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Guest Comment: The House of Lords debates the sale of age-restricted items online

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Last week Greenwich Council named and shamed a variety of high profile online retailers as 12 out of 15 online retailers sold a variety of goods such as knives, age-restricted games and alcohol to a 16-year-old. Only three of the retailers actually asked the boy concerned to confirm his age and he was able to circumvent these checks by giving false information which was not verified.

The Council has written to those firms who sold the restricted goods and says: “We do not plan further action in relation to these offences”.

However, the operation has highlighted the second reading of Baroness Doreen Massey’s private members bill, called “Online Purchasing of Goods and Services (Age Verification)”. The bill calls for the mandatory use of systems by internet retailers to check a customer’s age when selling age-restricted goods online.

Baroness Massey pointed out that “Self-regulation is not working. Very few online retailers have procedures in place to prevent underage young people buying almost anything over the internet.”

So how was the bill received by the Lords? Baroness Coussins, who used to be the chief executive of the Portman Group, responded with the view that in areas such as alcohol sales self regulation is working, although “the standards of compliance vary considerably from sector to sector”.

In my experience this is true. Some industry bodies such as the Wine and Spirits Trade Association and the British Board of Film Classification have created industry guidance for their members to follow. However, the level of compliance varies from company to company. On the whole it’s the smaller companies that are more compliant, those being the firms that can ill afford the fines from increasingly more active Trading Standards teams.

On this note, Lord De Mauley responded to the bill by saying that the Government is not successfully enforcing the current laws. His view was that there is a lack of fines and sentences passed for retailers who sell underage goods to children both online and offline.

The Earl of Erroll then chipped into the debate by adding “The legal duty to comply with these laws already exists, and I do not think that Parliament should micromanage people in how they do these things”.

This is a balanced view that we have heard from a number of quarters although, in general, online retailers put less time and effort into complying with these laws than bricks and mortar retailers do. At 192business we believe that if a business is technologically savvy enough to sell their goods online then they are equally capable of implementing an age verification procedure.

Although private member’s bills rarely become law, they are useful for getting a topic debated and brought to public attention. My view is that this bill has raised awareness of the issue and will hopefully encourage retailers to be act with more social responsibility and drop the “age verification” tick boxes that a 10-year-old could navigate through.

My gut feel is that this bill will not result in legislation mandating age verification but it certainly is fuelling the appetite for Trading Standards spot checks and investigations. This in turn is forcing online retailers to raise their game.

In the meantime online retailers can review the laws that already exist regarding age-sensitive goods by downloading’s compliance guide. You can also share your view by leaving a comment under this article. Do you think existing laws are sufficient or should age verification be mandated?

• Michelle Dixon is the marketing manager at identity verification specialists

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