Nicola Williams marks one year as the Independent Complaints Panel’s Chair

The third session of our Taking Responsibility Seminars series involved an informal conversation between Nicola Williams, Independent Complaints Panel (Panel) Chair, and Portman Group CEO, Matt Lambert, reflecting on Nicola’s first year as Chair of the Panel.

As Chair, Nicola has presided over a number of precedent setting decisions on the application of the serious or widespread offence rule, Cannabidiol (CBD), the product descriptor ‘spritz’ and many considerations under the rule concerning particular appeal to under-18s.  She reflected on these, her experience of the industry, the operation of the Panel, and areas producers should be mindful of in their marketing.

Panel independence

Matt kicked off the discussion by asking what initially attracted Nicola to the role. Nicola explained that she was aware the Portman Group was a well-regarded self-regulatory body and that the Panel play a vital role in this self-regulatory framework. This piqued her interest and after further investigation she knew that she could add value in maintaining the independence of the Panel.

Responding to anyone who questions this independence, as a Crown Court judge, Nicola would not accept a role to Chair an independent body that was not independent. While the Portman Group secretariat support the Panel’s work, they do not take part in discussions or make decisions during any part of the complaints process.

Nicola also remarked on the importance of having a diverse panel, who bring a wide range of experience and expertise. Each Panel member brings their own unique interpretation to a case and is prepared to articulate these opinions while also respecting the views of others. Three new Panel members have recently been recruited (watch this space to find out who) and will start at the beginning of February 2022.

Industry adherence

Nicola praised the industry’s general adherence to the Codes. Given that the Portman Group only had to issue one Retailer Alert Bulletin in 2021, out of 11 upheld cases, it was clear that the majority of the industry take the Codes seriously and are willing to work with the Advisory Service to keep products on shelves.

The Codes are enhanced by the guidance the Portman Group drafts based on the interpretation and discussion of the Panel. This helps the industry adhere to the Codes and assists the Panel in its decision making. Equally, the Code needs to be fit for purpose and must be kept up to date to ensure it reflects inevitable shifts in public opinion. The Code benefits from regular public consultations so that it has wide input from industry, government, trade associations and other bodies.

Nicola acknowledged that a high proportion of cases the Panel had considered in 2021 were against small producers and urged the Portman Group to do more to support those in the industry who were less familiar with the Codes. Matt welcomed the continued challenge and explained that the Portman Group was looking to develop the support that it already offers to the industry. More than four in five advice requests came from non-members or Code signatories in 2021 (25 Years of Responsible Alcohol Regulation: a Spotlight on 2021) which demonstrates the reach and support to the whole sector that Portman Group provides.

New rules, new challenges

In 2019, the Code had a significant review resulting in an updated principle, new rules and amendments. This included a new rule to prevent serious or widespread offence. Nicola remarked on the importance of this new addition to the Code as it has allowed the Panel to consider important issues including the derogatory depiction of women, mental health issues and the use of profanity, and led to complaints against three products being upheld. 

This year also saw a large number of cases considered under the particular appeal to under-18s rule. It is a timely reminder for producers to consider the overall impression conveyed by a product as well as its individual elements when designing packaging. Matt and Nicola highlighted the importance of the Portman Group’s free Advisory Service which is accessible to the entire industry and provides confidential and impartial advice. It is an opportunity for producers to obtain advice ahead of launching a product and strongly encouraged the industry to do so in order to minimise the risk of accidentally breaching the Code. Also, small producers are able to access free CPD accredited training.

This was the third event in our Taking Responsibility series and we will be planning further events in 2022. For updates, keep checking the website and our Twitter feed, @PortmanGroup. If you have any questions on the seminar or the issues discussed, please contact