RETAIL staff in corner shops should be given key worker special status in order to deter violent attacks from a customer, a veteran Yorkshire MP has demanded.
Huddersfield MP Barry Sheerman spoke out in a House of Commons debate after more than 100,000 people signed an e-petition demanding greater legal protection for the retail sector.
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MPs heard how the enforcement of rules on social distancing and face masks in the pandemic had led to a sharp increase in the number of threatening – or violent – incidents, particularly in supermarkets.
But Mr Sheerman says employees of corner shops are also vulnerable and should come under the auspices of so-called Protect The Protectors legislation pioneered by Halifax MP Holly Lynch to protect emergency workers.
“The small shop is absolutely central to our communities —it is the life of the community...vital neighbourhood facilities should be protected as well as workers in the large stores,” he said.
“Some large stores are well managed and have security that is very good indeed. Others are less efficient at keeping a well-managed shop and protecting the workers who work there. I want a change in the law to protect workers, but that is not all.
“These are designated key workers, who have been key in the first wave of fighting against Covid and all the problems of this past miserable year, so I want them to be protected; I want them to be looked after, whether in a big store or a small store.”
Mr Sheerman believes there needs to be “a cultural change, speaking up when we witness verbal abuse or any abuse in our local shops or supermarkets,” he added.
“Let us work together to change culture: let us make sure that we drive out the antisocial behaviour, whether verbal or physical abuse, that is becoming far too common.
“As I have walked through my lovely constituency of Huddersfield, I have talked to many workers who have not only been in fear during working hours, but fear being followed home and having stones thrown through their windows. “This is a real problem for many workers...we need better laws and better police regulation and response, but we also need a changed culture.”
The debate was led by Stockton South MP Matt Vickers who said the issue “was not created by the pandemic; it pre-dates it”.
“I have heard the terrible stories of people being on the receiving end of vile abuse for having the temerity to do their duty of checking ID when selling drinks, or being assaulted when they step up and try to stop a shoplifter. The problem is rife,” he added.
Home Office Minister Chris Philp said he was a sympathetic because his first paid job, as a teenager, was in a Sainsbury’s store.
He confirmed that the Sentencing Council’s guidelines had been updated last week to take account of the concerns raised by MPs.
Mr Philip said the new guidance “expressly recognise that those people providing a service to the public, including retail workers, are doing a different kind of job, and that somebody who assaults them deserves a higher sentence”.
He also conceded that the number of assaults was under-reported because of a perception that the police would not investigate incidents.
“The Policing Minister is working on that. Of course, every time one of those incidents gets reported, the police should take action,” he added.
Reporting from PA