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        The politics of drinking

December 10, 2013



Trouble at the till: under-age drinking and proxy purchasing

Times are tough for under-age drinkers. I remember when it was quite easy for under-18s to walk into a pub and buy a pint. For us 16 and 17-year-old sixth-formers on field trips visiting pubs was part of the itinerary. And teacher came too. There was one rather aloof group of us who positively avoided what we called “nippers' pubs” - places that attracted drinkers even younger than we were.

It couldn't have been long after that when it became more difficult though. They invented ID, which made it easier to refuse service, then Challenge 21, then Challenge 25. Now identifying under-age drinkers is an important part of staff training.

Pubs were first to tighten up, and now off-licences have too. Which has brought a fresh problem, identified by Scotland's top copper, Sir Stephen House, and completely misinterpreted by The Herald newspaper.

What the chief constable is saying here is not that Challenge 25 schemes have failed but that they are working only too well, and that under-age drinking is being serviced by a much more difficult crime to crack – proxy purchasing.

This is where an adult buys alcohol for an under-18. Since the 2003 Licensing Act it's been illegal for a licensee or their staff to sell booze to someone they suspect is going to give it to someone  who's under 18.

There's a heavy penalty. Ultimately you could lose your licence. The supermarkets are terrified. Especially Asda, which has completely banned parents buying alcohol when they're accompanied by their children.

And the Parentdish website has also reported that Waitrose refused to serve a mum a bottle of wine while she was with her daughter – who was 22 at the time.

This is plainly an absurd precaution, and it makes life extremely inconvenient for parents. Are they not allowed to take their children shopping any more? Is it OK if they leave them on the doorstep with a lemonade and a packet of crisps?

Surely Asda is going to cause itself problems, too, as the festive season approaches and stressed families arriving at the checkout with full trollies start arguing the toss with busy staff.

You can't expect them to understand a very confusing law, let alone Asda's interpretation of it. Because the 2003 Act also enshrines the ability of parents to buy alcohol for 16 and 17-year-olds in a pub or restaurant when they're eating a meal. (For a refreshingly clear exposition of the law, try this.)

As well as that, of course, in the privacy of their own home it's still perfectly legal for parents to give a drink to children as young as five. And they can buy it from Asda if they don't happen to have the kids with them. It makes little sense.

The difficulties that retailers face, too, in trying to deal with proxy purchasing are covered well in the new Demos report Sobering Up. Unfortunately, though, the Demos solution is higher penalties for proxy purchasing and education for parents.

It's not the case that there are evil people hanging about outside shops touting alcohol buying services for kids. Most under-age drinkers get it from relatives and older friends. But blaming the parents, as Demos is inclined to do, only heaps more moral pressure on families who are increasingly expected to cope in difficult circumstances with dwindling resources.

So what to do? Perhaps getting less agitated about it would help. After all, young people seem to be voting with their feet. Alcohol consumption among the under-age is falling steeply. It seems like drinking is going out of fashion. And that's a far more powerful force than any policy-maker can devise.

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