Understanding The Law On Retail Worker Abuse

Retail can often be a stressful environment. Long queue times, soaring prices and dwindling stock levels can all combine to create an experience that many have already started to eschew in favour of online shopping and more convenient services.

Shops are still busy places, however, and the sad truth of that is that retail workers and assistants often take the brunt of people’s frustrations. There is no excuse for this, of course – by no means should anyone, in any line of work, be abused for what they do. And while we might expect there to be repercussions for those that do abuse, the law is unfortunately unclear at best.

With our latest piece, Churchill Support Services take a deep dive into what the law currently says, why there’s an outcry for the rest of the UK to more closely align with Scotland’s legislation, and how businesses and shop owners can react effectively to what’s fast becoming a more prevalent issue post-pandemic.


What Are The Laws Around Retail Worker Abuse?

As you may expect, the laws on abuse and threatening behaviour in public places, as well as those surrounding physical acts of violence, in general are well documented. In police reporting, they’re often grouped together under the heading of “public order offences”. This is usually done to make processing and categorisation easier and less time-consuming.

Under that banner, offences are split amongst several distinct categories, most of which were first included in recent guidelines issued in 2020 and 2021. In order of seriousness, these include:

  • Violent Disorder – Carrying up to 5 years imprisonment and adjudicated by the Crown Court, violent disorder usually involves more than 3 people, and is threatening enough to cause substantial concern for safety. Read more from the Sentencing Council.
  • Affray – Classified as one of the more serious public order offences, affray is a significant disturbance that involves significant levels of violence, and that means bystanders or others fear for their safety or wellbeing. Read more from the Sentencing Council.
  • Common Assault Of An Emergency Worker – Violence towards or involving police, ambulance, fire service and other emergency service workers, carrying up to 2 years imprisonment.
  • Racially/Religiously Aggravated Assault – Violent crime committed on the basis of race or religion, also carrying a 2 year sentence and heavy penalties. This falls in accordance with the harsher sentencing penalties for racially/religiously-motivated assault outlined by Section 279 of the Sentencing Act in 2020.
  • Common Assault (Battery) – Classed as the least serious of any violent public order offence, common assault (also referred to as battery, or assault by beating) carries a maximum sentence of 6 months. Only triable in a Magistrates’ Court. Read more from the Sentencing Council.

All of these can, and do, happen to those working in retail environments. Statistics from the British Retail Consortium’s latest report illustrate just how pressing a problem violence and abuse is in the retail sector, with an estimated 316,000 violent incidents a year, or a staggering 867 incidents every single day.

Perhaps more worryingly, just 7% of those incidents led to any form of prosecution.

However, one of the glaring omissions from the list above, and from the data that the majority of UK police forces publish, is that assault on retail workers isn’t tracked. While it’ll be tried in accordance with the guidelines of the public order offences we’ve discussed, it’s difficult to know what’s happening to those who make the decision to assault or otherwise abuse our retail workers.

This is not, however, the case in Scotland, as recent legislation has meant that police forces across the country are now reporting more clearly, and giving a more concrete indication of what’s happening in stores, supermarkets and shopping centres.


How The Law Differs In Scotland

New legislation introduced at Holyrood in the summer of 2021 by Scottish Labour, and universally agreed upon by MPs across the political spectrum, offers much more substantial protection for retail workers in a range of different environments.

Dubbed “The Protection of Workers Act”, it categorises the assault and abuse of retail workers as its own separate statutory offence under Scottish Law. This encompasses any form of assault, threat or abuse towards retail workers, and groups them together under three new offence types:

  • Common Assault of a Retail Worker
  • Serious Assault of a Retail Worker
  • Threating or Abusive Behaviour of a Retail Worker

First suggested by the Scottish Labour MP for Southern Edinburgh, Daniel Johnson, it’s stories like those he presented in the final debate in January 2021 that really cemented the decision as one that was never likely to be overturned.

With retail workers reporting in their droves that “abuse is now seen as just part of the job”, and “something that each worker is expected to handle every single day”, the law came at a time when statistics were making for increasingly grim reading. Let’s break those down in more detail.


Key Statistics That Show The Need For Stricter Laws UK-Wide

At Churchill Support Services, we’ve long been advocates for clearer and more transparent reporting when it comes to a broad range of different crimes and criminal activity. Indeed, we fully committed to that with our recent articles that explored the most dangerous areas in England and Wales, as well as a complete guide to Scotland’s crime statistics.

Suffice it to say we’re familiar with how crime reporting works, and the figures we’ve uncovered for those in the retail sector are no different. Using data from both the whole of last year, and the first quarter of 2023/24, we found numerous concerning data points from the statistics available from Police Scotland.

Chief among these is the shocking overall number of offences. A total of 5,121 instances of abusive behaviour (both physical and verbal abuse) towards retail workers took place over that timeframe, equating to around 12 incidents per day.

Breaking that down further, we find there’s an even share of both threatening and abusive behaviour towards a retail worker (2823 offences) and common assault of a retail worker (2273 offences). Those other 25 offences are classified as serious assault of a retail worker, where there’s significant bodily harm caused (such as broken bones, head injuries or lacerations).


Retail crime stats in Scotland

Across Scotland, certain areas face more of a serious issue with the abuse and assault of retail workers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the larger cities of Edinburgh (1107 offences) and Glasgow (901 offences) see the largest number of instances of retail worker abuse, although those only tell a partial story, making up around 39% of all retail-related assault and abuse.

We’ve broken down the 10 worst regions for retail worker abuse and assault offences.

These statistics, especially when you couple them with BRC’s wider findings across the whole of the UK, shed a worrying light upon what’s happening in our shops and retail environments. It’s abundantly and concerningly clear that shop workers are at a greater risk of abuse and other forms of threatening behaviour.


Retail crime statistics in Scotland

Will The Laws On Retail Worker Abuse Change In The Future?

Frustratingly, that’s still not clear. Multiple parties, including shopworkers’ union Usdaw and the British Retail Consortium (BRC), have tried in vain to effect a change in the legislation surrounding the abuse and assault of retail workers UK-wide.

Indeed, 2022 saw a breakthrough from the BRC, who successfully campaigned for an adjustment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act. The new amendment meant that any assault or abusive behaviour towards retail workers could be treated with considerations towards the degree of aggravation and malice with which the crime had been committed.

However, since that change almost 2 years ago, the legislation and reporting of crimes towards retail workers has ground to something of a standstill. Many, including representatives at the BRC, are up in arms about the lack of transparency in reporting, citing Scotland’s laws as a move towards the positive.

The British Retail Consortium view Police Scotland’s approach to clearer reporting and stricter sentencing as a step in the right direction, stating that the new measures are “clearly working”.

Unfortunately though, until data is properly collected and collated as it has been across Scotland, there’s unlikely to be further movement. A separate offence, says the BRC’s Graham Wynn, would lead to “stricter sentencing, stronger deterrence and a clearer indicator of the true scale of the problem”, all of which can only lead to better safety for retailers and their staff members.

That in turn leads to better apportioning of the oft-limited police funding, and greater public confidence that the shops and stores they visit are well looked after. Sadly though, as good as these ideas are, they’re reliant upon larger-scale changes to wider UK legislation, which have still yet to be fully accepted as they have been in Scotland.

There are measures you can take in the meantime, however. The estimates from the BRC place privatised security spending at around £722 million, and for good reason – private security is an excellent way to better safeguard your people, your property and your livelihood, regardless of the size and scope of your business.


Ensuring Your Shop & Staff’s Safety With Churchill

At Churchill Support Services, we’ve long been committed to ensuring the continued safety and wellbeing of retail workers. We’re firm believers that they’re some of the most worthy of the “key workers” title that gained traction during the pandemic, offering a service that many of us use without ever thinking twice about.

We’ve supported that commitment by providing our signature levels of exceptional quality, bespoke security services and virtue-driven approach to a wide range of retailers, from small, family-run businesses to major multinational retailers and household names.

We do all of this with a trademark level of excellence and professionalism that’s seen us retain the title of the UK’s #1 ACS-approved security company for the 3rd year running. That’s the kind of reputation that’s ensured we’ve been able to continually provide a service that matches with the rigours and untold difficulties that retailers and their staff face on a daily basis.

Plus, with our tailormade services, we’re able to work within the often strict budget parameters that shops contend with, offering a package that suits you down to the ground. From on-site security officers and store detectives, to cutting-edge security cameras with AI integration, we’re expertly positioned to offer you and your store exactly what you need.

Get in touch with our in-house experts today to discuss what we can offer for your store, and to receive a free, no obligation quote that takes into consideration everything you need to stay safe, regardless of whether or not the law changes.

John Melling

Group Chief Executive Officer

John has a proven track record for motivating and leading high performance teams and has helped mentor and develop many people at Churchill who now hold key or senior positions within the business. John is committed to delivering only the finest services, exercising compelling leadership, maintaining good internal morale and striving to resolve any challenges efficiently and effectively.