The cost of living crisis is “no excuse” for a rise in shoplifting, the policing minister has told Sky News, because the UK’s benefits system is “very generous”.
Chris Philp’s comments come amid escalating levels of retail thefts, with increases blamed on inflation, organised crime and a lack of focus from police.
Asked if he had any sympathy for people stealing to put food on the table, Mr Philp said gangs, criminal re-selling and drugs were largely to blame.
“There really is no excuse for crime at all, including shoplifting… we’ve got a very generous benefits system of spending… the national minimum wage has just gone up,” the policing minister added.
A survey by the British Retail Consortium this year found levels of shoplifting in 10 major cities had risen by an average of 27% compared with 2022, costing businesses £1.76 billion over a 12-month period.
Sky News was invited to join Sussex Police’s Business Crime Reduction Partnership on a patrol in Brighton in the run-up to Christmas.
Field officer Nick Strickland said one supermarket in the centre of the city had a day when it saw 15 thefts in the first two hours it was open, with thieves targeting the store before security guards arrived.
He says meat, dairy and butter are frequently taken because of rising prices and high resale values.
“Some stores don’t even put meat onto the shelves until they’ve got a security guard in the store… if you want something, you have to go and ask,” Mr Strickland said.
Sky News was also shown a clothes store that had been targeted by suspected organised criminals who stole whole racks of products.
“They’ll come in, usually by the door, and just wrap their hands around the coat hangers, lift them and either put them in a bag or just lift them and run out the front door,” Mr Strickland added.
Work cut out for those hoping to reduce shoplifting
“We’re just trying to locate this person who’s walked out with a rug and some other bits for the house.”
As far as shoplifting reports go, it was an unusual one to hear – but Sussex Police field officer Nick Strickland says incidents like this are now quite normal.
“You’d be surprised, we’ve had some art places where people have walked in and taken a piece of art,” he said.
While out on a patrol in Brighton, it took barely an hour for the first report of shoplifting to come in.
CCTV was quickly sent through showing an individual carrying a rug, vase and pillow and heading in the direction of Hove.
While this suspect limited their ambitions to one store, others are more wide-ranging in their scope.
“We’ve had people fill up suitcases with goods and just wheel it around town… there was food in there, stationery, alcohol, clothes – literally anything and everything,” Mr Strickland said.
Politicians and officers have vowed to get tough with shoplifting after a recent spike in cases.
Judging by the two hours we spent on the south coast, they’ll have their work cut out.
The policing minister warned that a lack of focus on shoplifting by forces means there has been “no deterrence”.
Referring to looting that has taken place in some American cities, Mr Philp said: “The San Francisco case study… shows what happens when you have a permissive environment where the police don’t take further action, where you don’t have a zero-tolerance approach, you get these crime types simply escalating.”
The Conservative police and crime commissioner for Sussex, Katy Bourne, who also leads on shoplifting nationally, agrees that retail crime hasn’t been taken seriously enough.
“There is a lot of demand on police time and some police forces perhaps don’t take shoplifting as seriously as they should… we do have finite resources and you have to put them where the need is great,” Ms Bourne said.
In October, the Home Office announced a retail crime plan involving the creation of a team of specialist analysts to gather intelligence on gangs responsible for shoplifting.
Police forces also committed to attending more crime scenes, with facial recognition used to target offenders.