Test-purchasing scheme heavily criticised

A controversy has surrounded the the Minister for Justice and Law Reform Mr Dermot Ahern TD’s launch of the Test Purchasing of Alcohol Scheme.

A controversy has surrounded the the Minister for Justice and Law Reform Mr Dermot Ahern TD’s launch of the Test Purchasing of Alcohol Scheme. The Scheme landed into a storm of criticism recently when he introduced it as a means to detect underage sales by alcohol retailers along with published Guidelines to be followed in its implementation.
The Scheme permits Gardaí to send a person who is 15, 16 or 17 years old into a licensed premises for the purposes of purchasing alcohol. If a sale takes place, the premises concerned will be prosecuted.
"The Test Purchasing Scheme is intended to protect young people from the all-too-prevalent reality of alcohol-related harm,” stated the Minister at the launch, “With the commencement of the Test Purchasing Scheme the Garda Síochána will have an additional instrument in their overall enforcement programme to combat the sale of alcohol to minors".
However even the Gardai have since expressed serious concerns about the Scheme as they believe that the children will be required to testify in court in the event of a prosecution going ahead.
One senior officer has stated, “This Scheme was not properly devised and could turn out to be unworkable. It wasn’t thought through insofar as one wonders if there are any parents out there willing to allow their children to be used as agents by the police.
“What parent would allow their child to do that if the consequences of participation were explained to them?”
Under existing laws a licensee convicted before the courts for the sale and supply of alcohol to an underage person can have a Closure Order imposed on his or her premises for between two and seven days and/or a fine of up to €3,000 for a first offence.
Second and subsequent convictions can lead to closure orders of up to 30 days and fines of €5,000.
The Guidelines – which were drawn up by a working group comprising representatives of the gardai, the Minister for Children, the Office of Tobacco Control and the Departments of Health and Justice – outline the steps to be followed during all stages of test purchasing operations and the manner in which the welfare of the young person must be protected. They incorporate the protection standards set out under the Child First Guidelines and claim to ensure the protection of the test purchaser at all stages of the operation. Parental or guardian consent is required for the participation of all test purchasers. Training is provided for test purchasers and the operation is to be cancelled if their safety is compromised in any way.
During the drafting of the Scheme, Garda representatives visited Liverpool to observe test purchasing on the ground and to examine the training given to the minors involved in this test purchasing.
The Guidelines require the Garda Síochána to carry out a risk-assessment preparatory to and during all test purchasing operations.
The Minister concluded, "I want to stress that the objective of the Scheme is to ascertain whether a licensee is complying with the law, not to trap an unwary licensee into committing an offence. The test purchaser must answer all questions about their age truthfully".
Fine Gael, too, criticised the development with FG’s Justice Spokesman Alan Shatter stating that he’d “grave reservations” about the plan.
Describing the initiative as both “bizarre” and “ill-conceived” he believed that it simply attempted to entrap people involved in the sale of alcohol.
“Whilst the guidelines for this harebrained Scheme purport to recognise that ‘the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration’ they substantially ignore the stress and dangers that could be caused to a young person used as a ‘test purchaser’ of alcohol,” he stated.
Participating in the Minister’s Test Purchasing Scheme posed a risk that a young person, known to have assisted in the Scheme, could be targeted by young hooligans and be a victim of assault and injury, he said.
However trade groups such as the VFI and NOffLA have welcomed the development.
“We welcome the introduction of this scheme by the Garda Siochana as such a scheme has been a central part of NOffLA Responsible Trading in the Community (RTC) programme for several years and our membership is dependent on member outlets being RTC accredited,” stated a NOffLA spokesperson.
The move was also welcomed by the VFI’s Chief Executive Padraig Cribben who stated that any scheme that seeks to protect young people from alcohol-related harm has to be lauded by all those involved in the sale of alcohol.
“Indeed it is our strongly-held view that this Scheme could have gone much further and that the Minister should now use this Scheme and the upcoming Sale of Alcohol Bill to introduce a mandatory Garda ID age-card for all those over the age of 18,” he stated.
“The Minister also wants to consider a parallel scheme for the distance selling of alcohol and again we feel that this does not go far enough and that the only way of protecting young people in this instance is to ban the distance selling of alcohol.  
“We believe that in order for the Scheme to be effective and for the Minister’s desired results to be achieved, the age-card issue and the distance selling of alcohol issue must be addressed as a matter of urgency.
 “Overall” he concluded, “while we welcome the Scheme we would however ask an Garda Síochána to implement the Scheme in an even manner. 55 to 60 per cent of all alcohol is sold in the off-trade and we would expect that this be reflected in the administration of the Scheme.”

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