Supermarkets face investigation over drink sales to children

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The chief executives of Tesco and Sainsbury's are to be questioned by the Home Secretary about under-age drinks sales after police sting operations found they were regularly selling alcohol to children.

All of Britain's six big supermarket chains have been warned by the Government they need to take action to stop their stores routinely flouting the law or risk losing their licences. They will meet ministers in the next two weeks.

The crackdown comes as ministers defend their liberalisation of the drinks laws despite criticism from the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, the press, doctors, judges and police.

Yesterday, as the Tories sought to delay the 2003 Licensing Act in the Commons, ministers announced a "Christmas Crackdown" on pubs and clubs that promote drunkenness.

One of several posters warning drinkers of £80 on-the-spot fines for disorder depicts a man urinating cash down a drain.

Trading standards officers, who are to step up spot checks of supermarkets, have been shocked by the scale of alcohol sales to children uncovered in the summer.

In undercover operations between July and August, police found that 48 per cent of 141 supermarkets were selling alcohol to under-18s.

The big stores fared worse than smaller off-licences, of whom 27 per cent of 373 were breaking the law. In the same tests at 124 pubs and clubs with records for trouble, sales to minors were just above the supermarket level at 52 per cent.

Concern about the level of sales to children comes as the drinks industry prepares for the introduction next week of the new licensing laws, which will allow 24-hour drinking for the first time.

Doctors have warned that extending drinks hours will speed up the rise, which has happened since the 1970s, of young people suffering alcohol-related liver failure. The Department of Health revealed last April that 3,300 children aged between 11 and 15 were admitted to English hospitals each year after binge drinking.

Under the new law, which comes into force next Thursday, supermarkets are expected to increase substantially the hours in which they sell alcohol.

The 2003 Licensing Act raises from £1,000 to £5,000 the fines for selling alcohol to under-18s.

But just months before the introduction of the new legislation, police discovered widespread flouting of the laws at 909 outlets in 25 parts of England and Wales, including in London, Cardiff, and Manchester.

The chief executives of the big supermarkets chains - Tesco, Sainsbury's, Asda, Morrisons, the Co-op and United Co-op - and representatives of the drinks industry were called to the Home Office on 26 October to account for their performance.

They met five ministers - Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, the Home Office ministers Hazel Blears and Paul Goggins and James Purnell, from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport.

The supermarkets were told to improve their record. One attendee said that the ministers had made "ominous noises" about what would happen if they did not resolve the problem. The stores will be summoned back to the Home Office within a fortnight to explain what progress they have made a month from the first meeting.

As part of its "Christmas Crackdown" yesterday, the Home Office announced that spot checks for under-age sales on pubs, bars, clubs and supermarkets would be stepped up in the weeks before Christmas.

Ron Gainsford, the chief executive of the Trading Standards Institute, said: "We are constantly staggered by the volume of illegal alcohol sales to under-18s."