The £15m scandal our libel laws are silencing

Alan White explains how critics of "retail loss prevention" - suing shoplifters - are being threatened with writs.

This is a story you won’t have read too much about, for reasons which will become clear. It starts at the turn of the century, when British high street stores began to allow a number of firms to make “civil recovery” demands for the administrative costs of processing shoplifting cases.

This practice is known as retail loss prevention, and it involves suing thieves in the civil courts. It seems reasonable enough - why should a shop or supermarket lose out just because they’ve caught someone committing a crime? Over the years, the industry grew. Citizens Advice reports that, since 1998, over 750,000 people have received letters demanding substantial sums as compensation for alleged shoplifting or employee theft. Civil recovery firms started to move into other areas. Hotel chains began to use them to chase customers who’d violated their non-smoking policy. Private parking firms went after people who’d violated their restrictions.

And over the years, a clear problem began to emerge. People were being pressed for costs despite not being found guilty of any crime. In one case, a young mother whose toddler opened a drink without paying received a bill for £87.50 for “staff and management time, administration and apportioned security costs”. A typical case was Sam’s. Aged 19, he was dismissed from his job with Tesco in July 2008, for the alleged theft of £4 cash from a till. He subsequently received a letter demanding £191.50, broken down as: £4.00 for the value of “the goods or cash stolen”, £112.50 for “staff and management time”, £33.75 for “administration costs”, and £41.25 for “security and surveillance costs”. Despite criticism from a QC and the Citizens Advice Bureau, the companies insisted that there were civil courts “precedents” which support such claims.

The complaints began to stack up on consumer forums, and the BBC's Watchdog ran a short feature. Oddly, whenever consumers stood their ground, the costs claims rarely seemed to be taken any further. According to Citizens Advice, of the more than 600,000 demands seemingly issued since 2000, only four unpaid demands have ever been successfully pursued in the county court by means of a contested trial.

Citizens Advice began to catalogue a steady stream of cases - no coincidence that they coincided with a rise in self-service checkouts. It soon put together one report, then another, showing that many of these cases were the result of consumer errors, and that many who were guilty had mental health problems and were caught taking extremely low value goods. As Denis MacShane MP told Parliament this year: “In essence, 90 per cent of all shoplifting in our stores is organised by gangs. About 8 per cent or 9 per cent is done by in-house stealing. The tiny one per cent is done—frankly, for the most part—by rather sad people.”

Now the story goes in a different direction. It’s about one civil recovery case, involving two girls who were caught shoplifting from a high street retailer. What happened next is, for the time being, detailed on their lawyer’s website: the case went to court, and the retailer’s assertion that its total losses were almost £137.50 was chucked out of court. Under cross-examination, a security manager agreed the incident had taken one hour and ten minutes to deal with - at a cost of £17, not £98.55 as claimed. He was carrying out his job, not distracted from a core function of it.

What’s interesting is what happened next. The retailer’s agent, Retail Loss Prevention (the biggest firm in the business), instructed libel lawyers Schillings to demand the law firm remove the above link from its website. And this wasn’t the only threat issued by Schillings, who also accused a national official of the Citizens Advice Bureau, Richard Dunstan, of "orchestrating" a three-year long "sustained campaign of harassment and defamation" against it and its staff, asking it to remove the two reports linked to above, and sent letters on behalf of Retail Loss Prevention to various websites.

One of them was the law site Legal Beagles. Like the other parties, it refused to accede to Schillings’ demands. Instead, it decided to publish the letter on its site. So far, this is where the story begins and ends. As MacShane said: “This is a £15 million racket used by a lot of major companies—corporate groups — such as Boots, TK Maxx, Primark, Debenhams, Superdrug and Tesco. They are all shops that we use.”

That the media has shied away from a detailed investigation of the industry, most likely for fear of vexatious litigation, is one thing. And no doubt the PR men have helped out too - does this Wikipedia entry strike you as entirely objective? But that the Citizens Advice Bureau should face legal threats merely for doing its job should tell you all about this country’s ludicrous libel laws. No doubt the billionaires who've journeyed here to settle writs over the last few years have pumped a little into our economy whenever they’ve popped into Harrods. The question is exactly how much we’re willing to receive for our freedom of speech.

Are shops over-zealous about thieves? Photo: Getty

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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The next mayor must tackle what’s making London miserable for too many

London in 2016 risks losing much of what makes it such a diverse, vital and multi-layered place to the sterilising forces of polarised wealth and misguided policy.

Since Londoners last went to the polls to elect a Mayor in 2012, the city has continued to polarise.

While bankers’ bonuses and foreign inflows of capital have kept the plushest bars and restaurants busy, during Boris Johnson’s tenure, London’s levels of inequality have risen, with latest figures suggesting 27 per cent of Londoners live in poverty.

The next mayor will preside over a truly global city – but whether it’s Sadiq Khan or Zac Goldsmith, bold action must be taken so that all Londoners can benefit from the city’s success and it doesn’t just become a playground for the super-rich, socially cleansed of the millions of ordinary workers who keep it running.

In recent years, my research on prosperity has taken me around the world – from Kenya to Thailand – but some of the most interesting findings have come from our own doorstep in East London. A research team from UCL’s Institute for Global Prosperity (IGP), working closely with local citizen scientists, spent four months across three sites in Hackney Wick, East Village (the former Olympic athletes’ village) and Stratford, gathering experiences of what prosperity really means to local people.

These areas are in the shadow of the Olympic Park, Boris Johnson’s biggest legacy – and on the front line of London’s gentrification. What came to the fore were a range of shared sentiments: fears of being priced out, crushing house prices and escalating rents, fear of crime, deprivation and a lack of job opportunities.

In the ostensibly wealthy East Village, for instance, one resident told us: “If prosperity is living in a great place, having a fantastic school and great quality of life then I am prosperous. But it’s a struggle to hold on to this, to pay for it”.

That feeling of clinging on by the fingernails is a sentiment many Londoners will recognise.

While complaints about gentrification aren’t new, the phenomenon’s worsening impact was highlighted recently by the Runnymede Trust which pointed to the growing levels of overcrowding particularly among ethnic minorities.

This was an issue that came up in our research too. One Stratford resident told us about Victorian-style conditions in their local area: “I know some people are living in very difficult situations, with lots of people living in one house because they can’t afford to rent or buy. So maybe ten to fifteen people living in a three-bedroom house.”

Sadiq Khan has called the housing crisis the single biggest barrier to prosperity, growth and fairness facing Londoners today”.  That may be true, but we need to stop looking at single issues and take a broader view of the factors that create  - and undermine - prosperity.

While we can look at broad indicators such as personal wealth, housing prices or unemployment, there is currently no way of measuring people's true prosperity – a nuanced and subjective concept that’s very personal.

An urgent priority for the next Mayor should be to commission a report on the whole of London so we can understand the issues in more detail. This shouldn’t just be a 21st-century version of Charles Booth’s famous map of red and blue streets, however. It needs to talk directly to Londoners about their experiences of being part of today’s capital – and ‘crowdsource’ some suggested solutions.

At the IGP, we’ve developed a model of 17 indicators for measuring prosperity covering social, economic, cultural and political life, which are often viewed in isolation. Our measures include the things that people really value in their lives, such as their sense of community or having the quality time to pursue their aspirations.

One area that this extends to is the natural environment and how we interact with it. Since air quality, water, waste and climate change all come under the mayor's remit, green issues have been high on the agenda in this election; Khan has outlined his plans to make London “a zero-carbon city”, while Goldsmith has pledged to create 200 new parks for London.

But I’d suggest that a more effective policy for a prosperous London would be to establish it as a National Park City, an idea that’s been gaining traction in recent years.

This plan recognises that Greater London already has lots of green space – it makes up almost 50% of the land area – that isn’t used effectively. But it goes deeper than that: a national park, just like Dartmoor or the Lake District, is also about preserving a unique social and economic environment as well as a natural one.

London in 2016 risks losing much of what makes it such a diverse, vital and multi-layered place to the sterilising forces of polarised wealth and misguided policy.

Although the political spotlight has shone on the EU Referendum so far this year, the Mayoral race still holds great significance for London’s 8.6 million residents.

We need the next Mayor to make a bold start to his tenure by doing what he can within the powers available to make a real positive difference to the prosperity of London, focused on the real lives of Londoners.

Professor Henrietta Moore is Director of UCL’s Institute for Global Prosperity