Page last updated at 13:04 GMT, Monday, 11 January 2010

Crime gangs 'dominate shop theft'

CCTV footage of a shoplifter
Shoplifters can escape with a large amount of goods within minutes

Organised crime gangs are behind more than half of all shoplifting in the UK, a BBC investigation has found.

The country's biggest shoplifting team is linked with Scotland's most notorious crime family and is believed to have made millions in the past year.

Shoplifting itself has shot up over the past year by almost 20%, costing retailers almost £5bn.

The Scottish government's justice department said tackling organised crime remained a priority.

While crime in Scotland is at a 30-year record low, shoplifting is bucking that trend and is at its highest level for a decade.

The BBC Scotland investigation discovered that half of all shoplifting is now committed by professional steal-to-order gangs who are linked with more serious and organised crime.

Scottish ministers can neither comment on nor intervene in the sentences imposed in individual cases
Scottish government statement

The shoplifting gang feared most by the retailers is the Glasgow-based McGovern team, which has 150 members.

Maxine Fraser, from Retailers Against Crime Scotland, said the gang can leave a store with up to £7,500 worth of stock within just four minutes.

"And they're not going out to go for one lift in a day, you can guesstimate that they will take in excess of £100,000," she added.

Enforcement agencies across the UK have witnessed the gang's activities.

Sgt Richard Higgin, from Cumbria Constabulary, said Carlisle had been targeted repeatedly by its members, who come with a "shopping list".

"It's so organised when they come, and when they do come we get hit hard," he said.

"They are a menace to retailers throughout Carlisle and throughout the UK."

Sgt Richard Higgin
Sgt Richard Higgin said the gang come to Carlisle with a "shopping list"

Last year, Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill linked shoplifting to organised crime and said he would support serious action against criminal steal-to-order gangs.

In a submission to the Scottish Parliament's justice committee he announced his support for sheriffs to impose harsh sentences on the gangs.

However the two leaders of the McGovern shoplifting gang continue to receive fines by the courts.

In response to the investigation, the Scottish government said it had prioritised the fight against serious organised crime but that sentencing was a matter for the courts.

"We are determined to crack down on all crime; recorded crime is currently at a near 30-year low in Scotland," it said.

The statement said it was continuing to invest record levels in policing.

"We have supplied these record levels of investment for the Scottish Police Service but it is up to the police forces themselves how they best deliver these services and most appropriate for them to comment on any operational matters," the statement said.

Judicial discretion

"Tackling serious organised crime remains a priority for the Scottish government which is why new offences of being involved in and directing organised crime are included in the Criminal Justice and Licensing Bill currently going through the Scottish parliamentary process.

"Scottish ministers can neither comment on nor intervene in the sentences imposed in individual cases."

It said decisions were entirely a matter for the sentencing judge, who hears all the facts and circumstances surrounding an offence and the offender.

"The independence of the judiciary is a fundamental cornerstone of the Scottish criminal justice system and we attach great importance to judicial discretion in individual sentencing decisions," the statement added.

Millionaire Thieves will be broadcast on BBC One Scotland at 1930 GMT on Monday 11 January.

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