Police told to target shoplifters

Policing Minister Chris Philp calls on forces to investigate thefts even if goods worth less than £200

Shoplifting incidents have risen from 1.6 million in 2013 to 7.9 million last year, according to British Retail Consortium
Retail thefts are up from 1.6 million in 2013 to 7.9 million last year, according to the British Retail Consortium
(Image credit: Peter Dazeley)

Police must have a “zero tolerance” approach to all shoplifting including thefts of low-value goods, the policing minister has said.

Chris Philp told The Telegraph that forces should investigate every crime where there was CCTV footage, even if the stolen items are worth less than £200. Under law changes introduced in 2014, thefts below this value can be dealt with through a fine delivered by post.

But Philp insisted that shoplifting was “still a criminal offence” that “should not be tolerated at any level”. Police should enforce the law “comprehensively”, he said, as should security staff where safe, as “they are legally entitled to do so”.

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‘Out-of-control crime’

Shoplifting is a growing problem for retailers across the UK. The British Retail Consortium (BRC) estimates that the number of shoplifting incidents has risen from 1.6 million in 2013 to 7.9 million last year. Shoplifting is now thought to cost UK retailers almost £1 billion, through direct losses and the cost of crime prevention measures.

Yet police are failing to attend more than two-thirds of retail crimes, according to data released by the Co-op in July. The retailer warned of “out-of-control crime” in some of its stores, predominantly committed by “repeat offenders and criminal gangs operating exempt from consequences”. The level of theft and “looting” in some areas was high that some communities could “become a no-go area for local stores”, Co-op added.

Former Scotland Yard detective David McKelvey told The Telegraph in 2021 that the government had “effectively decriminalised shoplifting” under the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, which downgraded shoplifting offences under the £200 threshold to a summary offence. The “worst” that a thief might face was a fixed penalty of £70 issued by post, with no requirement to turn up at court, so police were abandoning investigations into such thefts to focus on more serious crime, McKelvey said.

The BRC has also pointed to “a perception among some retailers that some police forces do not regard shop theft as a ‘real’ crime”. According to the trade association, a common view “not just among retail staff but among repeat offenders” is that even if shoplifters did appear in court multiple times, “the sentence will be so light it will hardly make a difference”.

‘Impact of poverty’

Some reports have linked the rise in shoplifting to the cost of living crisis. An analysis by the BBC found that “shoplifting offences have returned to pre-pandemic levels as the cost of living rises”. Latest data revealed that police forces in England, Wales and Northern Ireland had recorded nearly 33,000 incidents of shoplifting in March alone, a 30.9% year-on-year increase.

“But there is no published data looking at who is shoplifting or why,” added the broadcaster’s business reporter Ez Roberts.

Chief Inspector of Constabulary Andy Cooke warned last year that the cost-of-living crisis would trigger an increase in crime, and urged police officers to use their “discretion” when deciding whether to prosecute. “The impact of poverty, and the impact of lack of opportunity for people, does lead to an increase in crime,” he told The Guardian. There’s no two ways about that.”

But some retailers have rejected the argument that the rising cost of living is fuelling shoplifting.The Association of Convenience Stores (ACS), which represents more than 33,500 shops, said its members had reported that shoplifting rates were at their highest since the group began collecting data in 2012.

Head of communications Chris Noice insisted the rise was not due to people stealing “because they are desperate for food to feed their families”, however. Rather, “people are stealing to fund their drug or alcohol habits, and organised crime groups are often involved too”, he told the same paper earlier this year.

Another retail expert, who did not wish to be identified, agreed that “there’s this idea that good people turn bad overnight” but insisted “that’s just not how it works”. Struggling familes “go to food banks, they go to community pantries, they ask for help from friends and family”, the expert said. “They don’t suddenly start shoplifting.”

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 Sorcha Bradley is a writer at The Week and a regular on “The Week Unwrapped” podcast. She worked at The Week magazine for a year and a half before taking up her current role with the digital team, where she mostly covers UK current affairs and politics. Before joining The Week, Sorcha worked at slow-news start-up Tortoise Media. She has also written for Sky News, The Sunday Times, the London Evening Standard and Grazia magazine, among other publications. She has a master’s in newspaper journalism from City, University of London, where she specialised in political journalism.