Don't shoot the licensed retailers

23 August, 2007

Bargain Booze joint mD Matthew Hughes on police criticism

The recent comments by the chief constable of Cheshire, Peter Fahy, are disappointing but not really surprising, because they display all the hallmarks of similar comments we have seen from other senior police ­officers over the past few years.

He has generated a significant number of column inches by showboating to the press while inverting the normally accepted hierarchy of responsibility, effectively suggesting that it is the job of society to make the streets safe for the police.

Divided opinions

At a local level we find a mixture of ­attitudes within the police. These range from, on one hand, licensing officers who are committed to ­reducing the problems society faces by adopting a co-operative and constructive ­approach right through to, on the ­other hand, licensing officers who clearly have an agenda to close as many licensed premises as they possibly can. Regrettably at the senior level it would seem the attitude is more toward the latter point of view.

As an industry we cannot help but ­accept that there is a causal relationship between alcohol abuse and a significant proportion of crime and disorder in the UK. Similarly, I am sure that we would not seek to deny that alcohol abuse is the cause of illness and injury. If anyone is in doubt, just walk into an A&E ­department in any major UK town or city on a Friday night and you'll be forced to concur.

However, it is a more than usually ­stupid deductive leap, even for media pundits and police officers, to use these two facts to lay the blame for society's ills at the door of licensed retailers. Cheap alcohol is not the problem, and increasing the age limit to 21 is not the solution.

The crime trend has continued, and has been accelerating, for years. ­Alcohol-related illness is not new. The UK's ­punitive duty rates do little to reduce consumption levels. Challenge 21 ­policies and an industry on "responsible retailing red alert" do little to stop minors from trying to get hold of alcohol with the express interest of getting blitzed out of their brains.

The problem, as has been said before, is not one of how we retail the stuff ... hasn't that been well addressed over the past few years? Surely those traders that once let our industry down and gave us all a bad reputation are now either out of business or have raised their game?

Society's ills

No, the problem is a more general ­malaise within society. Alcohol abuse is not one of the roots of this problem, rather it is one of its symptoms - notwithstanding its causal relationship with other, further, problems.

In France, children are introduced to alcohol early. They develop a healthy ­attitude towards it and the culture is such that alcohol is treated as a normal part of a healthy lifestyle. Public displays of drunkenness are frowned upon and treated as embarrassing.

In France, the duty rate is much lower than the UK. In France, retailers are not vilified in the same way as we are in the UK. In France, they have nothing like the alcohol-related problems that we have in the UK. The only difference is society's attitude to alcohol. Even with a layman's point of view I could point to any number of issues as the root cause of our society's problems: the breakdown of the "traditional" family, a ­media-fuelled culture of fear, unemployment, our decaying social structure, a loss of community.

The list could be endless (and, of course, debatable) and, in truth, the problem is probably attributable to a number of interrelated causes. Nonetheless it should be clear that the knee-jerk response of simply blaming society's ills on retailers that sell booze for a living is just nonsensical.

It might grab headlines, but it won't solve the problems. That is something that can only be done by politicians and government.

Retailers respond to police suggestions

Independent drinks retailers have backed Hughes' comments.

Gareth Jones, of the Beer ­Essentials in Horsham, West Sussex, said a universal price hike would put him out of business. "I doubt whether I would survive - I would have to close. It would just be absolutely devastating," he said.

Rachel Fosker, of Moonshine Off-­licence in North Walsham, Norfolk, said educating young people about why it is wrong to drink under-age and behave antisocially is the key to solving the problem.

"Raising the price of alcohol isn't going to stop children drinking. Many of them have jobs from the age of 14 so they will just save the money and still buy it.

"As for raising the drinking age to 21, the people causing the problems aren't the 18 to 21-year-olds, it's the younger ones, so that wouldn't work.

"We should concentrate on what they are telling kids in schools and what the parents are doing about it. If they started to change that we would see a difference."

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