Police aim to close off-licence counters in Tesco stores across Sussex after catching staff selling to underage teenagers.

Three Tesco Express stores in Crawley and Worthing were found to be breaking the law in a series of undercover operations, police said.

They accused the supermarket giant of acting as if it is above the law and are asking for its licences to sell alcohol to be revoked for up to three months.

Jean Irving, Sussex Police violent crime reduction manager for West Sussex, said: "We're taking a strong stand on this. We are going for temporary licence bans and I think that's more than fair.

"We've tried mediation on this but if it had worked we wouldn't be going to review.

"I just wish they spent as much time training against underage sales and protecting our children as they do on promoting their Clubcard.

"The national figures are just horrendous and Tesco think they're above the law. They are not showing due diligence or any responsibility to the local community.

"It's about time they started taking responsibility for their actions."

The police will ask Crawley Borough Council and Worthing Borough Council to take action against Tesco.

Tesco Express branches in Downland Drive, Crawley, and Broadfield Way in Worthing could have their licences revoked for three months and the store in Dobbers Place, Ifield, Crawley for a month.

In a separate action, Sussex Police is prosecuting the company for selling alcohol illegally by failing to have a licence holder employed for at least two months in Crawley.

As part of a Home Office funded crackdown on underage sales of alcohol nationally, 189 test purchase oper-ations were carried out in October, with an overall 29.6 per cent failure rate.

Shops were tested for three weeks and two failed all three - including the Downland Drive store in Crawley.

Eighteen stores in the country failed twice in a row, nearly a quarter of them in West Sussex, including the three Tesco stores and one Somerfield store.

Stores targeted for test operations were chosen as a result of police intelligence gained from PCSO officers and parents who rang the police to complain their children had come home drunk after being sold alcohol at the stores.

Most test purchases were carried out by 16-year-olds watched from outside the stores by plain clothes police officers.

At the Worthing store, a 17-year-old supermarket assistant shouted "alcohol" to his supervisor when the undercover teenager reached the till, according to the police.

The supervisor is meant to check the customer looks over 21 before allowing the sale but on this occasion he carried on his work on the shop floor without looking up and yelled back "authorised".

In Worthing and Crawley, staff were issued with £80 fixed penalty notices after their first offences and given a letter asking the supervisor to go to the local police station the next day.

On each occasion, staff at Tesco failed to turn up and when questioned said their head office had told them not to meet police.

Ms Irving says she rang the Home Office which liaised with senior Government ministers who spoke to senior management at Tesco.

Two days later she received a phone call from Tesco to say there had been a misunderstanding.

She said: "The same day we got the call, we did the second test operations.

"They had already assured us they had spoken to managers and given them extra training but sure enough we got another couple of sales."

Tesco earns £1 of every £8 spent by UK shoppers and almost a third of all groceries are bought in its stores.

There is concern among independent traders in the North Laine, Brighton, over the Tesco Express earmarked for the Jubilee Street development.

Business leaders also fear Tesco's planned expansion of its Holmbush superstore in Shoreham by a third will kill trade in Southwick, Shoreham and Lancing town centres.

A spokesman for Tesco said: "We are disappointed the stores failed these operations. We have regular training in place but it can be a difficult thing for staff to make that judgement.

"Unfortunately, human error does happen. We would give refresher training to the staff involved and it's right the authorities are taking this seriously but we don't want to deny our customers the opportunity to buy alcohol at these stores."

It is not the first time Tesco has run into trouble in Sussex.

In Durrington, Worthing, Tesco opened in contravention of a council ruling that it must have its car park completed before trading.

At the Tesco Express store in Palmeira Square, Hove, windows had to be taken out when they did not comply with planning permission.

The decision by Sussex Police to attempt to revoke the shops' licences comes at a time of general crackdown on rogue licensees. Yesterday The Argus reported similar action against three off-licences.

Licences at Budgens in Queens Road, Brighton, Bargain Booze in Longridge Avenue, Saltdean, and Threshers in Fiveways, Brighton, are all being reviewed at the next Brighton and Hove Council licensing committee.

Sussex Police has also been taking quick action against pubs and clubs where crime and disorder has been caused by excess drinking.