OLN challenges Reducing the Strength in Brussels

10 October, 2014

Off Licence News has taken its fight for legal clarity over Reducing the Strength schemes to the European Commission.

We have delivered a letter to its Brussels base, alerting the Commission to the alarming proliferation of initiatives banning retailers from selling beers and ciders over a certain strength or from a list of named brands.

OLN is seeking the Commission’s intervention and its view on the legality of these schemes, both under competition law and rules on the free movement of goods.

In a letter to Catherine Day, secretary-general at the European Commission, OLN editor Rosie Davenport said: “We wish to draw the Commission’s attention to schemes operated by local licensing authorities and police forces and designed to prevent the sale of stronger alcohol content lagers, beers and ciders typically over 6.5% alcohol content or sometimes over even 5.5%.

“The declared purpose of these schemes is to reduce public disorder resulting from the misuse of alcohol. As far as this is concerned, we would emphasise that OLN would always support proportionate, lawful and effective measures to reduce problems arising from such misuse. We do not, however, believe that these schemes satisfy those criteria.

“We do not understand how the schemes could be effective in dealing with alcohol misuse, given that many other products, and with significantly higher concentrations of alcohol, will remain on sale. Even if it could be demonstrated that the banned products were especially connected with alcohol misuse, it is wholly unrealistic to suggest that those misusers would not switch to other alcoholic products, or to buying the same products just outside the area covered by a scheme.”

The letter went on to highlight the powers already available to authorities targeting antisocial drinking, adding: “If there are genuine concerns about public disorder, local authorities have many ways in which these can be addressed. They may, for instance, designate areas within a town or city as alcohol-free zones, where the police can confiscate any alcoholic drink being consumed in public.”

OLN also raised the concerning experiences of readers, who claim to have been coerced into signing up to schemes demanding they strip shelves of products.

We told the Commission: “Unfortunately some licensing authorities and police forces, in order to persuade licensed retailers to adhere to a scheme, have used what can only be described as bullying tactics.

“Licensed retailers have been threatened with a formal review of their liquor licence, which can result in the withdrawal of the licence or the imposition of restrictive conditions. These threats, which put individual businesses at risk, can be extremely intimidating.”

Over the past two years, more than 70 local authorities have introduced initiatives despite warnings from the Competition & Markets Authority that councils could be acting unlawfully.

The letter continued: “Whatever form they take, these schemes appear to encourage licensed retailers, who are clearly undertakings for the purposes of competition law, to engage in a coordinated boycott of certain products. Many of these products may originate from other EU Member States so that an effect on inter-state trade can be assumed.

“The Competition & Markets Authority has given guidance on the legality of these schemes under competition law. This guidance was unfortunately unclear and certainly did not say that the schemes we have described above infringe competition law. The CMA does not appear to regard the individual schemes as a priority for investigation. In the absence of any satisfactory action at UK government level, we would appeal to the Commission to express a clear view.”

ROAD TO EUROPE: THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL

OLN launched United to Protect Choice in March in response to concerns over Reducing the Strength schemes.

Trade associations have given us their backing – the British Beer& Pub Association, the National Association of Cidermakers, the Wine & Spirit Trade Association, the Association of Convenience Stores and the Society of Independent Brewers.

The influential All-Party Parliamentary Beer Group, which represents 300 MPs and 75 peers, has also added its weight, joining the industry in raising concerns over the legality of schemes.

Despite a lack of clear guidance from the Competition & Markets Authority, at least 70 schemes are now underway. Councils across the country have launched their own versions of an idea originally implemented by Suffolk police in 2012.

It pioneered a Reducing the Strength ban as part of a wide-reaching initiative in Ipswich to control street drinking, which has become the only measure adopted by many other authorities.

Licensing experts, including a former police officer, have urged retailers to stand their ground if they are asked to remove certain products against their will, particularly if they feel coerced or forced to comply.

We want to hear about your experiences. Let us know at getintouch@offlicencenews.co.uk

Comment: We call on the muscles in Brussels




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