Drinks shops are struggling to recruit
staff as potential workers are deterred by the risk of a fine or criminal record for selling alcohol to under-18s.
Being caught selling alcohol to minors in a test-purchase sting is seen as a costly and embarrassing experience for the individual responsible for the sale, and workers are voting with their feet and choosing other careers, according to top drinks retailers.
chain Rhythm & Booze is
finding it increasingly hard to recruit new staff. Managing director Martin Swaine said: "When you work 16 hours a week for £5.50 per hour, an £80 fine is a lot of money. There are far easier jobs in retailing where you don't run the risk of an on-the-spot fine."
Swaine said he had experience of staff quitting after being issued with an £80 penalty for selling to under-18s. "They say it's difficult to judge the age of young people, especially when you have a long queue to serve. You do get violent and threatening behaviour and that can scar people. People say it's not worth £5.50 an hour," he said.
Bargain Booze joint managing director Matthew Hughes says recruitment of part-time staff could be particularly affected.
He said: "Somebody prepared to take on the responsibility of selling age-restricted products isn't fazed by that sort of thing, but it's the sort of industry that does attract, because of the hours available, part-time workers."
He added: "For people
such as housewives fitting it around their lives it's going to be a deterrent. The threat of a criminal record has massive stigma attached to it."
Wine & Spirit Trade Association chief executive Jeremy Beadles said the association has received anecdotal information about recruitment
difficulties and is looking into the extent of the problem.
Licensing solicitor Graeme Cushion, of Poppleston Allen, said he is "not surprised" that such a trend is emerging. Cushion added: "A part-time worker can be prosecuted but it's less likely to happen on a first offence . Usually a fixed penalty notice will be issued."
Another problem with enforcement is that procedures can differ from authority to authority.
One industry insider told OLN: "You see a big difference around the country, from warning letters
to fixed penalty notices to prosecutions."
He said that there were areas in which Trading Standards officers seemed inclined to prosecute anyway, despite having the option of handing out fixed penalty notices . The insider added: "Because there's no clarity
of approach, staff get unnecessarily concerned
when they hear scare stories that have happened.
"Good staff treated badly will resign and leave the business, then you have to receive new staff who are less experienced and therefore more of a risk."
So, what can be done to alleviate the recruitment problem while still dealing effectively with problem drinks shops?
The WSTA's Beadles says understanding why staff mistakenly sell to children is key, particularly as the associated shame and embarrassment can drive them to resign.
Bargain Booze's Hughes says thorough training in the law
and how to apply it in a practical situation
is essential for shop workers.
"Staff have to understand the responsible retailing policy of their company and the reasons behind it," Hughes said, adding that Bargain Booze employees are also tested in their judgement of a customer's age.
Rhythm & Booze's Swaine agrees that staff training is key.
"We don't have a high incidence of test-purchase failure because we're very strict with procedures. Every three months we re-train our staff," he said.
The WSTA has met Home Office officials to prepare guidance on the enforcement process for its members.
Beadles said: "It's a complex area and there is a lack of clarity about the process of issuing penalty notices and recording them on the Police National Database."
Philip Loring, head of central operations for the Thresher Group, welcomed the WSTA's move to produce guidelines.
"I am concerned that in some areas there appears to be a heavy-handed or over-zealous approach to the problem of under-age sales, ," he said.
But while many retailers provide comprehensive training for staff, perhaps prospective employees do not fully understand this - and as a result are not signing up for jobs.
As drinks shops and staff continue to be "named and shamed" by authorities, the recruitment problem looks set to escalate.