The Offensive Weapons Bill is currently making its way through parliament, with provisions to restrict the sale of corrosive substances, knives and firearms. These steps to protect the public and tackle violent crime are urgently needed. As we introduce new restrictions on the sale of these items, however, it is crucial that we also act to protect the shop workers responsible for enforcing them, and who we already rely on to police the sale of 25 other types of products controlled by law.
As a young person, I worked in a shop. I know that while the work can be enjoyable, the hours are often irregular and there are other jobs that are better paid. This kind of work is not without its risks. Shoplifting and drunken or anti-social behaviour are not uncommon. And when challenging individuals over the sale of restricted products, verbal and physical abuse are too often a possibility.
During my time as a shop-worker, I was also a proud member of Usdaw trade union. With 230 people working in shops assaulted each day, Usdaw is calling for the Offensive Weapons Bill to provide greater protections to those responsible for selling restricted products. Their campaign is supported by the Co-operative Party and employers across the retail sector. As a Labour and Co-operative member of the House of Lords, I am proud to back them in that call.
At the second reading of the Bill on Monday, I called for the government to support making it a specific offence to intimidate or assault a worker enforcing restrictions on a sale. I believe that if we are asking shop workers to enforce the law on our behalf, the least we can do is ensure they enjoy adequate protections themselves. Similarly, while shop workers can currently be prosecuted for selling these types of products, in many cases there is not yet a corresponding offense of buying them. The Bill provides us with an opportunity to urgently look at this as well.
In addition to Usdaw and the Co-operative Party, it is encouraging that many employers also recognise the need for action. The Co-operative Group has been a leading voice in the campaign, alongside representatives of the wider industry, including the British Retail Consortium. It is now the turn of the House of Lords to show solidarity. Those we entrust to help to enforce our laws must know they have our support.
Previous attempts to amend the Bill in the House of Commons to include these protections were unsuccessful, with the government unconvinced of a need for a change in the law. However, representatives of Usdaw and employers have since met with the government to set out the case, and it was encouraging to hear the government recently confirm that it is still “considering the case” for a bespoke offence on assaults on retail staff.
I’m hopeful we can now build cross-party support for action as the Bill makes its way through the Lords, ensuring shop-workers get the protection they ought to be able to expect and deserve.
Lord Kennedy of Southwark is a Labour and Co-operative Party peer.