Time is running out for response on age restricted products
A draft code that is simply not specific or practical enough to be helpful in real life may leave retailers in an uncertain and vulnerable position if they do not respond before the consultation on age restricted products ends. By Gavin Matthews, head of retail at Bond Pearce.
The consultation on a new code of practice on regulatory enforcement prepared by the BRDO (Better Regulation Delivery Office) closes on 28 September. Any businesses selling age-restricted products, from alcohol, tobacco and gambling to video games and kitchen knives are encouraged to respond to the consultation which covers several areas including anonymous test purchases.
The ideas behind the proposals in the draft code look well intended, aiming to avoid a blanket or arbitrary approach and focusing on educating rather punishing. However, the practicalities of actually implementing them are not clear and they do not go far enough to help businesses avoid falling foul of regulation.
For example, the Code proposes that local authorities coordinate their enforcement activities with the relevant regulators, as well as publish their enforcement policy and make it readily available to businesses. This approach is sensible and should be welcome by businesses.
However, there is often a lack of joined up approach where multiple agencies are involved, unless a policy governs how those agencies are to coordinate their work. Such policies exist, for example, between the fire service and local authorities or the police and the Health and Safety Executive. Unless a policy is drafted for inclusion with the Code, we do not expect to see real change in regulating age restricted products in a co-ordinated manner across the regulatory bodies.
Most importantly, the Code completely fails to address the critical and tricky issue of age verification during an on-line transaction, an area of great difficulty facing more and more retailers. We have recent experience of local authorities conducting test purchases on-line and threatening enforcement action for under age sales, despite the targeted business having some measures in place to verify age before sale. But what measures are required to avoid breaching the law? In our experience even local authorities cannot answer this question with confidence. To date there remains no authoritative guidance as to what on-line measures are sufficient to avoid committing an offence. There has yet to be a case before the higher courts requiring judicial guidance in this area.
The consultation on the draft code is available at www.bis.gov.uk/brdo/publications/current-consultations and views are requested by Friday 28 September 2012. Businesses are urged to lobby for the introduction of more specific proposals and guidance in age verification for on-line transactions, without which the government's aim of consistent and transparent regulation across the board will remain unattainable, to the great cost of businesses already facing an uncertain future.
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