Test purchasing is part of a strategy to tackle underage drinking, but one retailer says it is just a witch-hunt. John Wood reports

It is every conscientious retailer’s worst nightmare. A member of staff is just catching her breath after clearing a queue of customers when Trading Standards officers walk into the shop, ask to speak to the licensee, and announce she has just sold alcohol to a minor.
This is what happened to Shamus Lehal, owner of the Londis store and Post Office in the Bedfordshire village of Wootton. His first reaction, he says, was anger that the employee got caught out. All staff are trained on age-restricted products, there is a refusals book and even stickers on the till warning that the assistant can be prosecuted for selling to underage customers.
But then Lehal looked at the incident on his CCTV system and decided his assistant was not to blame.
“There were three girls,” he says. “Two looked their age, which was 15, but the third looked much older and was the ringleader.”
The older girl - who Trading Standards later told him was also aged 15 - put some Smirnoff Ice on the counter and asked for a bottle of vodka. According to Lehal, as the assistant served her, one of the other girls handed the first a £10 note towards the cost of the purchase. The assistant assumed the older looking girl was making the transaction and was aged over 18.
Lehal says the assistant and his family have been devastated by the incident. He says: “I have lived in the village for 13 years and my three children have gone to the local school. I run a tight ship and I don’t need to sell alcohol to under-18s. I don’t want to sell to under-18s. If they are dressed like that and they look like that, it is entrapment.”
With the government’s clampdown this summer on underage and binge drinking drinking, Lehal’s story is a timely reminder that retailers need to have the tightest possible procedures in place.
But Lehal is bitter. He describes the government’s clampdown as a witch-hunt and believes it is trying to blame retailers for rowdy drunkenness among young people when it is a wider social issue.
Certainly the Home Office has been taking an aggressive line, talking about the “sting operations” being carried out as part of its “police blitz on alcohol-fuelled violence”. But there is no denying that there is still a problem: figures released by the Home Office after the first month of its clampdown reveal that test purchases were attempted at 646 premises and 51% of on-licences and 29% of off-licences sold to under-18 test purchasers.
Nevertheless, the pictures that accompany Lehal’s story are disturbing. We have chosen to print the CCTV shots because they just show what retailers are sometimes up against. And they beg an obvious question, one that retailers have often asked: when does enforcement cross the line and become entrapment?
There’s no doubt that retailers support the idea of test purchasing - so long as the kids used are not chosen because they look over 18. That message came though in a survey of our reader panel of independent retailers last week, where 40% said they had been visited by test-purchasing teams and 70% said the authorities were justified in carrying out such operations.
The Association of Convenience Stores says it, too, approves of test purchasing as long as it is carried out according to best practice guidelines issued by the local authority group Lacors. “It should not be meant to catch anyone out, but to raise standards,” says public affairs and commercial director James Lowman.
However, the exercise in Wootton appears to have breached the guidelines in at least one respect - Lacors says it is best practice for a single child to be used. A spokesman for Bedfordshire Trading Standards says they sometimes use more than one because this was the way teenagers behave when trying to buy alcohol. He also says the volunteers replicate the looks and behaviour of young people trying to purchase alcohol.
But Lehal disputes this: “The third girl looked much older - I’m not looking for special treatment, but it was entrapment. She had rings on every finger of her left hand including her wedding ring finger, and she oozed confidence. Body language is very important. You can spot underage customers because they are very nervous and there is no eye contact. There was none of that.”