By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine
National identity cards may have been scrapped, but that doesn't mean you don't need to carry other forms of ID. An increasing number of people - some in their 30s and 40s - are being asked for proof of age when buying alcohol. Why?
At the age of 36, twice as old as the youngest legal drinkers, Kay was surprised to be challenged for proof of age when buying her groceries in a Tesco in east London.
"About two years ago, all of a sudden, every time I went to buy alcohol, a bottle of wine with my shopping, they would ask me for ID."
Kay's European health insurance card, with her name and date of birth but no photograph, was not acceptable. So on several occasions, the wine went back on the shelf, until she started taking her passport with her.
"I know you're meant to feel happy that people think you're younger but when you think about it, they are accusing you of lying and of stealing [someone's ID]."
Others have had a similar experience. Headlines were made when a 72-year-old was unable to buy two bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon at Morrisons in Blackpool because he could not prove his age.
Ironically, it's concern about under-age drinking that is responsible.
A few years ago, before and after the licensing laws were relaxed, newspapers were full of pictures of "Binge drink Britain" - young people lying prostrate on the street or fighting in town centres on a Saturday night.
Gemma Barua, 28, manager of Wetherspoon in Batley, West Yorks, says anyone who looks under 21 is asked
Staff wear badges informing customers that they will ask
They also log every time they do
Training videos teach staff how to ask with sensitivity
Sometimes customers lose their temper, but overall attitudes have improved, says Gemma
Since then, the penalties for pubs, supermarkets and off-licences that sell alcohol to people aged under 18 have increased from £10,000 to £20,000, with the added threat of a six-month prison term.
In January, a "two strikes" policy was introduced which means publicans automatically have their licences reviewed if they twice fall foul of under-age sting operations by serving minors posing as customers. The individual employee serving a minor faces an £80 fine.
Also this year, the last government made it mandatory for publicans to be members of schemes like Challenge 21 and Challenge 25 (also Think 21 and Think 25), which means that customers who look as much as three or seven years above the minimum legal age must be asked to provide proof of age.
There are only three acceptable forms of identification, which are a driving licence, a passport or a form of ID approved by the Proof of Age Standards Scheme (PASS). And every time someone is asked for ID, it is logged by bar staff.
An increased number of test purchases reflects the greater scrutiny that licensed premises are under. Serve Legal, a commercial company which carries out test purchases at the request of licensees, made 3,907 visits in 2007 but that rose four-fold to 24,587 last year.
During that time the proportion of pubs passing the checks has nearly doubled from 40% to 75%.
The whole climate surrounding proof of age has changed in the last few years, says Mark Hastings of the Beer and Pub Association, which represents two-thirds of pubs in the UK. But awareness of the new rules is very high, he says.
"A recent survey showed 90% of 18- to 21-year-olds knew about Challenge 21 and have experienced a much more rigorous approach to ID checks.
YOU LOOK 25, ANY ID?
Marks and Spencer
All these supermarkets demand proof of age for people who look 25 or under
"And we know from the monitoring we do with the pubs, that a million people a month are being turned away for either not having proof of age or because they are under age."
We are moving towards the US culture, often commented on, where it's absolutely common to be asked for ID wherever you go, says Mr Hastings. If you're 21 or under, you should expect to be asked for ID, therefore carry some.
But he questions whether the penalties are fair.
"Should you be sent to prison for inadvertently serving a drink to someone who is 17? Six months in prison is more than some people get for bashing a granny in the street.
"The word here is probably 'disproportionate', although we have no problem with any government focusing on this as an important issue and ensuring proof of age is rigorously enforced."
Gangs of youths
Caroline Nodder, editor of trade newspaper The Publican, says supermarkets and off-licences are catching up with pubs, now that the media has put the issue of under-age drinking on to the agenda.
"There has been a lot of press about pubs, a lot of examples of people lolling in the gutter. Pubs unfairly get the blame, but they are the public face of drinking and they will get the blame for social aspects of drinking.
Youngsters drinking in public is a common sight
"Pubs are the safest place to go and have a drink but cheap alcohol is available through the off-trade. A £4 pint in a pub precludes most under-age drinkers but you do see gangs of youths hanging around with bottles and cans.
"Is it that much of an inconvenience to carry ID? If as a society we want to stop access to alcohol then we have to put up with this."
It's not very British to carry a passport with you, she says, but there are other acceptable forms of identity. "I would love to be ID'd but I don't think it's going to happen."
But not everyone thinks this is a welcome development.
Four readers who were asked for ID
These increasing checks on people buying alcohol is part of a wider crackdown on individual freedoms, says Josie Appleton of the Manifesto Club, which campaigns against what it sees as the "hyperregulation" of everyday life and is conducting a survey on this issue.
"People in their late 30s have been asked for ID for ridiculous things like barbecue skewers and Christmas crackers. It's part of a bigger illiberal trend that means people having to go out with passports on them.
"When I was young, you had to look about 18 if you went to the pub and it wasn't the worst thing in the world if a 17-year-old bought a can of lager. There was no social collapse. We've got things out of proportion."
In France, teenagers are taught to use alcohol responsibly but in the UK, the regime has led to the isolation of youths, who instead drink on park benches and behave like idiots, says Ms Appleton.
It's part of the infantilisation of adults, she says, always having to prove whether you can handle what you are buying.
"In a culture of constant surveillance, everyone is thought to be a risk and everyone is thought to be potentially incapable, incompetent or abusive."
For those 20 and 30-somethings a little unhappy about carrying their ID, they can comfort themselves that in some parts of the world, their parents would have to as well.
Ms Nodder saw her 60-year-old father being asked for proof he was over 21 when in Kentucky in the US on holiday recently.
And in a letter to the Magazine's Monitor, Mark Esdale, 51, said that a waitress in a Utah restaurant last week told him she demanded proof of age from everyone who looked under 50.
Below is a selection of your comments.
I was ID'd a couple of months ago for buying 16 paracetamol. From what I understand, you have to be 16 to buy it... at the time, I was 34. It was probably the second time in my whole life that I have been ID'd, both times were when I was over the age of 18. I laughed, asked her if she was joking, stammered I was 34 and then showed her my driving licence, which was thankfully in my purse. I agree that people need to be ID'd to buy certain products, but from my (limited) experience, it seems that staff need some serious training.
Hetty, London, UK
I was asked my age in the local Spar shop a few months ago, and I am 68. It made my day.
I've been into a local pub to get a cooked lunch - on the doors it says over 18s only (Never used to and I don't think it does anymore) I go in with a couple of friends and we order our food and some soft drinks to go with it. I get ID'd but my friends don't - in the end I had to go home and get my passport just so I could have a hot meal. I've not been back since.
How times have changed, I remember back in the 1970's when it was no problem to by alcohol at 14 from pubs, clubs and off licences.
Carol Partington, Nether Poppleton, York
My ex-husband started drinking the alcohol his parents kept at home at the age of 11. Because he was tall for his age he was able to buy his own from the age of 14. He died aged 47 last month from the effects of acute alcoholism. Maybe he would still be here no if he'd been asked for ID from the age of 14.
I was working in Texas once a few years ago, and decided to buy some beer from the petrol station near our hotel. They asked for ID, but refused to accept my passport because it was "foreign". Obviously being a foreigner, I was unable to provide them with American ID, so I got in an argument with the manager, before another customer tapped me on the shoulder to say he had bought the beer for me. While me being ID'd wasn't unexpected (I was 27), my 55- year-old colleague was very unimpressed when they asked him for ID, and refused his passport as well! He went and shouted at our hotel receptionist until he went and got him beer that the hotel paid for by way of apology!
Rich Bradley, London, UK
I can tell you that here in the US, even the strict carding of young adults does not stop under-age drinking. Youths can still get alcohol from older family members and friends -- just look at the party culture in most US high schools and colleges. If you really want to stop young people from drinking, then it makes more sense to teach responsibility than completely restricting alcohol altogether.
Kristen, Virginia, USA
It seems that bar staff and cashiers are given greatest responsibility for beating underage drinking and up-holding the law. If they fail to do so, however, they face a penalty for little more than wrongly judging someone's age. They have a role to play, certainly, although IDing people aged 35 and above is ridiculous.
I'm unclear on the repercussions for under-age drinkers who get caught but they are the ones knowingly breaking the law. They may be underage, but if they're prepared to make that choice, they should also be prepared to be held to account somehow.
Anne Malcolm, London
As someone who used to work in the off-trade (and a licence holder), I can see both sides of the coin. The problem is, as the seller there's an £80 fine if you make a mistake. The business itself can get a fine in the thousands with the designated premises supervisor potentially getting sent down for six months. To make it even less fair on the staff, when you ask for ID you get abused. People seem to think that verbally abusing you is a good way to make you change your mind. It's a sad state of affairs to be in, but perhaps it's time people thought to actually take ID for age restricted products. You can claim it's ridiculous that you should have to, and as someone who has been asked for ID when buying glue gun sticks (quite what I could do with them isn't clear) I'm not going to disagree with you. But it is the world we live in.
Ben Tasker, Ipswich
As a licensee, the penalties for serving under-age drinkers make it risky to employ a judgment-based ID policy, so the alternative is a blanket U-21 or U-25 policy. In the states, this has gone to extremes, but where do you draw the lines? In the US (where I used to live) most people carry their driving license anyway, and those over the age of 30 are often quite flattered to be asked to prove they are over 21!
James, Swindon, UK
My girlfriend aged 28, an art teacher, can't get served at my local Tesco even though she can provide a French ID National ID card which has a picture on it with her date of birth. This card is accepted by UK border control but not by the supermarkets (aren't we supposed to be in the EU?)
Naz Islam, Pontypridd S-Wales
I'm 15 and I've never been ID'd buying alcohol
John D, Nottingham
I work in a local co-op and we are constantly under the threat of "test shoppers" sent in by the police or local council that are 17 but look much older to catch us out. We ask everyone who looks under 25 not only because its the law but if we do get caught out the £80 fine that we would personally have to pay out of our own pocket is more than most of us earn in a week. I'm not interested in serving children alcohol and support the law but I do feel very sorry for people who are around the age of 25-35 but look younger who i have to refuse sales to just because they have no ID. As usual the penalties in this country are too harsh for the majority of us they obey the law and the innocent get punished again.
Emma Walker, Fareham, Hampshire
I have to say I don't see the benefits of challenging people for their ID. It doesn't stop young people drinking because they will always find someone older to buy them a can or two of beer. Plus a lot of the binge drinkers who cause trouble on the weekend are not youths but young adults over the legal drinking age. I think people should be taught how to be responsible and people who cause disruption should be punished. One time I was ID'd when buying a DVD. The man said it was store policy but I'd never heard of anyone being ID'd for a DVD before. I never went back to that store and buy my DVDs online where no one can bother me or preach to me.
Mary, Yorkshire, UK