Is the law always the law or should frontline staff be free to use discretion in its application?

Last night I went out on a ‘test purchase’ Operation, where two youngsters, both under 16, attempted to buy alcohol from off licences, restaurants and bars. I enjoyed being out and about with those people trying to make things safer for other young people – the two cadets, officers from trading standards, some uniformed Police, and volunteer ‘specials’ reponsible for cadets safety.

Out of 15 tests, 5 venues in a Lambeth town centre sold booze to the youngsters which was quite astounding. Many venues had good door staff who immediately queried ages at the door, others were asked I.D. at the bar, but off licences, a popular cinema and a tapas restaurant all failed which made it even more interesting, because they didn’t necessarily fit my expectations of the stereotype irresponsible back street shop or anonymous vertical drinking establishment.

NB: if you are a club or a pub owner get some door staff and make sure they are paying attention to the door, not to the tennis on TV or to the scantily clad women smoking outside.

Three Strikes and You’re Out

You would have thought that selling alcohol or cigarettes is just one of those cut and dry things. You do it and you are done for. In Lambeth we operate a three strikes and you’re out policy (i.e. get caught three times and you get shut down)

Before last night I was set on making it one strike. Now I’m not so sure.

Working directly with front line officers you get a practical perspective on how things actually work and how a similar case on paper can be wildly different in reality. That there is nuance in how real life works, and that the experience of front line staff is vital in determining those who have no intention of paying regard to the rules to those who are good businesses but where there is a small lapse.

You cannot mitigate or risk manage everything, but should the safety of children be of such importance that a breech is a breech. Would it be disproportionate for a responsible business to go under because a manager supervising a new staff member was distracted for 10 minutes?

We should absolutely be coming down like a tonne of bricks on a venue or premises which flouts the law or demonstrates little or no attempt to abide by the rules and more importantly what the intention of the rules are but is there a halfway house which allows discretion to well trained and experienced front line staff to make those judgements?

It’s very difficult to publicly argue that the law is not always the law, but isn’t that the way the world works and if we do not accept that, are we at risk of using a legislative sledgehammer to crack a nut?


Author: jackhopkins

Labour Councillor for Oval ward in London Borough of Lambeth, and Cabinet Member for Jobs and Growth covering economic development, regeneration, planning and entrepreneurship. (formerly Community Safety) Interested in partnerships, training and development, social mobility and Arsenal.

5 thoughts on “Is the law always the law or should frontline staff be free to use discretion in its application?”

  1. I think that offering a second chance gives the opportunity to educate and train the staff and responsible outlets will take a warning very seriously. Anywhere you close down on the ‘one strike’ option will simply be replaced by another, so it’s far better to build a positive relationship with the responsible community and get them on your side. It’s a more long-term, but I would argue, it’s also a more cost effective and sustainable approach to tackling underage drinking.

  2. I know in Merton that if they’re caught selling alcohol to underage children then they’re hauled before the Licensing Committee. In some instances we have even issued a suspension of license for a first- time offence. Good approach.

  3. Would we be so keen on stopping kids drinking if they could vote? I think we should allow them to be able to drink, and purchase, alcohol in pubs like adults.

  4. Good peice. At the end of the day we need retail outlets to be proud they work within sensible rules that protect young prople from abuse and themselves as responsble sellers of alcohol or cigarettes. It is about having clear rules, good training for staff and communication in the off-license outlet (so when customers challenge them they can point to signage) and clear consequences if outlets are ‘caught out’. Maybe the ‘three strikes and you’re out policy’ is the best defence to ovrreacting?

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