Britain has become a nation of shoplifters

It has come to something when shopkeepers have to pay the police to investigate thefts from their stores. Ten of the country’s largest retailers are to fund a new operation, called Project Pegasus, under which CCTV pictures of crimes being committed will be checked against the Police National Database.

The scheme will cost about £600,000 and the aim is to create a list of the most prolific shoplifters which will then be circulated to retailers and police forces. Chris Philp, the policing minister, said the proposal represented a “zero-tolerance plan to target shoplifting”. But this will only be true if something is done with the information. One of the greatest incentives to criminal behaviour is a realisation that it can be carried out with impunity.

Thefts from shops of items worth £200 or less have for years been all but decriminalised. Out-of-court disposals are now the most commonly used approach when dealing with so-called “low-value theft”. Offenders are fined less than the value of the goods, yet losses to shops amounted to £1 billion between 2021 and 2022, said the British Retail Consortium, which has reported a 27 per cent rise in thefts across 10 of the UK’s largest cities.

Store bosses are willing to pay towards a database – but to what purpose? Unless the perpetrators are arrested, charged, prosecuted and punished then talk of “zero tolerance” is meaningless.

While a CCTV database can be created by support staff, the follow-up needs to be carried out by overstretched uniformed officers and a courts system that is close to collapse. Since most shoplifters are repeat offenders whose incarceration would make the streets immeasurably safer, their prosecution needs to be expedited.

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