An all-too-familiar headline appeared in a Bristol newspaper last month. 'Store worker caught selling alcohol to undercover youngsters', it said.

The story reveals that an £80 on-the-spot fine was given to a shop assistant who sold alcohol to underage volunteers working with police and trading standards officers. But you have to read well below the screaming headline to discover that of 12 stores tested, only one failed, a 92% pass rate.

Neither is it immediately clear that in the store that failed, an age-verification procedure was in place. The assistant challenged the customer as instructed, checked ID, but then unfortunately still made the sale.

If that example paints an unfair picture of the huge majority of responsible local shops, it pales into insignificance compared with Yorkshire Police's largest test purchase operation, Operation Breech, which between November 2009 and April 2010 sent volunteers on Friday and Saturday nights into areas of Leeds that had seen youth violence. These were chosen as flashpoint locations and the tests were made at times when anti-social behaviour was at its worst.

In 315 attempts to buy alcohol from licensed premises, 18 stores served the test purchaser. That's a 94% pass rate and suggests that an under-18 in search of alcohol could visit 19 stores in an evening and be turned away every time.

The wrong tree

Yorkshire Police's reaction is interesting. Inspector Tony Reed, who devised Operation Breech, said: "One of the main contributing factors behind youth violence is the illegal sale of alcohol to young people. It seriously undermines much of the work we do and places many young people in vulnerable and dangerous circumstances." Quite how Inspector Reed reached that conclusion from the evidence of his own operation is unclear. If youngsters are getting access to large qualities of alcohol, his figures suggest it's not coming direct from the shops.

West Yorkshire Police's City & Holbeck division also carried out a test purchasing blitz of 15 Leeds supermarkets and off licences in April. Every single one of them passed, a further sign that retailers of all sizes take their responsibilities seriously, and an indication, surely, that the police should now reallocate their resources to other supply routes.

Over in Merseyside, a 12-month test purchase starting in April 2009 initiative saw 115 tests carried out, with just five sales - that's a 96% pass rate. Here there's a recognition that the battle must now shift to a new enemy. "It is clear from our test purchase results that retailers are now taking more care when selling alcohol, to ensure that they don't sell to under 18s," says Steve Massey, assistant director for St Helens Council's environmental protection department. "However, we are determined that the good work done in preventing direct sales to underage is not undermined by what is known as proxy purchasing - older persons buying on behalf of under 18s."

Spot on, Mr Massey. And well done, too, to councillor Donnie Kerr in Inverness, who has encouraged local  retailers to take part in a bottle-marking scheme to help police trace adults who pass them on to children. "You may get some of our street drinkers, who have alcohol abuse problems, having kids turn to them and saying: 'Can you get me two bottles of cider and here's a couple of quid for yourself'," said Councillor Kerr. "They are not going to refuse it." 

And yet for others the penny still doesn't seem to drop. Trading Standards officers in Durham this week sought Council permission to tighten their testing regime, raising the age of volunteers from 16 to 17-and-a-half. Councillor Bob Young of Durham County Council said:  "Certain retailers are becoming very wise to our methods, which has made it necessary to review our methods in order to ensure our work to tackle the illegal sales is effective."  Is he suggesting that these stores habitually sell to children, but have learned to spot  the test volunteers? Couldn't  there be another explanation?

See sense

The danger here is that if neither the police nor the media can see just how good a job retailers are doing, it's going to be harder to convince the new government to see sense either. Before the election, Conservative Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling called for "stronger powers [for local authorities] to ensure that retailers who systematically break licensing laws are closed permanently," and new Home Secretary Theresa May has been a vocal critic of extended licensing hours.

Their Liberal Democrat colleagues mocked the Tories for not going far enough, and favour a 'one strike and you're out' policy for sales of alcohol to children.

Tackling alcohol misuse is likely to be one of the key issues for the coalition, as the swift action in introducing a ban on below-cost selling suggests.

So there's a huge and immediate job to be done to change perceptions at the very highest level, and to assert that proxy purchasing by adults and illegal supply chains should be the focus of efforts to reduce youth consumption, along with education and investment to change young people's attitudes to drinking.

These are harder issues to tackle but that's exactly what local retailers should expect a supposedly fresh and dynamic new government to do.

What you can do:
Contact your local authority or police liaison officer and explain to them how a proxy crackdown would reduce youth drinking and social disorder in your area 

Demonstrate your responsible approach to selling alcohol with a Challenge 25 policy, keep an up-to-date refusals register and carry out ongoing staff training 

Volunteer your knowledge of the local community including CCTV footage to help prosecute adults who buy for children, and illicit traders who sell duty-avoiding stock.
What we’re calling for:
Government to accept that adults are the main route of supply of alcohol to children and for it to introduce measures to dissuade them from buying for kids
More recognition from the authorities and support for retailers taking positive steps to trade responsibly Investment in community schemes to educate the public on the social costs of supplying age-restricted products to children.