"Damned if we do, damned if we don't," The shopworkers experience of policing age-restricted sales

Date: 02 November 2010 Usdaw has released survey results today that reveal over 75% of shopworkers have experienced problems asking for proof of age ID from customers.

Most shopworkers are worried about facing criminal prosecution or disciplinary action from their employer if they get a decision about a sale wrong.

The survey shows that a shocking 65% of shopworkers have been subjected to verbal abuse as a result of asking for ID, while over 16% have been threatened with violence and more than 2% have actually been physically assaulted. Over 70% of shopworkers say they are worried about facing criminal prosecution if they get a decision wrong with over 60% worried about being disciplined by their employer.

The figures follow the results of Usdaw's annual survey of abuse, threats and violence against shopworkers that revealed that over a million shopworkers have been assaulted, threatened or abused in the last year. Previous Usdaw surveys have shown that around 43% of all incidents of abuse resulted from shopworkers asking customers for proof of age ID or refusing a sale of an age-restricted product.

Most responsible retailers now operate a 'Think 25' policy on age-restricted sales which means shopworkers are instructed to ask for proof of age ID from any customer the shopworker thinks might be under 25. Many retailers previously had a 'Think 21' policy and the change to 'Think 25' has greatly increased the potential number of customers who are now routinely asked for ID. As a consequence, the number of potential flashpoints for abuse, threats and violence has also increased.

John Hannett, Usdaw General Secretary said:

"These figures are a matter of grave concern and show that age restricted sales are real minefield for our members to negotiate. If they make a mistake and sell alcohol to a customer under-18 they risk being prosecuted and receiving a £80 on-the-spot fine for a first offence with repeated breaches incurring a court appearance and a fine of up to £5,000. If they fail to ask for age identification from somebody under-25, they run the risk of being disciplined for not following company policy."

"On the other hand, asking for age identification often leads to abuse from frustrated and angry customers and a refusal of a sale can be a real flashpoint for threats or even violence. As one anonymous member said in the survey, "we're damned if we ask for ID, damned if we don't."

"We think a better understanding of the 'Think 25' policy and why it exists could lessen the impact on our members, which is why we are campaigning to raise awareness of the policy. We are asking shoppers to show respect and understand that shopworkers asking for ID are only doing their job and protecting themselves from possible criminal prosecution or disciplinary action from their employer."

"Usdaw wants the Government to launch an awareness campaign about age-restricted sales and we'd also like them to introduce a single and voluntary national entitlement card for young people that would show proof of age. This would make it much easier for workers to check a person's age when needed."

"We'd also like to see a change in the law to make it an offence for an underage person to attempt to buy any age-restricted product, not just alcohol, or for an adult to proxy purchase any age-restricted product. The law definitely needs to be rebalanced so that those attempting to break the law are the focus rather than the shopworkers who are currently expected to police the law."

Usdaw members will be out campaigning against abuse, threats and violence against shopworkers at events taking place throughout the country during Usdaw's Respect for Shopworkers week which starts on Monday 8 November. Activists will be handing out scratch cards to customers designed to illustrate how difficult it can be to guess someone's age.

Notes for Editors:

  1. The survey results quoted above are derived from 1,286 responses received from Usdaw members and other shopworkers.
  2. Shopworkers need to know the age-restrictions that apply to a wide range of products and are even required to make judgements about the purpose or for whom some products are being purchased. The table below shows the minimum purchase age and maximum penalty for a range of popular age-restricted products:

    Product

    Minimum Age of Purchase

    Maximum Penalty

    Alcohol

    18

    £5,000 and forfeit of licence

    Cigarettes and tobacco

    18

    £2,500

    Fireworks

    18

    £5,000 and up to 6 months imprisonment

    Solvents (if not for intended use)*

    18

    £5,000 and up to 6 months imprisonment

    Butane gas lighter refills

    18

    £5,000 and up to 6 months imprisonment

    Knives, blades and similar items

    18

    £5,000 and up to 6 months imprisonment

    Air guns and pellets

    17

    £5,000 and up to 6 months imprisonment

    Lottery tickets and scratch cards

    16

    £5,000 and up to 6 months imprisonment

    Petrol

    16

    £5,000 and up to 6 months imprisonment

    Party poppers and caps

    16

    £5,000 and up to 6 months imprisonment

    Aerosol paints

    16

    £2,500

    Liqueur chocolates

    16

    £5,000 and forfeit of licence

    Videos, cinema and computer games

    12, 15 and 18

    £5,000 and up to 6 months imprisonment


    *It is legal to sell solvents to under-18's if you believe they will be used for their intended purpose. But it is illegal if you have reason to believe they may be used for inhaling.
  3. Shopworkers face an £80 Fixed Penalty Notice (on-the-spot fine) for a first offence of selling alcohol to someone under-age with a court appearance and/or fine of up to £1,000 for subsequent offences. Most fines are in the region of £500. 

  4. To avoid prosecution for selling an age-restricted product to someone under age, a shopworker has to 'take all reasonable steps' to avoid serving underage customers. If they are in any doubt, shopworkers must ask the age of the purchaser and if they remain even slightly unsure they must ask for proof of age ID. If there is no valid ID, the sale should be refused. If a shopworker is charged with making an under-age sale, but can prove that they took the reasonable steps above, they will escape prosecution. Relying on how old someone 'looks' is never a sufficient defence.

  5. It is an offence for someone under 18 to buy or attempt to buy alcohol and the penalty is a £50 on-the-spot fine. That is £30 less than a shopworker would be fined for inadvertently allowing the sale.

  6. Buying alcohol for someone under the age of 18 (a proxy purchase) is also illegal and the maximum penalty is a £5,000 fine and up to 6 months imprisonment.

  7. In response to increased public concern about alcohol fuelled disorder and anti-social behaviour, particularly that caused by young people, there has been an increase in both the sanctions and enforcement activity aimed at preventing sales of alcohol and other age restricted products to under-age people. In response, most responsible retailers have further tightened their policies and procedures to ensure their staff do not sell age-restricted products to under-age customers, the result being the 'Think 25' policy. Staff are instructed to ask for proof of age ID from any customer they think might be under 25 attempting to purchase an age-restricted product. Most retailers use specialist test purchasing companies to ensure the policy is being implemented and any staff who fail a test purchase could be subject to disciplinary action including possible dismissal.

  8. Local Authority Trading Standards departments in liaison with local Police also run test purchasing programmes to ensure retailers and shopworkers are complying with the law.

  9. Preliminary results from Usdaw's annual survey of abuse, threats and violence against shopworkers showed that in the past 12 months, 6% of shopworkers were subjected to violent attack, 37% were threatened with harm and a massive 70% had suffered verbal abuse. While reported incidents of assault were slightly down, incidents of threats and abuse have increased since last year.

  10. Usdaw's Freedom from Fear Campaign seeks to prevent violence, threats and abuse against shopworkers. It has four main aims:
    - to negotiate with employers for safety and security improvements in stores.
    - to campaign with Government for policies to help tackle retail crime and anti-social behaviour in shopping areas.
    - to raise awareness with the shopping public that violence, threats and abuse against shopworkers is unacceptable behaviour.
    - to give shopworkers the confidence to speak out and not accept abuse as just a part of the job.

  11. Usdaw (the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers) is the UK's fourth biggest trade union, with over 390,000 members. Usdaw is the country's fastest growing trade union; membership has increased by more than 15% in the last four years and by over a quarter in the last decade. Most Usdaw members work in the retail sector, but the union also has many members in transport, distribution, food manufacturing, chemicals and other trades.

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