Despite running the risk of facing penalties, a high percentage of high street retailers still failed mystery shopper tests last year, with homeware and DIY stores said to be the worst culprits, selling knives to four in ten young customers without requesting age identification.
New data from retail age check company Serve Legal revealed that knives were sold by high street retailers to one in four teenage mystery shoppers last year without proof of age being requested.
In over 2,350 knife sale test visits undertaken by the company across the UK in 2017, 26% of sales went unchallenged. This comes despite the fact that prominent retailers have signed the government’s voluntary agreement on underage knife sales.
Pass rates are little better than 10 years ago, says the organisation, despite rising test volumes and the voluntary agreement being in place. Serve Legal is surprised at what it describes as “complacency on the high street” and, as a result, is calling for harsher penalties for retailers breaking the law.
Most disappointing was that homeware and DIY stores reportedly sold knives to 41% of young mystery shoppers without requesting age identification. Supermarkets fared better but still failed one in five (21%) age check tests.
London had the UK’s highest pass rate at 82% – a likely outcome of Operation Sceptre, the Metropolitan Police’s anti knife crime programme - but retailer commitment to testing fell by 5%. 2016 (232 tests in 2017 vs. 245 in 2016). Scotland and Northern Ireland had the UK’s lowest knife test pass rates at 59 per cent each.
The British Independent Retailers Association (BIRA) CEO Alan Hawkins said he is “very surprised if the mystery shopper figures are as bad as reported, especially amongst those retailers who belong to a trade association where training and information is king.”
He explained how the association is working with the Government to tackle the issue and support its members: “We have been leading on this issue and our national president for 2016-18, Vin Vara from The Toolshop Group has been one of the main go to voices for the Government in London, with BIRA and its committees working closely with the Home Office on the subject of underage sale of knives and the sale of corrosive substances.”
He said that BIRA’s members “are well advised on the sale of knives and the penalties for not following guidance” and that the association continues to work closely with and the Home Office and Trading Standards to support independent retailers further in this area.
However, he added that “there is always a tendency to pick on the policeable,” and “evidence showing that knives used in crime had recently been bought in a shop or similar is sparse.”
Serve Legal director Ed Heaver said: “Against a backdrop of rising knife crime, news headlines about school-age victims and perpetrators are shockingly frequent. Our latest retail test data reveals that despite the principles of the government’s voluntary agreement on underage sales, which many retailers have agreed to adhere to, complacency on the high street could well be contributing to a deadly societal problem, with knives being sold to young people in plain sight.”
While retailers have increased their commitment to age check testing for knife sales in the last ten years Serve Legal believes that staff performance has failed to keep step. Test pass rates decreased by one percentage point in 2017 compared to 2016 (75%) and were only one percentage point higher than nine years ago when Serve Legal’s test programmes began (74% in 2017 compared to 73% in 2009).
Mr Heaver added: “The fact that so many high street retailers and their staff are prepared to take the risk of putting deadly weapons into the hands of young people is proof that the threat of a fine and six months’ imprisonment if convicted is not a punitive deterrent. A review of penalties for underage knife sales is well overdue and should be part of the Home Office’s new Serious Violence Strategy, with tougher penalties for any retailer not able to demonstrate the requisite due diligence if they fail a local authority or police knife test.”
Online retailers came under scrutiny too. In 1,600 online test sales of age-restricted goods - including knives - last year, 59 per cent of Serve Legal’s mystery shoppers were handed age-restricted goods on the doorstep unchallenged. The test purchase pass rate for online retailers has been falling since 2014 and their commitment to testing is extremely low.
Ed Heaver said: “Our data presents a worrying picture with no progress on pass rates in recent years. It isn’t enough for online retailers to have age identification checks on their websites - responsible behaviour should be guaranteed throughout the sale and delivery process. If there is confusion amongst retailers and their delivery companies about where responsibility lies for checking a young customer’s age on the doorstep, the Government must clarify, and then more aggressively enforce, legislation.”
The Home Secretary’s new Offensive Weapons Bill brings forward plans to ban home deliveries for knives bought online. Under the new legislation, customers will have to collect their purchase from a designated collection point. Details of how this will work in practice and how age checks will be enforced, however, are yet to be announced.