Inside Track by Mark Stretton
There is little doubt that the industry has a problem with underage drinkers. Latest figures, revealed by M&C Report last week, show that pubs failed 29% of Home Office test purchases in the six weeks to mid-June. The fourth AMEC (Alcohol Misuse Enforcement Campaign) targeted pubs with an underage track record but almost 7,000 outlets were visited during the stings. The headline figure was also on the number of pubs that failed so the actual ratio of attempts to failures was much lower - if an underage customer visited a licensed outlet and was unsuccessful in their attempts to purchase alcohol nine times, but succeeded on the tenth try, the venue was still scored as a failure. In the segmentation of outlets that failed, restaurants were the worst performers, failing 32%. Pubs failed 31%, bars failed 30%, while nightclubs failed 12%. These figures compared unfavourably to off-licenses and supermarkets, which scored a 17% failure rate. In a meeting with senior industry representatives last Wednesday, government officials from the Home Office made it clear the situation must improve. So where from here? The Violent Crime Reduction Bill, currently making its way through parliament, includes a £10,000 fine and the possibility of a licence suspension of up to three months, for those caught “persistently selling (alcohol) to children”. For commercial survival, pubs, bars and restaurants must eradicate underage drinkers from the premises. To that end, much is already being done. Challenge 21 has been rolled out across the sector. Regent, Ultimate Leisure and many other companies each weekend report turning thousands of people away from their bars who can not prove their age. And since licensing reform, drink volumes have dropped across the high street, partly due to clubs and bars' tighter door policies. But how many bar groups positioned at the entertainment-end of the market can genuinely say, despite their best efforts, that they did not see a significant sales spike on the last GCSE-results day, as 16-year-olds celebrated? It is extremely difficult to manage and undoubtedly one of the sector's biggest challenges. The government and the industry must quickly establish where the responsibility of pubs and bars starts and finishes. If a drinker has creditable ID, such as a passport, a hologram-driving licence (with picture) or a PASS card, that irrefutably establishes their age at 18 or more, is it still a licensee's fault (and responsibility) if it transpires that person was underage? There must be some responsibility on the individual that is attempting to purchase. Or perhaps there should even be some responsibility placed with parents? The industry just needs clarity. As a society we have a fairly liberal approach to the age at which people should start enjoying alcohol. As a society, we are barely on nodding terms with the over-18 law. Adolescents going out and drinking, and attempting to drink in pubs, is seen as a rights-of-passage, and in most cases is done with the full knowledge of parents. It is what we do and what we have all done. Therefore, as a society, we cannot adopt a puritanical, damning and draconian approach to the people that run the country's pubs and bars. The government must accept this. If there is no attempt to stop the under-agers, and all the responsibility and blame, not to mention financial penalties, is heaped on operators, it will become impossible. Unfortunately, we maybe heading for a “wristband culture” as seen in the States, where each customer, once ID-checked, is provided with a wristband that must be shown with each purchase of each alcoholic drink. The government must think carefully before it jumps in, two-footed, and makes the industry entirely responsible.