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 internet was supposed to liberate us - let’s claim our freedom

This week the Women's Equality Party launches an e-Quality campaign against online bullying and harassment in all of its forms.

Yesterday – a sunny, energetic day in our office - someone appeared on our website, wrote that he would like to “rape all the sluts” in the Women’s Equality Party, and signed off again.

Our team of female staff read his comment, deleted it and continued working.

If we paused at every message like this, we’d never get any work done. Facing up to daily abuse might not have been formally included in my job description – or in that of our administrative officer, or our digital officer, or any other member of WE staff. But it has swiftly become part of our daily duty, nevertheless.

The abuse has heightened as our party grows. Wearying perhaps, but also a reflection of the space we now occupy on the political scene. After the fantastic results of our first election in May – when the Women’s Equality Party won more than 300,000 votes in London alone – WE provoked as much rage in some quarters as jubilation in others.

Since May we have been pressed to say what we will do next. All of those questions focused on which election we would next fight.

Our next move in fact was to prepare our submission for the Women and Equalities Select Committee inquiry into sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools. Evidence submitted to that inquiry showed the torrent of sexual abuse that young girls now face in school, including pressure to take and send sexual images that are sometimes shared widely without their consent.

Women’s rights offline have a long way to go. Women’s rights online are practically non-existent, and worse, there is an even more ingrained acceptance that this is just the way it is.

So this week WE launch our next fight for women’s rights: our e-Quality campaign against online bullying and harassment in all of its forms. We’re focusing on revenge porn because if we can get that faulty and ineffective one-year-old law rightly focused on consent and compensation, we can set a template for wider use.

Later this year we will be rolling out a national campaign for mandatory sex and relationships education in all schools; we refuse to accept the government’s opposition to this vital tool that can help end violence against women and girls.

No, it’s not the Tooting by-election that many people expected us to contest. But politics doesn’t just happen in Parliament. It happens in our communities and in our homes and in our schools.

And we want to do politics differently. We will always be looking to engage in electoral contests. But we are also looking for other ways to empower people to take action and build the broadest possible movements for change.

So with this in mind we are calling on all parties of all sizes to work on this with us - and we are optimistic as we initiate those conversations they will bear fruit.

Later this week Yvette Cooper and a group of politicians will re-launch their campaign to reclaim the Internet for women. WE are delighted to hear this and extend to them for inclusion in that campaign the specific policies that today we are unveiling:

  • To refocus UK law on revenge porn on whether the victim gave consent, rather than primarily on the perpetrator’s intention to cause distress
  • To give victims of revenge porn recourse to civil law in order to seek justice and compensation not just from the perpetrator but also from the website operators that repost non-consensual porn for profit
  • To construct digital legislation that adequately protects against online abuse and harassment in all its forms and particularly recognizes the double discrimination faced by BME women, disabled women and LGBT+ women.
  • To build equality into technology and the forces that police it by increasing the numbers of women in both fields.

The Women’s Equality Party was established with the aim of doing politics creatively. WE showed in May’s elections that we have earned the right to be heard. Now WE are asking all of the other parties to listen to our voters, set party politics aside and ensure urgently-needed protections for women and girls online.

You can read more about the campaign here. To support equal rights for women online, tweet your support with the hashtag #CtrlAltDelete so that women’s voices are no longer controlled, modified and deleted online.

Sophie Walker is leader of the Women's Equality Party.