'Stand your ground on high strength ban' urges expert

Retailers need to stand their ground and refuse to be bullied into adopting Reducing the Strength schemes by heavy-handed authorities, according to a licensing expert.

Gill Sherratt, a former police officer who runs the Licensing Matters consultancy firm, told OLN she has seen evidence of retailers being coerced into joining the schemes.

They are under way in around 90 local authority areas across the UK, with police and council officers pressuring retailers to strip shelves of beer and cider above a certain abv.

But Sherratt moved to reassure retailers that they have the right to say no and should take a stand against the disparate schemes that are proliferating like a virus across the country.

Writing in OLN Sherratt said she believes it is illegal for councils to force retailers to sign up, adding: “Ultimately these schemes are a restraint on trade and penalise both the responsible retailer and the manufacturer of the products.

“During a presentation at the Institute of Licensing meeting in June, Dan Rawling, director of enforcement for the Competitions & Markets Authority, confirmed there was no single answer to whether the schemes were unlawful as they all have to be considered on a case-by-case basis.

“He did, however, indicate that if a retailer says no to joining a scheme the authorities should accept that and if they try to coerce or compel the retailer to volunteer the scheme would become unlawful.”

Sherratt’s warning comes as the Local Government Association has begun to form a “best practice” guide for local authorities that decide they want to run a scheme.

A spokesman for the LGA told OLN: “We are in the very early stages of working with councils running reducing the strength campaigns locally to gather best practice and understand the impact they are having on community wellbeing. We hope this will be ready for publication by early October.”

Gordon Johncox, managing director at Aston Manor, Britain’s second-largest cider producer, told OLN he hoped any investigation into best practice would first address whether the schemes are lawful.

He said: “We remain concerned about the existence of the schemes that are creeping towards selective prohibition by stealth. If there is any merit in a look at best practice we would hope it were to address the issue of legality, because that’s very much in doubt. If there was a decision it wasn’t legal that would be a good move.

“If it were to look at consistency of the schemes that would not address the fundamental flaw in the legality. Our advice is that the schemes are legally suspect, plus they won’t deliver on their aims, so it’s a waste of resource.”

Sherratt feels the schemes are poorly targeted and will not get to the root of the problem.

She said: “Targeting products rather than the individuals themselves will not work as we are dealing with people with a clear addiction to alcohol. The abv schemes are limited to strong beer and cider so restricting these will surely just move these drinkers to alternative products.”