Lack of convictions throws underage drinking campaign into chaos
SCOTLAND'S commitment to keep alcohol away from children was questioned yesterday after it emerged just 47 licensees were last year convicted of selling to under-18s.
New Government figures showed that nearly half of all prosecutions brought for the offence failed in 2007-8, despite a high-profile political drive to stamp out underage drinking.
The judiciary was accused of "making a mockery" of efforts to close down rogue sellers after it was revealed six out of nine court actions against licensees in the capital had failed.
The level of convictions comes despite nearly 600 underage selling offences being recorded in the year across Scotland.
The new figures were revealed after they were requested by Richard Baker MSP, Labour's justice spokesman and a fierce critic of the SNP Government's proposals to raise the age at which youngsters can buy alcohol from off-licences to 21.
Baker said: "The SNP has focused on banning 20-year-olds from off-licences when it should have been making sure that the existing laws are properly enforced.
"The gap between the number of offences and the number of prosecutions is a real cause for concern."
Scottish police forces reported a total of 576 underage selling offences in 2007-8, down from more than 800 a year before, mostly because of the end of a major test-purchasing pilot in Fife when 16-year-old "spy kids" were recruited to try to buy alcohol in bars, clubs and, most frequently, licensed grocers. Convictions were up slightly on the year, from 34 in 2006-7.
Scottish Government officials stressed that the number of reported offences and the number of prosecutions were not directly comparable, not least because of the lag between the police reporting incidents and the cases coming to court.
Some politicians, however, are deeply unhappy with the failure to secure convictions. Edinburgh councillor Alastair Paisley, who sits on the city's licensing board, said: "It makes a mockery of the licensing board's decisions and undermines our role."
Most publicans and licensed grocers admit they are more worried by moves by licensing boards to suspend or revoke their licences than by the threat of convictions.
Last week, however, a sheriff overturned the decision by Fife's licensing board to suspend an off-licence in what was seen as a significant blow to efforts to curb underage drinking.
The Scottish Government began rolling out a nationwide test-purchasing scheme last year, which is only partly reflected in the official 2007-8 figures. Enforcers, despite the low conviction rate from last year, remain upbeat about the successes of their "spy kids".
Licensees are now increasingly wary too. "I know of at least one guy who is too worried to take a holiday," said Paul Waterson, chief executive of the Scottish Licensed Trade Association. "He is frightened one of his staff – perhaps somebody inexperienced – will sell to a kid and he'll lose his licence."
Police forces in Scotland now routinely report licensees to their respective board if they fail two consecutive test purchases. There were only eight prosecutions in Aberdeen and five in Glasgow in 2007-8. Exactly half failed in each city. There were no prosecutions, successful or otherwise, in Dundee.
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