Shoplifting offences soar to highest level in 20 years, new figures show

Shoplifting offences recorded by police in England and Wales have soared to the highest level in 20 years, figures have revealed, as retailers warn thieves have been given “free rein” by police.

A total of 430,104 offences were recorded in the year to December 2023, up 37 per cent from 315,040 in the previous 12 months.

This is the highest figure since current police recording practices began in the year ending March 2003, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

Labour blasted the shocking rise, warning “our country can’t afford to carry on like this” as home secretary James Cleverly chaired a meeting with police leaders on Thursday.

Mr Cleverly said shoplifting has a “corrosive effect” when challenged over the soaring figures, adding that police should attend every incident to send a message that “you don’t just get away with it”.

“There is no such thing as a sub-threshold crime. Crime is crime. It’s black and white. Criminal activity should be policed,” he said.

James Lowman, chief executive of the Association of Convenience Stores, said the figures were “sadly not surprising”, adding: “Thieves are stealing on a regular basis without fear of apprehension, so it’s essential that every police force in the country takes theft seriously, not least because challenging thieves is one of the biggest triggers for abuse of shopworkers”.

While Graham Wynn, assistant director of regulatory affairs at the British Retail Consortium, said “inadequate” police action had given shoplifters “free rein” - with theft losses doubling last year to £1.8 billion and a further £1.2 billion spent on anti-crime measures.

“Not only has the number of thefts increased, but thieves are becoming bolder, more aggressive, and more frequently armed with weapons,” he added.

Policing minister Chris Philip last year announced a project to crackdown on shoplifting (James Manning/PA Wire)
Policing minister Chris Philip last year announced a project to crackdown on shoplifting (James Manning/PA Wire)

A spokesman for No 10 said the surge in shoplifting was “clearly unacceptable” and was being driven by “organised criminality”, but noted overall crime rates were down 20% since 2019.

Rishi Sunak’s official spokesman said: “In relation to shoplifting specifically, shoplifting is clearly unacceptable and the Prime Minister has previously talked about it being a blight on our communities, the damage it causes to our businesses, and we’re absolutely clear that we should take a zero tolerance approach to this crime.”

He said charges were up 46% in the last year as police work more closely with retailers, but admitted “there’s more to do to protect retail workers and tackle repeat offenders”.

The ONS figures, gathered from police recorded crime and the annual Crime Survey for England and Wales, also show the number of robberies rose by 13 per cent last year to 81,094, up from 71,983 in 2022. However this is still 26 per cent lower than the year ending March 2003.

The number of offences involving theft from the person stood were also up 18 per cent, with 125,563 offences in 2023 marking the highest level since 2004.

Nick Stripe, from the ONS, said: “In the past 12 months, police recorded crime shows notable increases in robbery, theft from the person and shoplifting.

“The latter has risen by more than 100,000 offences, while the police have been dealing with the highest levels of theft from the person offences recorded in two decades.”

Meanwhile, crimes involving knives or sharp instruments were up seven per cent to 49,489 offences in 2023, but have not yet reached the pre-pandemic high of 51,206 offences in the year ending March 2020.

The figures come after the Co-op reported record amounts of retail crime in 2023, with 336,270 incidents of shoplifting, abuse, violence and anti-social behaviour across their 2,400 stores – a shocking 44 per cent increase on the previous year.

Meanwhile the chairwoman of John Lewis, Dame Sharon White, last year warned shoplifting had become an “epidemic” with staff having to put up with abuse and attacks by thieves.

John Lewis and the Co-op are among a group of the UK’s biggest retailers which have agreed to fund a police operation to crack down on shoplifting, dubbed Project Pegasus, which launched last year.

The initiative was labeled a “step-change” in the fight against retail crime when it was announced by policing minister Chris Philp last autumn, with specialist officers set to analyse CCTV pictures and facial recognition technology to get a better understanding of shoplifting operations.

However shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said the latest figures expose the “scale of Conservative failure on law and order” while “criminals are just getting away with it”.

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said soaring shoplifting has ‘ruinous’ consequences for high streets (Jeff Moore/PA) (PA Wire)
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said soaring shoplifting has ‘ruinous’ consequences for high streets (Jeff Moore/PA) (PA Wire)

“Despite repeated warnings from retailers, communities, and from Labour that action was needed to tackle soaring shoplifting and abuse affecting our town centres, these figures show that shoplifting has surged by further 37 per cent in the last 12 months alone to its highest ever recorded level, with ruinous consequences for our town centres and high streets,” she said.

The Labour frontbencher also hit out at rising knife and gun crime despite repeated calls for action by victim’s families and communities.

Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats took aim at an “unsolved crime epidemic” as separate Home Office figures, also released on Thursday, revealed 2,187,300 crimes went unsolved in 2023.

With more than 5.3 million crimes recorded, this means two out every five crimes went unsolved last year.

The party’s home affairs spokesman Alistair Carmichael said: “Under this Government, criminals are getting let off scot-free. Every day, the unsolved crime epidemic gets worse as burglaries go unsolved, car thefts get left by the wayside and community policing gets decimated.”

Labour’s Ms Cooper added: “Two million crimes were dropped with no suspect being identified - including a shocking 74 per cent of burglaries. That is the shameful Tory legacy on criminal justice. Our country can’t afford to carry on like this.”

Responding to the shoplifting figures, Paul Gerrard, Co-op director of campaign and public affairs, said: “Retail crime impacts shopworkers both physically and mentally, with many communities blighted by unacceptable levels of persistent and prolific offending.”

He called for Police and Crime Commissioners to “crack-down” on retail crime by enforcing the new standalone offence of assaulting a shopworker.

Crime and policing minister Chris Philp said: “Today’s figures show that communities are safer and our plan to cut crime and protect the public is working. Compared with 2010, people are now 60% less likely to have their home burgled and around 40% less likely to be victims of violent crime.

“There are more police officers on our streets, having delivered on our commitment to recruit 20,000 additional officers and we have provided forces with up to £18.5bn of funding this year to increase officer visibility in our neighbourhoods.

“We know there is always more to do. Earlier this month, we set out tough new action to clamp down on shoplifting and through the Criminal Justice Bill, we are giving the police more powers to seize dangerous weapons.”