A former licensing sergeant has branded Wirral council “disgraceful” and accused it of flouting licensing laws in its bid to roll out a Reducing the Strength scheme in the area.

Paul Douglas, who now works for off-licences in the north west of England as a licensing expert, has been defending a client who was forced to join the scheme after trying to resist. 

The story he tells is a microcosm of the heavy-handed tactics used by council and police officers across the country as they try to force retailers to join the supposedly-voluntary schemes.

He paints a picture of authorities teaming up, visiting a store mob-handed, intimidating staff and going street to street knocking on doors trying to drum up complaints against the store so that they can instigate a licence review and force the store to join a scheme.

He calls it a witch hunt and says that what the authorities are doing is disgraceful.

He told OLN: “My client has a chain of 20 or 30 shops in the north west of England under the names of Kelly’s Wine and Kelly’s Discount Booze.

“At the start of last year the council introduced a Reducing the Strength scheme. They went around encouraging people to sign up and they went to my client’s premises in Argyle Street, Birkenhead. My client, Dave Burchell, the licence owner, is very on the ball and he knows that these schemes breach competition law.

“They went into one store and said ‘we would like you to sign up to the Reducing the Strength scheme’. The girl said she would have to ask her boss. He is aware that these schemes breach competition law, so he decided against it.

“After that the shop was kept under constant watch by the police and community support officers, searching people and emptying their bags and so on. There were police vehicles parked outside the shop.

“There are street drinkers in the area, but there are in most areas.

“This went on for the best part of a year, from January to October, and the staff were feeling very intimidated.

“After speaking to some street drinkers the police officer went in and said had been told they had bought their alcohol at the shop.

“She went in and spoke to the girl in there, who was very intimidated. The police officer accused her of selling alcohol to drunks, something the girl disputed.

“The very next day the council held a meeting for all ‘responsible authorities’ – trading standards, public health, environmental health, the police and so on – on applications.

“What I believe they really wanted to discuss was Reducing the Strength and this particular store. As a result of that meeting they went mob-handed into the store two days later – trading standards, environmental health, the police – and the girl was issued with a fixed penalty notice. The police officer said you can either pay it or fight it in court. This girl was very, very intimidated.

“My client wanted to fight it in court, but the girl was already suffering from post-natal depression and was intimidated and didn’t want to go through all that, so my client paid the penalty.

“Two months after the alleged sale to the drunk the local authority decided to issue a licence review on the store in question.

“No representations were made, but quick as a flash there were five impact statements from members of the public. I knew that these people hadn’t gone to the local authority and complained.

“Some of the statements had phone numbers on, so I called the people and told them I was investigating the case. I asked if they had gone to the police. They said no. The police came to them and said they were trying to tackle the store. These officers have been going round knocking on doors, targeting homes and businesses, touting for business, trying to get people to speak out against the store, to push the store to a review.

“It’s putting words in people’s mouths.

“On the review, one of the conditions on the licence was that beers and ciders above 6.5% abv couldn’t be sold. My client wouldn’t sign up to the scheme, so the officers have given them so much attention and gone out looking for evidence to make sure they got what they wanted.

“Since then the shop stopped selling these products, while awaiting the hearing. The street drinkers just bought the drinks elsewhere, and threatened and abused the store staff for refusing to sell to them.

“Another condition they wanted on the licence was to change alcohol sales from starting at 6am to starting at 10am. The shop doesn’t open until 9am anyway. They wanted all the staff to go for training. I have already signed five of the girls up for responsible retailing training, that is funded by a local brewer.

“But then one of the people that jumped on the bandwagon when talk of the review came up was from public health. She wanted conditions changed so that alcohol couldn’t be sold before noon. She also wanted us to accept the Reducing the Strength scheme. She also wanted the staff to visit the local alcohol problem centre and to gain more knowledge around the harms of problem drinking. I said you might as well take everyone who sells cigarettes to the local cancer ward in the hospital. She wanted us to place identification marks on all the alcohol we sell [beers, cider, wines, spirits] so that they know they came from our store and wanted us to keep a log of all refusals and all challenges.

“We had the hearing yesterday and it could have gone a lot worse. The authorities got what they wanted – a condition on the licence is now that the store can’t sell beer or cider above 6.5% abv.

“But the opening hours can stay the same and the other conditions were thrown out.

“What was really worrying was that, before even hearing any evidence, one of the councillors on the licensing committee asked why they weren’t seeking a revocation of the licence.

“I was in the police force for 33 years as a licensing sergeant in Liverpool and I know the business like the back of my hand and what the authorities are doing is disgusting.

“When someone doesn’t join the scheme they get heavy with them and intimidate their staff.

“We have got one very questionable fixed penalty notice for selling alcohol to a drunk two months prior to the licensing review proceedings being issued. Police are going round knocking on doors getting people to complain. These police community support officers have been waiting around outside the store, searching people, emptying bags.

“It’s a witch-hunt. Licensing laws are definitely being flouted with these schemes.

“In my opinion, this will undoubtedly happen to anyone that resists in future. This sort of scheme is a very common thing in the Liverpool area.”

Indeed, OLN checked the Wirral council site and found that another store – Local Express on Bebington Road, Rock Ferry – is also awaiting a review of its licence and the condition being sought by the authorities is to enforce a ban on beer and cider at 6.5% abv or above as a condition on the licence.

But Wirral council absolutely refutes any suggestion that the store’s unwillingness to sign up to the Reducing The Strength campaign contributed to the action taken against it and that it has been unfairly targeted.

A council spokesperson said: “Problem drinking can have a negative impact across the whole community. It can give rise to anti-social behaviour, affect the reputation and image of an area and, of course, can lead to serious health issues for the drinkers themselves.

“Particularly around this part of Birkenhead, there is a multi-agency strategy well underway that is committed to addressing problem drinking in the short and longer term. It involves Merseyside Police, local alcohol charities, Public Health and a range of council regulatory departments, including Licensing, Environmental Health and Trading Standards.

“A Designated Public Places Order has been in place in this area since June 2014 which makes it an offence for a person to continue drinking alcohol once a Police Officer has requested them to stop.

“In addition, partners have been working together on a ‘Reducing The Strength’ voluntary campaign to promote the restriction in availability of super-strength cheap alcohol, which many off-licences in the area have signed up to.

“We completely refute any suggestion that their unwillingness to sign up to the Reducing The Strength campaign in any way contributed to the action taken against Kelly’s and that they have been unfairly targeted.

“In Wirral, we have closely followed the advice and guidance produced by the Competitions and Marketing Authority, along with the Local Government Association, on how Reducing the Strength’ campaigns can be safely and legally delivered. We believe our scheme is a fair, balanced and effective one, which has seen many businesses happily stop selling ‘super-strength’ products.

“This action was taken because the premises had demonstrated that it wasn’t able to operate in a responsible manner and as such had undermined two licensing objectives – prevention of crime and disorder and prevention of public nuisance.

“In investigating concerns over Kelly’s, officers found that employees were clearly and knowingly serving people who were already drunk and who have problems with alcohol-dependency. The knock-on effect was an increase in anti-social behaviour caused by people who were clearly drunk.

“The actions of Kelly’s in serving problem drinkers had also placed extra pressure on Merseyside Police and was undermining the fantastic work being done by Wirral Churches’ Ark Project to support alcohol dependent people.

“As a result of the Licensing Committee hearing, there is now a clear understanding of the measures this business has to take in order to uphold the licensing objectives and we are encouraged by the commitment the proprietor has given to working with the responsible authorities to do this.”