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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Chris Pond): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) on securing this debate on such an important subject, and in such a timely way. As he pointed out, the scale of violence and abuse to shop workers is a very serious concern and he gave some disturbing examples of such behaviour.

Violence and abusive behaviour of that type does not have to be tolerated, least of all in the workplace. Everyone has the right to go about their work without the fear of physical assault or the intimidation of verbal abuse. Violence in any shape or form has a damaging effect on people's lives, their businesses and their families. At the very least, it can lead to the stress and psychological and emotional trauma to which my hon. Friend referred. At its worst, it can be fatal. That is why many of us—including my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood (Mr. Murphy), who I am pleased to see here and who has been active on the issue—are concerned to ensure that we work with our constituents and organisations such as USDAW to ensure that we take the appropriate action.

Work-related violence also represents a real cost to employers, leading to increased sickness absence, low staff morale and high staff turnover. In turn, these can affect the confidence and profitability of a business, and may be further compounded by expensive insurance premiums and compensation payments. Employers cannot afford to ignore the risks of violence to staff. Apart from the ethical and financial arguments, the law requires them to consider it.

The Health and Safety Executive encourages employers to manage work-related violence in the same way as any other health and safety issue. To help employers do this, the HSE has published general guidance to help them prevent and manage work-related violence. The HSE has published practical guidance for retailers and their staff on how the problems and causes of violence might be tackled. It sets out an approach that can be adopted as everyday practice.
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The retail industry is an area where local authorities are responsible for health and safety enforcement and the HSE works closely with local authorities to ensure that key issues are addressed. Meetings also take place between the local authority unit and trades unions. Indeed, at a recent meeting violence at work was one of the issues discussed.

We know from the latest British crime survey that there were just under 850,000 incidents of work-related violence in 2002–03. That is far too many, but it is significantly less than in previous years. That is not a cause for complacency. Work-related violence remains a serious problem and we know that there are some employees who are more likely to experience violence than others, including those who work with or deliver a service to the public—as my hon. Friend pointed out—such as shop workers.

The Government are committed to tackling this problem. In March 2000, the Health and Safety Commission embarked on a challenging three-year programme with the aim of reducing the number of incidents of violence at work by 10 per cent. by the end of 2003. This programme was particularly targeted at sectors that are most at risk, including the retail sector. Under this programme, the HSE has published new guidance to help smaller businesses manage the risk of work-related violence. This includes case studies showing how businesses in different sectors, including the retail sector, have tackled the problem by taking simple and cost-effective steps.

The HSE has published case study guidance showing examples of good practices in preventing and managing violence to lone workers, including shop workers. This is freely available on the HSE's website. It has funded the development of new national occupational standards in managing work-related violence. These standards will provide employers with a sound framework within which to develop detailed policies on work-related violence.

To help sustain and promote this work, the HSE held a joint conference with the TUC in December 2002 to help raise awareness of violence in the workplace and to share good practice across different sectors and businesses. John Hannet, Deputy General Secretary of USDAW, was a principal speaker at this event. He explained how his union is working with employers to address the problem of violence to shop workers through its freedom from fear campaign, to which my hon. Friend referred. I want to take this opportunity to commend USDAW for that campaign.

Doug Russell, also of USDAW, gave a similar presentation at the Health and Safety/Local Authority Enforcement Liaison Committee conference, also in December, to an audience of some 300 local authority officers and elected members.

The Government very much welcome the work that USDAW is doing—in partnership with employers, the public, local authorities, the police and the HSE—to tackle this problem and to promote the message that abusive behaviour towards shop workers is unacceptable. My hon. Friend has done a service this evening by pointing out the importance of that
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partnership—of making sure that all the elements of the policy of addressing violent and abusive behaviour in the retail sector are carried out across the boundaries of those different agencies.

The Health and Safety Executive is building on the momentum of the commission's earlier programme of work in order to demonstrate its continued commitment to working with key stakeholders and partners in reducing workplace violence still further. Future initiatives to tackle workplace violence will be designed to reflect the key principles of the commission's new policy "Strategy for Workplace Health and Safety in Great Britain to 2010 and Beyond", to which my hon. Friend referred. This strategy is clearly focused on making sensible health and safety a cornerstone of a civilised society. That means managing risks by working in partnership with stakeholders and by supporting the people best placed to make workplaces safer from harm—the staff and managers who work there.

Some of these initiatives will also form part of the Health and Safety Commission's priority programme on work-related stress. We know that violence at work is an important factor in contributing to such stress. As part of the stress priority programme, the HSE is developing standards of good management practice to enable employers and employees to work in partnership to address work-related stress at an organisational level. These standards will provide a yardstick by which organisations can gauge their performance in tackling a range of key stressors. One of these management standards covers work relationships, and will include issues such as work-related violence and bullying.

The future is about getting employers and workers to accept both the business and moral cases for workplace health and safety, and to work together to manage risks. Trade unions are key stakeholders in achieving this aim. I commend USDAW on its work through the campaign, and I commend my hon. Friend on bringing this issue to the attention of the House.

The HSE and local authorities are working towards regional partnerships to maximise combined expertise and local knowledge in order to overcome issues of inconsistency. Local authorities are involved locally in statutory crime and disorder partnerships, working closely with the police and other blue light services. The HSE, working in partnership with local authorities regionally, will be able to work more closely with such arrangements.

I have heard the arguments that my hon. Friend has advanced in this evening's short debate, and the HSE, the police, local authorities and the other partners who have to work together to ensure that we deal with violence and abuse at work—particularly in the retail sector—will read our proceedings carefully. We will look carefully to see whether we should be doing more, in addition to the measures that we are already adopting, to address this issue, and to ensure that shop workers and others can go about their work free from the fear and risk of violence and abuse.

Question put and agreed to.

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