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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Are there “tens of thousands” who still don't have their Labour leadership ballot paper?

Word has it that swathes of eligible voters have yet to receive their ballot papers, suggesting there is still all to play for in the Labour leadership contest. But is it true?

Is there still all to play for in the Labour leadership contest?

Some party insiders believe there is, having heard whispers following the bank holiday weekend that “tens of thousands” of eligible voters have yet to receive their ballot papers.

The voting process closes next Thursday (10 September), and today (1 September) is the day the Labour party suggests you get in touch if you haven’t yet been given a chance to vote.

The impression here is that most people allowed to vote – members, registered supporters, and affiliated supporters – should have received their voting code over email, or their election pack in the post, by now, and that it begins to boil down to individual administrative problems if they’ve received neither by this point.

But many are still reporting that they haven’t yet been given a chance to vote. Even Shabana Mahmood MP, shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, still hasn’t received her voting pack, as she writes on the Staggers, warning us not to assume Jeremy Corbyn will win. What’s more, Mahmood and her team have heard anecdotally that there are still “tens of thousands” who have been approved to vote who have yet to receive their ballot papers.

It’s important to remember that Mahmood is an Yvette Cooper supporter, and is using this figure in her piece to argue that there is still all to play for in the leadership race. Also, “tens of thousands” is sufficiently vague; it doesn’t give away whether or not these mystery ballot-lacking voters would really make a difference in an election in which around half a million will be voting.

But there are others in the party who have heard similar figures.

“I know people who haven’t received [their voting details] either,” one Labour political adviser tells me. “That figure [tens of thousands] is probably accurate, but the party is being far from open with us.”

“That’s the number we’ve heard, as of Friday, the bank holiday, and today – apparently it is still that many,” says another.

A source at Labour HQ does not deny that such a high number of people are still unable to vote. They say it’s difficult to work out the exact figures of ballot papers that have yet to be sent out, but reveal that they are still likely to be, “going out in batches over the next two weeks”.

A Labour press office spokesperson confirms that papers are still being sent out, but does not give me a figure: “The process of sending out ballot papers is still under way, and people can vote online right up to the deadline on September 10th.”

The Electoral Reform Services is the independent body administrating the ballot for Labour. They are more sceptical about the “tens of thousands” figure. “Tens of thousands? Nah,” an official at the organisation tells me.

“The vast majority will have been sent an email allowing them to vote, or a pack in one or two days after that. The idea that as many as tens of thousands haven’t seems a little bit strange,” they add. “There were some last-minute membership applications, and there might be a few late postal votes, or a few individuals late to register. [But] everybody should have definitely been sent an email.”

Considering Labour’s own information to voters suggests today (1 September) is the day to begin worrying if you haven’t received your ballot yet, and the body in charge of sending out the ballots denies the figure, these “tens of thousands” are likely to be wishful thinking on the part of those in the party dreading a Corbyn victory.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.