Tuesday, 31 March 1998
Dáil Éireann Debate
It is ten years since the then Minister for Justice, Mr. Gerry Collins, changed the drinking regulations substantially. In retrospect, those relatively modest changes, which were designed to meet the transformation taking place in Irish society, worked well. They did not lead to widespread drunkenness, nor did they exacerbate the problems associated with excessive drinking. Time has moved on and society continues to evolve, its needs altering in the last decade. The composition of the workforce has changed, as have patterns of work. Thousands of young people want to drink at their convenience and in the manner to which other young Europeans are accustomed. The time is ripe to update the licensing laws.
This Bill seeks to meet that challenge by updating and modernising the present licensing laws, which are obsolete. This Bill proposes a relatively modest increase in opening hours, coupled with the abolition of the “holy hour”. In addition, the Bill seeks to regularise some anomalies in the licensing laws in relation to clubs, public houses and off-licences. Over the years, bar workers have expressed concern about the hours they are expected to work. These concerns are addressed comprehensively by the Bill, which is based on the fundamental principle that the consumers' concerns should be met in the widest ranging and most comprehensive way possible, while protecting the legitimate rights of those who work in the industry. The Bill is based on the concepts of  partnership, choice and freedom. The consumer should be given more choice, while those working in the industry should have the freedom to opt out of extra unsocial working hours if they so wish. Alternatively, the Bill ensures that if they work late into the night they should be rewarded adequately for doing so.
Ireland has developed at an unprecedented rate over the past decade. Consumers want increased options for their leisure time and this Bill ensures that they can exercise their wish to drink for a longer time if they so desire. Large numbers of people find opening hours particularly restrictive at weekends and this leads to an inordinate amount of after hours drinking, which is very unsatisfactory. If the law cannot be enforced, which I believe to be the case, it is important that it be changed so that it can be enforced and respected. There is an outcry in four western counties which provides a clear example of how this law has been disregarded.
I understand the frustration of the drinking public, but I also sympathise with publicans, who are torn between an anxiety to satisfy their customers and an anxiety to act within the law. That frustration is made all the more acute by virtue of the heavy penalties that can be attached to breaches of the licensing laws by publicans. There can be no quibble with the Garda in their enforcement of the law. They must do so in a manner compatible with the other demands on their time and resources. However, in the dying days of the 20th century, it seems bizarre that the Garda find themselves imposing sanctions on adults consuming alcoholic drink. Keeping this law on the Statute Book reflects poorly on our self-confidence and maturity as a nation. It is time to treat the public as mature adults capable of looking after their own affairs without having the State poking its nose into their private matters.
The level of consumption of drink in Ireland is average by international standards for modern developed economies. The most recent EU data shows that the Irish consumption level is clearly in the middle of the 15 EU countries. It is the eighth highest or eighth lowest, depending on the end of the table one counts from. When the comparison is broadened to OECD countries, Ireland figures in the second half of a table of 21 countries. Consumption here is less than in Australia, New Zealand, Hungary and the Czech Republic and is only marginally higher than that of South Africa, the United States of America, Japan and Poland. Those who oppose drink claim this figure is too low because it does not take the large number of Irish teetotallers into account. That claim is incorrect. The number of adult teetotallers, at 24 per cent, is almost identical to the average for 21 developed countries.
Those who claim that the Irish are a nation of drunkards who will drink themselves to destruction if the State does not interfere seem to be harking back to the images published by Punch magazine at the turn of the century. This magazine portrayed the Irish as a nation of gormless  drunken imbeciles unable to control their drinking habits. That was never true and the data available to disprove it have proved solid over a long period.
There has been significant liberalisation of licensing laws in two countries which are similar to Ireland, New Zealand and Scotland. They have liberalised their laws without any significant damage to their populations. That liberalisation is believed to have been particularly beneficial in Scotland, where drunkenness seems to be less common. Antisocial behaviour on the part of those leaving public houses has declined and liberalisation appears to have had a civilising effect on the population.
Although this Bill's proposals differ from the changes made in Scotland, there are parallels between the two situations. This Bill approximates to the Scottish provisions and the extra time provided for drinking will allow the public to adopt a more civilised approach to drinking. It will help to eliminate stockpiling of drink by customers as closing time approaches and to eliminate the dumping of large numbers of people on the street by bar staff at closing time. It is easy to understand why bar staff take this approach. They are worried that they may be found guilty of breaking the law and about the consequences for their employers.
There can hardly be any doubt there are significant differences in the demand for drink in different parts of the country, and in the same parts of the country at different times of the year. It is obvious that areas which cater almost exclusively for the tourism industry have radically different needs from the areas where the tourism industry is of no great significance. To some extent, existing legislation seeks to cater for these differences although in a somewhat convoluted manner. For example, an extra half hour is allowed for drinking in the summer. The law also caters for events by providing for a degree of flexibility in granting extensions when festivals and other important local events take place.
This Bill seeks to rationalise the present practice by allowing the courts to vary the time of closing in different areas in accord with the needs of the locality. The proposals provide for the courts to extend or restrict the hours of opening in accordance with local needs. The Bill provides explicitly for the courts to be able to modify the hours of opening in accordance with the needs of the tourism industry and in relation to the special needs of areas which have a booming night life, such as the Temple Bar area of Dublin. It also allows the courts to take into account the type of customers which frequent a public house as well as the type of area in which the public house is located.
The Bill specifically provides for residents in a residential area to petition the courts to restrict the hours of opening in the event of customers behaving in a manner which constitutes a significant nuisance for the neighbourhood. This is a new provision, which allows resident groups, who  feel their lives are being made miserable by noise or nuisance, to have their concerns remedied. I hope it will meet the concerns of resident groups who are currently being exposed to unacceptable harassment arising from the manner in which some people behave on exit from public houses.
A feature of the Irish licensing laws is the provisions which exist for granting exemptions. These provisions and what happens in reality is a convincing argument in favour of the need to modify the existing laws. These provisions clearly undermine any principled objection to the extension of the present licensing laws. In the year ending 31 July 1997 a staggering 65,096 licensing extensions were sought in the courts. Statistics are not available to enable one to say how many of these applications were granted. However, it seems reasonable to conclude a significant number were acceded to.
If one works from the assumption that last year's figures are a reasonable representation of what has been happening over the past decade, approximately half a million exemptions to the existing law were sought since the law was last altered. By any standards this is an exceptional phenomenon. It is difficult to envisage any other law which needs to have so many exemptions applied to it. This experience is one of the clearest arguments in support of the proposition before the House.
The tourism industry is a major source of income and employment and has huge potential for further growth. While there is no clear evidence that tourists come to Ireland specifically to drink, there can be little doubt those who come like to sample the atmosphere of the Irish public house. For many tourists familiar with liberal opening hours, especially those from North America and mainland Europe, the experience of being thrown out of the pub at closing time is amazing.
Many of these tourists are acquainted with the phenomenon of the Irish pub in their own country. There are many differences in the nature of the Irish pub overseas and in Ireland. However, one of the more unpleasant differences for holiday makers is the manner in which the law requires the pubs here to close very early in the middle of summer, at the peak of the tourist season. For many publicans in tourist areas the short few weeks while the tourists are around is their chance to make enough money to tide them over the rest of the year when the local trade is slow. It seems reasonable that this group should have the option of making hay while the sun shines and allowed to trade into the night while a demand exists.
The holy hour must be a unique and strange phenomenon for visitors to Ireland. It must be puzzling for tourists from countries in mainland Europe where there is a culture of having a long lunch washed down by an appropriate amount of alcoholic drink. I am sure they question what type of country they are visiting. In the past it was deemed necessary to have a holy hour in Dublin  and Cork to ensure those who went to pubs at lunch time did not remain there for the rest of the day. That law was changed by Gerry Collins when he was Minister. It has been suggested that the holy hour was designed with civil servants in mind. I presume this stemmed from the Myles na gCopaleen era when it is claimed people went to pubs at lunch time and the country ground to a halt in the afternoon as they wrote worthwhile essays. There has been no significant problem in this regard since the law was changed. I believe the holy hour on Sundays will also be abolished.
A large section of the public like to go to pubs for their lunch on Sundays. Many pubs give very good value in the quality of food they provide at a cost within the budget of most of the public. There is no reason the public should not be allowed to consume their lunch in peace without having to watch the clock. For many, Sunday lunch is the only time in the week when they get the chance to relax. For many families it is the only time in the week when they can relax together and they should be allowed do so in a public house if they wish.
The Bill proposes that opening time on Sundays should be the same as during the rest of the week. This provision would allow those who wish to have a drink on Sunday morning to do so. The 12.30 p.m. opening on Sunday may have its genesis in a fear that having pubs open on Sunday morning would prevent the public from going to church services. This concern is no longer relevant for a variety of reasons. Many church services now take place on Saturday evenings. It is difficult to believe it was ever relevant and the Bill seeks to end it.
Section 2 deals with anomalies in the law in relation to opening hours for public houses and registered clubs. It proposes to put both on the same footing as far as opening hours are concerned. There is currently some doubt about whether the law allows for drinking up time in clubs. In the definitive book on the Irish licensing laws by Constance Cassidy, the author alludes to this possibility, even if she does not make a definitive statement on the exact legal position. That would be an interesting case to test in the courts. However, the provision that clubs can open for a limited period on Christmas day for members has not been altered. The underlying principle behind this Bill, that where possible the choice open to the public should be maintained and expanded, underpins the decision not to change the current provisions in relation to clubs, except that they should have the same drinking up time as public houses.
There are some differences between the law as it relates to the sale of goods other than alcoholic drink in public houses and off-licences. Public houses are allowed to open at 7.30 a.m. for the sale of products other than alcoholic drink, while off-licences can only open for the sale of such products at 9 a.m. This anomaly should be cleared up and the Bill removes it to permit both off-licences  and public houses to open at 7.30 a.m. However, no changes are made in the time at which the two outlets are allowed to commence selling alcohol in the morning, which remains at 10.30 am. The anomaly whereby off-licences are prevented from opening till 9 a.m. is a source of considerable annoyance to those who live near these premises. Many people would like to avail of the services of off-licences in terms of the nonalcoholic products which many of them sell. It seems unreasonable they should be prevented from opening until 9 a.m.
The Bill provides that St. Patrick's Day and Good Friday should be treated as any other day of the week and that there should be no special provisions applicable to these days. At present St. Patrick's Day is treated as a Sunday under the law. A central principle of this Bill is that the law should be streamlined and be as simple as possible. Accordingly I see no reason special provisions should apply to St. Patrick's Day. In any case the Bill treats it as similar to a Sunday.
Over the past 20 to 30 years there have been significant changes in the way the public behaves on Good Friday, 30 years ago Good Friday was treated in an exceptionally solemn manner and the country virtually closed down. Commerce more or less came to a halt. The national radio station closed down. Little happened except religious services or essential services. In the intervening period there have been many changes in the manner in which the public behaves on Good Friday. It is still a very significant day in the religious life of many people. However, for many others Good Friday is like any other bank holiday. Many shops remain open and some provide extra shopping options. Many use the day as an occasion to increase sales. The Bill provides that those who feel like a drink on Good Friday should have the option of getting it. It is difficult to estimate how many people would avail of such a service. However, the Bill provides that those who want to avail of the service will be able to do so and those in the trade who want to provide the service will be free to do so. Needless to say, there is no obligation on pubs to open on Good Friday or any other day and there is no obligation on people to visit them either.
No change is proposed in the law as it applies to Christmas Day. I believe there is no significant demand for pubs to remain open on that day. In addition, it seems unlikely that those who own pubs or work in them would be interested in opening for business on Christmas Day. Many pubs in Dublin do not open or, alternatively, open for very short periods on St. Stephen's Day and for some days following depending on what day of the week they occur. There appears to be no demand for opening on Christmas Day, nor is there any wish to provide a service on that day.
During the preparation of the Bill, I became aware that some centres involved in the past in the production of alcoholic drinks have been converted into heritage centres which are part of the tourism industry. One such centre is based in Tullamore,  County Offaly, and was brought to my attention by my colleague, Senator Gallagher. He pointed out that this centre, formerly the location where Tullamore Dew was produced, could not sell alcoholic drinks under the present law. This seems inappropriate. Many people visit these centres to study and understand the drinks industry and to get a flavour of its heritage. These centres can be used very effectively as a tourism feature in the areas in which they are located. Their attractiveness to tourists would be enhanced by allowing those who visit them to buy drinks and to sample the produce manufactured there in the past.
The Bill provides that these centres should be allowed to sell alcoholic drinks. The proposals contained in the Bill would regulate the sale of alcoholic drinks at these centres in a manner similar to the way the sale of alcoholic drinks is controlled at horse racing meetings and similar events. The heritage centres would not be allowed to sell drink after 9 p.m. at night. In these centres drinks purchased to be consumed off the premises would be limited to the product produced at the centre in times past. For example, it would be limited to Tullamore Dew in the case of the heritage centre in Tullamore. I thank Senator Gallagher for his background work in relation to the legal technicalities surrounding this part of the Bill.
Dr. Upton: And appropriate. It is envisaged that the centres in a position to avail of this provision would be small. It is estimated that the number of centres which could benefit from the proposal would not exceed ten to 20 at a maximum. In practice it is expected that a much smaller number of centres would avail of this provision.
There has been some criticism of the decision to publish this Bill now. There are those who argue that we should wait until a comprehensive Bill can be produced. I accept the need to consolidate the law in relation to the licensing Acts, but I do not accept we should continue to wait to address the main aspect of the licensing laws of concern to the general public. The licensing laws have been the subject of an enormous amount of study and a good deal of debate. We have seen no change, or negligible change, since 1988 with the exception of Deputy Owen's Intoxicating Liquor Act, 1995, which dealt with trading on Christmas Eve. There has been little action despite the considerable reflection on the industry's needs. It is time we moved on, changed and modernised.
The Bill is a sensible, balanced approach to the main issue which concerns the public in relation to pubs: the time they can obtain a drink. It is time the laws in this regard were modified and liberalised. I have been very encouraged by the response I received from the general public since the intention to introduce this Bill was announced  over a week ago. I was also encouraged by the views of the Garda Commissioner when he responded to a question regarding the effects he envisaged in the event of the law being changed. I was also encouraged by the response of a District Court judge in Waterford when he expressed his views on the licensing laws in his court recently. He spoke both vigorously and trenchantly in favour of liberalisation and modernisation.
There has been a great deal of comment about the undesirable effects of drink. People have harped on about them. It is no harm to put the other side of the argument. There is no doubt that drink, when consumed to excess, has a black and a dark side. There is no shortage of emphasis on that point. That reality should not be allowed to obscure the fact that drink has many beneficial effects when consumed in moderation. It is a useful and effective social lubricant and helps people to relax. It can also be beneficial to health when consumed in moderate amounts. This has been studied to a significant degree recently and there is a good deal of data which indicates that, in relation to some diseases, especially heart disorders, moderate intakes of some alcoholic drinks, especially wine, have a more beneficial effect than total abstinence. I do not pretend for a minute that excessive drinking will eliminate or diminish disease but there is what is called in the jargon a U-curve response which shows there is a significant beneficial effect when drink is consumed in moderate amounts. This is especially true in the case of red wine, but it goes wider than that.
I believe the public is in favour of a change in the law. I see no useful purpose in continuing to wait until every aspect of the licensing laws is dealt with in a comprehensive manner. To do that means prolonging the issue with more committees, experts, reports and sterile debate. It is time we did what we can. What I propose is sensible, balanced and realistic and in accordance with the wishes of the vast majority of the public. Other complex aspects of the industry and its regulation should be dealt with on another occasion when due time is available to consider them.
I do not wish to give the impression that I am against change in our liquor laws. Any body of laws as diverse and as pervasive as the Licensing Acts require updating from time to time. Therein lies the dilemma. The licensing code is a complex body of legislation. The collective citation of the  statutes comprising the licensing laws is the “Licensing Acts, 1833 to 1997” and there are almost 50 Acts cited since 1833. I am by no means the first Minister for Justice who worked up a thirst in considering the licensing laws. In respect of those 50 Acts, this does not include other legislation where there would be relevant references to the licensing code.
Our legislation dates back to the 18th century. One learned textbook discloses that the first licensing statute which affected Ireland was passed in 1635. It goes without saying that a great deal of drinking up time has passed since 1635.
The whole body of law relating to clubs comes under the collective citation “Registration of Clubs Acts, 1904 to 1995”. The Licensing Acts represent a balance of interests, and in legislating for one or two sectors of the trade we may well alienate other sectors or interest groups, including the public.
The purpose of this Bill is to amend the Licensing Acts, 1833 to 1997, and the Registration of Clubs Acts, 1904 to 1995, to provide for hours of trading for licensed premises and registered clubs. The main provisions would be to extend opening hours to 12.30 a.m. throughout the year, with an additional half-hour drinking-up time; to abolish Sunday closing between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m; to replace existing Sunday opening with weekday opening time, and to permit public houses and clubs to open on Good Friday. The Bill would allow off-licences to open for the sale of products other than alcohol at the same time as pubs.
I do not intend to dwell on the merits or demerits of the individual proposals. There is probably not a single Deputy who does not have an opinion on our licensing laws, perhaps even deeply felt views on how they could be improved. I could go so far as to say that every adult in the land has a view — an expert view — on the licensing laws. It is certainly an area which commands great interest and, no doubt, many conflicting views as to whether our existing provisions are too liberal, not liberal enough. or simply out of touch with modern day living.
I would have thought the Deputy was “jumping the gun” somewhat. He is surely aware that the Select Committee on Legislation and Security was engaged in a broad review of the licensing laws when the 27th Dáil was dissolved. That work is continuing under the sub-committee on security and legislation of the new Select Committee on Justice, Equality and Women's Rights. In deference to a select committee of the House, it is premature to introduce legislative proposals in advance of that review without giving due consideration to the recommendations of the select committee on the matter. To do otherwise would make a joke of the committees of the House. They were charged with examining this matter. Nobody could seriously expect me or any other Minister for Justice to accept a Private Members' Bill without giving consideration to a committee  which has been reviewing the matter for a long time.
The former committee's modus operandi included inviting submissions from interested parties and the commissioning of a research document. The sub-commitee on legislation and security is continuing with this work and, I understand, intends to prepare a report on the basis of the submissions received and also the research document which it commissioned.
The input of the select committee, which is grounded in a public consultation process with all interested parties, is the appropriate way forward. I ask the Deputy to consider whether now is the appropriate time to introduce this legislation, in advance of the review by the select committee. I, for one, would like to have the recommendations of the committee to hand, before engaging in an attempt to amend the legislation. Even after having the benefit of the select committee's recommendations, there would need to be a further period of consultation with all interested parties, both from within the licensing trade and outside it. The Garda Síochána, other statutory and voluntary groups and the public generally have legitimate interests and a contribution to make to this important debate.
As indicated by the Chief Whip on 23 January 1998 at the beginning of this session, the Government has a full programme of legislative reform. My Department is engaged in a heavy schedule of legislative work in the coming months.
However, I can give an undertaking that any recommendations made by the select committee arising from its review of the licensing laws will be given the most serious consideration by me, with a view to any amending legislation that may be necessary.
As part of the consultative process in relation to examination of our licensing laws, I am supporting a seminar on liquor licensing law reform which will take place on 24 April 1998. The seminar is being jointly sponsored by my Department and the Dublin Institute of Technology faculty of tourism. The seminar is by invitation and all interests in this area are being invited. A panel of national and international speakers will attend the seminar. Issues for discussion include competition in the licensed trade, licensing administration and current issues in licensing reform.
This is a timely seminar which will focus on the state of the liquor licensing laws and possible reform options. It will be a useful input into the process of developing future public policy options in this area and should help to complement the work of the Select Committee on Justice, Equality and Women's Rights.
The licensing laws, while not ideal in all respects, provide for a balancing of sometimes competing interests, those of publicans, hoteliers, restaurateurs, holders of club licences, off-licence holders and interest groups in the community. All these groups have a stake in the licensing laws. Any revision of the legislation would need to take on board the views of all interested groups.  I am not convinced such a comprehensive canvassing of all interest groups was undertaken in the preparation of this Bill. Whatever consultation with the broad range of interest groups has taken place is unknown to me. I note, for example, that a leading trade union involved, MANDATE, is reported as being opposed to the changes proposed in Deputy Upton's Bill.
There is a need to give serious consideration to the socio-economic implications of extended opening hours. The select committee is well positioned to give that kind of consideration to the matter and, on the basis of its research and consultations, will no doubt do so. While it could be argued, as I understand Deputy Upton is doing in presenting this Bill, that a liberalisation of the licensing laws would benefit the tourist industry, any potential benefits which might accrue would have to be balanced against possible negative outcomes, including public order issues associated with alcohol abuse. Issues such as the possibility of increased alcohol abuse and attendant domestic violence abuse, the possibility of more drink-driving offences as closing time extends even further beyond public transport cut-off time, and threats to public order generally are matters of considerable importance. They deserve to be properly examined and investigated and the views of all interested parties placed on the record.
I cannot be blind to the fact that research consistently shows alcohol abuse to be a background factor in the commission of some forms of serious offences. By and large, alcohol is supplied in accordance with the law and people consume it lawfully. For these reasons, there is perhaps an understandable inclination not to think of alcohol in the context of substance abuse. The fact is, however, that some do not consume alcohol responsibly and, as a consequence, contribute directly to deaths on the roads, alcohol-related illnesses, and violence, both within the home and outside it. The irresponsible use of alcohol sets an extremely poor example for younger people. This, combined with greater affluence and glamorised packaging of the product, can create the impression among our youth that heavy drinking is an accepted way of life.
As Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, I have a core responsibility for any changes to the licensing laws. This is not an easy task, nor one I would wish to undertake lightly. Any change requires very careful consideration and deliberation and should only be brought about when there is a clear and demonstrable or pressing need. On the one hand, as I have already said, the consequential effects of any proposed changes, particularly if there is a question of them impacting negatively on the already significant problems associated with drink abuse, requires very careful consideration. On the other hand, of course, we must not lose sight of the fact that the majority of drinkers exercise a responsible attitude to alcohol consumption and it would not be appropriate that measures taken to help curb  drink abuse would have the effect of penalising the responsible drinker. There is no doubt that drink plays a very important part in social life generally. In this context I would be forgiven for saying that it is something to be celebrated. It makes it all the more appropriate that the sale of intoxicating liquor should be subject to controls which are acceptable generally and whose purposes are to prevent abuse.
Part I of the Bill relates to the opening hours of pubs and clubs. This is a hotly debated topic. I wonder if there is anyone who does not have a view on this topic. In 1988, at the time of the last major review of the licensing laws, a concerted effort was made to strike a balance by the then Minister, Gerry Collins, between the advocates of longer hours and those calling for shorter hours. The end result was a compromise. I do not claim that compromise met, or now meets with universal approval but compromise was considered the way forward. However, as compromises go it was generally accepted as striking a fair balance and any interference with that hard-earned equilibrium can only be realistically done after a thorough examination and public debate around all the issues concerned.
While it is valid to say that some tourists arriving here from some countries find our licensing laws archaic because they cannot get a drink after a certain time, that in itself may not be reason enough to change the law. Nor, according to Bord Fáilte, is it a universal demand of tourists. I am sure one would get many members of the public who, if confronted with the prospect of public houses or clubs opening for longer hours, would wish to register their opposition on the basis of noise, threat to their person or property from drink-induced violence, or just common nuisance. It is not sufficient to listen to one side of the argument in this debate. It is of considerable importance that one listens to both sides of the argument before reaching a decision.
The proposal to abolish mandatory closing on Good Friday is another serious matter. While many would argue that it is a matter for the individual to regulate his or her behaviour on this day as on any other day, this proposal will undoubtedly meet with opposition from people who genuinely hold the view that it should remain a closed day. There are traditional aspects to the licensing laws which command significant support in the community and Good Friday is not a day that many would want to see an open day for licensed premises.
Within the trade I wonder if there is consensus on the issue of permitted hours. While the pub trade may well welcome longer hours, we may find that the operators of night-clubs and discos will oppose them as an unfair incursion into their particular end of the market, and we could be faced with a demand to make further concessions to this area of the trade. The opportunities for upsetting the equilibrium I referred to earlier are only too apparent. Since Solomon is long dead I do not have access to him.
 Part II of the Bill addresses the rights of employees in respect of the proposed extended opening hours. There are many, including employers and employees, who question the use of legislation to set mandatory terms of overtime and holiday pay in advance of negotiations on the matter between employer and employee groups. It is worth pointing out that there will be a cost to be paid for longer opening hours. How will the overhead costs to the licensee of extended opening hours, including additional wage costs, be recouped? I expect this might be through increased sales of alcohol, an increase in prices, or a combination of both. These are issues which in themselves are bound to excite considerable debate and which require serious reflection. There are also issues relating to working procedure which would require detailed consultation and subsequent negotiation with employer and employee organisations.
Part III of the Bill deals with certain general matters on which I do not intend to dwell to any detailed extent. I do wish to comment on the first matter which relates to the granting of licences to what are termed authorised heritage centres, sites or premises of national or local historical significance relating to the manufacture or distilling of any intoxicating liquor. Deputy Upton used the example of Tullamore and suggested that the heritage centre should serve Tullamore Dew. If someone wished to drink something else they could go to a different licensed premises.
Mr. O'Donoghue: I take this to be a provision aimed at enhancing the tourist attraction of these centres. This is a matter which could and should be more appropriately considered in the context of overall policy for developing the potential of such centres. It would be important that such tourist amenities would be viable in their own right and not contingent on the granting of such licences. This aspect of the Bill will be of interest to my colleague, the Minister for Tourism, Sport and Recreation, Deputy McDaid, who is responsible for policy in this area. The proposals will be of equal interest to the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, Deputy de Valera. I mention this to reinforce the point that there are elements which require much more reflection, consideration and consultation.
I have based my opposition to the Bill on the premise that this is not the appropriate time to bring forward amending legislation, particularly in light of the attention being given to this area by a select committee of the House. There is a need when preparing legislation, particularly when legislating in the area of intoxicating liquor, to maintain a correct balance. There must be a balance which reflects not merely the legitimate commercial interests of the different groups which make up the trade but also between their interests and the general public interest. The  means of achieving that balance is through a significant consultative process. To proceed in any other way would without doubt upset the equilibrium and in so doing upset many people.
This is an issue which will not go away. It must be addressed. A select committee has been charged with this task. I would be making its deliberations redundant if I were to accept Deputy Upton's proposals. The best course of action is to await the outcome of the deliberations of the select committee and then engage in the consideration, deliberation and consultation which is desirable.
Mr. Collins: I have listened carefully to Deputy Upton. In certain instances I could agree with him. As someone who is directly involved in the licensed trade, I have my own views. I have yet to meet a group of people who do not have a view on the licensed trade. In considering the matter one must take into account major changes in the pattern of drinking and the consumption of alcohol. The biggest change is that the vast majority of people are far more careful in the volume of alcohol they consume, especially those in charge of motor vehicles. People are also concerned about their health.
The day is long gone when people, even in rural areas, consumed alcohol during the day. I am sure every Deputy is well aware that in most towns and villages the vast majority of public houses do not open until 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. By law they are allowed to remain open until 11.30 p.m. with 30 minutes drinking up time during the summer and 11 p.m. with 30 minutes drinking up time in the winter. Unlike other nations, Irish people do not go out until very late. There is a different pattern in the United States where public houses can stay open late. One could walk into a public house at 2 a.m. and there might not even be four customers on the premises.
Sunday opening hours present the biggest problem. When first mooted I agreed that the idea of a Sunday hour was a good one. I still believe that people should go home at a respectable hour but the time has come to make a change. Matches are now shown on television and, as Deputy Upton mentioned, many licensed premises have to serve food to make ends meet.
Deputy Upton mentioned the possibility of opening on Good Friday. I am not advocating that public houses should open on Good Friday. I have come across few members of the public who want public houses to open on Good Friday but the same cannot be said about Christmas Day. However, I am not suggesting that public houses should open on Christmas Day. The public are well looked after on Christmas morning by the GAA, rugby, golf, Garda and Army clubs which are officially entitled to open for a couple of hours. Relatives and friends of members are allowed to sign the visitor's book.
When the select committee reports to the Minister he should rectify a number of anomalies in the trade. On a previous occasion when certain changes were proposed I led a delegation of six publicans to a former Minister. Two of the delegation are prominent members of the Opposition and they each had a different opinion. This is not an easy matter for which to legislate as one cannot compare the position in Dublin to that in Limerick or Cork. While it would be difficult to legislate for them alone, special provision should be made for seaside resorts, especially at weekends in the months of July and August. Families which go there on holidays with children are not able to get out until late at night due to difficulties with baby sitting, etc. In such a situation it is difficult if licensing laws are restricted.
I ask Deputy Upton to withdraw the Bill as it is premature. Our parliamentary party has discussed this issue and I raised it with the Minister who asked us to hold back until the commission makes its recommendations. That is what we should do.
Mr. Flanagan: Fine Gael supports Deputy Upton's Bill on the basis that we want it to get a second reading. However, we propose that the Bill then be referred to the select committee of the Houses dealing with the matter. I understand, however, that the Minister has a different view. I listened with interest to the debate and agreed with much of what Deputy Upton said in his opening address. I feel like the Deputy who is asked to judge at an agricultural fair in his or her constituency and who is in an invidious position as I also listened with interest to what the Minister said and found little with which I disagreed. It is difficult to chart the most appropriate way forward on the basis of what we have heard.
I was surprised that Deputy Upton produced this Bill because the Labour Party was represented at the all-party committee. I understand it still is — perhaps this can be confirmed. It is extraordinary and hardly credible that the reports of the committee were read, sections were extracted and a Bill was produced in the expectation that the Dáil would pass it without any reference to the committee. Deputy Upton dismissed any attempt at getting cross party agreement by talking in great detail about heritage centres, etc., despite being aware that the documentation from the heritage centre in my constituency has been with the committee for one year. In his final sentence he said the debate to date had been sterile and that this is why he wants the Bill to be passed. The debate has been anything but sterile.
Mr. Flanagan: The Deputy's party Whip will explain the position. There is agreement on most sides of the House that the issue of trading hours for licensed premises is in need of reform to meet consumer demand. In spite of the 1988 legislation, the law is in disrepute. I am not sure if it is at the instruction of the Minister, but in the west there is a prime example of zero tolerance, the second such zero tolerance initiative in as many weeks. The first was in my own constituency in the context of speeding and road traffic. There is now zero tolerance in Galway and Mayo with public houses being closed by the Garda on the dot of closing time. It is difficult to argue against this — I am not saying we should encourage a law which has already fallen into disrepute to remain in disrepute. However, when the law is applied in one part of the country and ignored in another, those subjected to a rigorous application of it at the expense of others have a fair case. The unsatisfactory nature of the situation is underlined in streets in many towns or cities. Three public houses within a hundred yards of each other could all be operating different licensing hours. It is nonsense.
Special exemptions will have to be examined and I agree with much that Deputy Upton said in that regard. The 65,000 applications for special exemptions each year prove the need for change and that the present daily hours are insufficient to meet consumer demand. I think the vast majority of these exemptions are for Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays — perhaps Deputy Upton has done research on the matter. It is important when changing the law that the exemptions being granted for Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays are examined as I do not think there is a similar demand on such nights. The Minister could usefully examine the idea of staggering exemptions through the week — although staggering is not an appropriate term when discussing licensing laws.
Deputy Upton spoke of the Scottish experience and made a valid point regarding the situation there. The so-called '10 o'clock swill', where everybody was thrown out of public houses in Glasgow, gave rise to grave public disorder and has been substantially changed. The problems experienced in Scotland were no longer evident once the laws were liberalised and extended hours were introduced.
We would be doing a disservice to proceed with the Bill or enact it without reference to the overall issues. I welcome the Minister's undertaking that recommendations made by the all-party committee will be given most serious consideration with a view to amending legislation which may be necessary. I hope the Minister receives a copy of  the report within a few weeks. I also welcome his initiative for a one day seminar which will be useful and which I look forward to attending. The report of the Competition Authority is due in the coming months and perhaps consideration should not be given to amending legislation until we see what it says in terms of licensing laws, restrictive practices, licences, etc. This is an area the authority could usefully examine.
A simple issue is that of the price of soft drinks and minerals in public houses. It is totally unacceptable that, in some cases, a glass of coke or orange costs more than a glass of beer. Colleagues on all sides will be declaring their vested interests, as Deputies Collins and Moloney have already done. I know Deputy Moloney, who has many years service in the trade, will make a useful contribution to the debate, as will Deputy Perry. It is unacceptable that a glass of sparkling water can cost as much as an alcoholic beverage, if not more.
A great case can be made for Sunday afternoon trading. The eating habits of Irish people have changed and they like to go to the pubs which serve food on Sunday rather than to hotels. It is very difficult to justify the closure of a licensed premises at 2 o'clock on a Sunday afternoon when teams are about to take to the field for a premiership game broadcast by Sky Sports. It is something of a nuisance that pubs are not allowed to open on Sunday afternoons and I hope that will be changed.
There are other areas which must be addressed. The question of the trading hours of off licences and supermarkets must also be considered. To proceed with a mere extension of opening hours and other ancillary matters, as proposed by Deputy Upton, is perhaps to neglect to deal with more important issues. The manner in which licences are distributed throughout the country must be addressed. The distribution of licences appears to be very unfair in so far as the province of Connacht, for example, seems to be overserved with licences whereas the opposite is the case on the east coast. A level of service must be provided to all sections of the community where population levels deem it appropriate.
The issue of six day licences must be examined. An amnesty was introduced some time ago for the conversion of such licences. A number of six day licences operate at present in this State and the licence holders obviously cannot open on a Sunday. I hope the Minister will introduce a mechanism which would allow for the conversion of these six day licences into seven day ones, perhaps on payment of a fee.
I fully agree with the Minister's comments on the difficulties involved in alcohol-related incidents as crime or abuse can arise from excess indulgence in alcohol. I do not think this is something we should take lightly. It is regrettable that no substantial research on alcohol has been carried out in this State.
 There are other areas in which current laws are being totally ignored. For example, underage young people are being employed on licensed premises. One can visit any busy lounge on a weekend night and see very young people working as lounge boys and lounge girls, in spite of the fact that the 1988 Act specifically outlaws that practice. I do not think there is any question of enforcing that provision in any rigorous way. At the end of the day, the Minister must introduce legislation which will be enforced. Any change made to opening hours must be accompanied by a strong warning on the part of the authorities and the Minister. Strictly speaking, current winter closing time is 11 p.m. but one can still go into any pub, particularly in remote rural areas, and be served much later than that. If opening hours are to be extended, we must rigorously enforce whatever time limit we, as legislators, impose.
It is important that we meet consumer demand in this area. Tourism has been highlighted by a number of interested parties as being a reason opening hours should be extended. There is some validity in that but we should not merely extend opening hours to facilitate tourists in spite of the fact that tourism creates spending and spending creates jobs which increases revenue for the State. Irish people must also be facilitated. Difficulties are experienced, particularly during the summer months in towns which are noteworthy tourist attractions, when public houses close at the prescribed hours. People who wish to indulge in an extra glass of lager or who want to stay out longer than 11.40 p.m. are forced to pay £6 into the local disco where they may not be able to get a seat and where they must contend with noise pollution. These are the kind of practical daily issues which would be somewhat addressed by an extension in opening hours, particularly in summer time.
Mr. Flanagan: There was a reference by the two previous speakers to the situation which pertains in regard to Good Friday. Fine Gael supports the maintenance of Good Friday as a close day and is not in agreement with Deputy Upton's proposal to make it a normal working day in the licensed trade. Nor does Fine Gael support the opening of pubs during Sunday trading hours on that day. Pubs are open for 363 days of the year and the maintenance of Good Friday and Christmas Day as close days will not create any great public disturbance or outcry. I am not sure there is a great demand for pubs to be opened on Good Friday. It should remain a day of special significance.
I welcome the fact that we are debating this important matter. However, changing the licensing code is not as simple as Deputy Upton's Bill appears to suggest. I am pleased the Minister has  given certain undertakings here and I am pleased that the work of the select committee, of which I am Chairman, is proceeding apace. The committee is meeting on a weekly basis and a report should be available to the Minister within three to four weeks. I agree with the Minister that he would require some time to consider that report. He stated he wishes to engage in further consultation although I am not sure of the extent to which he proposes to do so.
I know he will be very interested in the outcome of the seminar and its report and I hope he will be in a position to come into the House by autumn with proposals which would meet many of the valid points raised by Deputy Upton. The fact that we would have cross-party agreement towards reform at committee level will be a great help. That underlines the importance of our committee system for the processing of legislation or at least recommendations for change. It would be nonsense to enact this Bill without reference to the select all-party committee which has been given terms of reference by this House. I ask Deputy Upton in his reply to this debate to comment on why he produced a Bill without referring to the work of the all-party committee or, perhaps, without even consulting his party colleague, Deputy McDowell, whose contribution to the committee was quite valued.
Mr. Perry: I thank Deputy Flanagan for sharing his time with me. I compliment him because the select committee he chairs is doing very important work. It is important at this stage that there should be all-party agreement on this matter and that we introduce proper legislation in this area. A codifying of our licensing laws as they apply is required because the present legislation in very dated. It is important to get this legislation right because it will affect up to 6,000 families who operate privately owned licensed hotels, guesthouses or restaurants.
The select committee should examine the question of off licences. There is a great demand from customers for off licence facilities in supermarkets. I know from my experience the difficulty and cost of going to court to get a licence for an off licensing facility in a supermarket, particularly when it is based in a town in a rural area that could not be classified as an urban area. That necessitates the purchase of two licences outside the area and the employment of a senior counsel to go to court. The legal fees alone can amount to between £8,000 and £9,000 and the granting of  the licence depends very much on the humour of the judge on the day. The select committee should consider this important area.
Customers demand a supermarket that incorporates an off licence. That is particularly the case now when Tesco, which has a £12 billion turnover per annum, has opened outlets in every large suburban area. If businesses, particularly supermarkets, are to survive in rural areas, they must have an off licence to offset the trade in balance. Large supermarkets now open on Sundays and have extended hours during the week and because they have an off licence they are a major attraction particularly at Christmas, Easter and during the summer when people tend to entertain more in their homes. The provision of off licensing facilities in supermarkets is one that requires reform to balance trade given the onslaught faced by the retail sector. Many retailers are not only publicans but supermarket owners. This debate may help the select committee, but it is encouraging to note that the Minister has given a commitment tonight to accept the recommendations of the select committee chaired by Deputy Flanagan which has done a good deal of work in this area.
There is a case for a reasonable extension of the existing licensing laws not only to codify them but also because it is difficult for the Garda Síochána to implement them. The amount invested by publicans in their property is considerable. Given that the level of business in pubs between Monday and Thursday is minute, most publicans make their profits on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Many publicans find that their ratio of business between drink and food is 70:30 or 60:40. A main difficulty is that customers who may wish to have their lunch at 2.15 p.m. on Sundays, would be breaking the law. If the gardaí arrived they would be empowered to summons the licensee and take the names of the persons on the property. From that point of view our licensing laws need to be changed.
The operation of pubs has changed dramatically in the past 70 years. Most customers go to the pub for a social drink and do not over indulge. When this matter is fully discussed by the select committee I hope a sensible change will be recommended that not only will benefit publicans but also customers. A huge return on investment is required for all businesses because of the level of investment in them. Deputy Flanagan asked why publicans may have to make an extra margin of profit on the sale of Ballygowan or 7 Up. One of the reasons is to meet their overheads given that they have to pay staff when there is very little business early in the week.
Legislation will fail if it does not have the support of the society for which it is intended. It will be ignored and brought into disrepute if it is not seen to be fair by everybody and it will be unenforceable. A hotelier in Enniscrone last week told me that he lost a booking for a wedding because of the operation of a pilot scheme to enforce the law there, which the gardaí are entitled to do.
 However, if it to be enforced on a pilot basis, it must be done fairly and not by selecting one town and ignoring others nearby. Customers are avoiding the towns where the law is being enforced and going elsewhere.
As Deputy Flanagan stated, most publicans do not want to operate until 1 a.m. outside the law. If, like the UK system, they knew that when the bell sounds at 11 o'clock or 12 o'clock, or whatever the time the law stipulates, every pub in the area would be cleared, they would be happy. However, the greatest inequity is that customers know if a pub closes at 11 p.m. they can get a drink elsewhere. The legislation should be enforced in a manner that will ensure publicans will not have to keep staff two hours after closing time to clear the premises. Until such time as the select committee submits its proposals, the Minister should ensure that the pilot scheme to enforce the existing laws is administered fairly particularly during the tourist season. We do not want visitors to think our laws are out of date because we want to be seen as Europeans. As many of our visitors come for the weekend, publicans do not want extended opening hours during the week. Most people socialise at weekends. One can leave a pub and pay £5 to gain entry to a hotel and be served drink until 2.30 a.m.
Our licensing laws date back to the 1600s. They need to be codified and updated to consolidate the livelihoods of the many families who run pubs. It is rare that a second generation continues to operate a pub and that highlights the difficulties associated with being a licensed vintner. I have the utmost respect for those who own and operate pubs. They have a very difficult job and work unsocial hours. They would welcome amended legislation that would put the time for closing on a statutory footing. I also have the highest respect for the gardaí because in present circumstances it is difficult for them to enforce the law in small towns and villages. Often gardaí have to be brought in from other districts because the local gardaí prefer not to have to take the names of people whom they meet every day when they are enjoying a social occasion.
Deputy Flanagan has been working on proposals in this area for some time. Those proposals will be brought before the House for debate and I believe they will secure the agreement of all parties. They will propose a reasonable and acceptable change that will benefit the publican and the customer. They will also demonstrate that Ireland is progressive and supportive of a valuable industry which has created thousands of jobs.
|Last Updated: 20/05/2011 23:13:46||Page of 192|