Welsh charity shops and crime

As a UK-wide organisation, we are involved with different groups in all of the National Assemblies and parliaments. So, on Wednesday 10 October I travelled to Cardiff to attend the latest meeting of the Welsh Cross Party Group for Small Shops in the Welsh Assembly. This meeting focused on retail crime across Wales and was hosted by Janet Finch-Saunders AM, the Conservative AM for Aberconwy, a Shadow Cabinet Secretary and former small business owner.

The meeting kicked off with a panel discussion featuring: James Lowman, Chief Executive of the Association of Convenience Stores (ACS); Sara Jones the Head of Policy for the Welsh Retail Consortium; Nick Ireland from Usdaw, the shop workers’ union, and; Marc Budden, a Chief Superintendent at Gwent Police.

It is clear that retail crime is a growing problem across the UK and particularly in Wales. The ACS believes that this is clearly linked to drug addiction with 70 per cent of robberies and violent robberies linked to drug offences. James Lowman described how offenders are now more willing to “risk more for less”. The ACS are therefore working with the Centre for Social Justice to find solutions based on reducing drug dependency and have launched a pledge for Police and Crime Commissioners in England and Wales.

Sara Jones described the findings of the Retail Consortium’s annual crime survey. This shows that retail crime is costing the sector more money than ever before with theft doubling since 2013/14 and that this is linked to other issues such as drug dependency. Sara was particularly concerned that the most serious forms of violent retail crime are increasing (whilst lower level intimidation and violence is declining) with 13 retail staff injured every day in England and Wales.

Picking up on this point, Nick Ireland highlighted Usdaw’s very recent report “Freedom from Fear” which demonstrates some of the worst examples of violence and abuse and how so many incidents go unreported. For example, 22 per cent of staff who are physically attacked never report it. Like the ACS and BRC, Usdaw are calling for the UK government to make retail crime an aggravated offence to overcome this and confirm to shop workers that they should not accept this behaviour as part of the job. Mr Ireland linked much of this issue back to austerity with police having fewer resources to commit to the problem and social policies to tackle issues like drug addiction cut back.

Chief Superintendent Marc Budden started by confirming that his Police and Crime Commissioner has signed the ACS’s pledge. He confirmed that declining policing numbers is causing issues and therefore crime has to be prioritised based on “threat, risk and harm”. The police can deal with retail crime best when they have a partnership with the local retail sector and where crime is designed out in stores to make it harder to steal high value items and easier to collect evidence. Simple steps like this have helped to decrease shoplifting itself but violence is on the increase across Wales and England.

All the panel agreed that retail crime is far from “victimless” despite this being a perception of some. We believe this particularly applies to charity retail where thefts take money away from charitable causes not just a bottom line.

During the question time I took the opportunity to highlight how the charity retail sector also suffers from many of the same problems, with 47 per cent of our members reporting that theft of stock by customers has increased in the last year, and 25 per cent reporting that abuse and violence against staff and volunteers has increased. All agreed that crime against charity shops is far from a victimless crime and needs to be taken as seriously as the other crimes discussed at the meeting. We therefore agreed to work closer together on these issues.

In addition to these crimes, I also spoke about the problem of fly tipping at charity stores as an additional issue in our sector. People dump waste at charity shop’s front doors or forecourts, probably thinking they have a sound alibi if court, namely “it’s a donation I wanted to give”. I highlighted to the AMs present how local authorities are increasing charges for collecting this kind of waste.

Janet Finch-Saunders AM described how she has had to lobby the local authority to collect waste dumped on private land – at farms and businesses – in her constituency. The other AMs present – Vicky Howells AM (Labour) and Russel George AM (Conservative) – seemed to be supportive of charity shops’ needs to have this illegal waste removed affordably.

The group also discussed the perverse incentives around shop security, for example installing high quality CCTV and other measures can actually increase the rateable value of a premises and therefore their tax bill. It was generally agreed that it would be better to have tax incentives for business investment particularly around security.

The importance of reporting every incident was also highlighted as this gives the police intelligence, even if they cannot respond instantly, and it also ensure that these crimes are added to the official statistics which help to set political priorities. We would encourage all of our members to do just this.

Overall, it was a very constructive and interesting event and we look forward to continuing to work with all of the partners present at the meeting to tackle this vital issue.

Matt Kelcher
Head of Public Affairs and Research
Charity Retail Association