Retailers suffer at the hands of bureaucrats and get nothing in return, says Malcolm Walker.

Retailers suffer at the hands of bureaucrats and get nothing in return, says Malcolm Walker.

Last week I received a two-page letter from some MP complaining about the danger of the flame height on disposable lighters that don’t comply with EU regulations.

Personally, if you’re a smoker, I think the flame height of the lighter is the least of your concerns. But it is symptomatic of the widespread belief that almost everything that goes wrong in this country can be put right by heaping yet more regulations on the retail trade.

If a hooligan throws one of my shopping trolleys into a canal, it’s obviously my fault. It is a criminal offence to sell a 17-year-old a knife and fork so if he stabs someone rather than using them to eat his dinner, the retailer must be to blame.

And the drunken yobs roaming our town centres can only be down to the shopkeepers who sell them alcohol, not to any more general failings of education, parenting or society as a whole.

In June 2009 I wrote a column here about the ludicrous code of practice that Jacqui Smith put out for consultation on alcohol retailing. It included requirements for live radio links to the local police, direct lines to taxi operators ‘to get the public home safe’ and a dispersal policy to prevent disorder. Honest: I’m not making this up.

It has not got any better. That d(r)aft legislation was not enacted but new conditions were introduced in February last year and now every one of our stores has to have a DPS (Designated Premises Supervisor) present at all times when alcohol is sold. They have to pass an external exam to qualify. Frankly this seems to be about as much use as a speed awareness course.

The local licensing authority can add all kinds of bizarre conditions to the licence including cameras to monitor the street outside and door supervisors, even though we are a family-friendly food retailer, not a nightclub. The penalties for non-compliance are severe. Till operators can be fined £20,000 and face up to six months in prison.

Even liqueur chocolates fall into the category of restricted products. Test purchases are carried out by local trading standards with all the zeal that you might expect them to bring to bear on attacking drug dealers.

Selling alcohol to a 17-year-old who looks 20 will bring down all the wrath of the law but if that 17-year-old steals the alcohol it’s only a misdemeanour and the police won’t attend.

Just how much use was any of this regulation in stopping this summer’s riots, which trashed several of our stores? An episode in which the police proved no quicker to intervene than they are in the everyday, smaller scale looting that is the bane of every shopkeeper’s life.

When I came back into Iceland on 2005 it was facing bankruptcy. Our plan for rescue wasn’t a complex five-year plan but just three basic principles: focus, simplicity and accept reality. It has served us well and the Government could not do better in this time of crisis than by adopting those same three principles.

Focus on what’s important, cut out stupid bureaucracy and wake up to the reality that Government is far too tolerant of people who steal and scrounge, and takes those of us who pay our taxes and obey the law too much for granted.

At the risk of sounding like Jeremy Clarkson, if I were in power I’d stop worrying about dodgy lighters and start taking some action on those anti-capitalists on benefits camping outside St Paul’s. Something involving water cannon springs to mind.

  • Malcolm Walker is chief executive of Iceland