A story in the Caernarfon & Denbigh Herald at the beginning of last month set me thinking about consistency in punishment as it affects our industry. The story concerned three pubs in Pwllheli caught out by test purchasing as repeatedly selling alcohol to people under 18. Each had fallen foul of the test at least twice and the North Wales Police had given them the choice to close for 72 hours as an alternative to prosecution. Surprisingly, the article implied that this period of time was chosen by the licensee rather than the police.

Given the pressure on selling alcohol, it is unquestionably right both legally, commercially and morally that alcohol is not served to underage consumers. The decision process is difficult, as often illustrated with photos of young people either side of the legal age, but we all accept that diligence and care are necessary for us to be seen as a responsible industry. However it does seem to me that if we are expected to consistently uphold the law, it is not unreasonable to expect consistency of application and sanction.

“Removal of the alcohol licence will fatally damage an independent”

I know of numerous occasions when, in contrast with pubs, independent convenience retailers, caught out by the same test purchasing procedures, have had their alcohol premises licence removed. The convenience sector is, with the exception of the rapidly diminishing specialist off-licence sector, the retail area with the highest percentage of category sales in alcohol so it is heavily dependent on it for sales, profit and footfall. In almost every case the removal of the licence will fatally damage survival prospects, and the outcome is the removal of the retailer’s livelihood.

It therefore seems to me to be disproportionate that on-licence holders suffer a limited and finite penalty of closure for three days that, while no doubt costly and painful, will not cause a viable business to fail.

I make no judgement on the relative merits of the two punishments - that is rightly a matter for government and the judiciary. However I do firmly believe there is a disproportionality here that is presumably a result of a misunderstanding of the economic effect on two different forms of alcohol retailing.

To put it bluntly, I believe that the authorities know how vulnerable pubs are and do not wish to precipitate further failures, but do not understand the dependence of convenience retail on this core part of their offer to the consumer.

As in many areas what we really need is consistency of outcome geographically and sectorially - not least so that it can be clearly communicated to all licensees what the consequences of failure to take this important matter seriously really are.