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A positive challenge by Jeremey Beadles, chief executive of the Wine & Spirit Trade Association

Published:  18 January, 2007

Earlier this summer, there was a glimmer of hope that alcohol-related issues were slipping down the government's agenda. After the relative non-event of the World Cup (in both alcohol-related disorder and sporting terms), ministers seemed to be looking elsewhere for policy initiatives. The Home Office, in particular, became introspective as it set out to prove itself fit for purpose'.

This perceived change of focus was welcome to me, as I hoped it would allow the Wine and Spirit Trade Association (WSTA) and its members to concentrate on the details of recent new policy initiatives and making them work in practice.

It seems, however, that this may have been wishful thinking. We have now been informed that the Home Office team responsible for alcohol issues has come out from under the auspices of the Violent Crime Reduction Unit and is to be formed into a separate Alcohol Harm Reduction Unit'. While this can be seen as a welcome development that may allow a sense of coherency to develop in cross-departmental policy making, it also sends the strong signal that government focus is shifting nowhere.

When the Social Responsibility Standards were launched in November 2005, government ministers who endorsed the document made it very clear that industry would have to deliver on its contents. It is on the implementation of these standards that we are judged. It is up to us to prove that industry initiatives and the government's partnership approach are delivering for everyone: industry, consumers and government.

We (the WSTA and other trade associations that signed up to the standards) have been given until the end of September to produce a comprehensive response setting out the impact of the standards. We have been asked to provide case studies of best practice, figures for implementation and evidence that the standards are having a positive impact at grass roots level. This will be an enormous piece of work. It calls for close coordination between the trade associations involved and unprecedented input from our combined membership. The timescale for this work is tight. It is less than 10 months since the standards were launched so businesses have had little time for internal discussion, company policy changes and implementation, let alone monitoring the impact.

But that is what we have been asked to do. And despite all the practical difficulties, I believe this process could be a good thing. Luckily, and thanks to the impressive commitment of companies and individuals across the trade, there is no shortage of best practice case studies to include and figures for implementation are improving day by day.

As part of this process, the WSTA has asked its members to complete a Responsible Trading Survey. The majority of our member companies have taken the first steps': they have the Drinkaware logo on their website, have signed up to The Portman Group Code of Practice and ensure all their staff are properly trained. This is very welcome news.

Encouragingly, we have also seen examples of companies that have taken the principles of social responsibility into the heart of their businesses; they have innovated to ensure they operate to the highest possible standards right across the board.

It is to highlight the work of this second group of companies that I welcome this need to report back' to government.

We should see this as an excellent opportunity for every part of the trade not only to assess their progress and gauge their commitment to social responsibility, but also to recognise where things have been done well.

It is important that businesses of all sizes and compositions and from all parts of the trade are part of this process. In January, the WSTA published a checklist' setting out the main aspects of the standards to help members with implementation. But it is not just about implementation. It is vital that businesses tell us what they are doing with regard to social responsibility, so we can include this information when reporting back to government.

It is only by being able to demonstrate that we as a trade are doing what we know to be right that we can ask other stakeholders to meet their obligations in this area. If we are responsible in how we produce, sell and market alcohol, we can ask government to ensure adequate public health information and we can ask the police to broaden enforcement tactics to include young people trying to buy alcohol. And, perhaps more pertinently, we can ask why individuals are not taking responsibility for their own decisions about alcohol.

This is why I believe that this challenge from government should be seen in a positive light. Let us take this opportunity not to be defensive, or to point the finger at others, but to make the most of all that we have done.