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Age verification and the Offensive Weapons Act: is your business prepared?

43,516. That’s the number of knife offences recorded in England and Wales in the 12 months ending March 2019 – taking knife crime to its highest-ever level.

More concerningly still, within those statistics, the involvement of young people in such offences is also on the rise. With 10-17-year-olds represent around a fifth of those cautioned or convicted of knife offences; either possessing a knife or threatening someone with one.

Cutting knife crime amongst young people

There is no silver bullet when it comes to cutting knife crime amongst young people, for its causes are multiple and complex. However, it’s clear that one very obvious facet of the strategy should be considering how young people get access to knives in the first place – and that one very obvious facet of access is the ease with which young people are able to purchase weapons. Not all teenagers who carry knives purchase them directly – but many do.

Which brings us to the role of retailers. Apart from one exception, it is illegal to sell a knife to anyone under the age of 18, ‘unless it has a folding blade three inches long or less’. The law is also evolving. The newly-passed Offensive Weapons Act, which received Royal Assent in May, specifically bans the sale of bladed products to residential addresses without age verification. In other words, it brings the online sale of potentially dangerous weapons far more closely in line with what currently takes place in the alcohol industry. Age verification must now happen twice; once at the point of sale and a second time when the goods are delivered.

Retailers falling short?

So what does this mean for retailers? In bricks-and-mortar stores, providing physical identification when purchasing age-restricted items such as knives or cigarettes is relatively par for the course. When it comes to alcohol retail, the ‘Challenge 25’ policy is widely recognised and practiced, and research suggests that age-related purchasing pass rates in shops are broadly increasing.

However, whilst the majority of retailers are responsible when it comes to preventing young people from purchasing knives, a significant number of shops do still fall short when it comes to responsible age-checking processes around weapons. Indeed, last year’s Serious Violence Strategy report by the government found that one-in-five retailers failed test purchase checks.

As Tony Allen, founder and head of certification at Age Check Certification Scheme (ACCS), highlights, “Crucially, the Offensive Weapons Act outlines that if retailers have a demonstrable age verification process in place that has been proven to work, they will not be prosecuted. This makes it absolutely vital that retailers have a clear age verification policy built into the checkout process, both in store and online, provided by a reputable supplier. At a most basic level, this starts with creating a clear expectation of challenge, extending to comprehensive staff training in age verification processes, through to ensuring ID is asked for when selling knives.

“This age verification process should then be independently tested and verified by a certified accreditation scheme. With this in place, should anything in the process fail, retailers will have an insurance policy in place that clearly demonstrates that they take their responsibilities to young people seriously and have taken reasonable steps to prevent the sale of dangerous items to them.” 

Whilst a number of major UK retailers, including B&Q and Tesco, have already committed to using innovative age-checking technologies on their websites, many are still lagging behind, and the new requirements of the Offensive Weapons Act require a new level of coordination from even the most forward-thinking retailers.

As such, all retailers in the business of selling knives online need to think carefully about how to coordinate the age verification procedures which happen digitally and remotely with those that happen face-to-face.

The challenges of a coordinated approach

There are several challenges with developing this kind of coordinated approach.

First, most retailers outsource delivery and logistics once their products leave their premises. They are therefore also outsourcing final age verification at the point of delivery. If the logistics firm fails to adequately verify the age of the individual who accepts the delivery – and if it transpires that they are underage – there are now reputational and legal risks to consider.

Second, there are regulatory issues to consider. Technology is evolving faster than regulation itself in many areas. This can be seen when it comes to the delivery of alcohol. Where digital age verification solutions dominate at the pont of online sale, rules around proof of age on delivery still specify physical documents with a hologram or watermark.

Third, retailers always have to put customer experience first and – particularly in today’s challenging business environment – they need to ensure that their regulatory compliance does not come at the expense of a seamless online journey and in-person experience for legitimate customers.

Age verification software has the ability to support this process in as smooth a way as possible. There are a number of tools on the market. AgeChecked, for example, works by by allowing customers to verify their age securely via a unique username and password. In order to verify themselves, users can choose from a range of methods such as a passport or driving licence. Once the set-up and initial age check is complete, the user will be provided with an age-verified account, to ensure that purchasing age-restricted items on any participating site is easy.

A multifaceted strategy

Knife crime is a serious social problem, particularly when it comes to young people accessing and using weapons. A multifaceted strategy is needed to deal with the issue, and cracking down on underage sales of dangerous weapons is an important step in the right direction.

Retailers now have an even greater responsibility to keep pace with the regulatory evolution, to ensure that dangerous goods do not fall into the wrong hands, and to coordinate with their delivery and logistics providers on robust and reliable age verification.

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