Shopkeepers close their doors to persistent thieves

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The Independent Online
HIGH-STREET retailers such as Marks & Spencer and Debenhams are uniting in a battle to curb persistent shoplifters.

Under a new Home Office scheme, offenders can be banned from shopping centres and entire shopping precincts through the imposition of "joint exclusion orders". It also means suspects can be marched out of shops - even if they have never actually been convicted of an offence.

The drive is a response to research which showed that one-quarter of all recorded crime occurs in high streets and shopping centres. A practised criminal can cost retailers more than pounds 2,000 a day.

Individual shops have always had the right to exclude any customer they wish on the grounds that they are trespassing on private property. However, this meant that criminals would merely target another shop. Under the new initiative, retailers are being encouraged to band together to share information on the identity of repeat offenders and to issue them with a joint written exclusion order, usually in the presence of police. Courts can impose more severe sentences on criminals who fail to comply with these orders.

The scheme has brought a sharp decline in retail crime where it has already been adopted. In Romford, Essex, 70 people have been issued with orders. None has yet reoffended since the scheme, called Partnerships Against Retail Crime (Parc), was introduced in August. The town now boasts days when no retail crime is reported.

Sgt Sandra Forsyth is the co-ordinator of Parc, which targets people who have been charged or cautioned. More than 67 shops are members. Romford's scheme, which includes its shopping precinct, bans shoplifters who have been charged or cautioned for 12 weeks initially and then for a year if they defy the ban.

"It is all about partnerships, about shops working together," said Sgt Forsyth. "We had the same person stealing on a weekly basis but he has not reoffended since we issued him with an exclusion order."

She denies that the scheme infringes civil liberties. "We are not banning people from open spaces or public pavements," she said. "It is persistent offenders we are targeting because they affect the whole community and can put shops out of business."

Bill Daniels, general security manager at the Merry Hill shopping centre in Dudley, West Midlands, emphasises that the centre's scheme is very selective in terms of who it excludes. Only four criminals have been excluded so far since the start of the scheme last Christmas. "If you issue too many too orders quickly then it's difficult to keep track of them and to recognise the offenders," he said.

Mike Schuck, assistant director for retail crime at the British Retail Consortium, says the new scheme is another tool in the fight against crime which can be used alongside CCTV in identifying and stopping criminals. He said: "Shopping centres provide shoplifters with attractive quality goods all under one roof. This is not infringing human rights because it's an extension of the powers of private property owners and the laws of trespass."

He pointed out that retail theft could cripple a town such as Romford which relies on its shops and market to boost its economy. "There is a nucleus of people who are known to police and steal more than pounds 2,000 a day. If women have their bags snatched in Romford market they are not going to come back, which can have a huge impact on business.

"Stores have always been able to exclude people but until now it has been on an individual basis. By grouping together, it gives them more power to exclude people from a wider area."