Reducing the Strength: failures ramp up
Incidents of drunken disorder have spiked dramatically in the town of Dover since it introduced a Reducing the Strength scheme.
The Kent town started the scheme in May 2013 in a bid to “reduce the strength of alcohol sold to street drinkers and those engaging in drink-related antisocial behaviour”.
But when OLN put in a Freedom of Information request to Kent Police, asking how many incidents of drink-related antisocial behaviour it had to deal with in the town, it said there were 637 in 2013 and 963 in 2014. That is a rise of 51%.
It follows the revelation in our last issue that alcohol-related violence soared by 51% across Portsmouth after the city introduced its own Reducing the Strength scheme.
A further Freedom of Information request we put to Northumbria Police has revealed that incidents of drunken violence rose in Newcastle upon Tyne after it introduced one of the schemes.
In the first six months of 2014 there were 346 incidents, then it introduced the scheme in June. In the second half of the year there were 418 incidents – a rise of 21%. However, overall alcohol- related incidents dropped by 7%.
Karen Griffiths, who coordinates the Dover scheme on behalf of the Dover Partnership Against Crime, said: “Personally, I think the scheme is working. I wouldn’t say the number of street drinkers has gone down but we are tackling street drinking in a roundabout way. If they go into a premises and can’t buy high-strength alcohol it makes it difficult for them.”
A new scheme is under way in the Gresham area of Middlesbrough and retailers are concerned about the council’s tactics as it tries to force through a policy that is poorly targeted and not grounded in evidence.
The council wants retailers to strip shelves of beers and ciders above 6.5% abv and has allegedly warned them that if they don’t voluntarily amend their licences, itwillforcethemtodosoata licensing hearing on grounds of public health.
One retailer, who wanted to remain anonymous, told OLN: “The council has been putting us under pressure to change our licence. If we don’t sign up it has told us it will find other ways to get us to sign up through health laws.
“It is using health as the excuse, whereas in reality what it is trying to do is displace street
drinkers who hang out in parks around the area. All it will do is move them somewhere else. It’s unfair. It will send a competitive advantage elsewhere.”
The retailer also suggested the council was risking a competition law breach by telling him about a rival retailer who had agreed to strip such products from his shelves, thus revealing sensitive commercial information about a rival.
Middlesbrough Council was unavailable for comment.
Ben Hulme, head of BWS at Lidl, believes Reducing the Strength schemes risk over- simplifying the response to alcohol-related problems.
He said: “We have to be careful of these blanket bans, which can get into the realms of persecuting companies and retailers where there is no need to. If it is a question of abv, you could quite easily buy a bottle of wine or vodka, which is far higher.
“The problem with that line of thinking is you could talk yourself into getting rid of every single product in your range, and is that really the way to combat alcoholism?”
The Society of Independent Brewers thrown its weight behind OLN’s campaign calling for the European Commission to force the UK Competition and Markets Authority to act against Reducing the Strength schemes.
SIBA has written to the European Commission and encouraged its members to submit examples in support of its submission. It is concerned that retailers that agree to participate in the schemes run a serious risk of infringing competition law by engaging in a coordinated boycott.
Managing director Mike Benner said: “Our members take great pride in the excellence and range of their beers. They make beers for everyday drinking, beers to accompany food, and beers for connoisseurs to savour and sip. They brew a huge range of different beers, both regularly and occasionally, and many of these are fabulous, complex brews of higher strength and great repute. They make beer, they sell beer, and they take the utmost pride in beer.
“As a responsible organisation we absolutely support proportionate, effective measures to reduce alcohol misuse, but we do not support any intervention which is not within the law. We have significant concerns about the proportionality and legality of these schemes. It is our understanding that licensed retailers who agree to participate in these schemes run a serious risk of infringing competition law by engaging in a coordinated boycott of certain products.
“It is essential that British beer drinkers are not unnecessarily and unreasonably denied access to the thousands of fantastic beers available across the country and the Commission should take action to ensure competition law is upheld.”