Former Scotland detective chief inspector David McKelvey said this downgrading had been a green light to police to abandon prosecutions and investigations into such thefts which could tie up an officer for six to eight hours when they could be tackling more serious crime.
“Effectively, they decriminalised shoplifting under £200 when the Anti Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act came in. It said that under £200 you would not be prosecuted by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and you could not recover your costs if you took a private prosecution,” said Mr McKelvey.
“So they don’t get reported or prosecuted at all. There’s a huge issue about under-reporting and under-recording. People are not being prosecuted because it is not a priority crime.”
‘Huge increase in offences’
Mr McKelvey warned that lack of enforcement would be exploited as families faced growing pressures from the cost of living. “With the current increases in the cost of living, we are going to see a huge increase in offences because people will not be able to buy their goods,” he said.
The Centre for Retail Research (CRR) estimated theft costs retailers nearly £2 billion a year, mainly through shoplifting and organised retail crime by gangs.
“The fact that the police now often avoid being involved in dealing with low-level retail crime and that an offender who has stolen less than £200 no longer needs to attend court, but can plead guilty by letter may have made potential offenders more willing to commit crime,” said the CRR.
“Retailers have to ‘manage’ their use of the police to deal with shoplifters. They feel that unless they do this there is a danger that the police will not turn up at all. However, if an offender is violent, the police normally respond speedily.”
Kit Malthouse, the policing minister, urged forces in 2020 to prosecute offenders who stole under £200 but Mr McKelvey, who runs a private investigation and prosecution service for shoplifters, said this had had little impact.
His company, TM Eye, has prosecuted more than 100 shoplifters as part of a neighbourhood policing service for shops in London.
The first was Nicholas Richards, who was caught on CCTV stealing Gucci perfume worth £170 from a flagship Boots store in Piccadilly, central London.
He was recorded admitting the offence on the body-worn cameras of officers from My Local Bobby, a private police force run by TM Eye, who apprehended him.
However, Metropolitan Police officers who arrived on the crime scene decided the case was a “civil” matter and released Richards, who was already on a suspended sentence for theft.
TM Eye brought Richards before Chatham magistrates where he was ordered to do a six-month community service order, undergo 20 days of rehabilitation and pay £100 towards the cost of the case.