THE question seems simple enough: do licensing boards have the power to ban people under 21 buying alcohol in off-sales outlets?
As is so often the case with licensing law in Scotland, however, the answer is an enigma wrapped up in a conundrum. At least, that’s how it appears on first inspection. The question was highlighted by The Herald newspaper last week, which, in the first of two dispatches, reported that ‘new powers’ have been given to boards allowing them to ban the sale of alcohol to under-21s in shops and supermarkets, on a case-by-case basis.
The entitlement, the newspaper reported, is outlined in new draft guidance the government has issued to advise boards on how to implement the Alcohol etc (Scotland) Act 2010, much of which comes into force later this year. But according to the Scottish Government, this isn’t a new development.
A spokesman told SLTN boards have held that option since the second half of 2009, when the 2005 licensing Act came into effect. The fact that until now boards have either chosen not to use the power, or were blissfully unaware of its existence, wasn’t really for the government to comment on.
That might well be the case, but the government can’t deny it has allowed confusion to shroud the issue. Much of that confusion, I would argue, stemmed from its failed attempt to introduce a blanket ban on the sale of alcohol to under-21s in the off-trade (but not in pubs) in late 2008, when the draft Alcohol Bill was published.
That measure, in the face of fierce competition from student groups, was roundly defeated in parliament, so much so that by the time the Alcohol Act was finally passed by parliament last year, it included a presumption against a blanket ban on the sale of alcohol to under-21s.
But despite seeing one of its key proposals bite the dust, at no point can I recall during that whole debate anyone from the then SNP minority government explain that boards didn’t have to wait for a blanket ban – they could already restrict sales to under-21s under the 2005 Act, albeit in a piecemeal way.
To my mind, that would have been the ideal time to remind the trade such powers existed. Instead, it’s waited some two and a half years to revisit the issue. On that basis, it’s little wonder some boards, as The Herald reported, had been unaware they had the ability to raise the purchase age in stores – surely a useful mechanism where a business has failed a test purchase or has been linked to anti-social behaviour.
It will be interesting to observe how many boards elect to exercise their newly-discovered power.
But they must do so with care. As the Scottish Grocers’ Federation rightly pointed out last week, there must be “compelling evidence” that problems related to public order or under-age drinking are linked directly to the operation of a business – otherwise perfectly responsible operators risk being punished for wider societal problems. And that’s before we get into the issue of whether people in Scotland could be old enough to ‘die for their country’ but not buy a beer in their local store.