Prisoners of a self-imposed ban

14 November, 2008

There comes a point where it is difficult to choose which anti-trade initiative is worth protesting about most. Is it the yellow and red card scheme, which could see a licence go down after two adverse test purchases? Or the idea of

drinks retailers signing up to a fresh raft of conditions by means of an

"acceptable behaviour contract "? Or is it the seemingly self-inflicted wound of the Hampshire retailers who have "voluntarily" agreed to a ban on sales to under-25s at weekends?

This latter news item,

which I commented on in the last issue of OLN, has wider implications. Voluntary schemes

are not new

and neither is local co-

operation with the police. But increasingly it appears that the licensed trade in some areas is giving massive hostages to fortune by signing up to what by any stretch of the imagination is overkill, simply to meet a police objective.

How much did it take to gain agreement for a whole group to willingly

forego what must be

a key market

- the 18 to 25 age group - not for a couple of days but for four key sales periods. Thursday to Sunday is a long period to impose an arbitrary age ban, and while occasional breaches of it would not render the

retailer liable to prosecution or review, it may well cause a fair degree of antagonism and opposition among well-behaved young adults in the area.

In effect, this has nothing to do with the law on under-age sales as such. It appears to be a method for controlling or restricting sales of alcohol to a far wider section of the community, for public order purposes.

Going against the WSTA grain

I am not sure I can agree with Jeremy Beadles of the WSTA that there is a competition issue here: this is not a cartel or price fixing which would interest the Office of Fair Trading or the European Commission. But it is a self-imposed

restraint on legitimate trade and so should not be undertaken without a great degree of thought.

I confess

I do not know the full story and if I am misrepresenting the retailers involved,

I apologise. But based on

previous experience, I would assume

some considerable pressure was brought to bear, including the possibility

of licence review, in order to bring about this compliant attitude. No one would sacrifice such a lot of business absolutely willingly, even for a finite period of six weeks or so (although that is only when the scheme is to be reviewed). Doubtless the result will be a lessening of street drinking and alcohol-related disturbance, unless the hard core bus their supplies in from elsewhere, which seems entirely probable.

But this

sends out the wrong message to other retailers, who may now be faced with the Paxman-like question: "Well it worked there - why don't you do it too?" To then refuse will be perceived as less than public-spirited and will give the police the opportunity to complain about lack of co-operation and motives of greed in the licensed trade.

There is some similarity with the Acceptable Behaviour Contract in Bexley which, apart from its demeaning title is a Trojan Horse measure, designed to ambush the participants. Although the contract has no force of law and does not technically impose conditions on the licence, any breach of the agreement will be seen as behaviour conducive to a licence review. A committee faced with the evidence that the contract was signed (willingly?) and then disregarded is going to have fairly negative views about the

retailer from the start, and a failed test purchase on top of that is simply going to set them on the road to suspension and

removal of the licence.

A challenging age

So what of

the under-25 initiative

True, there has been a

Challenge 25


to provide a massive safeguard during the Home Office test purchasing campaigns.

But that was a trade-led idea to try and head off a problem. It did not set 25 as the minimum age for purchasing alcohol in any way. In fact, if you could produce the right ID, you could buy on your 18th birthday, as the law allows (a fact which may by now have been forgotten in government circles).

But acceding to the idea that it is somehow right to set a minimum age limit that is a full seven years above the legal level, for policing reasons, is a lack of proportionality.

If you banned under-25 drivers from the roads from Thursday to Sunday you would undoubtedly cut dramatically the number of road accidents and drink-driving offences. But place that before

government and you would be laughed out of Westminster, even in these times of ultra-nannyism.

I am fairly sure that the on-trade, faced with a similar proposal, would be up in arms, even given the fact that they feel battered and bruised enough as it is, and are scarcely up for a fight.

But the off-trade is a different animal, as it is not

fully organised and represented in the same way. Picking small sectors is therefore quite possible. And national campaigns grow from these modest beginnings.

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