Shopkeeper hits back after licensing board’s under-age drink sales reprimand

George MacDonald, owner of 'Premier' shop in Rosetta Road in Peebles feels he is being wrongly accused of selling alcohol to under agers as one of his employees was caught out.
George MacDonald, owner of 'Premier' shop in Rosetta Road in Peebles feels he is being wrongly accused of selling alcohol to under agers as one of his employees was caught out.

A BORDERS businessman is to write to local MP and Tory justice spokesman John Lamont MSP after receiving a reprimand from the local licensing board.

George McDonald, who runs three licensed Premier convenience stores in Peebles, Innerleithen and Hawick, wants Mr Lamont to press for a change in the legislation covering the sale of alcohol.

He claims it was wrong for police to ask the board to review his premises licence after an incident in April when a female member of staff at the Peebles outlet, in Wemyss Place, fell foul of a test-purchase sting operation and sold a bottle of Smirnoff Ice to two 16-year-old “customers” while being observed by two plain clothes police officers.

The woman was originally charged with supplying alcohol to minors, but charges were dropped by the procurator-fiscal.

Despite sacking the employee on the spot, Mr McDonald, 41, was summoned to Friday’s meeting of Scottish Borders Licensing Board.

A report by Assistant Chief Constable Iain Livingstone stated that, although the woman had received mandatory training from her employers in relation to the sale of alcohol, she had processed the sale without challenging the youths about their age or requesting any proof of identification.

Requesting a review of Mr McDonald’s licence, ACC Livingstone wrote: “The illegal sale of alcohol...demonstrates a level of negligence and irresponsibility that is unacceptable and contradicts the licensing objectives of preventing crime, disorder and public nuisance and protecting children from harm.”

Members of the board heard, however, that not only did Mr McDonald have a CCTV system in his Peebles premises, there were also posters displayed, advertising the policy of asking all members of the public who appear to be under the age of 25 for identification. Staff training records were found to be in order.

Despite hearing also that when re-tested in May the store had passed muster, the board unanimously agreed to issue a written warning to Mr McDonald.

“I feel my reputation has been wrongly tarnished, especially as I have a zero tolerance policy towards selling alcohol to minors,” said Mr McDonald this week.

“I have spent £36,000 in my three shops installing electronic point-of-sale till systems which flash when age-protected products, including alcohol, cigarettes and lighters, are scanned.

“Beyond the mandatory training demanded by the board, I have shelled out well over £1,000 on private training for my staff and all 18 of my employees have known from day one that the penalty for selling drink to under-age customers is instant dismissal.

“In summary, I feel have gone above and well beyond my responsibilities as a licensee to ensure that we adhere to the law and I fully support the test purchasing initiative.

“I have no idea why the fiscal dropped the charge against my former employee, although I assume it was because it was a first offence, but to my mind, the buck should stop with the trained member of staff who commits the offence. It is physically impossible for me to be at all three shops, which are open from 6am till 10pm daily.

“It seems the only one who has been punished here is me. On top of being criticised in Peebles for selling drink to under-agers and also for sacking a long-term employee, I find myself in the dock and with what amounts to a record for being negligent and irresponsible when nothing could be further from the truth.”

Mr McDonald said he hoped Mr Lamont would lobby to have the Licensing Scotland Act amended to give the police more discretion in seeking reviews of licences and for boards to be less draconian.

“I want to stop other consciencious business people finding themselves in the same boat,” he added.

On Friday, a written warning was also handed out to Kenneth Coltman of Coltman’s Delicatessen and Kitchen in High Street, Peebles.

A female member of staff had, on the same day in April, sold a bottle of wine to two 16-year-old youths. Although she was charged, the fiscal again decided to take no action.

Solicitors for Mr and Mrs Coltman stressed that the couple had only taken over the premises in March, but both had “a significant pedigree in the catering trade”.

“Our clients were greatly troubled to discover that a member of staff had sold alcohol in these circumstances against the background of understanding she had been trained [while employed at Peebles Golf Club] not to do so,” said the lawyers.

“Further training was immediately carried out for all staff and there is no doubt the experience has been a salutary lesson for all concerned.”

Board chairman Councillor Gavin Logan said that each request for a licence review by the police was treated on its merits and the decision in both Peebles cases had been unanimous.

After the meeting, Mr Logan said the licensees had been given the benefit of the doubt.

“The board is committed to taking action to eradicate the illegal supply of alcohol to minors and other licensees should note there is a very fine line between a written warning and a suspension.”