I have written before of my concerns that initiatives introduced by local authorities in the guise of action to control misuse of alcohol mean that the law on alcohol sales in the UK is becoming a postcode lottery for retailers.
New guidance under Section 182 of the Licencing Act 2003 issued last week is about to worsen and further complicate this matter. The guidance includes a provision for local authorities to make changes to the licence of retailers and publicans who stock products that fall foul of the rulings of the Portman Group’s Retailer Alert Bulletins (RABs), potentially threatening their trading viability.
The Portman Group is a producer group funded by major alcohol suppliers. Its original purpose was to promote responsible drinking, and this was later extended - via a code of practice - to include passing judgement on the advertising and branding of alcohol products that could be deemed irresponsible. This has proved controversial on occasions, in particular with Jody Scheckter’s Laverstoke Park Farm Ale, but has been broadly tolerated by the industry.
“The Portman Group should revert to its original remit”
More recently, however, it appears to have broadened its remit to pass judgement on pack sizes and strengths of long-established and perfectly legal products. This summer, it found the packaging of 500ml cans of 9% abv Tennent’s Super - which owner AB InBev had already pledged to cease production of - fell foul of the code of practice as they encouraged “immoderate consumption”. It issued a RAB instructing retailers not to place orders for the product after 31 December 2014.
While the commercial decision of (Portman Group member) AB InBev is perfectly understandable, the complication of the Portman Group’s involvement with its issue of a RAB on the product is a massive change to its power and influence of this non-governmental body.
Innovation and excitement in the market is essential but is less likely to come from the established companies participating in the Portman Group than from the likes of Brewdog or Laverstoke Park. There is a real danger of huge market distortion if this group is allowed to become the unelected arbiter of “responsibility” in UK alcohol sales.
The situation also further encourages local authorities to adopt stringent but inconsistent controls on retailers who might be trading 100 yards from each other but under neighbouring local authorities with completely different policies affecting their ability to stock legal products.
The situation has become an unacceptable muddle. If the Portman Group is to continue at all it should revert to its original remit. More importantly, the government needs to rediscover its courage and decide what alcohol policy it wishes to adopt and legislate to achieve it, at the same time re-introducing a level, stable playing field for alcohol retailers.
Steve Parfett is chairman of AG Parfett & Sons