Saturday 12 July 2014

Are you 18?

The only time I was ever asked whether I was 18 in a pub was in the week after my 18th birthday; I thought it was funny as I'd been going to pubs for a while, at least as far as my very limited finances allowed. I got served when I simply said 'yes': it's not so free and easy now.

A recent article in the Morning Advertiserthe weekly publication of the UK's pub trade, states that, "Pubs have fallen well behind the off-trade when it comes to staff carrying out age verification checks". In 2013 66% of pubs passed checking tests, down 4% on 2011 and 8% on 2010. The figure for supermarkets in 2013 was 85%. The leased and tenanted sector is apparently the worst, mainly because pub companies don't provide effective ongoing staff training.

Should we be shocked? I don't think so. These are not government checks, but are run by Serve Legal, a private company funded by various parts of the retail and hospitality industries. According to the Morning Advertiser, "To pass a test, Serve Legal’s team of visitors purchase an age-restricted item and records key information about the transaction, particularly whether ID was requested. All its visitors are young looking 18 or 19 year old people, who should be asked to provide ID to complete the transaction. If a visitor is required to provide official ID to complete the transaction then the site passes. If they purchase the items without showing ID then the site fails." 

Such failed tests do not mean that the law was broken, because the mystery shoppers were all of legal drinking age (unless you live in Scotland - more about that later). Besides, the age someone looks is a matter of opinion, not demonstrable fact.

The social consequences of extremely rigid application of the law have resulted in unintended consequences. As I wrote in February 2012, "Under age drinkers used to go into a pub and behave themselves because they knew that if they didn’t, they’d draw attention to themselves and get thrown out.  So now they get cheap supermarket booze and drink at each other’s homes or in the park, and it’s not ordinary beer:  it’s strong cider, lager or cheap vodka.  And in an unsupervised environment, they don’t learn how to behave when drinking.  The consequence is that binge drinking develops at an early age without social controls, resulting in bad behaviour.  So the rigid enforcement of a law to prevent under age drinking has probably had quite the opposite effect."

Licensees face a £5000 fine and put their licences at risk if they serve underage drinkers, so it is not surprising that the trade has come up with the Challenge 25 scheme which requires you to prove how old you are up to 7 years after you reach the legal minimum drinking age. As other bloggers have suggested, it's no wonder young people are less inclined to go to pubs. In Scotland, the arch-nanny state SNP government made Challenge 25 mandatory in the Alcohol etc. Scotland Act 2010.

We live in a country where you can get married, have children or join the armed forces at 16, drive at 17, fight and die for your country at 18, but you will be subjected to age checks, compulsorily so in Scotland, to have a pint until you are 25. It's a joke isn't it?

The laws relating to age in pubs aren't as straightforward as you may think, and can be a minefield for busy licensees - click here.


  1. Absolutely - classic example of unintended consequences. Although in fact young people are drinking a lot less overall - it's not simply a case of shifting consumption from on- to off-trade.

  2. That's true. I might write another post speculating as to the reasons why that is.

  3. Until my son got his provisional driving licence, he was carrying his passport around with him as proof of age. As a blogging friend pointed out, a passport's something you use for getting into a foreign country...


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