FIRST PERSON

29 June, 2007

THIS WEEK: A retailer hits out at harsh test-purchasing regime

Are staff being unfairly put to the test?

I run a small chain of off-licences in northern England. We take security seriously - there are colour CCTV cameras in all our shops, and most stores are screened off so we are serving customers from behind Perspex. We are also serious about the way we handle the threat of under-age sales. We operate a Challenge 21 policy and provide in-depth training for our staff.

Half the

manager s working for me

are considering leaving. Like most other off-licences, we are being hit by wave upon wave of test purchases and the financial and emotional pressure

is, at times, too much for staff to bear.

They have done all the training

and

have the certificates to prove it. But now I feel they are being entrapped - there's no other word for it - and threatened with criminal action.

In five years we've had nine failed test purchases. Two cases have been dismissed by the district judge; one resulted in a warning letter; two were dropped without explanation; two resulted in fixed penalty notices; two earned us convictions. In that time we have made 20 million sales and we do not know how many test purchases we have passed. This is information that is simply not available to us.

In that time most of the test purchases in the area have been carried out in off-licences, while next to none have taken place in supermarkets. Our sector is being disproportionately targeted by the police and Trading Standards, and the tactics they are using to hit their test purchasing targets are becoming increasingly heavy handed and unfair.

In a recent case one of our staff who failed a test purchase was only 19 and had been working for us for six weeks or so. She became hysterical when the police told her she had failed and the officer apparently laughed at her.

When shop staff are caught in this way they are now, unbelievably, being asked for fingerprints by the police. This appals me. In the recent example I mention, the member of staff in question was told she had to supply her fingerprints as proof of identity. The police officer warned her that if she refused, she would be arrested and taken to the police station.

Given the state she was in it was hardly surprising

she agreed to this , but what makes the demand so unreasonable and unnecessary is that the staff member was actually carrying a PASS card of her own, so there was absolutely no need to take her fingerprints.

Another aspect of test purchasing that concerns me is

staff

being coerced into paying on-the-spot fines by being threatened with something worse. Police

say: "If you don't accept the fixed penalty notice, we'll take you into custody". There's a perception that these FPNs are similar to parking tickets, but they're not. It's not a criminal record, but it is a record of a criminal offence.

I feel the police are circumventing the courts by threatening to take people into custody. Most people seem to think that it's the easier option to accept the notice and feel that, in a sense, they've got away with it. But if one shop gets three, it can be closed down.

The children they use in test ­purchases are

looking much older. The police and Trading Standards couldn't hit their targets with the children who looked

15, so they have started selecting teenagers who look older and are grooming them to behave in a certain way.

We had a case where a teenager was used in eight test purchases and in the ninth - in our store - he managed to get served. He was 5ft 10in, had a skinhead haircut and carried a student bag. This was in freshers' week. After we served him he said to the Trading Standards people: "See? I always get one." We've also consulted a QC in London about the way Trading Standards is encouraging the children they use to lie about their age. We feel

this is perverting the course of justice.

In one of the cases affecting our stores recently the person we served looked 19 or 20.

On a busy Friday night staff have to make a snap decision. In some of the shots we got from our camera, she could easily have passed for 22. It's as if it's become ­adversarial . There's no working as a team with the police.

I've

asked

police and Trading Standards: who do you want running off-licences? People who don't care and take fixed penalty notices

then sell their shop to their brother so they can retain the licence, or decent, honest people who may occasionally make mistakes?

Selling alcohol to children holds absolutely no interest to us whatsoever. If we took £50 a night from under-age customers it would amount to 1 per cent of our trade, but 100 per cent of our problems.




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