Give somebody new responsibilities, new powers, and they will probably be out to prove something. Prove they’re up to it. Get results. Be a jobsworth in many cases. Unfortunately this seems to apply to a lot of trading standards officers who have been given the responsibility for ‘policing’ licensing.
Most recent proof of this came from Andrew Fraser who works at a couple of Hills Garage’s forecourts, which are part of a chain of around a dozen in the north-west. Most of the forecourts are licensed and the company takes staff training very seriously, using approved schemes and meeting regularly with local community police officers.
The TSOs for Cumbria mounted a series of test-purchasing stings and Andrew was trapped into serving a lad who turned out to be 14 even though he was 5ft 10in tall with dyed hair. “He looked like a typical 18-year old on his first holiday without his parents,” says Andrew.
It always makes me wonder why TSOs assume that anyone would wittingly sell to kids? It’s a sacking offence at many companies. Nobody makes anything out of it. Profits on a packet of fags are neglible, especially when compared with salaries or livelihoods.
Andrew was called to interview by the TSO and, as he put it: “I thought that would be it. A warning.”
Hills had put new precautionary measures in place. Everyone up to the age of 21 is now challenged and sales of alcopops have been withdrawn.
But to Andrew’s dismay, the TSO decided to prosecute and it is Andrew personally that they are prosecuting rather than Hills. He has never had a criminal conviction in his life and fortunately, in this case, his company is right behind him. Hills has hired the best lawyers, Pannone & Partners, Deansgate, Manchester, the firm that got at least six of Hills licences in the first place. And so far Hills has spent £8,000 on the case.
When the case came to court it turned out that almost everybody in the area was being prosecuted. The TSOs had done 14 test purchases in three days and nine had failed. In other words a good proportion of people thought that the lad was at least 18. (Even the bench observed that the lad was rather tall for his age).
Andrew’s lawyers have put in a ‘no plea’ for now. They are going back to court on April 14 and he will plead not guilty. He is convinced that the lady in charge of the sting just wanted a ‘crackdown’ and was determined to get results. All I can say at this stage is that he is not alone. A lot of retailers have been reporting back on heavy-handed treatment from people who do not understand what is at stake and do not understand the first thing about the pressures of running licensed premises.
Had one the other day where a new licensing officer was attempting to revoke a change to a licence (ie longer hours) even as it was being applied for, on the basis of it leading to harming children. When she was told that the refusals book proved the retailer always practiced due diligence, she asked what a refusals book was. I ask you.