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Institute of Licensing summit

On 21/10/14 by Brigid Simmonds (Chief Executive)

The Institute of Licensing held a very useful and timely Super Strength summit in Birmingham last week to discuss the number of local authorities which are following the example of Ipswich and pursuing voluntary schemes restricting retailers from selling higher-strength beers and ciders, which they claim are primarily bought by street drinkers.

Speakers included representatives from Ipswich, Portsmouth and Public Health England, as well as the Local Government Association in the morning; the trade associations (including me) in the afternoon. The day ended with a barrister who specialises in competition law and the Competition and Market’s Authority (CMA), followed by a panel session.

What has been clear from the start is that the Ipswich model was about policies to help 70 to 75 individuals and developing a clear understanding of the issues affecting them . Many street drinkers have a complex range of issues as well as alcohol addiction, which may include drug dependency and mental health issues.

In Ipswich, the strategy was about helping dependant drinkers into treatment alongside tackling crime and disorder, with reducing the supply of higher-strength beers and ciders only one part of the initiative.

Although the restriction of particular products has received the most focus, the scheme was extremely comprehensive and also included a strong element of enforcement of existing powers, including dispersal of those causing trouble as well as rehabilitation and treatment, and helping drinkers to change their lifestyles.

Many other local authorities have followed the Ipswich model. Much of the publicity has been about restrictions on the sale of certain products. However, some have only replicated this part of the project and not the rehabilitation and other measures, which appear to have been most effective in helping those who are some of the most vulnerable in our society.

So, in some areas we have seen restrictions on the sale of any beer above 5.5 per cent, 6.5 per cent or 7.5 per cent abv, which, as I pointed out, could include a wide range of products many of which may come from local, small or family-owned breweries. As a result, there are concerns that some national retailers may not differentiate between what can be sold in one store, as opposed to another, and so may de-list the product.

Such schemes also risk demonising beer, which is relatively low strength, at 4.2 per cent abv, on average.

Removing products affect all consumers. The BBPA has always maintained that removing certain categories or brands is an unhelpful precedent and the focus should be on the drinker and not the drink.

I was very clear that the BBPA supported partnership working. I promoted Pubwatch, Best Bar None, Business Improvement Districts and Drinkaware, as well as the use of existing legal powers for police and local authorities under the Licensing Act. These include alcohol control zones, laws against serving drunks and dispersal orders as well as the new legislation on below-cost selling and anti-fraud measures, which will help local authorities deal with retailers who sell alcohol very cheaply.

Perhaps the most interesting session was with the barrister specialising in Competition Law and the role of the Competition& Markets Authority (CMA). The CMA is clear that retailers are likely to be at risk of breaching competition law if they ‘enter into agreements and/or concerted practices and/or share information about their future commercial policies or intentions’.

Local authorities and police were warned that there were a number of risks in encouraging retailers into so-called voluntary agreements which could be anti-competitive and that any such initiatives cannot be a collective agreement. Retailers have to be very careful that they are not seen to share information with other retailers about their future commercial intentions, and local authorities must not encourage retailers to do this.

So, telling one retailer that they must sign up because another down the road has done so, could well be in breach of competition law. In addition it was emphasised that conditions on a licence must be proportionate and individual to a particular problem.

For local authorities thinking of introducing such a scheme, I think many will have left knowing that they must tread carefully. I also hope that all will understand the benefits of targeted, effective and sustainable partnerships with the industry.


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