Did you know that

• 49% of shopworkers report they have been victims of verbal abuse
• 35% that they have been threatened
• 4% that they have been victims of violent assaults

These are the sort of figures which have led USDAW, the Shopworkers’ Union, to arrange its annual ‘Respect for Shopworker Week’ from 11 – 15 November. It’s an annual event where shopworkers talk to the public about the problems of violence threats and abuse, asking customers to ‘keep their cool’.

They’re the sort of figures which led Labour’s Jack Dromey to move a New Clause to the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill last week. This would have introduced a specific additional offence of assaulting a worker serving the public. It was debated in Parliament on 15th October.

They’re clearly not the sort of figures which move our LibDem MP, Greg Mulholland.
The amendment was lost by 224 votes to 286. Mr Mulholland voted against.

The aims of the amendment were
• to simplify sentencing: currently sentencing for common assault is very complicated. A separate offence for assaulting a public-facing worker would be easier to determine.

• to encourage prosecutions: decisions not to prosecute and lenient sentences leave victims feeling abandoned.

• to deter: creating a specific offence sends a clear message that violence against someone working to serve the public is not acceptable. Preliminary evidence from Scotland, where a similar measure for emergency workers was introduced, shows that incidents have declined since the legislation.

There already are protections for police officers and Scottish emergency service workers. Labour’s amendment would have extended these to all workers serving the public, by making the assault of a worker serving the public an offence in its own right. At the moment, under sentencing guidelines, assaulting a worker is an aggravating factor, but there are concerns this is not being applied when decisions are made about prosecutions and sentencing.

The Labour Party has now joined with members of the retail union Usdaw to campaign for respect for shopworkers as part of the Freedom From Fear Campaign. This seeks to prevent violence, threats and abuse directed at retail staff.

As Alex Sobel, Labour’s candidate for Leeds NorthWest says “Too often retail employees are confronted with violence, threats and abuse and it is really important we stand together and ask people to ‘keep their cool and respect shopworkers’.

“I was in support of Labour’s amendment to provide for stiffer sentences for offenders and I was very disappointed to see Tory and Liberal MPs combining to block it going forward. There is a real need to address the scourge of workers being assaulted and I am concerned that assailants are getting away with relatively lenient sentences.

“Like the thug, given a suspended sentence for assault, who goes out to celebrate his ‘lenient’ sentence and launches a vile racist attack on a woman shopworker, assaults her by pulling out chunks of her hair and walks free from court again.

“Or a man who grabbed a shopworker and pushed him back against a window. He then walked off shouting that he was going to ‘get him’. In court he was told his suspended sentence for a previous offence would not be activated.

“And in other cases, where the offender often isn’t charged at all and victims are left feeling that no one cares that they were assaulted. Like Val, who was punched on the jaw when she asked a persistent shoplifter to leave, because they’d been barred from the store. Val gave a statement and the police saw the CCTV footage. The attacker was arrested but nothing more has happened.

“These cases do not suggest to me that the issue of violence against shopworkers is being taken seriously. I will be campaigning with Usdaw for a change in the law to ensure that proper punishments are given out and to give a clear message that assaulting workers who are serving the public is totally unacceptable.”

John Hannett – Usdaw General Secretary says: “We are grateful to Labour MPs and candidates like Alex Sobel who support our campaign to keep our members safe at work.

“Often, in the course of their duties, shopworkers are expected to enforce the law, whether that is preventing under-age purchases or detaining shoplifters until the police arrive, they can be put in real danger.

“I have been shocked by the leniency of some of the sentencing for assault of workers. What we are seeking is a simplification and clarification of the process, by taking the assault of workers out of a list of aggravating factors and creating a separate and distinct offence. This will provide clarity to the public and ensure that the offence is properly considered by the courts.”

John Hannett is shocked, Mr Mulholland apparently not.


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