Online retailers are failing to conduct ID checks on age-restricted products more than half of the time.
The test purchasing company Serve Legal said it was an area of major concern as ID checks for all age-restricted products at the point of delivery were rare. Online retailers passed just 44% of 1,000-plus age check tests by Serve Legal in the past three years.
Ed Heaver, director of Serve Legal, said it was a “grey area”.
“The responsibility for asking for ID is not clear. We have a concern that people are buying more online and there doesn’t seem to be many processes in place for asking for ID on the doorstep,” he said.
“I think there is a need for clarification from the government as to whose responsibility it is - the online retailers or the third party deliverers.”
The figures are part of Serve Legal’s annual report unveiling the results of 94,000 tests of age verification checks for sales of age-restricted products by young-looking mystery shoppers in 2015. Of these, 40,000 related to buying alcohol.
Supermarkets passed 87% of identity checks for under-age alcohol sales in 2015, up from 86% in 2014. Generally, supermarkets continued to be at the forefront of checking and passing tests for age-related products. This was put down to supermarkets having more stringent checks and working closer with local authorities, as well as having a culture of tackling under-age sales.
“The culture of continual, well-managed test and inspection programmes adopted by the majority of UK supermarkets and high street retailers is undoubtedly driving improvements in compliance,” Heaver said.
“I think there is a need for clarification from the government as to whose responsibility it is - the online retailers or the third party deliverers”
“We believe this positive commitment to responsible retailing is a significant contributing factor in reducing access to alcohol - and other age-restrictive products - by under-age people.”
The UK’s drinking venues were highlighted as an area of concern with pubs, clubs and bars passing just 70% of 6,800 age check tests in 2015, up from 68% in 2014. However, Serve Legal confirmed that venues achieved a 92% pass rate when door teams were on duty.
Heaver was critical of some drinking venues that, unlike supermarkets, were reluctant to embrace regular testing and only approached them for help with testing when facing sanctions after breaking the law.
On alcohol testing regionally, Scotland had the UK’s highest overall test pass rate of 87% - a position it has held since Serve Legal began testing in 2008. Northern Ireland came in at the lowest (70%), a historical position, in line with low levels of compliance for sales of other age-restricted goods like tobacco, Serve Legal said.
Data from Serve Legal’s 4,600 tobacco sales age verification visits in 2015 indicated that retailers appeared to view tobacco as a lower-priority risk to children than alcohol.
Just 64% of tests were passed this year with pass rates falling six percentage points since 2010 (70%). Small independent shops and newsagents were most at risk of prosecution, passing just 53% of more than 2,000 ID check tests. Again, supermarkets were the most diligent, passing 77% of tests.
“Our data suggests that tobacco isn’t being viewed as posing the same level of risk to children as alcohol, yet the law treats the two as equally harmful substances”
Overall in 17% of visits, no ID was requested and in 9% of cases, the tobacco product had already been retrieved from the cabinet before ID was requested.
“Our data suggests that tobacco isn’t being viewed as posing the same level of risk to children as alcohol, yet the law treats the two as equally harmful substances,” said Heaver.
Data from age verification visits for knife sales in 2015 were described as “particularly worrying” with retailers reducing testing by 76.2% in the past five years.
Overall, retailers passed just 67% of tests in 2015. Retailers in the South West of England achieved an 81% pass rate with Scotland (39%) and Northern Ireland (47%) the lowest. Serve Legal said there was an urgent need for the government to put more pressure on retailers to address the situation.