Reducing the Strength: MPs call for OFT clarity

21 March, 2014

A group representing more than 300 MPs and 75 peers has demanded legal clarity from the Office of Fair Trading over controversial Reducing the Strength schemes, in response to OLN’s United to Protect Choice campaign.

The influential All-Party Parliamentary Beer Group has added its weight to our initiative and chairman Andrew Griffiths, MP for Burton, has written to OFT chief executive Vivienne Dews amid fears retailers forced to comply with schemes are breaking competition law.

Griffiths has also invited Dews to attend a meeting with MPs to further discuss the issue.

OLN launched its campaign earlier this month after swathes of councils across the country adopted schemes banning retailers from selling various beer and cider brands or those of certain abvs, typically 5.5% and above.

Momentum for the measure, spearheaded by Ipswich, has gathered at an alarming rate with nearly 90 schemes now underway – despite OFT warnings that they could be breaching competition rules.

An exclusive OLN poll also reinforced the harm caused to the industry, with 80% of suppliers agreeing councils should not have the power to strip products from shelves.

Robert Humphreys, secretary of the All-Party Parliamentary Beer Group, said: “Having been approached for help by Off Licence News, chairman Andrew Griffiths has written to the OFT seeking guidance on its view of local interventions in the off-trade to remove certain brands or products of certain strengths.”

In his letter to Dews, Griffiths said: “I understand these schemes are intended to tackle problematic street drinking and alcohol-related antisocial behaviour, but while we would support that ambition, I am very concerned about their legality.

“Such interventions seem most likely to breach competition law.”

He continued: “Some are aimed at specific, named high- strength products which are sold particularly cheaply, whereas others have set an abv threshold, effectively banning any beer or cider above 5.5% or 6%.

“Either approach would clearly distort competition between brewers, some of whom may be more reliant on higher-strength beers than others, and restrict consumer choice.

“Clearly the market is distorted where some licensees comply while others do not. Even in Ipswich, which has a high-profile scheme, around a third of licensees have declined to comply with the ban.

“We are particularly troubled that the actions here are discriminating against beer (and cider), to the detriment of the UK’s national drink and to the advantage of other stronger drinks, so that the actions described appear irrational as well as illegal,” he added.

“I would be grateful for an account of the OFT’s assessment of these developments.

“It would be helpful to have your written explanation of that assessment and a clear idea of the actions you may be undertaking in connection with them.”

As part of its campaign, OLN is also seeking more enforcement of existing laws to monitor public order, such as penalties for serving drunks and increased powers to confiscate alcohol.

We also want to promote a greater emphasis on local authorities working in partnership with retailers to help resolve perceived social problems.

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