Reflecting on seven years as Chair of the Independent Complaints Panel – Jenny Watson CBE
It has been a fascinating experience to have served as Chair of the Independent Complaints Panel for the past seven years, helping to apply the high standards of the Portman Group Code of Practice across the industry and ensuring that irresponsible or inappropriate products are either rebranded or removed from shelves if they fail to comply.
During my time in post I have overseen complaints under two new editions of the Code, most recently last year with the publication of the sixth edition. This brought significant changes to the rules and helped to further strengthen the Panel’s role. Many of these changes reflected the ways in which societal attitudes and expectations have evolved. The updated Code introduced a new core principle to protect the vulnerable, which the Panel had suggested and is a welcome addition. The Code also included a new rule on serious or widespread offence. I’m pleased that the Portman Group has been able to strengthen the guidance on immoderate consumption and there was widespread support for modifications to the rules around avoiding encouraging illegal behaviour and implying that alcohol can change mood or behaviour.
The Portman Group recently published the findings of its independent audit of market compliance with the new Code. It showed 95% adherence to the strengthened rules, and it is clear that many producers in this industry start from the standpoint of wanting to behave responsibly and do the right thing.
I wanted to share a few broad but important reflections on my time leading the Panel:
Products having particular appeal to under-18s
The Code of Practice is framed to ensure that products are only marketed in a socially responsible way and only ever to over-18s. Despite this, many of the complaints brought before us still concern whether a product is deemed to have a particular appeal to children. The emphasis is on the term ‘particular’.
At the Panel, we have sought to consider each complaint we receive seriously, on its individual merit, and, when necessary, have sought external, professional advice to better understand aspects of design aspects that can appeal to children.
We continue to see a rapidly changing alcohol industry in the UK, where new, smaller producers are attempting to design their products to stand out from the crowd and attract greater numbers of consumers. Whilst the use of bright colours, cartoonish imagery or nostalgia may not be a concern in and of itself, we have seen time and again that when used in combination, the overall design of products can be considered to have a particular appeal to under-18s.
We recognise that almost all of these breaches of the Code are unintentional and, in many cases, costly changes to labelling could have been avoided altogether if producers had used the free and confidential Portman Group advisory service when designing their products. I would urge producers – particularly small producers for whom innovation is key – to look at past Panel decisions and to contact the advice team, in confidence and without obligation, to make sure that they don’t make the same mistakes.
At the Panel, we also continue to see products which fall foul of the Code by promoting, directly or indirectly, immoderate consumption.
As Chair, I asked the Secretariat to the Panel to commission regular polling to gain an insight into how people drink and what impact container size and shape has, if any, on their choices. This provided a broader perspective than that of individual panel members, telling us that most UK consumers view beers and ciders with an ABV of 8% in a 500ml can as designed to be consumed by one person in a single sitting straight from the can.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that everyone will consume the product in that way or that it must be deemed to be in breach. But our role is to help the industry to manage risk and ensure individual products don’t bring the whole sector into disrepute. This evidence is extremely important to our decision-making.
We have since seen several single-serve, non-resealable products containing more than four units fall foul of the Code when viewed as promoting immoderate consumption and making a virtue of their higher strength which could have particular appeal to vulnerable consumers.
The Panel cannot seek to limit the commercial freedoms of producers to create higher strength products, but I firmly believe that producers have to work harder to design and market these products in a socially responsible manner.
From society, and responding to societal changes
Finally, I am proud that the Code of Practice and the Panel’s judgements have been able to evolve in step with changes in wider society and taking account of developments in the industry. One of the advantages of self-regulation is that codes are not set in stone but can adapt much more quickly than legislation and the Portman Code of Practice is no exception. The Panel has been able to apply the principles in the Code to many different products and to do so in the context of our changing understanding of alcohol related harm.
It would be remiss of me not to thank my fellow Panel members over the years for their independence and sound judgement. Drawn from a range of areas including education, youth work, the charity sector, legal services, health, marketing, hospitality, and those with previous experience in the alcohol industry – my colleagues have been both professional and motivated by a personal conviction to minimise the risk of alcohol-related harm. It has been a pleasure to work with them all.
I know that the Panel’s work is not always welcomed by those who would prefer statutory regulation. But I have confidence that the Panel will continue to be independent and do its upmost to uphold the Code fairly and effectively, and I will watch with interest to see how their work develops.