NICK GARBUTT: Justice and the big four supermarkets

ONE of the most disturbing recent trends in society has been that as our big supermarkets have emerged as economic giants so have they abused the dominant positions they have achieved.

The big four supermarkets now control 80 per cent of the £150 billion grocery market.

They are strangling the life out of local, independent shops. Earlier this year the last remaining independent convenience store in Bicester, Oxfordshire was put on the market.

Bicester, which has a population of 30,000 has six Tesco stores including four Tesco Express stores. That works out at one Tesco per 5,185 people. Everywhere the big four go, the independent retailer suffers.

They are strangling the life out of local farmers. The big four have such a dominance in the market that they can use it to squeeze suppliers. Tesco have been estimated to pay four per cent less than other retailers for produce. Last Autumn the English National Farmers’ Union president Peter Kendall accused the big supermarkets of creating a climate of fear amongst suppliers.

And now abusive relationships appear to be extended to customers.

Readers will remember the case of Eileen Millar, the Belfast housewife who was distracted by her young son in a Tesco store and as a result forgot to pay for three school shirts, value £5.24.

She offered to pay but a store detective told her she was too late and was subjected to the full rigours of the law. The Crown Prosecution Service complied and an expensive and unsuccessful prosecution was launched at taxpayers’ expense.

In England Tesco and other high street stores have been criticized by the Citizens’ Advice Bureau for employing private security firms who have demanded more than £100 from people accused of shoplifting goods worth a few pounds without proper legal authority.

In 67 per cent of 300 cases analysed, the goods were worth less than £20, and in 79 per cent of cases they were recovered in store for resale – but the average demand was £147.69 including the costs of “dealing with the incident” as well as the goods stolen.

At the time a spokesperson at Tesco said stores were the real victims. “We don’t apologise for getting back the costs of what we lose (from shoplifting). The only people that lose out are the people who have stolen; if people don’t steal they won’t have a problem.”

And now Tesco is going one step further. When a store in Essex suffered a power cut staff were ordered to throw out fresh food. But when Sacha Hall, who lives in a flat above the store noticed this, she went down to the bin and helped herself to some.

When he saw her the store manager reported the incident to the police and Sacha was arrested, handcuffed and charged with handling stolen goods, a crime for which she could be imprisoned.

In the 19th century the courts were so obsessed with protecting the rich against the poor that draconian sentences were passed against minor thefts.

There are well documented cases from this period such as Mary Richards, who was jailed for five years in 1880 at the age 59 for stealing 130 oysters valued at eight shillings and of Dorcas Mary Snell, 45, who was sentenced to five years of imprisonment with hard labour in 1883 for the theft of a single piece of bacon, although she was paroled two years later.

Juries were so disgusted by the harshness of the penal system that they often rebelled by finding people innocent when obviously guilty.

We need our politicians and police forces to stand up to Tesco and others to ensure that their narrow financial interests and zero tolerance policies to theft do not end up in making an ass of the law, at considerable cost to all of us. There is nothing whatsoever to be admired about the reintroduction of 19th century justice.