Thursday, July 13, 2006


Bloody hell.

This country has such a monumental problem with alcohol - far too high a proportion of the population have a problem with alcohol. Alcoholism, binge drinking, the associated anti-social and criminal behaviour are rife, or so we are to believe.

It was ever thus. See Hogarth et al.

This Government formulates policies and enacts laws but it (and to be fair its predecessors all) is in a bind.

Alcohol has acquired a mystique and has always enjoyed a certain social cache. So drinking is aspirational behaviour. The magic number is 18. Before that age the consumption of alcohol is an illicit thrill underpinned by bravado, after that age the consumption of alcohol constitutes a badge of honour. Either way consumption must be conspicuous and excessive.

The consequences are wasted lives and broken flower pots, blighted townscapes and litter.

Government must respond and must be seen to respond to middle-class distaste for such behaviour, and liberal handwringing.

The government must be seen to be formulating policies and enacting laws that will ... do what? Reduce the level of consumption in this country? The government says underage drinking must be reduced. Are those among us sadly old enough now to consume alcohol to drink greater quantities by way of compensation?

The National Health Service is falling apart at the seams; it is reportedly underfunded. Certainly what resources it does have seem eternally to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Smoking, alcohol, poor diet/nutrition and a lack of exercise are obstacles to reducing demand on this service. [Please note the lack of cost attached to rectifying these delinquencies, at a personal level.]

No-one from the government benches or those opposite actually calls explicitly for a reduction in overall alcohol consumption or, in the circumstances, dare call for a consumption transfer (in the mode of the energy emissions trading).

But most people agree that those under the age of 18 should not purchase or (except under certain permitted circumstances) consume alcohol. Someone under that age purchasing alcohol is committing a criminal offence. Anyone purchasing alcohol on behalf of someone under the age of 18 is committing a criminal offence. Anyone under 18 selling alcohol is breaking the law and anyone 18 or older selling alcohol to a 'minor' or knowingly permitting the sale is in breach of the law.

Simple innit? Not quite.

This is a game. The kids want to find out if they'll get away with it and we do what we can to stop them. The government (run by a leader whose son was found some years ago when still under age in a gutter in Leicester Square in central London almost comatose) can't think of a single feasible or conceivably effective thing to do to deal with the problem from the demand end, nor can it afford to tackle the supply end so it does what it does best and compromises. It goes for muggins in the middle. And muggins in the middle is the retailer.

More specifically the government has in its sights the on-licence (pubs and night clubs) and off-licence (supermarkets, bottle shops) establishments. Supermarkets are a big, bloated sitting target and we're in the crosshairs.

You see the Government can't afford to lose all the revenue it accrues from the sale of alcohol without establishing an alternative revenue stream. And the revenue stream it has set up is the fines and other penalties we're all to fill the coffers with.

This is the new game.

Government extracts value from us. The national government gets favourable coverage of the clamp down on those evil, irresponsible supermarkets selling cheap plonk in vat quantities to tots. Local government pockets the fines, improves its fiscal position and makes lesser demands on central funding.

In the meantime everyone (conveniently) can ignore the absence of parental control or influence.

No-one thinks to say "what the fuck are 15 year olds doing with either the money to purchase alcohol or the time on their hands to get to the shop and attempt the purchase?" When I was 15 I had enough on my plate attending school, doing homework, doing violin practice, playing tennis, swimming (seasonally) eating, doing household chores and, yes, sleeping.

No-one thinks to say "how the fuck are these kids so underdeveloped that the summit of their ambitions is to acquire alcohol?". When I was 15 I was petrified lest I fail my academy exam or not do at least as well as my sister in the local tennis tournament or qualify to take pure and applied at Matric.

The powers that be within our organisation have responded to the Government's laying of the burden of responsibility in two ways. Firstly they have made it abundantly clear that the buck stops with the checkout operator. Secondly the checkout operator has absolutely crystal clear guidelines on what he or she must do in respect of the sale of alcohol (and for that matter ALL age-restricted products). Furthermore the operators all are to understand that if they following the guidelines they CANNOT get into legal difficulties and therefore they WILL be supported to the hilt at all times and by all more senior members of staff in following those guidelines.

The guidelines define circumstances that err very heavily on the side of caution under which an operator must demand to see proof of age before selling an age restricted product. The guidelines also specify which forms of proof are acceptable, and these forms are very, very few in number (passport, photo bearing driving licence, BITE card and pretty much nothing else).

All staff as part of their induction are brief and rebriefed and then rebriefed again on the law and our policies as well as what is acceptable as proof of age. All staff are instructed to refuse to sell alcohol (or whatever) from the moment ID is requested until satisfactory proof of age is provided. That is the solid ground on which we can and will all stand.

All supervisors and managers know this and that our checkout operators are on the front line, bearing the burden of immediate responsibility, taking the flack from enraged customers who take umbrage at being asked to prove their age and knowing always the back of their minds that the next young customer buying booze (or fags, or lottery tickets or a knife or a 15 rated DVD, etc) is a stooge of Trading Standards. sent in with the specific purpose of setting us up. Somehow these underage 'consumers' are exempt from the law concerning the purchase by a minor.

In theory this works beautifully. But it is a system that like all others is vulnerable to human weakness.

Tuesday afternoon one of our more sensible, intelligent and together staff was put onto a check out during an exceptionally busy period. She elected to request ID of a young man in her queue who had looked increasingly odd and agitated as he approached her. He had no (acceptable) ID to provide. The sale was declined. He became more agitated. I stepped in to support the operator. The would-be customer became yet more agitated.

He showed me court documents relating to an offence of violence that had a name and a date of birth. Unfortunately for him the date of birth he'd claimed for himself was not that which appeared on the document he showed me. I stood my ground I backed my operator. He eventually gave up after calling me "fucking pathetic" in an increasingly belligerent tone, threw his not-to-be-purchases on the floor and left.

Or so I believed.

A fairly short while later, but after I'd taken the woman off the checkout and sent her back to her 'section', I happened to spot the would be customer in conversation with our very own walking talking Hairdo. [Incidentally I should mention now in case I use it later that she's also, I now learn, known as Barbie.]

In the wash up I've learned that he loitered outside until he caught sight of another senior member of staff and ran to her (Barbie) with his sob story of how he'd travelled down to our town (as though he couldn't have bought booze where he lives, or if not why not?) only to be refused because he could not, when asked, provide acceptable ID.

He thrust the papers at her just as I reached her. She asked him if he had anything to confirm that he was indeed the person referred to in the court summons and when he produced an electricity top-up card (no photo, only initials, BUT MOST TO THE POINT NOT ON OUR LIST OF ACCEPTABLE ID) she handed the lot back to him and TOLD HIM HE WAS FREE TO GO BACK INTO THE SHOP AND PURCHASE HIS ALCOHOL.

Needless to say the shit has hit the fan over this. The operator and I duly recorded the incident including the abuse in log book - it should go without saying that the customer should have been out on his ear for the abuse alone. I took a copy of it and took the copy home after what transpired.

I asked the operator how she felt about what transpired and she went straight over my head to someone more senior.

To be fair today we've both been told that we were 100% in the right and the person who undermined us was 100% in the wrong. What makes the situation somewhat awkward for me is that the person who did the overruling or undermining or whatever it was is no friend of mine. But if she was hoping to humiliate me she's mad a mis-calculation because she's just attempted to humiliate me by using 'discretion' to circumvent one of the few clear an unequivocal policies we actually have. She'll keep her job, but she'll get a bollocking, and since this isn't the first incident involving the two of us she's probably holed herself below the water line.


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