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What works on your high street? Voluntary schemes and their aims

Jon Foster explores the discrepancy between what corporate-friendly alcohol initiatives claim to do and what they actually achieve

23 January 2017 – Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is big business, and when it comes to alcohol policy there are a plethora of voluntary schemes and initiatives which seem to show the drinks industry as considerate and responsible social partners. But what do these schemes do exactly? Do they reduce alcohol-related problems at the same time as generating good PR for the industry, or is it just the latter? Or worse, do they actively take up valuable policy time and effort, potentially displacing more effective policies, while still aiming to cast the trade in a good light?

Some CSR initiatives have been clearly proven to do just this, such as those promoted through the Government-run Public Health Responsibility Deal. For more detail on this see here, but academic reviews of the initiatives involved all come the the same conclusion: that they do not do what they say on the tin. Or, to put it another way, that they “fall into the category of ‘probably ineffective’ or ‘no/poor/inconclusive evidence’”.

Another area of alcohol policy with numerous CSR schemes is the night time economy, particularly alcohol licensing. Various sections of licensing legislation acknowledge, and encourage, participation in schemes such as Best Bar None and Pub Watch. Last year’s Modern Crime Prevention Strategy, from the Home Office, also puts voluntary schemes in a fairly central position regarding alcohol and the night time economy. But what evidence is there to suggest that they reduce, or indeed, prevent crime?

The short answer is, not a great deal. Previous IAS research into this issue found a stunning lack of proper evaluations of these schemes. A document produced by Leeds Metropolitan University for Best Bar None included some ‘statements that have been made stating Best Bar None as a major contributing factor’, such as a ‘26% reduction in alcohol-related incidents.’ This however, is a very long way from a detailed evaluation of any sort, as any social science undergraduate would be able to tell you.

Academics at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) have recently looked into this in more detail, focusing specifically on one industry-run scheme called Community Alcohol Partnerships (CAPs), which aim to reduce underage drinking and associated problems such as anti-social behaviour. LSHTM found that out of 88 CAPs, only three had been evaluated using controlled designs or comparison areas. Scrutinising these, they concluded that:

 

"... the most robust evaluations found little change in ASB (anti social behaviour)while CAPs appear to affect public perceptions of ASB, this is not a measure of the effectiveness of CAPs."

 

I agree that managing public perceptions should not be a measure of effectiveness, but from the CSR perspective, it seems to be very much the aim of the game. While doing very little to address the underlying problem, CAPs appear to present the image that something is being done, and so displace more effective, and better evaluated, policies which may impact on industry profits as well as reducing crime or other problems.

The ability of CSR schemes to take up value policy space can be seen by the fact that CAPs were able to get the Minister for Vulnerability, Safeguarding and Countering Extremism to launch their 2016 “Impact Report” (note, not 2016 evaluation), which presents broad figures about the positive national decrease in underage drinking, and tries to present these as directly related to CAP actions. Where the impact report does present more detail, it is primarily to do with the process of implementing a CAP rather than outcomes compared to a control area.

This is not to say that industry-led voluntary schemes do not have a role to play. Some do appear to improve communication between the licence trade and the police, and to help the trade coordinate themselves and take a uniform approach to local problems, particularly when using systems such as facewatch. This is undoubtedly a good thing.

While clearly the current evidence is poor, maybe proper scrutiny and evaluations will prove some of these voluntary schemes to be genuinely effective? The fact that this level of scrutiny is so rare begs the question of what the industry are frightened of, but until there are consistent and competent evaluations of many of these schemes, we simply don’t know.

We also don’t know what could have been achieved if the equivalent time and effort had been spent on policies with proven effectiveness. We do however know what these effective policies are, and have done for some time. Yet clearly evidence and effectiveness are not the key considerations when gaining official support.

Written by Jon Foster, Senior Research & Policy Officer at the Institute of Alcohol Studies.

All IAS Blogposts are published with the permission of the author. The views expressed are solely the author's own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Institute of Alcohol Studies.