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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle