In a statement to members on 28 January, the NOffLA chairman questioned the independence of the RRAI (Responsible Retailing of Alcohol in Ireland), explaining that he was “not surprised by the conclusions of the so called ‘independent’ chairperson of the RRAI.
“With all due respect to Mr White, he has been chosen by Retail Ireland and is in the payment of the same body so we should not be surprised that he feels that 32 non-compliant shops out of 333 stores (10%) over a period of nine months represents a ‘highly satisfactory and impressive’ result for the voluntary code of practice. Indeed Dunnes Stores only signed up in September of last year, when the report was due to be completed and only yesterday there was a double aisle of wines with a gondola end in Dunnes, Cornelscourt sitting in the middle of the non-alcohol products.
“I would have thought that this shop, with a distinct separate off-licence located away from the supermarket, would have found it easy to stay within the rules but no, why would they care when all they will get will be a light rub on the knuckles from Mr White rather than a closure order?”
The report itself includes some anomalies, including the contention by the RRAI chairman that the voluntary code has achieved “the overall compliance rate of 90%,” when the audit merely demonstrated that 90% of the outlets sampled complied with the code.
The audit carried out for the purpose of the annual report did not measure the rate of compliance, but counted the number of outlets, amongst the sample chosen, who did not comply with the code. There was no attempt made to demonstrate the extent to which the remaining 10% of outlets failed to meet the requirements of the code.
A further anomaly exists in the timing of the report and its publication. The compliance report is dated September 2009, but lists Dunne’s Stores, with 91 off-licences, as having “formally signed up to the code and its implementation” in that very month, the same month in which the Gala Group (206 off-licences) and the Costcutter group (226 off-licences) “applied for and were accepted as members of the RRAI.”
Clearly, the RRAI didn’t want to fall foul of the Minister by submitting a report which didn’t include one of the largest retail groups in the country. Given the sudden popularity of the code of practice in September 2009, one must assume that the audit figures underlying the compliance report do not include any of these 523 outlets, some 23% of the membership of the RRAI prior to September 2009.
Although the report is supposed to be an independent report on the compliance of RRAI members to the voluntary code of practice, the document reads far more like a lobbying document, including as it does, “Observations on Related Matters,” principally comprising several requests to the Minister for Justice for legislative and/or regulatory action.
One of these calls to the Minister has met with a strong reaction from the NOffLA chairman, who commented: “NOffLA takes exception to the recommendation in the report that stand alone off-licences should have their own code of practice. (Firstly, we already have one and secondly NOffLA has a very strict code of conduct for their members). Under his terms of reference, Mr White has no right to get involved here but as the multiples want it every way he is happy to be their puppet.
“Alcohol is an official drug and the sale of same should be entrusted only to those who take this seriously. All our members have signed up to a stringent training programme (RTC), are subject to spot checks, and take the selling of alcohol very seriously indeed.
“The responsible local independent off-licence is an important part of the community, knows its customers, and therefore can make the correct decisions when it comes to the sale of alcohol. The multiples, on the other hand, do not care as long as they stay within the law. They would soon be shot of us. The Minister for Justice should not allow himself to be hoodwinked again by the power of the multiples as he was when he gave in to a voluntary code of practice for mixed traders in July 2008.”
The NOffLA chairman expressed his frustration, and that of his members, in the contrast between the role and operation of independent off-licences and large-scale general retailers in the way in which each sells alcohol.
“The supermarkets are marketing alcohol irresponsibly when they blatantly use cut-price alcohol to increase footfall into their shops, and promote binge drinking by offering multi-deals. The Minister has said that if the voluntary code of practice is not working he would sign in Sections 9 and 15 of the 2008 Intoxicating Liquor Bill. NOffLA members, who are responsible retailers and who already operate within very strict guidelines have nothing to fear from legislation.”
The special nature of alcohol as a product is recognised by the RRAI, whose report admits that, “the basic principle underpinning this code of practice is that alcohol is not an ordinary household product despite being sold in many supermarkets, convenience stores and petrol stations.” The necessity for a genuine, and fully complied, code of practice, albeit as a poor alternative to legislation, is underlined when one considers that, as NOffLA chairman Jim McCabe puts it, “alcohol is a drug and must be treated as such.”