Shoplifting: What powers do the police have to stop theft 'epidemic'?

Shop owners have asked the government to specifically outlaw attacks on retail workers.

Crawley, UK - July 12, 2019 - a real size photograph of a policeman on a glass wall of Morisons supermarket, as a warning for possible thiefs
Shop owners have asked the government to specifically outlaw attacks on retail workers. (PA) (Kirill Nikitin)

Shop owners have asked the government to specifically outlaw attacks on retail workers as stores experience a spike in thefts and attacks amid the cost of living crisis.

Business leaders have urged home secretary Suella Braverman to create a new offence of assaulting, threatening or abusing a retail worker, following increased attacks from organised crime groups.

Nearly 90 bosses, from Aldi UK chief executive Giles Hurley to Charmaine Griffiths, who heads the British Heart Foundation, said such actions should be charged as an aggravated offence.

British Retail Consortium (BRC) chief executive Helen Dickinson said: "It is vital that action is taken before the scourge of retail crime gets any worse.

"We are seeing organised gangs threatening staff with weapons and emptying stores. We are seeing violence against colleagues who are doing their job and asking for age verification."

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The change would bring English and Welsh law in line with the 2021 Protection of Workers Act passed in Scotland.

A survey from the BRC found that incidents of violence and abuse towards retail workers nearly doubled in the 2021-22 financial year compared with before the pandemic.

The Federation of Independent Retailers, which has 10,500 members, said 850 incidents of theft or verbal abuse were recorded across its members every day, and incidents had increased 25% in the last year.

Cropped view of teenage boy being handcuffed.
A survey found incidents of violence and abuse towards retail workers nearly doubled between 2021 and 2022. (Getty Images) (kali9 via Getty Images)

What happens if you get caught shoplifting on camera in the UK?

Shoplifting refers to taking goods from a shop without paying for them first.

If caught shoplifting, a person will either will be charged with theft under section 1 of the Theft Act 1986; or, if the goods stolen are worth less than £200, for low-value shoplifting under section 176 of the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act.

In Northern Ireland, the law regarding shoplifting is outlined in the Theft Act (Northern Ireland) 1969.

Why are shoplifters not being prosecuted?

The change stems from the requirement in the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 for any shoplifting offence less than £200 to be treated as a summary offence, which should be handled through a penalty notice fine of just £70 without the thief having to turn up at magistrates.

One former Scotland Yard detective said that the downgrade had given a green light to police to abandon prosecutions and investigations into such thefts, which could tie up an officer for six to eight hours when they could be tackling more serious crime.

He said in 2021: "The government has effectively decriminalised shoplifting. Provided a thief stays below the £200 threshold, they are not going to be arrested. Police won't be called and the worst they get is a fixed penalty of £70 and they are still in profit with £130."

Retailers are now calling on the government to outlaw attacks on retail workers specifically.

BRC chief executive Dickinson added: "It's time the government put their words into action. We need to see a standalone offence for assaulting or abusing a retail worker, as exists in Scotland.

"We need government to stand with the millions of retail workers who kept us safe and fed during the pandemic – and support them, as those workers supported us."

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One former Met Police detective has said officers were prioritising serious crime over shoplifting. (Getty Images) (andrewmedina via Getty Images)

What is the punishment for shoplifting?

Currently, shoplifting does not automatically lead to time in prison. If the goods are worth less than £200, the maximum sentence is six months in prison, but this type of offence is usually dealt with by issuing a postal fine.

Anything over £200 could lead to a maximum sentence of seven years in prison.

However, the actual sentence depends on the value of the goods stolen and whether the offender has any previous convictions.

In addition to criminal penalties, shoplifters may also face civil penalties, such as being banned from the store or having to pay compensation to the store for any damage or loss caused.

The 2021 Protection of Workers Act is an Act of the Scottish Parliament to create an offence of assaulting, threatening or abusing retail workers, and to provide for a statutory aggravation of that offence where the retail worker is enforcing a statutory age restriction.

This does not apply in the rest of the UK.

Chris Philp MP talks to Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Mark Rowley (right) at a meeting of the National Policing Board at the Home Office in London. The Board, made up of law enforcement partners including the National Police Chiefs' Council, the National Crime Agency and the Met Police Commissioner. Picture date: Wednesday November 30, 2022. (Photo by James Manning/PA Images via Getty Images)
Chris Philp MP talks to Metropolitan Police commissioner Sir Mark Rowley. (Getty Images) (James Manning - PA Images via Getty Images)

What is being done to tackle shoplifting

John Lewis is among 10 of the UK's biggest retailers to have agreed to fund a police operation to crack down on shoplifting, dubbed Project Pegasus.

The companies are expected to pay around £600,000 towards the project, which will utilise CCTV pictures and facial recognition technology to get a better understanding of shoplifting operations.

It is said that the project will benefit all retailers.

A Home Office spokesperson said: "Shoplifting strikes at the heart of the British high street, and the policing minister has asked forces to take a zero tolerance approach to this crime.

"By enabling retailers to share better information on shoplifting with police forces and build up a national strategic picture, Project Pegasus will help crack down on criminal gangs across the country."

Home Office minister Chris Philp said: "We have record police numbers and I expect them to help all retailers.

"This scheme will help all retailers, not just the big ones, as it will identify criminal gangs.

"It is an important part of the response."

Watch: Camera crew catches thief as store boss is interviewed about shoplifting