home Office Minister and I can say that I do take crimes against business - crimes against industry very seriously. I’m clear that shops are the lifeblood of our communities and our neighbourhoods. In a way, I think ‘retail’ is too limiting a description of what you do. Shops keep our town centres alive and are often the lynchpin of our neighbourhoods, providing a place where communities meet and make connections with each other. When I see a vibrant row of shops, I know it’s a sign of a vibrant, healthy neighbourhood. And your contribution to our national economy is vital.
The retail sector generates 8 per cent of our GDP, over a third of all consumer spending goes through retailers and employs 10 per cent of the entire UK workforce. It is so important that you should be free to trade without fear of crime and disorder, to get on with the important business of retailing, free from shoplifting, anti-social behaviour and violence.
That is why I’d like to like to focus on these three things this afternoon:
- the government’s approach to reforming the Criminal Justice System and tackling crime
- what this means for the retail sector
- what I hope we can achieve together
We all know that crime is too high, and the harm this does to our communities. No one knows that better than you. Shoplifting damages your profits. Anti-social behaviour and violence damage your employees. And all of this damages our neighbourhoods. This is why we have put cutting crime at the centre of our ambition in the Home Office.
Tough economic times
Our country has the worst budget deficit of any major economy. Our public finances are in the biggest mess any of us have seen in our lifetimes. So it is now more important than ever to make sure the retail sector is free to make its full contribution to the economy. It also means that government is going to have to take tough action to put things right. As we approach the outcome of the spending review there is a lot of discussion about what this will mean for funding. But we are clear that this does not just mean spending restraint, it is also about making sure that there is a new approach to crime; one that makes the best use of scarce resources and puts power back in the hands of people who have been denied it for too long.
I know from your point of view that you believe there is a lot to put right. The Retail Crime Commission gave a valuable insight into the kinds of problems faced by retailers. One of the strongest themes that came through from the report was that you felt that your concerns - and the crimes committed against you and your staff - were not being taken seriously enough.
This is exactly what our reforms are designed to address.
The first change is that we will make the police more accountable to the people they serve. For too long the police have been disconnected from the communities they serve, tied down by bureaucracy, and answerable to distant politicians instead of to local people and businesses. We want to get rid of the inefficient and ineffective process of bureaucratic accountability and replace it with direct, democratic accountability. We will put power back into the hands of the people. To do this, we will introduce directly-elected Police and Crime Commissioners - a single, named individual democratically accountable to their communities.
This will be real accountability, provided not by invisible police authorities, not by ministers hundreds of miles away in London, but by the people themselves. Your commissioner will be somebody you’ve heard of; somebody you’ve voted for; somebody you can hold to account; somebody you can get rid of if they don’t cut crime. It may even be you.
I know you are anxious to find out how it will work in practice and what it will mean for business. We are currently reviewing over 900 responses received to the Policing in the 21st Century consultation document, and we will publish our response in due course. In the meantime I want to assure you that the introduction of Police and Crime Commissioners forms will offer greater opportunity for businesses both to influence local policing, and to make their contribution to making these new accountability arrangements work.
We look forward to having more detailed conversations with you about how we make that happen.
Our second reform is our commitment to greater transparency across all public services. Giving people information to hold their local police to account is critical. We will put in place maps in January 2011 that will show crime and ASB data at a level that allows the public to see what is happening on their streets - including the shopping areas and retail districts. This will give you the information you need to hold the policing teams in your area, and in the future the Police and Crime Commissioner, to account.
Third, we are getting rid of the bureaucracy and the red tape that for too long have tied up the police, while at the same time making sure that police and partners have access to the information they need to do the job well. Police officers should spend more time out on the streets to detect and deter crime. And by spending more time in their communities they will be better able to respond to the needs of those communities. By freeing them up from the paperwork and bureaucracy to trust their professionalism and their judgement to deal with the crimes they are confronted with in an effective way. Including issues like violence against shop staff. The government is determined to tackle violence whenever and wherever it occurs.
Just like the rest of the population, retail staff deserve to work in an environment that is as safe and secure as possible. There are clear sentencing guidelines which state that where the victim of a violent assault is engaged in providing a service to the public this is an aggravating factor and must be taken into account when determining the sentence for an offence. This applies whether or not the victim is a public servant. I have been a strong supporter of the USDAW Freedom From Fear campaign highlighting that threats, intimidation or violence against people simply trying to do a day’s work is utterly unacceptable. The Home Office has also been working with the Health and Safety Executive on improving advice to business.
But I am sure that there is more work that can be done and I look forward to discussing this issue further when the Home Retail Crime Steering Group meets in a few weeks time. Equally, I know many of you have concerns that in dealing with shoplifting there have been too many cases of persistent offenders getting multiple PNDs. I am absolutely clear that the use of PNDs for shoplifting is restricted to first time offenders only and guidance from the Ministry of Justice makes this clear. But I also know that we need to examine other options for dealing with offenders. And my colleagues at the Ministry of Justice are considering these issues carefully as part of their review of sentencing.
The government has also announced the creation of a new National Crime Agency. This will lead the fight against organised crime, protect our borders and provide services best delivered at national level. This powerful new body will harness and exploit the intelligence, analytical and enforcement capabilities of the existing Serious Organised Crime Agency and better connect these capabilities to those within the police service, HM Revenue and Customs, the UK Border Agency and a range of other criminal justice partners. It will have an important role in combating online and computer enabled crime.
I recognise the threat that this poses for the expansion of on line trading, as retailers and other business are reluctant to trade for fear they will be the victim of this type of crime. We are committed to developing an e-crime strategy to prevent and reduce this distressing crime.
What you can do
But I recognise that not all of the problems will be solved by government or the police in isolation. Whilst Police and Crime Commissioners and the establishment of the new National Crime Agency will make a difference, they cannot cut crime alone. It is shared responsibility and we need to work together to tackle it. Retailers are already doing a lot to reduce crime and we want to work with you to build on this.
I know of some excellent examples, which show the really creative ways retailers can work with police to cut crime not only in their own shops, but in ways that benefit the surrounding neighbourhood. For instance, over 30 branches of Sainsburys have opened a police station within them. This supports neighbourhood policing in the area, and brings benefits to the shops and the surrounding community. Staff in Co-Op shops help the police to spend more time on the beat by providing “tea stops”, so officers can take their breaks in stores, acting as a deterrent to criminals.
It’s not just the big companies who are standing up and making a contribution. Take, for example, the husband and wife team in Devon, who won this year’s Convenience Store magazine’s Zero Tolerance Award. These shopkeepers demonstrated immense courage and determination in helping their community rise against criminality and take a stand against intimidation, starting a successful neighbourhood campaign.
These are just a handful of examples, but they show the kind of difference that can be made when retailers take the initiative and work with the police and others to tackle crime, for their benefit and for the good of their communities. I see it as an important part of corporate social responsibility.
I also welcome the establishment and continued development of Business Crime Reduction Partnerships, Business Improvement Districts and more localised shop watch schemes.
Meeting the needs of their members and promoting joint-working on the high street in a very practical and direct way. I want to examine ways in which they can be encouraged.
Designing out crime
In these days of rapid technological innovation, designing out crime is an area that I believe has huge potential to prevent crime by denying criminals the opportunity to commit crime in the first place. This is another way in which business has a really valuable contribution to cutting crime. We have already seen major breakthroughs thanks to improved technology which is helping to tackle the theft of mobile phones and cars. The recent launch of the Mobile Phone Recyclers’ Code of Practice is an excellent example of what a collaborative approach can achieve, using better technology. Over 100,000 stolen handsets a year were being traded, often unwittingly, by recyclers every year fuelling the market for stolen phones. The mobile phone recyclers worked with Government and the Police to draw up a code of practice so that recyclers make the necessary checks when they purchase handsets, and to inform them more easily if a handset is stolen.
The code created is now self-regulating and is going a long way to reducing the market for stolen mobile phones. This shows how not only local action, but strategic partnerships brokered at the national level with the private sector can make a real difference to cutting crime. I want to work with you more closely over time across the range of issues that concern you to make sure that government is not getting in the way, but facilitating these solutions.
The conference themes today show how important tackling crime is to you. From shoplifting to fraud. From online threats in the virtual world to threats against staff in the real world. I am confident that the steps we are now taking will make a material difference. Freeing up the police, providing greater accountability and restoring real power to communities - including the businesses within those communities.
But to quote what is now becoming a well worn phrase we are all in this together.
And at a time of significant financial challenge we will need to work even more closely together. But if we do so, I believe that we can deliver greater improvements in preventing, detecting and deterring business and retail crime. And in so doing creating the safer communities for the public we both serve. I’m looking forward to working with you to make this a reality.