Elliot Lane questions a panel of retail and insurance experts on the effects of today's 'yob culture' on business, and how best to cope with the increasing sense of anarchy among disillusioned youth.

Britain's businesses are blighted by yobs

According to research carried out by Royal & SunAlliance:

  • One in three British businesses has been a victim of yobs
  • 65% think government should be doing more
  • Nearly three-quarters think tackling yob behaviour should be an election issue
  • 74% said parents should take some responsibility
  • 11% of those affected by yob behaviour have considered moving business to escape its effects
  • The pane
    Chair - Elliot Lane, Editor, Insurance Times (5)

    John Windsor - Head of Insurance, Marks & Spencer (6)

    Colin Campbell - Group insurance & risk manager, Arcadia Group (2)

    Tim Cradock - Director of risk & occupational health, WH Smith (7)

    Chris Snell - Account director, Royal & SunAlliance Risk Solutions (4)

    Denis Kinsella - Royal & SunAlliance Risk Solutions - global consulting, UK teams manager (3)

    Carolyn Halpin - Chairman, Alarm (1)

    Chair: What do we perceive yob culture to mean and what are your experiences of yob culture?

    Colin Campbell: Yob culture has been evolving over the past few years, but frankly it's just another term for crime, which is a continual issue for all retailers. We don't really see yob culture affecting us directly in terms of incidents reported. Where we are affected is the perception of yob culture and how that might affect both our customers, members of the public, and our employees.

    There is a perception that yob culture is gangs, whereas we would see it in our environment in terms of individuals or people operating in ones or twos, and those are the people who are committing violent acts against our staff, and most violent acts are, frankly, verbal. One of the problems is how you actually determine what is a violent act, because a violent act in Liverpool may be different from a violent act in Devon, for instance. It is real, but the perception is probably bigger than the reality.

    Chris Snell: Yob culture is a badge we put on bad behaviour, in my view, so I think we have to be careful on its definition. My personal view is that it is getting worse. What I see in practical terms is many retail clients have suffered losses and incidents are on the increase. Fires in waste skips for example are classed as yob culture and are on the increase.

    What has surprised me is the geography. We suffered some of our biggest losses not necessarily in those larger inner City locations that I thought we might have done. Second, it's the lack of remorse from those people who committed the crime. The size of the losses means we had to take some fairly Draconian actions really and to which the retail industry responded very positively to.

    Chair: John, have you had to take Draconian actions?

    John Windsor: No, I don't think we have. Yob culture affects us all. Although 'no hoodies' zones have been introduced in some shopping centres, obviously not everyone who wears a hoody is a yob. Yob culture probably affects us more on a personal level than it does on a business level, and it depends what you take to be yob culture.

    Our worry is attacks on staff. Fortunately, we don't suffer too badly from major attacks on our premises. Obviously theft is a huge problem and, as Chris just said, there is a lack of remorse or fear of being caught. Shoplifting is an enormous cost. We're continually fighting it and we go to huge expense to try to stop it.

    The measures that we take to protect people and property - CCTVs, lights, security etc, - all have a cost and that cost has to be passed back to the customer. I think that the biggest factor of yob culture is how it affects us all personally in our cities, towns and villages. It affects you differently according to where you live, where you shop, where you go and even how old you are. At the extreme it can affect trade if shopping environments get a bad reputation.

    Chair: So prices could go up?

    Windsor: All the costs of running your business have to go through to the end product, and this is a huge cost at the moment.

    Campbell: One of the problems of course in banning people with hoods and baseball caps is the fact that certain stores actually sell those products as well. So there is a difficulty in disenfranchising your customers in that way by saying: "We don't want you to wear this stuff, but we just want you to buy it."

    Chair: Denis, when you're just talking to your clients, how are you now looking at the risk?

    Denis Kinsella: Yob behaviour covers a whole multitude of things. At the smaller end of the scale it is graffiti, then general messing around on retailers premises or messing around with waste, right through to the other extreme, arson. The term arson to us just means deliberate ignition. Yob behaviour includes theft, it includes shoplifting, it includes just groups of kids running into a shop and running amok, and retailers might lose trade.

    The vast majority of those incidents are not covered by an insurance policy anyway. Shoplifting, for example, is obviously not an insured peril, but theft - actually breaking into premises - is. Some of the issues have always been looked at by insurers as part of their risk assessment process and some of them won't be, but it's hard to actually differentiate between them sometimes, because what might be graffiti one week, the following week could be someone returning to burn the store down. So when on site we are looking at the whole profile of different eventualities.

    We have, I think as Chris mentioned, over the past few years suffered a number of very major retail arson fires. These are normally external arson fires, and again normally started by 'yobs', usually 10 to17-year-old boys. These can be total losses. We've had incidents of maybe £20m store losses. There is an enormous concentration of effort which goes into arson protection, vandalism prevention and theft prevention on our surveys.

    Windsor: The problem in certain parts of the country is greater in others and not all of these losses are deliberate. Kids hanging around because they've got nothing to do set fire to a skip, and they probably don't even think it's going to spread fire to the store. They have not actually set out with the intention of destroying the store itself.

    Campbell: Do you think they really care?

    Windsor : I think in some respects yes, in others no. The big issue is that so many kids around the country have got nothing to do and they have parents who allow them to stay out all hours, and those of us with kids are always fighting the external influences. If you think your child should be in at 9 o'clock, he's probably got mates who are allowed to stay out until midnight.

    Tim Cradock: But isn't it about lack of people thinking about the consequences of their action, irrespective of what they consider minor arson or whether that's the way that they react to store staff? It's not actually thinking about what might happen as a result of the actions that they take. And with an occupational health hat on, you see the effect that the way that people react in an antisocial way to our staff can be a major cause of stress.

    Chair: We all agree that crime is endemic of yob culture. These crimes are actually defined terms that seem to permeate through the whole idea of yob culture, but it causes stress, and is that the real emerging risk?

    Cradock: It's a question whether that's yobbish behaviour or not. To some extent, that behaviour is becoming acceptable, with abusive language becoming the norm on TV and it seems quite legitimate to take that sort of language into a store. Customers are not tolerant and want everything now. It's the 'I want it now' culture. If you were a member of staff and you had to put up with that throughout your working day, I don't care who you are, you would feel decidedly stressed by it.

    Carolyn Halpin: It's an interesting comment because I've done some work recently in my organisation where the people most affected by stress from verbal abuse were librarians. Not our front line staff. A new government agenda means we have to bring internet access to the masses, and therefore we've put computers into libraries. Libraries are now populated by 11 to 15-year-olds and we haven't trained our staff about the different perceptions, the different skills to deal with them.

    Librarians still try to act like librarians where they can say 'shush' and everyone goes quiet. In one case the police were contacted with a report that said: "There are boys in the computer room throwing things in the library." but the police didn't attend. Even the police didn't believe that what was really happening was these kids were throwing computers, desks and chairs around and the building had to be evacuated for the public safety. It's about skills and training and people understanding where their '' personal tolerance levels are. Just on the subject of arson, I have to represent my blue light services here. The government has created a financing structure whereby the more successful local fire brigades are in reducing fires, the less money they'll get to run their service. This is something that fire brigades are really battling against.

    Chair: The Royal & SunAlliance survey on yob culture found that 65% think the government should be doing more. Should there be more intervention?

    Halpin: Well they always say deter/intervene, and you have to deter, distract and then intervene effectively: that is the hierarchy of actions. In the public sector, we are the keepers of a whole range of services that require us to do everything, not necessarily in a joined up way, I have to say. Some of our structures and our funding regimes and our requirements seem to clash.

    However, we have to provide education, so if we exclude disruptive pupils we still have to provide them with an education. We have incidents of riding motorbikes on flat roofs and there are schools in the North-East that use electric fences to keep people off flat roofs. It's the only way.

    We have a huge history of arson in public buildings. If we try to exclude young people from public buildings, like the yobs in the library, we'll put them back on the streets - it's an impossible situation.

    There needs to be a cohesive approach. We need to break down some of the barriers.

    It's no good the retailers looking after their interests and the council looking after their interests. Fire brigades work in partnership now, because they're required to under an integrated risk management plan. The police, in theory, should be working in partnership.

    Campbell: From a business perspective, to be quite candid, at the end of the day what we're worried about is making sure that this doesn't affect our business. If we can work in collaboration with people, essentially what we're doing is of course moving the problem somewhere else. There have been a few ideas, for instance stores playing classical music to clear yobs from hanging about outside.

    Halpin: That works brilliantly. We've used it at our leisure centres. We started to have a huge number of instances, including muggings, and one leisure centre manager, in his wisdom, started playing classical music and they moved. I don't know where they went, but they don't like classical music.

    Cradock: In New York the broken windows philosophy worked. If you have a derelict building and the windows get broken and you don't do anything about it, then the next thing is that it gets burnt down. If you replace the broken windows and keep the place looking reasonable, then that puts an end to the type of vandalism, even though you might have to keep replacing the windows.

    If you look at a town centre, if the streets aren't kept clean, if the waste paper baskets are knocked over at night and not restored, if our staff don't go and sweep up the needles and the condoms left in the entrance overnight then it will just get worse and worse.

    If you can maintain a semblance of order in your town centres then that is going to discourage the amount of, if we're looking at, vandalism, if you don't clean off the graffiti you get more graffiti.

    You might clean it off and then get some more, but you have to keep that going and keep those standards up.

    Chair: Are there particular geographical areas that are becoming no-go areas?

    Kinsella: It is very difficult. Royal & SunAlliance has just developed an arson database, which brings in police stats, fire brigade stats, local government stats and our own claims history. It then rates the country in five or six geographical bands. We can use that information, but as Chris said earlier, you can equally get an arson claim in what you would regard as a middle class area.

    Cradock: You have to be careful when you start criminalising these acts. You can be classed a criminal if you grow your Leylandii hedge over two metres high.

    For goodness sake, why have do we have legislation to deal with gardening? Why aren't people talking to each other? Why isn't there some tolerance and conversation? That's probably why we have these problems. there is no conversation these days and people whom we would class as yobs maybe don't understand why we class them as yobs. Are they just having a go at us because we're young people.

    Chair: Is there going to be a position where certain retailers would like to move away from retail parks or from city centres?

    Campbell: There's no doubt there's been a move away from the traditional high street over the last few years. But there's a move back. From our perspective, we took the decision probably seven or eight years ago not to go into retail parks, but now we're going into retail parks like there's no tomorrow. That's because that's where the business is.

    They might be already inaccessible to yobs, as the case of the Bluewater shopping centre. But retail parks are not the easiest places for yobs to get in.

    Chair: Does the threat of yobs influence in any way where you might go for your next store?

    Campbell: I would say yes, once it gets to a really bad situation.

    Cradock: Obviously WH Smith has stores on railway stations, where we do get some issues. We also have stores in, for example, Heathrow Airport, where we don't get issues because policemen are wandering round with machine guns slung over their shoulders. We don't get too many problems there. So it is horses for courses.

    Your question about would you trade in an area where there was a perception of a serious yob issue. Like all of us, if our customers want us to be there, then that's where we will be. We will have to try to deal with any effects of that yob culture.

    We recruit, like I guess most of us do, from the communities in which we trade. So if we were working in an area, most of the people that were working for us would know the area and would know the people who perhaps created the problems and would deal with them.

    Kinsella: What would we have been discussing if we were in this room 20 years ago? mods and rockers on a seafront somewhere.

    Windsor: It's exactly the same thing, but with a different setting.

    Chair: Tony Blair has said he is going to put some radical reform in the Compensation Bill. Do we feel from the claims perspective this is just going to add more problems for the insurance industry?

    Cradock: Well I think we criminalise these activities and the temptation is to try to criminalise everything so that it's all stick and no carrot.

    I used to be involved in a fire liaison panel where we would run youth quizzes, the National Youth Fire Safety Quiz, and the kids who were involved in that knew what the end result would be if you set fire to a waste skip in the back yard. They would have seen how fires develop, and how quickly a fire can develop in a front room and engulf the whole house. That's the consequence and people don't think about that consequence.

    Chair: From a retail perspective, are you worried about your premiums going up? Are you worried that it's going to cost you more for your insurance?

    Windsor: Personally, I don't expect a direct increase in premiums for my company as a result of yob behaviour, unless that yob behaviour does go as far as causing a couple of substantial fires or severely injuring some of our staff.

    Campbell: The real costs are from essentially defending ourselves against the culture.

    Chair: How can we deter yob culture?

    Cradock: It's a matter of community. The more that we can integrate everybody into the community in which they exist, then the better chance we have of doing away with the yob culture. If people value their community, then they're less likely to abuse it.

    Halpin: We have to get better diversion tactics, rather than just trying to stop the problem, as we're clearly going to fail. I 'm not sure whose job it is, but I suspect that unless we all join up and work at it really robustly, we're not going to make great inroads.

    Kinsella: Everyone is trying to tackle problem, but not in a joined up way. We need to try to find something for the yobs to be doing, instead of yobbing. IT