OPINION - Even our laws are virtue-signalling in Britain — we must end this madness now

Matthew King was sentenced at the Old Bailey in London (Jonathon Brady/PA) (PA Archive)
Matthew King was sentenced at the Old Bailey in London (Jonathon Brady/PA) (PA Archive)

The Co-op is calling for attacks on shop workers to be made a specific offence. And which of us does not feel sympathy for poor unfortunate retailers who are on the sharp end of the increase in shoplifting? The Standard reported last year on one branch of the Co-op which was looted by shoplifting gangs three times in one day.

The word to note here is “gangs”. we are not talking about the unfortunate woman in the Ken Loach film, I, Daniel Blake, who got caught stealing sanitary towels from a corner shop and ended up a prostitute. We’re talking about a crime wave. No fewer than 55,860 shoplifting offences were recorded in London in the last year, an increase of nearly half on the previous year. That’s bad but what’s worse is the estimate that nine out of 10 offences aren’t actually reported.

And, as the Co-op has been pointing out for some time, it is not a victimless crime. Obviously, large-scale theft ends with higher prices. But there isn’t a price to put on the demoralisation of an unfortunate shop assistant who’s been shouted at, pushed or worse by someone who’s been caught trying to walk out of a store with several bottles of champagne (a friend of mine saw that happen the other day in Tesco) or who wants to buy drink though plainly underage.

So, what’s not to like about a law to protect shop workers? Simply that we have laws against theft, against violence and threats of violence already. We do not need to signal our concern about the issue by creating specific laws to address it. We have lots already.

The problem is that there is a lack of confidence in the police to apply the law as it currently stands

The same is true about the Government’s bid to make it an offence for demonstrators to climb onto a war memorial. There is already an offence of criminal damage to a war memorial; the new one of climbing on one simply clutters up the statute book.

This is virtue-signalling by legislation, and that’s not what the law is for. I have as tender a regard for war memorials as anyone, but the plethora of new offences against bad behaviour by demonstrators is getting silly.

The 1986 Public Order Act added to traditional intelligible common law offences like riot and affray some specific offences relating to demonstrations. But the good thing about it was the test it used to determine whether an offence had been committed. If a person “of reasonable firmness of mind” could say he or she would feel unsafe during a protest or whatever, that would do it. Granted, it’s more difficult now to find anyone with reasonable firmness of mind, given our capacity to take offence at absolutely anything, but it was a general principle which could be sensibly applied. Indeed, it could be applied to current protests about the situation in Gaza.

What these two cases of virtue-signalling legislation — to protect shop assistants and war memorials — have in common is a lack of confidence in the police to apply the law as it stands.

And that lack of confidence is, I’m afraid, sometimes justified.

The reason retailers like the Co-op are calling for new protections for shop workers is the quite marvellous absence of the police from the scene of crime in shops, when the crime in question is theft. Retailers, not just supermarkets but small shop owners, are so demoralised by the Met’s unwillingness to be bothered, they don’t report most incidents.

In November alone there were 4,790 crimes— 159 per day. But some 90 per cent of shoplifting goes unreported because police won’t investigate any incident worth less than £200. And thefts are often accompanied by violence and threats of violence. So what we’ve got is a lack of confidence in the police to enforce the law. That won’t be addressed by introducing more laws. It is a matter of enforcing those we’ve got and the rest of us supporting the police when they do.

The tendency to legislate against absolutely everything we disapprove of can be seen in the Crown Prosecution’s guide to public order offences. Where previously we might have been content with the generic law against outraging public decency, we’ve now got offences like breastfeeding voyeurism (which is obviously repulsive) which reflect our social priorities rather than an obvious gap in legislation. Judges have been complaining for years about the plethora of new laws.

If we use the legislation we have to its full extent, if we can trust the criminal justice system to bring offenders to justice — a big ask right now— then we won’t need to introduce more law to signal that some behaviour is bad and should be stopped.

You know, public disapproval can be quite a deterrent to bad behaviour... we could make more of that.

Melanie McDonagh is an Evening Standard columnist