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Last week, the UK government published a consultation document which many believe to be the prelude to tighter legislation on alcoholic drinks. In this month's Just the Answer interview, Jeremy Beadles, chief executive of the UK's Wine and Spirit Trade Association (WSTA), takes the opportunity to put the industry's case for the retention of self-regulatory control, and suggests the Government is basing its position on flawed analysis.

just-drinks: The Department of Health's consultation on drinks regulation was published last week. Can we assume you have been rather busy over the past seven days?

Beadles: Yes, we have, definitely. As well as the launch of a consultation here in London - following the issuing of three Government reports, one on labelling, one on [self-regulatory] standards and one on price, we also have a big consultation going on about the future of alcohol consumption up in Scotland.

j-d: Looking at the consultation launched last week in London, what's your reaction to the threat of mandatory legislation?

Beadles: I think the reports that it is based on are very flawed. The labelling report, in particular, has very serious flaws in the methodology they've used to undertake it. The KPMG report, unfortunately, was a bit predictable. It's very easy in any walk of life to look for the worst performing people and judge everyone on that basis.

In terms of moving towards mandatory codes, I think one thing the industry has done is to develop voluntary codes and best practice. But there has to be a recognition that, if Government wants everyone to comply with best practice, then the likelihood is that they're going to have to regulate it because there are lots of companies who sit beyond trade associations or beyond any contact with anyone apart from the licensing officer. If they want to get into that element, then they're probably going to have to produce more legislation.

Our view is that the Licensing Act gives the police more than enough powers to take action against these people, but they're not being used at the moment. So we suggest that, before they actually start introducing more laws, they just look at enforcing the ones they've already got.

In the KPMG report, they talk quite a lot about under-age sales, proxy purchasing and selling to people who are already drunk. Well, there are laws for all three of those, so the people who are doing that aren't breaching industry code of practice, they're just breaking the law.

I think there's a belief in this country that we have a problem with alcohol and, therefore, the industry should provide all of the solution. Well, actually, other partners have got a role to play, not least the police, local authorities, doctors.

j-d: But the spotlight is squarely on the drinks industry right now.

Beadles: I agree, and I think that's both unfortunate and unfair. Other people have a role to play. If you look at how many prosecutions the police have pursued for drunk and disorderly, or selling to people under-age or proxy purchasing, they're just ridiculously low.

Jeremy Beadles - WSTA Chief Executive

With the problems they describe, the prosecution levels should be going up not coming down. Last year, only six people were prosecuted for trying to buy alcohol when under-age. We know that, on average, the on- and the off-trade turn down about one-and-a-half million attempted purchases a month. If we're sending down a million-and-a-half, and they're prosecuting six, there's a massive disparity in the kind of action they're taking.

j-d: Is it fair to say that the pressure is greater now than ever before?

Beadles: I think that's very much the case. I think the medical and NGO organisations have turned their spotlights on to the alcohol industry, having succeeded in getting the smoking ban through. There's very much a concentration that alcohol is next. They are very professional and able organisations who are able to develop news stories that fly. Within Government, there are lots of statistics that show things are improving and there are some statistics that show things are getting worse. It's interesting that those that show things getting worse are the ones that are being pushed out there and get the coverage.

j-d: Is the industry working together enough to provide a united front against the charges?

Beadles: I think we're working very hard, but there are quite big differences of opinion from one side of the industry to the other about what the problems and subsequent solutions are. I think people mix commercial issues with social responsibility issues. We are our own greatest critic, because there is always another part of the industry that's prepared to have a crack. That always gives Government a get-out clause. There are large chunks of the industry that are working very hard. But, until the industry starts speaking with one point of view, then there will always be opportunities for Government to divide.

I think the more we do together with one voice, the better it is for the industry, without doubt. There's a need to look at the broader areas we're fighting on, so we can decide which fights are the ones we want to have.

j-d: Is time not running out, though? This must be the starkest of warnings from the Government.

Beadles: It is, without a doubt. We're also facing a difficult economic climate, with falling consumer spend, rising costs within the industry and large tax increases. So, it's also a difficult commercial time for companies. That means businesses focus very much on the day-to-day, whereas some of the threats we're facing are external to their companies.

We've prepared what we consider to be a pretty complete risk analysis for the industry. We're looking with our membership to agree what our position is on all of these things so we can put a concerted voice back to Government.

j-d: Has self-regulation within the industry been successful, or is it a losing battle from now until the autumn?

Beadles: Bits of it have worked brilliantly. 'Challenge 21' is all self-regulation, and that's worked without any intervention from the Government - the take-up has been, we think, around 95%. Even if it was legislation, I'm not sure you'd get 100% compliance.

But it's also about how much regulation do you want to impose on an industry.

j-d: So, how do you see things panning out going forward?

Beadles: I think the likelihood is that, if they want to introduce codes, we'll have conversations with them about whether they're voluntary or mandatory. It will depend a lot on whether they want to put anything in about the banishment of promotions. If they do, we're fairly clear that, legally, we couldn't sign up on a voluntary basis, because of the Competition Act. If they want to regulate promotions in that kind of way, then we may say that they have to legislate on it.

The economic and political climate will be important for us. Anything that will put the price up for consumers is going to be a pretty hard political sell. But I think we've got some really big fights on our hands.

j-d: What advice would you give, then, to drinks companies operating in the UK?

Beadles: Be whiter than white. If there's any doubt about the kind of product you're developing or promotion you're running, then don't do it - keep on the really good side, because the worst examples are used against us for many years to come.

Also, from our perspective, get involved and support the work we're doing and help us. The consumer is onside on a lot of these issues. Consumers on the whole don't want to pay more for their products; they don't think that some of the solutions proposed by Government will solve any problems, they'll just add to their burdens, really.

We should also encourage our businesses to talk about the good things they're doing. There are dozens of initiatives going on that most people haven't heard about.

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