A new law that seeks to protect frontline workers including police officers and health workers from violence at work takes effect in England and Wales today (28 June).
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act doubles the maximum penalty from 12 months to two years’ imprisonment for individuals who assault emergency services workers, prison officers, healthcare staff and other frontline workers including retail employees.
It has also brought ‘Harper’s Law’ onto the statute book. This law – named after PC Andrew Harper, who was killed in the line of duty in 2019 – introduces mandatory life sentences for anyone convicted of killing an emergency worker while committing a crime.
The new penalites took effect as the Institute of Customer Service (ICS), which represents organisations with customer-facing staff, published research finding 44% of frontline service staff had experienced hostility from customers in the past six months, up from 35% in February.
Its poll of more than 1,300 customer-facing staff found 35% felt customers’ behaviour and tone had become more aggressive over the past six months. Twenty-five per cent felt that heightened anxiety and hostility among customers had been driven by price increases specifically.
ICS chief executive Jo Causon welcomed today’s change in law, stating that it would “provide vital protection for workers against a backdrop of heightened customer stress and frustration relating to rising prices, and falling levels of service due to widespread skills shortages”.
Violence at work
However, she said: “I worry that UK businesses are becoming trapped in a Catch-22 situation, with tensions boiling over into abuse that triggers staff absences leading to further frustration. We must break this cycle, by acting together as a society to offer our support to hard-pressed, frontline workers.”
Paddy Lillis, general secretary at retail workers’ union Usdaw, said the union’s own research found nine in 10 shop staff suffered abuse from customers last year, while assaults had increased by a third.
“The government has taken a step in the right direction by making the assault a public-facing worker a statutory aggravating factor when sentencing. However that relies on the police responding to incidents, the CPS prosecuting the case and a guilty verdict. Regrettably too many incidents do not get through to sentencing, which is a big part of why nearly two-thirds of shopworkers say they are not confident that reporting incidents will make any difference,” said Lillis.
“Faced with such appallingly high levels of violence and abuse, and with shopworkers’ almost complete lack of confidence in the ability of the system to give them the protection they need, much more needs to be done. The government must provide the coordination needed to ensure that retail employers, police and the courts work together to make stores safe places for our members to work and for customers to shop.”
In Scotland, the Protection of Workers (Retail and Age-restricted Goods and Services) Act, which came into force last year, made it a specific offence for a person to assault, threaten or abuse a retail worker.