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Doorsteps – the weakest link in AV

June 10, 2022

On a recent day out with my 11 year-old godson, both his father and I were surprised when he contributed to a conversation we were having about the risks of delivery services letting children get hold of age-restricted goods.  “It’s easy,” he announced. “You can just ask them to leave it in a secure place, and you can even tell them not to ring the doorbell so your parents don’t know about it.”  He went on to assure us that this was not something he’d done personally, but that he’d learnt the technique from older boys at his school.

That children wiil always find the weakest link in the defences against them getting up to no good will come as no surprise to any parent.  But for someone as young as 11 to be trained in these relatively sophisticated methods of defeating age checks may suggest this is a well-known trick.  It may not work with all services, but if it works with any of them, you can be sure the kids will find it.

We already know from data reported by a leading compliance testing firm, Serve Legal, that over the course of 50,000 checks they conducted in 2021, there was a pass rate of 74% for all home delivery audits, which falls to 47% for rapid delivery operators in the same period. The method of these checks – a test purchase by someone who is 18 or 19 that wouldn’t request an unattended delivery, should therefore under Challenge 25 procedures be asked for ID at the doorstep.

Of course, an average will not reflect the fact that some delivery services may be significantly more diligent than others. Leading “ultra-fast delivery services” who care about their reputation (and investors) and have the resources to do so, may spend more in training, technology and audits to drive up compliance.  But it is clear from the low average that standards are not universally at an acceptable level.

Why is this?  One reason may be that often the licensee (in the case of alcohol) can be several steps removed from the person delivering the goods.  There may be a separate delivery service, and in turn that service may use self-employed staff, operating in what is known as the “gig economy”.  This is in contract to the person named on the licence standing behind the same counter as their employees, each of which is listed as a “Responsible Person”, and working in the knowledge that getting it wrong risks their licence or a steep fine.

The unsupervised nature of deliveries also adds to the risk.  It is often said that staff do what management inspects, not what it expects.  But worse, there can be incentives put in place not to check age rigorously: it may, for example, require the delivery agent to make a further trip to the store to return the goods, or they may not even be paid for a non-completed delivery attempt.

This is why the Expert Panel on Age Verification, run by the UK government’s Office for Product Safety and Standards, has commissioned best practice guidance to help the many new fast-delivery services improve their levels of compliance.  The focus of the advice is on how to improve procedures at the doorstep, but notes that the legislation for most age-restricted goods refers to the prevention of underage sales, rather than just deliveries.  This suggests that online age verification before a contract to purchase the goods is created is required; and based on the figures from Serve Legal above, it is also pragmatically more likely to be effective in ensuring that an adult has been involved in the purchase.

Indeed, Home Office statutory guidance from 2018 implies the need for online age checks before a sale is made:

10.50 Licence holders should consider carefully what steps they are required to take to comply with the age verification requirements under the 2003 Act in relation to sales of alcohol made remotely. These include sales made online, by telephone and mail order sales, and alcohol delivery services. Each of these sales must comply with the requirements of the 2003 Act. The mandatory condition requires that age verification takes place before a person is served alcohol. Where alcohol is sold remotely (for example, online) or through a telephone transaction, the sale is made at this point but the alcohol is not actually served until it is delivered to the customer. Age verification measures (for example, online age verification) should be used to ensure that alcohol is not sold to any person under the age of 18. However, licence holders should also consider carefully what steps are appropriate to ensure that age verification takes place before the alcohol is served (i.e. physically delivered) to the customer to be satisfied that the customer is aged 18 or over. It is, therefore, the responsibility of the person serving or delivering the alcohol to ensure that age verification has taken place and that photo ID has been checked if the person appears to be less than 18 years of age.  [Source]

It is, ultimately, a judgement that each licensee that supplies goods for delivery will have to reach, with appropriate legal advice, as to how it interprets the law, and ensures it has a strong due diligence defence if a minor is able to purchase alcohol or other age-restricted goods – not to mention a good PR department if the result of such a sale is harmful to children.

The best practice guidance should help both local enforcement authorities and this growing industry to create a level-playing field, with consistency of expectations across the country and we are pleased to be contributing to this effort, with the active engagement of this growing, and ultimately highly convenient, sector.