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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Eleven things that will definitely happen during the general election campaign

History is repeating itself, as the 2015 general election campaign is echoed in the 2017 snap vote.

The last election is happening all over again.

Here’s how:

1. Michael Fallon is wheeled out to link the opposition leader to nuclear war

2015

The smearer-in-chief Michael Fallon, or Minister for the Today Programme as he has sometimes been labelled, was unleashed by CCHQ to warn that as Ed Miliband “stabbed his own brother in the back” to lead Labour, he was “willing to stab the UK in the back” and threaten national security by doing a deal with the Scottish National Party to cancel Trident. It was nasty, untrue and sadly political rhetoric has only worsened since.

2017

The Tory Terminator is back! This time, aiming his nuclear wordheads at Jeremy Corbyn. But with essentially the same script as last time. Yes, the Labour leader was branded a “security risk” on Trident by the same Defence Secretary who was accused of keeping Parliament in the dark over a failed nuclear weapons test (which suggests no threat to national security at all, of course).

Fallon says Theresa May would fire Trident as a “first strike”. So once again in British politics, to prove you can be trusted with national security you have to be more committed than your opponent to starting a nuclear war.

2. The Conservatives will conjure up the prospect of coalition to scare voters

2015

In what appeared to be a rather risky strategy of constantly putting your opponents on your campaign literature, elegantly playing the recorder, the Tories banged on for weeks about Ed Miliband potentially doing a deal with the SNP in government. And somehow, despite actually being in coalition themselves, the Tories managed to make coalition sound scary enough for this strategy to work.

2017

Guys did you know that there is the chance of a “coalition of chaos” after the election? A “coalition of chaos”, yeah. What’s that, you say? We don’t know either, but it sounds good doesn’t it? “Coalition”. “Chaos”. Alliteration. No, we know there’s no chance of it happening either and that Labour is refusing to work with other parties anyway but stiiiiill “coalition of chaos” is definitely a thing. “Coalition of chaos”.

The good thing about this is that the coalition bogeyman may have less traction this time round because so few people see there being much likelihood of a Corbyn premiership.

3. Someone will photoshop the opposition leader incongruously wearing a flower crown and people will ask if it could affect the election result

2015

#Milifandom was the symbol of a more innocent time in our politics. “Whilst The Sun attacks the 17-year-old behind the Milifandom craze, young people have found an arena of their own in which to have political discussion without obvious tabloid bias,” one fan told the Independent on the eve of the election. “This will obviously have a bearing on the election.”

It didn’t.

2017

But don’t let your flowers wilt just yet, oh admiring youth of the ironic web! For Corbyn became a cult figure loved and memed by many, young and old, the moment he began campaigning to be Labour leader.


Not since flower-crowned Ed had Britain seen a politician so revered. Will this have a bearing on the election? Perhaps, but not in the way some fans may wish…

4. Russell Brand will say something and people will ask if it could affect the election result

2015

That thirsty thesaurus Russell Brand interviewed a number of politicians ahead of the general election campaign for his stressful YouTube channel The Trews and none was more anticipated than when Ed went round to his house a few days before the election. A performance filled with glottal stops and nonchalant shrugs, dropped tees and aitches left an audience clenched in cringe – and a Labour party without the endorsement it wanted. Brand went for the Greens in the end.

2017

He hasn’t had a cosy chat with Corbyn yet but Brand has just returned to live radio with a new show, and it looks like he won’t stay quiet for long as he’s already gatecrashed Katie Hopkins’ LBC show on live radio to lure “Hatie Hopkins” back to humanity.

5. A politician will be caught having the audacity to consume food

2015

Ed Miliband ate a bacon sandwich, and it made front page news. Read my colleague Amelia on why politicians eating in public is such a global preoccupation.

2017

Jeremy Corbyn has had many a food-based controversy. Giant marrow-wielding aside, he has angered Mumsnet with his dislike of biscuits, and called kebab shops “a place of great discourse and discussion” yet implored their owners to serve salad too to provide “the balanced diet that everybody needs”, further riling them by supporting the sugar tax.

6. People will trust or dismiss polls depending on whether they confirm their political bias

2015

Polling: The polls are neck and neck = the Tories will win it/Labour will win it.

Result: The Tories won an outright majority.

2017

Polling: The Tories have a historic poll lead = the Tories will win it/Labour will win it.

Result: We know now never to make predictions because…

7. Every single one will be wrong

2015

For a while after the result, everything looked like this…

2017

…so guys why should we believe the polls this time round saying Labour will be destroyed?

8. Apart from the ones that show Labour doing badly

2015

2017

Oh.

9. Which will be extremely accurate

Great.

10. Well-timed colds will cover up difficult policy positions

2015

Luckily, then Green party leader Natalie Bennett had a cold, which meant she was able to casually cough and sneeze her way through LBC’s questioning on her housing policy. So smooth. No one noticed. Cough.

2017

Not strictly part of the election campaign, but Labour’s shadow home secretary Diane Abbott was thought to have a bout of “Brexit flu”, hence missing the first Commons vote to trigger Article 50.

11. Nigel Farage will lose his seat

2015

In a beautifully degrading snapshot beside Al Murray’s Pub Landlord little Englander caricature, the then Ukip leader Nigel Farage lost in South Thanet – failing to be elected to Parliament for the seventh time.

2017

Will there be an eighth time? With his successor Paul Nuttall apparently preferring to lock himself in a room away from journalists asking whether he’ll be running for a seat, it looks like Farage is still the party’s main hope.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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