Malcolm Walker Retail Week Columns

Red tape has gone too far

Heavy-handed legislation on selling alcohol asks retailers to police drinking

Every Monday morning our board meets for coffee and we go round the table to give an update of what’s happened the previous week. It’s always a light-hearted affair liberally spiced with jokes and banter.

Sales, store openings, highlights from store visits, the rolling profit forecast, gross margin, logistics, marketing, the latest revelations about Kerry Katona – it all gets covered. Some things are more interesting than others and people usually start texting or fetch more coffee when our IT director gives his report.

The same could sometimes be said about our company secretary. Insurance claims and legal issues can be very boring, but health and safety legislation and stores that fall for local authority entrapment on serving alcohol usually provoke a bit of mild outrage round the table. He’s got a very dry sense of humour and is good at telling jokes. Last week he told a great story…

Have you heard the one about the draft legislation for serving alcohol in stores? The Home Office has put forward a mandatory code for retailers:

  • The minimum age for buying alcohol is 18 but we have to challenge anyone who looks under 21
  • A senior member of staff has to maintain a live text or radio link with the local police to facilitate rapid response in case of disorder
  • We must have a direct line to a taxi operator to get people home safely
  • We must install CCTV to monitor and prevent alcohol disorder
  • We must have a “dispersal policy” in conjunction with the local police to prevent disorder
  • We must keep an incident record to keep police informed
  • We must carry out a risk review of our shop and put in place a plan, which should be agreed with the licensing authority, to prevent crime and keep the public safe
  • We can’t offer discounts after 5pm or at weekends

The trouble is he wasn’t joking. If we don’t comply our checkout staff could get six months in jail or a £20,000 fine – or both. No, come on, that must only apply to a nightclub in the rough end of town. Surely we don’t have to do all that in our little shops selling Rioja on 2 metres of shelf space… ? Yes, we do.

Am I missing something? Has there been rioting in the wine department at Tesco? Has Sainsbury’s had public disorder in its drinks aisle? Maybe Iceland does need a “dispersal policy” to “keep the public safe”.

Our politicians have gone mad. What planet are they on? In most European countries booze is as freely available as a can of Coke – it’s no big deal, but then European kids don’t binge drink like we apparently do. In the UK the answer seems to be draconian legislation, which increases the burden of red tape.

MPs seem to think it’s OK to rip off taxpayers with their expenses but threaten with jail anyone guessing someone is 21 when they are only 20.

Imagine a phone conversation with the local police: “I’ve caught a shoplifter with £80 worth of our goods. Can you come immediately?”

“Madam,” said the policeman (this is a true story), “wouldn’t our time be better spent catching terrorists?”

Then imagine on the other line: “Police, this is Iceland, I have a 17-year-old who tried to buy a bottle of cider.”

“Don’t panic madam, I’ll send a squad car round immediately.”

Thank God that when I was 17 and used to sneak into my local pub for a half of bitter the local bobby was more understanding. He’d either ignore it or if we were too blatant he’d threaten a clip round the ear.

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