That sinking feeling: licensing and Reducing the Strength
If you are involved in the retail of alcohol off the premises it is highly likely that you are aware of the schemes now in place in many parts of the country banning retailers from selling various beer and cider brands that have an abv of 5.5% and above.
Momentum for such schemes is gathering, with nearly 90 now under way, and the police and councils tell us that these schemes are proving hugely successful in tackling the problem of street drinking and antisocial behaviour, and that retailers are in widespread support.
I’m sure all licence holders would agree they must sell alcohol responsibly and work with the authorities to help tackle the issue of alcohol-related harm.
This can, however, be achieved without the need for the one- size-fits-all approach that local authorities are trying to apply across their jurisdiction, ignoring the possibility that very different social and demographic circumstances could be present in neighbouring communities.
Take, for example, a symbol group store in Devon, that was recently asked to enter into a scheme which started in May this year.
Torridge District Council wanted to introduce a programme to restrict the sale of superstrength beer and cider because of a problem with drinkers in Bideford.
The store in question is almost three miles away, in a village with a very different demographic and customer base.
The staff have never experienced street drinkers or problems connected with their alcohol licence yet the council wanted to apply the same broad-brush approach across its entire district.
Based on this the store took the decision to decline the invitation to join the scheme and was met with concerns from the authorities that its refusal would jeopardise the scheme. The authorities believed that, in order to be successful, they needed all retailers to sign up, otherwise people would simply move to a store that had not complied. The basic principle of schemes such as these is that unless all parties sign up then they cannot work.
This is unproven and I would argue that these customers would not travel three miles to a rural store to buy these products. 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.
There is also the question of whether these schemes are legal. Ultimately they 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 at the Competitions & Markets Authority, confirmed that 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, outline with certainty that if a retailer says no to joining a scheme then the authorities should accept that and if they try to coerce or compel the retailer to volunteer the scheme would become unlawful.
I am not a fan of these schemes – and particularly the pressure that some local authorities are placing on retailers to join such “voluntary” programmes – but they may be beneficial to some retailers.
Licensing Matters is dedicated to helping retailers be responsible sellers of alcohol, including helping to tackle alcohol-related problems.
This can have massive benefits for your business. Removing antisocial elements can attract other customers who would otherwise not use your store.
But I believe keeping a tight control over your store operations and ensuring you and your staff are fully trained on best practice and the law when it comes to selling alcohol is a much more effective way to tackle this.
If you have been approached or are considering joining such a scheme I would urge you to listen very carefully to what the authorities have to say and do your own assessment of specific circumstances surrounding your store.
Despite the voluntary nature of these schemes some councils have requested changes to retailers’ premises licences, to ban the sale of strong drinks.
This is a permanent change to your licence and removes your ability to opt out of the scheme at a later date.
Gill Sherratt is director of training provider Licensing Matters. If you would like more information about these schemes or anything relating to your alcohol licence, contact her on 01282 500322.