Next week a draft guide to changes in test purchasing practice is expected to go before local authority regulator Lacors. If the Home Office gets its way, the children used to test whether retailers are selling age-restricted products to minors will be able to lie about their age if asked.
The fear is this will lead to entrapment and The Grocer has demanded that Home Office minister Hazel Blears defends this position. Meanwhile Usdaw has also waded into the debate with plans to launch a campaign against any changes.
Independent retailers at ethnic food specialist TRS Wholesale Co in Southall, west London, are certainly outraged at the idea of making test purchasing even more draconian. While most already ask for identification if they are in any doubt about the age of customers trying to buy alcohol, tobacco or lottery tickets, the overall belief is that test purchasing may be sound in theory but unfair in practice. “Test purchasing is not a good idea at all,” says Raj Hargun, who runs grocery outlet Hargun Superstore in Reading. “We are only human beings and it is very difficult to judge people’s age today. I defy the people at Trading Standards to be able to do so themselves.”
BS Rayat of c-store Rayat in Hounslow, London, agrees. “It is trapping people,” he says, adding that encouraging children to lie about their age in test purchasing operations is “unfair”.
Hargun has been at the receiving end of such an operation conducted by Camelot. “A customer tried to buy a lottery ticket and looked like he may have been under 16. We asked for ID and he left. I then received a letter from Camelot saying it had checked up on us and was happy with our actions,” he explains.
Ibrar-Ul Haq, who runs Oriental Emporium in Crawley, West Sussex, keeps an eye out for minors trying to buy tobacco. Tell-tale signs, he says, are whether the customer goes red-faced and starts fidgeting. However, “they often send in someone older to buy it,” he says.
His policy is to ask for ID and he understands the government’s good intentions in trying to clamp down on underage purchasing. But he believes it is unfair on the retailer.
“It is hard for today’s shopkeeper and the law doesn’t help. If there was one age, such as 18 or 21, for all products it would be easier but it is difficult to tell whether someone is 15 or 16,” he says.
“Instead of stinging and prosecuting, why don’t they come in to the shop and help us, such as offering courses on how to recognise minors.
“We are trying to make a living - not to break the law.”