It feels very odd to be writing about my own impending departure from the Portman Group.
It’s been three and a half years since I first stepped foot into the office, met the team and settled into this important and challenging role. In that time, we’ve achieved a huge amount – frankly too much for me to summarise here – but there are some highlights that are worth celebrating.
The publication of the sixth edition of the Code of Practice represented a major step forward for the industry. The explicit reference to protecting those who are vulnerable, rather than just those who are under-18, is an important measure that empowers the Independent Complaints Panel and demonstrates the industry’s commitment to minimise the risk of harmful drinking wherever it may occur. Within the same Code, the creation of a new rule covering serious or widespread offence shows a determination to root out the small number of producers who believe the way to create profile or stand out is to offend – but in doing so bring the whole industry into disrepute. The support we received for that new rule is testament to a sector that wants to do better and knows it can.
Possibly most critically, our revised Code brought forward updated guidance that enabled us to re-establish a unit-based threshold for non-resealable, single-serve bottles and cans. The previous voluntary commitment had been underpinned by the old Chief Medical Officers’ (CMOs) guidance and as such, had ceased to be applicable after the low-risk drinking levels were changed. The updated position provides clear and strong rules for the industry, preventing large, high strength, single serve containers returning to the market, while also providing flexibility for producers. To my mind, this is an example of self-regulation working at its best – stepping up promptly to maintain high standards with the support and backing of producers.
Aside from the Code, we have secured agreement from members, back in August 2019, to put updated Chief Medical Officers’ low risk drinking guidance on labels. Again, this was an important step in demonstrating the industry’s commitment to providing consumers with the information they need to make an informed choice around their drinking behaviour. Of course, CMO guidance on labels won’t do this alone but with strong industry backing for Drinkaware, there has never been more information available on how to moderate and drink responsibly.
As an organisation, we’ve welcomed five new members during my time in post – Asahi, Aston Manor, Campari, SHS Drinks and Thatchers Cider. Each has brought with them a knowledge and perspective that has enhanced the organisation as well as providing the scale that gives greater impact. To my mind, there is no doubt that the industry benefits enormously from having effective and pragmatic self-regulation and I sincerely hope that in the years to come others will step forward to show their support.
Of course, the Portman Group doesn’t operate in a vacuum and this year has been like no other. For our members, and many thousands of companies across the country, this has been a huge struggle simply to survive. The hospitality sector, and the businesses that supply it, play a significant role in our economy, employing millions of people and generating tens of millions of pounds in spend. But they also provide a crucial social purpose – one that many people have recognised this year for the first time. Our pubs, bars and restaurants aren’t simply venues for people to go out and eat and drink. In many areas, they are a hub, bringing generations together across the city, town, or village, to socialise, share stories, visit friends, and enjoy good company. This year more than ever before we’ve seen the damaging effect that losing these venues has – hopefully only temporarily – on people’s mental health, happiness, and well-being.
There are, of course, also legitimate, and important debates to be had about how best to curb the harmful effects of alcohol misuse and excessive consumption. My time with the Portman Group has seen the many positive trends in this area show continued improvement. We must build on this sustained platform of success to ensure we continue to move forward positively, as a nation, in our relationship with alcohol. Many of the great successes of the last decade or more have been delivered through partnerships. In the night-time economy, almost every part of the country will recognise the improvements that have delivered a reduction in alcohol related crime, significant falls in alcohol-fuelled anti-social behaviour and record low levels of underage drinking. As a nation, our overall level of drinking continues to fall with four in every five people choosing not to drink or to do so at modest levels. We have some of the highest standards in the world on product labelling and marketing with enhanced education and information for consumers and strict age verification practices.
Yet we know there is more to do. We know that, for a small percentage of the population, alcohol remains deeply troubling and harmful. The 3-4% of people consuming the most alcohol in the UK do so at very high levels, causing harm to themselves, their families and loved ones, wider society and to our NHS. People drinking at this level often face complex, multi-faceted challenges and need support from a variety of avenues. Through interventions such as the Walsall NHS frequent flier’s initiative we know that there are ways to make a difference – but they are difficult, expensive and take time as well as commitment. We must always seek opportunities to do more. I know that this is an industry that takes its responsibilities seriously and will not duck the challenge of finding ways to tackle the problems brought about by those drinking at the highest levels.
Before I conclude, I want to say an enormous thank you to the people who put their heart and soul into making the Portman Group a success. The current team, and many of those who went before them, consistently show great skill, commitment, and determination to ensure the organisation can make a positive difference in this difficult and challenging area. The team consists of brilliant regulators – individuals with a shared passion for showing that self-regulation can consistently and effectively raise the bar on industry standards without causing undue harm to the majority of producers – and highly effective and ambitious communicators, keen to tell our story, demonstrate our successes and make a difference. Our work isn’t easy and there are times when it can feel like the Portman Group comes under attack from all sides but the people with whom I have had the pleasure to work have been individually and collectively brilliant. To them, thank you.
I wish my successor, Matt Lambert, every success as he embarks on his own journey with the Portman Group. I was attracted to an organisation that I believed could make a difference in the right way. Nearly four years on, I know that to be the case and look forward to watching the organisation go from strength to strength.