HC Deb 13 June 1972 vol 838 cc1467-78

2.5 a.m.

Mr. Robert Adley (Bristol, North-East)

I am grateful for this opportunity, my first Adjournment debate, to raise a subject which has given me considerable interest and caused me not a little concern in the last 18 months. My interest was initiated when a constituent came to tell me that his wife had been accused of shoplifting from a supermarket. The case had been twice postponed, once because the store detective was on holiday and on the second occasion because the policeman in the case was giving evidence in another court. During the three months which had elapsed this woman had had a nervous breakdown and her health had been irretrievably impaired.

When the case finally came up—I had by this time taken some interest in it and advised the prosecution, the defence and the court that I would be present—the prosecution offered no evidence and the case was dismissed within a minute. My constituent's wife's health in the meantime had been ruined and all apparently for no particularly good reason.

This started my interest in the problem. My studies have shown that in the last 10 years there has been an enormous increase in the number of supermarkets and in the amount of shoplifting. I do not want to weary the House with figures at this hour but in 1965 there were 66,000 shoplifting offences known to the police. Last year there were nearly 120,000. In 1965 there were 2,250 supermarkets and in 1971 there were 4,800. It is my contention that these figures are by no means unconnected. My proposition is simple: that more supermarkets equals more shoplifting.

The question I ask, and the question which I believe the Home Office is asking now in an internal working party is: Is this increase in shoplifting a result of the system of supermarket shopping or is it some strange defect which has gripped the British public in the last few years? I believe it is the system of supermarket shopping which has been responsible for this rapid increase in shoplifting.

It is no part of my business now to make out that everyone who shoplifts is innocent or that the stores do not have a part to play in this. What I say is that the small number of people who introduced this system to this country have changed the shopping habits of millions. It is possible to say that as a result of the introduction of supermarket shopping the supermarket proprietors have been responsible for the rapid increase in crime. In many towns and cities women doing their weekly shopping have little choice—usually it is between one supermarket and another. The old style shop in which my mother used to do her weekly grocery shopping no longer exists. It is true to say that in those old style shops shoplifting was virtually unknown.

I will briefly examine the attitude of supermarkets towards shoplifters or those that they accuse of shoplifting. It is clear from their literature that supermarkets expect shoplifting and that their staff are trained accordingly. I quote briefly from a document used by one of the major supermarket groups which is called "Procedure for Apprehension of Shoplifters". Clause 10 of that document says: In the majority of cases, the customer will admit to the theft and will make all the usual excuses. That shows that supermarkets are aggresively on the look-out for shoplifters.

My contact with the National Association of Multiple Grocers, which is the trading body representing many of the large supermarket groups, has not been encouraging in allaying my misgivings. In response to one suggestion which I put forward I received the answer: "In vain is the snare set in sight of the bird." That is not a nice way for a trading concern to regard its customers.

Yet another group told me: Ninety-nine per cent. of all shop lifters are easily identified because they transfer goods deliberately from the wire basket to their own shopping bag or to their person. I would have thought that there was some dispute about that particular statistic, but if it is right it proves one of the main points which I have tried to make in the last year or so, that if it were possible for the woman shopper to leave her shopping bag outside the shopping area before she goes in, that could be an enormous help in reducing the amount of shoplifting. That system is already practised in a number of countries. I have been told of supermarkets in Sweden, Germany, Singapore and Israel where that practice is becoming more common.

My hon. and learned Friend the Under-secretary, to whom I apologise for keeping here so late, may well say to me that legislation is not appropriate. How ever, there has been a great deal of legislation concerning shops, shoppers and shopping habits ever since the Infants Relief Act, 1874. I shall not weary the House with every piece of legislation since then but since the last war there has been the Shops Act, 1950, the Food and Drugs Amendment Act, 1954, the Consumer Protection Act, 1961, the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act, 1963, the Weights and Measures Act, 1963, and the Trade Descriptions Act, 1968. All that legislation was designed to influence the way in which the shopper does his shopping. There is a precedent for legislation—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman cannot on an Adjournment debate suggest anything which requires legislation.

Mr. Adley

I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker. There is a precedent for Government action in creating an environment in which shops and their shoppers can intermingle. Many cases of shoplifting which are being brought by many of the supermarkets are causing great distress to many people. In Bristol considerable research has been done not only by the police but by the chamber of commerce. It must be unusual for the chamber of commerce to describe shoplifting as a social disease, which is what it has done. It also describes it as the biggest single crime in the Western world.

I shall briefly quote from two letters I have received from two eminent Bristol solicitors who have freely given me their permission to quote from their letters. Mr. David Roberts says: I am of the opinion that justice is less frequently done and innocent women convicted in this class of case than in any other I have experienced. Mr. Ted Leaman, another well known solicitor in the City of Bristol, writes: It really is a scandalous state of affairs and I for my part welcome anything that would have the effect of making it virtually impossible for these accidental takings to occur, such as by the provision of a 'handbag park'. I could quote at great length from these two letters, but I will not. The point is that these two men have long experience of dealing with cases of this kind. Whilst it may be possible statistically to prove that supermarket shoplifting is no different from any other crime, these two men, with their long experience, would say otherwise.

I have mentioned the methods that supermarkets are forced to use in detecting shoplifters. I am concerned about the way that many of the supermarket chains seem to use the courts as a deterrent. What I am really seeking tonight, and have been for some time, is for supermarkets to be positively encouraged to spend more time considering cures for shoplifting than worrying only about catching people after they have supposedly taken something from a store.

I am also concerned about the calibre of store detectives and the fact that we appear to have no check on the security companies operating in this country. However, that is a separate subject, and I have not time to go into that aspect of the matter tonight.

Another point with which I hope my hon. and learned Friend will deal briefly concerns court proceedings. If a man is fortunate enough to be able to afford to defend himself, clearly his chances of being acquitted are much greater. This seems wrong. I have been concerned with a Bristol woman whose case was dismissed by the magistrates and about which her husband wrote to me. In his letter, he said: The fee involved was £32.50, and although the result was a great relief to us, it seems a high price to pay, knowing of the illness of my wife, and disturbing to find that the security officer could not detect this. He says that it would have been cheaper to plead guilty.

The point is that the security officer, according to the rules of his own store group, should not have pushed for a prosecution if he knew that she was clearly suffering from great emotional upset. According to the medical evidence, there was no doubt that this woman was far from well.

I am seeking to find a method which will not only reduce the number of mistakes by the absent-minded, but simultaneously deter the real thief. In this respect I should like to put three proposals to my hon. and learned Friend, with which he may be familiar.

First, suitably tersely worded signs should be prominently displayed at checkout points in all supermarkets warning customers to make sure they are not leaving without presenting anything for payment.

Secondly, all staff in supermarkets should be recognisably uniformed so that they can be seen to be there by the customer.

Thirdly, and perhaps more controversially because it is more complicated, I seriously advocate looking at the idea of shopping basket parks where the shopper can leave his or her shopping basket containing goods bought in other shops and stores before going round the supermarket.

I know that the retailers will put up many good reasons why these proposals—particularly the last one—cannot be put into effect. I have been told by retailers that the housewife does not like to leave her shopping basket anywhere. If women who go to the Dorchester Hotel are prepared to leave their fur coats in the cloak room, I suggest that it is only a matter of accustoming people to behave in a certain manner. The stores know about this problem.

Mr. Robert Cooke (Bristol, West)

Could not the wire trolley have a compartment in it to take the basket, with a snap lock which could be unlocked only when payment is made? That is one way of dealing with the problem which does not require legislation and to which no one would object.

Mr. Adley

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, but he will excuse me if I try to complete my case in the brief time left to me. I am glad to see that my hon. Friends have been seriously considering this problem.

I have detected a difference in attitude in old-established companies whose experience pre-dates supermarkets and those whose only experience has been in the supermarket era. A lady living in Eltham Park, London, wrote to me about the experience of her mother in one of the latter type of stores: Recently my mother, who is nearly 70 was found to have a tin of meat in her shopping bag (incidentally an item she never uses). She was hauled off to a police station, the whereabouts of which she did not know, subjected to the indignity of being treated like a criminal and then dismissed to find her own way home. You can imagine what a state she was in. She had to go through court proceedings and was bound over (whatever that means). This ordeal has left a lasting impression on an elderly woman who has led a completely honest life. Who is there to stand up for people like this and say 'This was a genuine mistake'? There may be people who are tempted, who fall and are, therefore, dishonest. I do not deny this. My point has long been that it is the system of supermarket shopping that has made normally honest people into dishonest citizens. I quote from a letter which I have had from the editor of a newspaper in Wrexham: The aspect that concerns me most is that an unscrupulous supermarket could use these confused people, and the resultant publicity, to warn off the hardened shoplifter. After all, it is cheaper than employing a store detective. Supermarkets have brought about a whole new range of problems. They are bringing to court people who previously would never have been near a court, certainly not for stealing. There has been a great increase in the crime of shoplifting and the whole problem warrants grave concern. I know that my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State is also concerned about this problem. I hope he will give me an assurance that the Home Office is looking into the problem and taking it seriously.

2.24 a.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Mark Carlisle)

Despite the lateness of the hour, I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Adley) for raising what I agree is an important subject. I congratulate him on the constructive manner in which he has approached it, and on the many constructive suggestions he has made from time to time to the Home Office for dealing with the problem.

It has been said that there are more cases of shoplifting than of any other crime in the Western world. In the year 1971 over 47,000 people were prosecuted for shoplifting offences, over 44,000 of whom were convicted. Compared with 1967, that shows an increase of between 40 and 50 per cent. in a period of five years. Clearly, offences on that scale must be a matter of concern to the Government, the police and society as a whole.

I agree with my hon. Friend that there is no doubt that a major cause of the increase in offences of shoplifting is the development of large, open-display self-service stores. One must remember that stores of that type provide benefits for the shopping public, and the ready accessibility of goods on self-service shelves, coupled with the need for far fewer shop assistants, is also, from the point of view of the store-keeper, a good selling point. I think my hon. Friend will readily agree that these modern methods of merchandising are popular with the shopper and the shopkeeper alike, but it is the very attractiveness of the way in which the goods are displayed and the openness with which they are displayed that increase both the temptation and the opportunity to steal.

But I am sure my hon. Friend would agree that if people cannot resist a temptation to steal it is right that those who are caught should be prosecuted. But, of course, I also accept that it brings with it the distressing social problems he referred to—for example, the person of unblemished Character who in a moment of weakness succumbs to taking something when otherwise he would not dream of doing so; those who act in this way under severe stress; and those who are absent-minded or make a genuine mistake and then face the worry and concern of having to meet a criminal charge.

My hon. Friend criticised the comment of a person involved with supermarkets. It is right to point out that it is not always easy for those who meet a case of this kind to decide at that stage whether there has been a genuine mistake, because a person found with goods on him for which he has not paid invariably claims that he has put them in his shopping basket inadvertently, even if he has done it quite deliberately. Therefore, I accept that it makes the task of the police in deciding which are appropriate cases to prosecute difficult, and that of the courts difficult as well.

Mr. Robert Cooke

If my suggestion were followed, that person could not put goods in his shopping basket because those would be locked up in his trolley.

Mr. Carlisle

I will come to that interesting suggestion.

The police, as with other types of offence, need sufficient evidence in order to prosecute, and the courts also weigh all the evidence carefully before deciding whether to convict. I have no doubt that the solicitor to whom my hon. Friend referred was genuine in his belief about convictions in cases of shoplifting, but I must make it clear on behalf of the Home Office that we have no evidence that innocent people are convicted of shoplifting any more than we have evidence that innocent people are convicted of other offences.

Mr. Adley

Is my hon. and learned Friend aware that one county police force is now refusing to prosecute cases brought by one supermarket chain because of the way the chain has been using the courts and the lack of concern it has shown in making sure that people are guilty before it tries charging them?

Mr. Carlisle

I am aware that there is a difference of approach by police in their attitudes towards shoplifting offences. But it must be a matter for the chief officer of police in an area to decide whether criminal proceedings should be instituted. Even when the police are satisfied that a prima facie case exists, there are many cases in which in their discretion they choose to caution rather than bring a prosecution. Many prosecutions are brought not by the police but by the management of the concern. Again, I cannot believe that shop managements are other than reluctant to take proceedings unless they are satisfied that they have a good case. Some as a matter of policy do not prosecute the very old or the very young.

I want to say something about prevention rather than detection. It goes without saying that it is always better to prevent than to detect crime, and that is true of shoplifting as well. What can be done? As my hon. Friend knows, last year a working party on internal shop security was set up by the Home Office's Standing Committee on Crime Prevention with terms of reference to consider the problems of shoplifting and theft by staff employed by shops, and it was invited to make recommendations for the prevention of these offences. The interests represented on it include those involved in the trade and consumers. Evidence has been taken from retailers and trade associations. The working party will report to the Standing Committee, although I cannot say when.

My hon. Friend has, as always, made several suggestions. He referred to the employment of uniformed security staff. This would deter some people from shoplifting and might prevent absent-minded people from putting goods into their own shopping baskets. But many retailers are opposed to this form of prevention because they believe that the presence of uniformed security staff would keep away honest customers and result in loss of trade. They prefer, therefore, to employ plain clothes detectives. However, the disadvantage is that plain clothes detectives detect rather than prevent unless customers are made aware that they are operating. A better arrangement might be a combination of both, with warning notices that these people were in operation. But, in the end, it must be for the shops to decide how to do it.

Then there is the question of anti-theft devices. My hon. Friend did not mention it specifically, although both he and my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Robert Cooke) will know that an experiment in Bristol last autumn demonstrated at least in the short term that such devices can be effective in reducing the degree of shoplifting in various stores.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-East referred to a matter to which I attach considerable importance, and that is the use of warning notices in shops that detectives are employed. What is more, warning notices in shops at check-out points asking customers to check that they have not inadvertently put goods into their shopping baskets might deter thieves and save the absent- minded making mistakes. This is a good idea. Some shops use warning notices, but I understand that the feeling amongst the trade is that these notices make less impact than one might believe because of the variety and number of notices in the average supermarket.

I come to my hon. Friend's point about shopping baskets. I thought that the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West was a good one. It is new to me, and I hope that the working party will look at it. It might turn out to be far too expensive to be practicable. But it meets what I have always understood to be the major objection to the point put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-East, namely, the provision of facilities for customers to deposit their shopping baskets while they shop in supermarkets. The real objection has been that that in itself presents security problems. People come with shopping baskets already partially filled. Where do they put them? What form of receipt do they get? Does the receipt have to include a list of the contents? Does such a system lay itself open to the complaint that people have not received back what they handed in? I accept that all those objections would be met by the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West, if this proved to be a practical proposition. But, as I say, the provision of means of removing the shopping basket, for warning notices, for detectives in staff uniforms and for anti-theft devices are all matters that the working party will be considering within its terms of reference. The other disadvantage of the parking area for bags is that stores would have to employ extra trustworthy staff to operate it.

I accept that shoplifting is a serious crime. Its ramifications affect all society. Shops are becoming more aware of the need to protect their goods. But I do not accept that preventive measures should be made mandatory for shop proprietors. The examples adduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-East were all of legislation to prevent shoppers being defrauded by the shopkeeper, not to protect the shopper from himself. It is not the proper function of the criminal law to impose regulations in matters of this kind. The rôle of the Government is best confined to giving advice, and this we shall do when the working party has issued its report and we have had time to study it.

Finally, I assure my hon. Friend that we shall consider carefully any suggestions that he makes as to the best method by which the report of the working party might be circulated.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes to Three o'clock a.m.