Independent retailers could unknowingly be breaking competition law on alcohol, risking fines and possible imprisonment.
MPs called for more transparency of information about the risks to retailers at an All Party Parliamentary Beer Group (APPBG) meeting last week. It found the methods used by local authorities to convince retailers to sign up to their Reduce the Strength scheme, which requires stores to stop selling super-strength beer and cider, could result in both the retailer and the authority breaching EU law on competition.
Andrew Griffiths MP, chairman of the APPBG, said many independent retailers could not easily access legal advice, so were unaware of the risks when they signed up to the alcohol scheme.
“Small retailers do not know their rights and the law,” he said. “We aren’t opposed to the schemes if they are done voluntarily, but there are serious concerns about if they are currently fair.”
The APPBG meeting heard of local authorities telling retailers not to worry about lost sales because nearby licence holders would also withdraw super-strength beers. Competition lawyer Martin Rees said this practice broke the law, and put store owners at risk.
“If the local authority gives another store’s business strategy away to convince a retailer to sign up to the scheme, as soon as the retailer agrees, there is a breach of competition law as the retailer is relying on that information,” he said. “The retailer needs to say they aren’t going near the scheme.”
Griffiths called on the Competition and Markets Authority to provide more assistance to independent retailers. He said: “What is troubling about this is that it concerns thousands of small retailers who have no access to information.”