It’s Thursday night at Hove police station. Two 15-year-olds who will take part in test-purchasing at local off-licences are being briefed on the plan for the evening.
Ray Moore, principal trading standards officer at Brighton and Hove Council, is worried the teenage boy’s long sideburns and the girls sparkly eyeshadow may break Home Office test-purchasing rules, which state participants should not make themselves look older than they are. This is a common complaint among retailers but Moore insists his department sticks rigidly to the regulations, which also say the youngsters must honestly answer questions about their age and lack of ID.
The teenagers, let’s call them Jenny and Stuart, insist they look “like normal” but Moore is nervous. Stuart, an eager police cadet who has helped on several stings at supermarkets and off-licences, certainly seems older than 15 but his fresh-faced friend Jenny looks her age. The pair are photographed and measured by schools liaison police officer Andy Hart, who is joining Trading Standards on the joint operation in case evidence is required in court.
Tonight’s sting is part of home secretary David Blunkett’s summer blitz on alcohol-fuelled disorder and underage drinking, in which thousands of off-licences will be visited by Trading Standards and police. It is also part of a wider focus by the government on binge drinking, which puts the alcohol retail trade firmly in the spotlight. Results from the first two weekends of the campaign show 1,176 off-licence premises were visited. Of the 141 sting operations, 49% were found to be selling to under-18s. This reflects the picture in Brighton and Hove, where around half of the retailers have been caught selling to under-18s in the past few weeks.
Concerns have been expressed by trade groups such as the Wine & Spirit Association and the Association of Convenience Stores that the binge-drinking debate is unfairly making a scapegoat of traders and not focusing enough on punishing the behaviour of individuals.
However, for Moore, underage drinking is an immediate problem and it is easier to spread the message about asking for ID among retailers than change the whole teenage drinking culture. “We have doubled our alcohol consumption in the past 20 years, and violent crime and alcohol sales are directly linked,” he says.
Tonight’s aim is to reinforce the ID message among traders and reduce the numbers who deliberately, or inadvertently, serve under-18s.
Jenny says her underage friends are easily served. “They send in someone who is a bit taller to buy stuff and go back to someone’s house or the park to get drunk,” she says.
Tonight we will visit off-licences in the Preston Park area, where there have been problems with groups of young people getting drunk, fighting and damaging property. “The police try to intervene early and we join in by finding out where they have been buying booze,” says Moore.
Trading standards have been tipped off by police about some of the premises we will be visiting. A plain-clothes police or trading standards officer will be in the store at the same time as the teenagers, who are told to buy alcohol and wait to receive change and a receipt before leaving. Offenders will be formally interviewed at a later date and trading standards will then decide whether to prosecute at a magistrate’s court. I will pretend to be a customer and observe.
Off-licence 1: Served
The pair look at the wine displays. Jenny pipes up “Do you have any Lambrini?” and is
told ‘no’ by a young woman assistant. She pays for a four-pack of WKD with no questions asked. The assistant later claims she thought Stuart was 18, even though it was the girl who made the purchase. The owner tells Trading Standards officers he trains his staff to ask for ID and brings out a refusal register. He is told there have been police reports about youths buying alcohol from his store and moving on to a park.
Off-licence 2: Served
We move on to a convenience store where I am asked by a group of boys, who look about 10, to buy them cigarettes. The teenagers join a long queue and easily buy a four-pack of Foster’s from a weary-looking assistant. She doesn’t seem that surprised when confronted by the Trading Standards officers, admitting: “It was my fault, I’m just so busy.” PC Hart says traders in the area frequently complain about intimidation from youths.
Hollingbury Wines, Hollingbury Place: Refused
Owner Jasbir Johal refuses to serve the undercover teenagers when they fail to produce ID. He later reveals that frequently young children stand outside and ask his customers to buy items for them. “I’ll always ask for ID if I have any doubts,” he says. “I get a lot of hassle and racist abuse and kids come in sometimes and start throwing things around. I don’t normally ring the police, I’ll try to sort it out myself.”
Off-licence 4: Served
Jenny goes into the off-licence, part of a local chain, on her own and buys two bottles of Red Square vodka. The woman assistant asks if she has ID but then serves her anyway. When questioned, the assistant says she is busy training a new staff member who has started that day, and does not know who owns the store. Police and Trading Standards ask her to close up for 10 minutes so they can interview her. “That place has serious staff training issues,” says PC Hart.
Thresher, Ditchling Road: Refused
A group of boys standing outside ask people to buy them cigarettes. They run away when they see PC Hart, whom they recognise from school. Inside, the teenagers are asked for the ID they don’t have and the assistant refuses to serve them.
Local park: Alcohol confiscated
PC Hart takes a bottle of vodka from a 16-year-old girl and pours it away in front of her. “Young girls in particular seem to have a problem with alcohol,” he says.
The Co-op, Ditchling Road: Refused
The shop assistant recognises the teenagers and says: “I can’t serve you.” She later tells me she knows they are only 15.
Preston Park Wines, Preston Drove: Refused
When the teenagers cannot provide the requested ID they are refused service. Outside, groups of raucous young people carrying plastic bags pass by on their way to the local park where the alcohol was confiscated just 10 minutes earlier.