We have put together some of the most frequently asked questions about under age sales.
In addition to the questions below, we have also provided FAQs under each of the age restricted product type.
Q: Why are some products age restricted?
A: Over the years and often in response to specific threats or concerns, Parliament has introduced various restrictions on certain goods. There are generally five different reasons why they may decide to do so:
Q: Why is it a criminal matter?
A: The legal system in England and Wales is split into 'criminal' and 'civil' matters. Generally (but not exclusively) civil matters are those that regulate the conduct between individuals or corporations, about a specific contract, negligence or family matters. The criminal justice system deals with conduct that affects society as a whole. The sale of restricted goods to children and young people is a matter that Parliament has determined as affecting society as a whole and the enforcement of those restrictions that Parliament has put in place therefore falls to the criminal justice system.
Q: Will I be shut down if I sell alcohol to young people?
A: Quite possibly, but it is by no means a certainty. In order to sell alcohol, you must be granted a licence by your local authority (there is more than one type of licence and you may need different licences depending upon where you are proposing to sell alcohol). The local authority can revoke that licence if you breach one of the licensing objectives - one of which is the 'protection of children from harm'. The sale of alcohol to young people is one of the most common reasons why local authorities have revoked or suspended licences. Although this does not prevent you from continuing to trade in other goods (like groceries, newspapers, tobacco, etc.) the proportion of your trade that relates to alcohol is likely to be substantial and you may struggle to survive.
Q: The purchaser lied about their age - am I covered?
A: It is generally accepted that young people lie about how old they are in order to purchase restricted goods. You are required to take "reasonable precautions and exercise due diligence" to test their age. We recommend that if the purchaser looks under the age of 25, you ask them to provide acceptable identification to prove they are old enough to buy the product in question. This is a nationally recognised approach, known as "Challenge 25" and is endorsed by the Retail of Alcohol Standards Group, the Government and Trading Standards. Acceptable forms of ID are a UK photocard driving licence, a UK passport or a Proof-of-Age Card bearing the PASS Hologram - such as the CitizenCard or Young Scot card.
Q: Can I get round this law somehow?
A: Trading Standards Officers are generally very familiar with all sorts of attempts to evade this law. We recommend that you put in place the adequate procedures to prevent illegal sales rather than attempt to evade them.
Q: If I do put in place all of the best practice, am I safe from prosecution?
A: If the sale was made by a member of your staff rather than yourself, you should be. A Trading Standards Officer can only prosecute you if they can show, in some way, that you haven't taken adequate precautions or exercised diligence in following them. Undertaking one of our compliance audits can help you to demonstrate this. It may be that there is a dispute between you and your local Trading Standards over the 'reasonableness' of a precaution that they expect of you (although in practice this is quite rare). If there is a dispute, then only the courts can determine it following a prosecution. You should note that, if you personally made the sale, in addition to the generic conditions, you will also have to show that you took steps to verify the age of the purchaser (i.e. asked for ID).
Q: Why not risk it?
A: Often commercial decisions are a balance of risk factors. We would suggest that this one is not a risk worth taking. This is for a number of reasons. Firstly, enforcement is very active. Practically all Trading Standards Departments have under age sales as a high priority and regularly undertake test purchase operations. Secondly, the consequences of non compliance can be catastrophic for your business. Thirdly, the costs of compliance are not as high as you might think. There are many resources available for free and training your staff is very low cost. We can help with identifying exactly what you need.
Q: We have failed a test purchase, what should I do?
A: Don't panic. Although an investigation is an uncomfortable experience, we can help you to work through it. There are a few initial tips for you. Firstly, give us a call and chat through what has happened with one of our advisors - we won't charge you for that. Secondly, be prepared for a second visit. You are likely to receive a further test purchase attempt within days, probably within a couple of weeks but definitely within the next three months. Thirdly, keep all of your records (such as CCTV, refusals register, training records, etc.). You are permitted to update your records and gather them together, but whatever you do you must not falsify them. It is a separate offence to submit false records to Trading Standards Officers and you should be aware that they have methods for identifying if they are genuine or not. Finally, speak to your staff and tell them what has happened. Keep them vigilant.
Q: The police have told me that I must complete a training course, how do I do this?
A: The police have powers to issue you with a Penalty Notice, particularly for the under age sale of alcohol. In some police force areas, you may be given an education option, which means that if you attend an approved education course, the penalty notice will be cancelled. We provide approved education courses for police forces. In addition, the police may have asked you to undertake a more advanced course, called the Award for Personal Licence Holders, which we also provide. You are legally required to attend this course if you want to be a personal licence holder.
Q: Should I just sack the member of staff that made the sale and move on?
A: You should be careful with this and not act too hastily. Many retailers stipulate in their terms of employment for staff that the illegal sale of restricted goods to children and young people is an act of gross misconduct. In law, this gives you grounds to dismiss them summarily (without notice). However, you must act reasonably. This is a complex area and we can help you to undertake the necessary investigations. In general, you have to have undertaken a reasonable investigation (such as by commissioning us to undertake a disciplinary enquiry); then you have to be reasonably satisfied that the member of staff committed the act of gross misconduct (such as by having a meeting with them where the results of the disciplinary enquiry can be put to them and they have an opportunity to respond - you should also allow them to be accompanied at this meeting by a trade union rep or work colleague); finally, you make a decision that is reasonable in all of the circumstances. This is only a very brief summary of what you should do, contact us or speak to a specialist employment lawyer before acting.
Q: The test purchaser that Trading Standards used looked a lot older than 18?
A: This is a common complaint by retailers. Trading Standards are required to follow a Code of Practice (PDF 0.5MB) on the selection of test purchase volunteers. . It is not the intention of Trading Standards to try to 'trick' you into selling. They are trying to test if your systems and procedures are working properly - which is why we advocate the "Challenge 25" scheme.
Q: I have trained my staff in the past, but I have lost the records of training?
A: You need to try to keep training records in a safe place, but if you have lost them, do not try to falsify them. You are better explaining to the Trading Standards Officer what has happened. The critical factor that the officer is looking at is that the training took place, was adequate and was understood by your staff. The records of training only form part of this, the officer may, for instance talk to your staff to ascertain what they remember about the training.
Q: I don't like the refusals register, it is a waste of time?
A: Keeping a refusals register can help you to manage your business, but it is recognised that they are a burden, particularly in a busy shop. One way of addressing this is to keep your refusals register as a part of an electronic till prompt system - the more up-to-date versions of E-POS have this built in. Make sure that it is activated on your tills. The paper log should be kept by the till (we can provide you with one free-of-charge). You should regularly review the register (at least once a month). You are looking for any patterns that you need to speak to staff about, such as the same person coming in regularly or particular techniques attempted. In addition, you might want to look for any gaps, such as a member of staff who rarely makes entries in the book. There may be an innocent explanation for this, or it may be that member of staff requires additional training or support.
Q: I am frightened that if I refuse to sell alcohol to a group of youths, they will smash my shop up - is that a defence?
A: No, it will not stop you being prosecuted for under age sales. However, it is a serious problem, which we can help with. If your store has developed a 'reputation' for being somewhere that young people can get alcohol, etc. you will quickly find that you become a magnet for trouble. This can be tough to address, but we can help with specialist 'turnaround' support. By working closely with your local neighbourhood policing team and with extra training for your staff, we can help you to address this problem. In our experience, taking the decision to tackle this problem, whilst bold, delivers results very quickly and, in due course, increases your profitability.
Q: I have received threats from young people about refusing sales?
A: You need to tell your local neighbourhood policing team about these threats. You can call them by dialling 101. The perpetrator is probably already well known to them and they can often quickly deal with the matter.
Q: Can I refuse to sell something even though they say they are old enough and produce ID?
A: Yes. You are the master of your own store. In law, by placing an item on a shelf for sale (whatever it is - age restricted or not) you are making an invitation for a person to come into your store and offer to buy it from you. If they do offer to buy it from you, for instance by selecting it from the shelf and taking it to the till, you can ALWAYS refuse their offer - for whatever reason. You are not obliged to sell any of your goods to anyone entering your shop. This law is often used by retailers to refuse to sell goods that are not age restricted to young people out of a sense of moral decency. Examples include bleach, adult magazines and matches. In addition, retailers often refuse to sell items like eggs and flour to children around Halloween as they are often used to cause mischief. This is perfectly legally acceptable.
Q: I employ SIA licensed door supervisors to prevent under age drinkers in my bar, will that do?
A: It certainly helps, but you must remember that the 'age check' must be carried out at the point of sale (i.e. at the bar) not just on the doors. Your bar staff remain responsible for preventing under age sales, they cannot rely on the door staff.
Q: I only want my door staff to accept passports as a proof of age, is that acceptable?
A: Whilst it is a matter for you what you accept as proof of age, you should be aware that narrowing this to just passports is contrary to nationally accepted best practice and may be contrary to local police policies. The police encourage young people to leave valuable documents like passports at home, somewhere safe. Instead, they recommend that they obtain PASS accredited proof-of-age cards (which are much cheaper and less valuable than passports). Examples include the CitizenCard and Young Scot card. You should train your staff on recognising the PASS hologram and accepting these as proof of age. It undermines these valuable schemes if they are not accepted by door staff. If you want more information about this, please contact us.
Q: How do I test if my systems are working?
A: You should put in place procedures for checking whether or not your systems are working. In some industries, such as Gambling, this is a mandatory requirement. We can set up and manage mystery shopping or test purchasing services for you. This involves sending a young person (aged 18 or 19) to your store to attempt to purchase age restricted goods. If your systems and Challenge 21 or 25 policy are working, your staff should challenge the mystery shopper for ID. If they fail to do so, you will know that they need some more training or support to help improve your systems.
Q: I have loads more questions, but I can't find an answer here?
A: Just give us a call on 0345 257 0018 or contact us and we will do our best to answer them. If we can't answer them, we will do our best to point you in the direction of someone that can answer them.