Charity Alcohol Research UK and training body Alcohol Academy, which both aim to reduce alcohol-related harm among drinkers, argue pub licensees need to do more to ensure bar staff are fully aware of the law and propose a number of recommendations that would toughen up the existing regulatory regime.
Under current legislation (Section 141, Licensing Act 2003), it is an offence to knowingly sell alcohol to someone who is drunk. However, prosecutions for this offence are low — just five last year. An alternative to prosecution in the courts are Penalty Notices for Disorders, which allow police to issue a fixed fine, but these are scarce as well — just 63 were issued in 2013, the lowest level for five years.
These figures would indicate an industry that’s getting its act together with this issue. Big strides forward have been made in recent times with responsible retailing initiatives such as Best Bar None encouraging better use of door staff to monitor levels of drunkenness among people entering venues. The use of breathalysers by licensed premises as an aid to identifying potentially problematic customers has also increased with a number of schemes introduced in city centres around the country.
However, the One too many? Sales to drunk customers: policy, enforcement and responsibility report argues that the low prosecution rate is more to do with the multifaceted burden of proof. It states: “Prosecution depends not only on the customer being drunk, but the vendor knowing this before completing the sale. Since drunkenness has no clear legal definition, the burden of proof is further complicated.”
Simply removing the word ‘knowingly’ from the legislation — as it is worded in Scotland — doesn’t seem to be the solution either. There were only four prosecutions there between 2009 and 2012.
The report also cites a study in Liverpool this year that used trained students to test compliance in city centre pubs and bars. Researchers concluded that “UK law preventing sales of alcohol to drunks is routinely broken”. The ‘drunk’ actors were consistently sold alcohol, ranging from 60% on Wednesdays to 94% on Fridays. In 18% of sales, servers attempted to up-sell by suggesting double rather than single spirit measures.
The report wants the trade to pull its socks up on the issue, with more consistent and improved staff training, better guidance from trade bodies and a national awareness campaign of the legislation for licensees, bar staff and customers.
It also calls on the Government to consider the introduction of mandatory licensing conditions requiring premises to produce a written policy on sales to drunk customers, in line with existing requirements.
The Government is already acting in one specific area; earlier this year it announced changes to sentencing guidelines that would see a four-fold increase to £4,000 for the maximum fine for selling alcohol to a drunk person. Trade figures were critical, saying fixed penalty notices and the threat of a licence review were more suitable deterrents, rather than prosecution. As yet, no date has been set for these changes to come into force.
The Home Office also reiterated to the Publican’s Morning Advertiser that is was determined to tackle “alcohol-fuelled harm”, and said it had improved the powers available to police and licensing authorities making it easier to review and revoke the licences of so-called “problem premises”. The department failed to comment on the report’s specific recommendations.
The off-trade doesn’t escape unscathed — the report calls for further research on the role of supermarkets and off-licences in exacerbating problems regarding public drunkenness, and acknowledges the shift in consumption to the home and ‘pre-loading’.
The report states: “Progress will depend on acknowledging that responsibility is shared between producers, retailers, staff and individuals.”