Make fools of alcohol fraudsters

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james bielby quote web

It’s not an April fool. The introduction on 1 April of a new registration regime for alcohol wholesalers is of huge significance to the supply chain.

The requirement for trade buyers to check they are purchasing alcohol from an approved source means that, for the first time in history, supply in the UK is fully regulated, from the bonded warehouse to the off-licence. To WOWGR at one end and the licensing regime at the other, we can now add the Alcohol Wholesaler Registration Scheme (AWRS), an HMRC initiative intended to prevent duty fraud between those two poles.

For many years, the propensity for alcohol products intended for export to find their way on to the UK market has been a huge frustration to responsible, duty-collecting wholesalers and distributors. It’s rare that an already over-regulated industry actively lobbies government to subject it to a vigorous inspection and assessment regime, but that is the course FWD has been pursuing over the last few years on behalf of members losing sales to fraudsters. The new obligations for retailers, publicans and other licensees will go a long way to returning those sales to the legitimate distributors, as well as recovering the £1.2bn revenue lost by the Treasury each year.

Retailers now have an obligation to check regularly their alcohol wholesaler’s Unique Registration Number (URN) and keep a record that they have done so. It’s a small commitment to ensure they don’t fall prey to criminals selling duty-evaded stock, and face the severe penalties associated with stocking illicit product. The look-up service, which FWD members have helped to develop, is unique in that it’s the first HMRC product of this type to be entirely digital. In recognition of most users’ online habits of turning to a search engine rather than typing in a specific web address, HMRC is encouraging retailers to find the list of registered sources by searching www.gov.uk for ‘approved alcohol wholesalers’.

As the organisation that first suggested AWRS to a sceptical Westminster and Whitehall, we have been absolutely committed to establishing a regime that will protect retailers from involvement in illegal trading without placing an unfair burden on them. While the onus is now on trade buyers to prove they are buying responsibly, we are confident they will appreciate the simplicity of the checking process.

The registration scheme has seen unprecedented collaboration between alcohol producers and wholesalers, as both have been encouraged to overhaul their due diligence and record keeping. Approved wholesalers are proudly publicising their URNs, and those that failed to apply for registration, or did not make the grade, will be trading illegally from 1 April. We are already hearing reports of sales returning to the legitimate channel as illicit traders anticipate being thwarted by the binary nature of the scheme - no registration number, no sale.

For all of us in the trade, 1 April is a cause for celebration for what AWRS has brought us - a transparent, regulated supply chain benefiting all in the chain.

James Bielby is chief executive of the FWD

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