It’s a hot summer’s afternoon in Crawley, West Sussex and I’m out with Ed Heaver, director of Serve Legal, and Alex, a student who has conducted hundreds of mystery visits for the company.
The plan is to visit four pubs across the town to check on their age verification procedures.
Heaver’s company works regularly with several large managed operators, including Spirit and JD Wetherspoon, as well as a number of tenanted and leased pubcos and late-night operators. He says that although the issue of test purchasing and compliance has become of greater importance, the on-trade is still lagging behind the off-trade.
Serve Legal’s latest figures for 2013 show two thirds of pubs passed ID checking tests conducted by mystery shoppers attempting to buy alcohol — a decline of eight percentage points from a peak in 2010.
Conversely, it was found that supermarkets increased their pass rate in 2013 to an all-time high of 85%, with convenience stores and forecourt retailers also on an upward curve.
Performance was particularly disappointing in the tenanted and leased sector, where fewer than half of pubs (46%) passed the tests. This compared to 66% in managed premises and 85% in late-night venues.
This drop in compliance doesn’t surprise Heaver — a former pubco director who set up Serve Legal in 2006: “Pub owners have faced tough trading conditions in recent times so it’s perhaps unsurprising that the ID check pass rate has declined.
“However, serving underage customers carries the risk of a hefty fine or loss of licence, so conducting the appropriate ID checks is paramount,” he says. “Ensuring all staff are aligned with the checking policy and have received adequate training is crucial.”
The first site we visit is a large community pub in the middle of a housing estate. Alex — who is aged 19 but could easily be mistaken for under-18 — runs through the criteria he is being asked to check. This varies dependent on the client but includes whether there are doorstaff present and checking for ID; whether there are Challenge 21/25 posters on display; a description of the server, and how busy the pub is.
We wait in the car as Alex enters the pub, buys half-a-pint of lager unchallenged and emerges shortly afterwards. The pub fails the test. Alex records the relevant data via his smartphone and submits his report to Serve Legal.
The second pub on the list is also a community venue close to a parade of shops. Again, Alex is not asked for ID when purchasing a drink, so the pub fails. The third site visited is a managed pub — operated under a wet-led community local brand, next to a busy train station. Again the pub fails the check.
Our fourth and final visit is to a newly-built, large managed pub on the outskirts of a retail and housing development. This time Alex is asked for ID by the server and produces his driving licence, meaning the pub passes the test.
Heaver says: “Compliance drops when pubs are quieter and bar staff are not fully engaged with their work. During busy peak times, with regular staff working, then compliance levels are usually good.”
So what needs to change to improve pass rates? Heaver believes pubs need to adopt a more proactive approach to ID checks to drive up performance.
In turn, this will demonstrate due diligence to local authorities and police and also reduce unnecessary checks and inspections.
The need for action is paramount, as the Government has also proposed controversial changes to sentencing guidelines, which would see unlimited fines for selling alcohol to under-18s. “Pubs cannot bury their heads in the sand on this,” Heaver warns.
Encouraging pubs to act
The recent extension of the Primary Authority Partnership scheme to cover age-restricted alcohol sales might encourage more pubs to act. This scheme gives businesses the right to form a statutory partnership with a single local authority, which will provide advice and apply regulations specific to the operator’s
circumstances. Regulators must then respect this advice.
A recent survey carried out by the Publican’s Morning Advertiser revealed that almost all licensees surveyed said they operated an age-verification policy, with virtually all claiming they train staff in preventing underage sales.
On the basis of the Crawley visits, it seems like these results aren’t based on reality.