Why are shops paying police to help catch shoplifters? Project Pegasus explained

Metropolitan Police Officers patrolling on Whitehall, London
Police are to be given funding from retailers to target shoplifters. (Alamy)

A group of the UK's largest retailers have agreed to pay police to crack down on shoplifters.

Ten of the country's biggest stores will provide a total of £600,000 under the plan, dubbed Project Pegasus, The Times reported on Tuesday.

Retailers have signed up to the scheme in an effort to fight back against the rising tide of shoplifting.

Under Pegasus, police will use facial recognition technology to identify suspects.

But the retail industry told Yahoo News UK that the police need "to go further" and prioritise the fight against shoplifting.

What is Project Pegasus?

Under Project Pegasus, 10 of the UK's biggest retailers have partnered with police to try to clamp down on shoplifting.

The stores, including John Lewis, Co-op, Tesco, Sainsbury's, Waitrose and Next, have come together to provide funds of £600,000 to police forces.

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The police will use the money to run CCTV images of suspected shoplifters through the Police National Database (PND), which uses facial recognition technology to identify suspects.

The aim of Pegasus is to give police an idea of where shoplifting gangs are operating and which stores are being targeted most.

Police can then compile a list of the most prolific shoplifters, creating a national shoplifting database, which will be circulated to retailers.

Katy Bourne, the police and crime commissioner for Sussex and the national lead for business and retail crime, said: "It’ll be a game changer for policing because for the first time ever, policing will get a complete picture across the country of where these gangs are hitting different areas and they’ll have that data and intelligence to be able to put that out to local police forces to go after those gangs."

What does the retail industry think of Project Pegasus?

Graham Wynn, assistant director of business and regulation at the British Retail Consortium (BRC), which represents UK retailers, told Yahoo News UK that Project Pegasus is a "worthy" scheme but that police should do more to tackle shoplifting.

"It is not just the cost of theft to retailers and their customers, such activity is often a trigger for violence and abuse against retailers," he said.

"While it is a worthy collaboration between retailers and police, we need the police to go further and give greater priority to retail crime all over the country.”

Andrew Goodacre, chief executive of the British Independent Retailers Association (Bira), told Yahoo News UK: "We commend the proactive stance taken 10 ten leading retailers, including John Lewis and Next, in funding a police operation aimed at combatting shoplifting through the use of facial recognition technology under Project Pegasus.

"It's a significant step towards addressing the escalating problem of organised shoplifting and aggression towards staff, which has plagued retailers across the country.

"While this marks a positive step for larger stores, we at Bira remain concerned about the potential impact on smaller, independent retailers. It's vital that any measures taken to combat retail crime do not inadvertently burden our smaller businesses, which already face unique challenges. We hope for a balanced approach that ensures the safety and security of all retailers, regardless of their size."

West Ruislip, UK. 21st January, 2023. Chicken for sale in a Tesco Express with security marking on it. Following the cost of living crisis, supermarkets are putting security stickers on everyday food items that set off an alarm if shoppers try to steal food. Supermarkets are reporting an increase in the level of shoplifting as the cost of living crisis worsens. Credit: Maureen McLean/Alamy Live News
Meat for sale in a Tesco Express with security marking on it to deter shoplifters. (Alamy)

How big is the UK's shoplifting problem?

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), in the year up to March 2023, police in England and Wales recorded 339,206 cases of shoplifting.

Of that number, only 48,218 shoplifting suspects were charged, a rate of 14%. Another 183,450 investigations were closed with no suspect being identified.

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) said stores in the UK lost £953m to customer theft last year, with an estimated eight million incidents of shoplifting.

It is thought the rise in shoplifting is being driven by organised crime gangs stealing higher-value items from supermarkets and then selling them on the black market.

What has the government said?

Policing minister Chris Philp has asked police forces to put in place a "zero-tolerance plan to target shoplifting", according to The Times.

He said the crime creates a sense of lawlessness.

Earlier this month, he said police must investigate shoplifting offences even if the stolen goods are worth less than £200.

London, England, UK. 31st Aug, 2023. Minister for Crime, Policing and Fire CHRIS PHILP is seen in Westminster as he appears on TV breakfast shows. (Credit Image: © Tayfun Salci/ZUMA Press Wire) EDITORIAL USAGE ONLY! Not for Commercial USAGE!
Policing minister Chris Philp has urged police to clamp down on shoplifters. (Alamy)

"The law says that this is still a criminal offence and police should be enforcing it comprehensively," he said.

"It should not be tolerated at any level – I expect a zero-tolerance approach to this criminality."

His comments followed those of home secretary Suella Braverman, who said last month that police must investigate every theft.

She said it was "unacceptable" that crimes such as shoplifting have been treated as "less important".

What are the current punishments for shoplifting in the UK?

Shoplifting does not automatically lead to time in prison. If the goods stolen are worth less than £200, the maximum sentence is six months in prison, but this type of offence is usually dealt with by issuing a postal fine.

If the goods stolen are worth more than £200, it could lead to a maximum sentence of seven years in prison.