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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Commons Confidential: What happened at Tom Watson's birthday party?

Finances, fair and foul – and why Keir Starmer is doing the time warp.

Keir Starmer’s comrades mutter that a London seat is an albatross around the neck of the ambitious shadow Brexit secretary. He has a decent political CV: he was named after Labour’s first MP, Keir Hardie; he has a working-class background; he was the legal champion of the McLibel Two; he had a stint as director of public prosecutions. The knighthood is trickier, which is presumably why he rarely uses the title.

The consensus is that Labour will seek a leader from the north or the Midlands when Islington’s Jeremy Corbyn jumps or is pushed under a bus. Starmer, a highly rated frontbencher, is phlegmatic as he navigates the treacherous Brexit waters. “I keep hoping we wake up and it’s January 2016,” he told a Westminster gathering, “and we can have another run. Don’t we all?” Perhaps not everybody. Labour Remoaners grumble that Corbyn and particularly John McDonnell sound increasingly Brexitastic.

To Tom Watson’s 50th birthday bash at the Rivoli Ballroom in south London, an intact 1950s barrel-vaulted hall generous with the velvet. Ed Balls choreographed the “Gangnam Style” moves, and the Brockley venue hadn’t welcomed so many politicos since Tony Blair’s final Clause IV rally 22 years ago. Corbyn was uninvited, as the boogying deputy leader put the “party” back into the Labour Party. The thirsty guests slurped the free bar, repaying Watson for 30 years of failing to buy a drink.

One of Westminster’s dining rooms was booked for a “Decent Chaps Lunch” by Labour’s Warley warrior, John Spellar. In another room, the Tory peer David Willetts hosted a Christmas reception on behalf of the National Centre for Universities and Business. In mid-January. That’s either very tardy or very, very early.

The Labour Party’s general secretary, Iain McNicol, is a financial maestro, having cleared the £25m debt that the party inherited from the Blair-Brown era. Now I hear that he has squirrelled away a £6m war chest as insurance against Theresa May gambling on an early election. Wisely, the party isn’t relying on Momentum’s fractious footsloggers.

The word in Strangers’ Bar is that the Welsh MP Stephen Kinnock held his own £200-a-head fundraiser in London. Either the financial future of the Aberavon Labour Party is assured, or he fancies a tilt at the top job.

Dry January helped me recall a Labour frontbencher explaining why he never goes into the Commons chamber after a skinful: “I was sitting alongside a colleague clearly refreshed by a liquid lunch. He intervened and made a perfectly sensible point without slurring. Unfortunately, he stood up 20 minutes later and repeated the same point, word for word.”

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era