Reducing the Strength faces scrutiny at last

on 16 January, 2015

You could be forgiven for thinking that the political frenzy surrounding a general election means those in power take their eye off the important day-to-day matters we pay them to look after and jump in a cab to the next photo op.

But next week, respected politicians from all parties will take their seats at an evidence session called to scrutinise what has become something of a legal – as well as political – hot potato.

Reducing the Strength schemes have been allowed to proliferate across the country unchecked by the government, but due to hard campaigning by this magazine, the issue has been blown open and MPs are looking for answers about councils’ actions. Since the schemes started to emerge, readers have contacted us with concerns about the heavy- handed tactics employed by police and licensing officers to force them to agree to strip shelves of certain products. Even when retailers challenged the authorities, they were frequently told not signing up wasn’t an option and serious repercussions would follow if they refused.

And it’s not just the small retailers that have found it hard to resist, though the big ones haven’t wanted to go on the record to voice their concerns about a policy without a shred of evidence to support its ambiguous motives.

Until December, the Local Government Association had failed to give councils formal guidance, despite persistent calls for it to do so. The Competition & Markets Authority, which has the largest role to play in preventing anti- competitive practices, has been silent. But the admission by the LGA that it believes local authorities may be encouraging retailers to break competition law – even though the councils themselves are not – demonstrates just how ridiculous the situation has become.

That leading political figures in Westminster have been encouraged to intervene is a significant step. It’s telling that the inquiry has also attracted the interest of MPs and peers with involvement in pubs, family brewers and tourism. It signals an understanding of how far reaching councils’ current interventions are – and where they could lead. They may well conclude the schemes are a grave example of local government having gone too far.

The stage is now set for the various players to give cast iron evidence on the subject and Off Licence News is at the heart of the debate. There’s still time to share more of your experiences, which we will put to the committee at the House of Commons next week.

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