Wednesday, 8 December 1999
Dáil Éireann Debate
Mr. Naughten: On a point of order, I was told this morning I had 20 minutes to speak and I was in possession. I know an order was passed this morning to the effect that Second Stage was to conclude within 30 minutes, but the Taoiseach gave a commitment this morning that the debate would not conclude if Members wanted to contribute. We are now informed that this decision has been overturned and that the Government is trying to gag the Opposition. We are not getting an opportunity to go through this legislation, although the Minister's amendments propose to delete six of the eight sections of the Bill and to amend the other sections dramatically. We are not getting an opportunity to debate these issues.
Acting Chairman: The Deputy has made his point. Unfortunately, there has been no communication from the scheduled Whips meeting, where this was to be discussed, and I have received no instructions. Because of that, I must abide by the rules of the House and it was agreed that Second Stage should conclude within 30 minutes and 15 minutes have elapsed. The Minister was to have 15 minutes to conclude and it is not in my power to change that. I am obliged to call the Minister. I appreciate the Deputy's frus trations, but that is what was agreed by the House.
Mr. Naughten: On a brief point of order, the Order of Business was agreed by all parties on the explicit understanding that the Taoiseach would ensure the Whips would meet and allow additional time for this debate. We are now told the Taoiseach has gone back on his word, which he gave this morning. The Leas-Cheann Comhairle witnessed this matter this morning. The issue should be clarified now.
Mr. Higgins: (Mayo): On a point of order, I know the Chair cannot digress, but there has been a breach of faith. This matter was raised by the leaders of Fine Gael and the Labour Party, who pointed out that we are in a unique situation and that there would be considerable merit in having a separation between Second and Committee Stages of a redundant Bill. We are debating a Bill which was debated last June and July and not a tenet, syllable or sentiment of it has been retained. We are debating a Bill that is redundant.
Acting Chairman: I will read the instruction on this, as I may have slightly misled the House. The agreement of the House this morning was that Report and Final Stages would be adjourned at 7 p.m. That does not necessarily mean they would be concluded at 7 p.m. It was agreed that Second Stage would conclude within 30 minutes following which Committee Stage would be taken and if it is not concluded by 7 p.m. it will be adjourned rather than concluded. The Taoiseach conceded that. That is the only instruction I have and because of that I must call the Minister to reply to Second Stage.
Mr. Naughten: As Second and Committee Stages are being guillotined, Members will have a restricted opportunity on Report Stage to debate legislation that we have only seen this morning. It is disgraceful that the Opposition is being gagged in the debate on this Bill. We are being forced to try to debate the Bill on Report Stage, but we will not get the opportunity to debate it when we come to deal with that Stage.
Mr. Flanagan: I beg the indulgence of the Acting Chairman, or that of the Leas-Cheann Comhairle who might come into the Chamber, to ask how in the name of God good practice and procedure can ordain that a Second Stage of a Bill can be dealt with at 4.30 p.m. and can be butchered by the Minister within five minutes by way of amendments that are to be circulated, the content of which we have not seen? Then we talk about the irrelevance of Parliament and wonder why the benches are not full of Deputies. This legislation left the House in July amid turmoil when Fianna Fáil backbenchers filled the plinth with their presence and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has brought it back into the House on a day when the same Fianna Fáil backbenchers are on the plinth about another matter. It is a disgrace to Parliament and to its procedures and privileges.
Mr. O'Donoghue: I thank the Deputies who contributed to the debate. I want to make clear at this stage that I propose in Committee, with the agreement of the House, to confine the scope of the Bill so that its sole purpose will be to allow for the special opening of licensed premises and registered clubs on New Year's Eve for the celebration of the new millennium. That means I do not propose to proceed with the other sections dealing with the abolition of the Sunday afternoon closing and its effects on hotels and restaurants and special exemption orders. I have included those matters in the comprehensive and wide-ranging reform Bill that is being drafted at present and I will return to its details later.
The Bill as initiated in so far as the new millennium is concerned followed on a recommendation of the National Millennium Committee that there  should be a certain relaxation of opening hours on this special occasion and that it would facilitate everybody concerned, the public, licence holders and others, if there was a change in the law to meet the occasion.
Mr. Higgins: (Mayo): On a point of order, given that we were not given the courtesy of being shown the amendments in advance, could we at least have a copy of the Minister's script because following his reply Committee Stage will be taken, when we will have to deal with the minutiae of a Bill we have not seen?
Mr. O'Donoghue: It is clear there have been mixed views on whether the opening hours should be such as to allow licensed premises to open all night. On that basis, the National Millennium Committee, with the agreement of the Government, is proposing instead that licensed premises and clubs registered under the Registration of Clubs Acts, should be permitted to remain open for the sale of intoxicating liquor from after normal closing of 11 o'clock on the evening of 31 December 1999 to 1.30 a.m. the following morning. The normal 30 minutes drinking-up time would apply to the special closing time arrangement. That means premises would be required to be closed at 2 o'clock in the morning. I would also like to make clear that premises would not be allowed to sell alcohol for consumption off the premises during the extended period. I think Deputies would agree there is merit in that approach.
The operation of the all-night arrangement would have been interesting in the light of criticism that is made from time to time that our licensing laws are too restrictive. On this occasion it has become clear that many people, for various reasons, have mixed views about such late opening on the night and it is reported there are some publicans who do not even intend to open. The new opening time being proposed will be reasonable in all the circumstances.
While some premises will not open at all on  this night, people will want to arrange celebratory parties in many different ways. In so far as licensed premises are concerned, there is everything to be said in favour of celebratory events being held in proper licensed premises and clubs where a degree of responsibility and control can be exercised. No licensed premises will be obliged to stay open. If a licensee wishes to close his or her premises altogether on that night, he or she is free to do so, and some have already chosen to do so. Individual premises, based on demand, or on the personal plans of the licensee, can decide the time that is appropriate to the circumstances and it will be a matter for licensees to come to appropriate arrangements with their respective staff in respect of the additional hours of opening, if they want to avail of them.
In so far as a commitment to substantial change in the licensing laws is concerned, following on the Government's approval the comprehensive Intoxicating Liquor (No. 2) Bill is in the process of being drafted. It is my intention to have the Bill published as soon as possible in the New Year and to have the measures enacted in time for next summer. I shall detail briefly some of the features provided for in that comprehensive measure as approved by the Government.
Mr. Flanagan: On a point of order, can the Acting Chairman advise under what precedent or Standing Order can a Minister when replying to a Second Stage debate outline measures for a new Bill that has not been published and has yet again been promised? That is what he said he would do for the remainder of his speech. What precedent is he drawing from to do that?
Mr. O'Donoghue: That new Bill will provide for the significant extension of licensing hours, wide-ranging changes in the licensing system and will considerably strengthen the law on under age drinking.
Some of the principal features of the new Bill will be the abolition of the distinction that cur rently exists as between summer and winter trading; closing time on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays will be extended to 12.30 a.m.; and on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, closing time through the year will be 11.30 p.m. While a change is not proposed for Sunday night closing, trading hours on that day are being extended by the abolition of the 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. closing. The proposed extended hours will also apply to registered clubs. There will be not be a change to licensing hours for Christmas Day and Good Friday.
The Bill will remove the restriction on the granting of a special exemption for any time on a Sunday, that is, after midnight on Saturday night and after normal closing time on a Sunday evening. It retains the restriction on special exemptions for Monday morning beyond 1 a.m. except on a Monday morning after New Year's Eve and the obligation to provide a meal as part of the condition for the grant of a special exemption will also be removed.
The Bill will rationalise the manner in which a license may be acquired for a premises never before licensed. This will be achieved by a uniform treatment of the application for a new licence between rural and urban areas. Essentially, under the new Bill a new licence may be issued anywhere in the State in substitution for one existing licence where the Circuit Court is satisfied as to the fitness of the applicant, the fitness or convenience of the new premises and by reference to the adequacy of the existing number of licensed premises in the vicinity of the proposed new premises. I expect that the removal of restrictions on entry to the licensed trade will create a significant number of new licensed premises in areas of greatest need.
I will continue a fullscale assault on the scourge of underage drinking. In April of this year I introduced regulations providing for a voluntary national age card scheme. The national scheme operated by the Garda Síochána can be used to confirm that a person has attained the legal age for the purchase of intoxicating liquor.
The new Bill will strengthen the provisions regarding the supply or sale of intoxicating liquor to underage persons in a number of ways. It will remove the reasonable grounds defence in any proceedings against a licensee for an offence relating to sale or supply of liquor to underage persons. Provision will be made for the temporary closure of licensed premises by the courts on conviction of an offence relating to underage persons and fines generally will be substantially increased.
I also intend to establish a commission on licensing. Included in the commission's remit will be to review the scope for a system of additional licences and to examine other aspects of the licensing systems, such as licences for theatres and places of public entertainment, the licensing of residential accommodation which does not come under the definition of an hotel, interpretative centres and other places where the sale of alcohol is ancillary to the main business carried  out. The details of the terms of reference of the commission will be a matter for final determination in the light of discussion with relevant interests. I expect to be in a position to announce further details on the commission in the near future.
As well as taking into account the laudatory work of the Oireachtas sub-committee on the licensing laws, of which Deputy Flanagan was chairman, in preparation of the larger Bill, I am also taking into account the work of the Competition Authority. I have, as part of the consultation process, taken on board many of the submissions my Department received in response to the work of the Oireachtas sub-committee and the Competition Authority. I look forward to debating that Bill in the House in the new year.
Mr. O'Donoghue: In the intervening period developments, such as the Government's approval of the drafting of comprehensive and wide-ranging reform of the licensing laws and the changed nature of the present Bill, have overtaken those comments. I am not being disrespectful to Deputies by not responding to them in detail. I thank Deputies for their contributions to the debate and I commend the Bill to the House.
Ms O'Sullivan: On a point of order, I thought Ministers responded to the various points made by Deputies on Second Stage. Only one sentence referred to our comments and there was no reference to the points we made in our contributions in the summer and today.
Mr. O'Donoghue: I would be delighted to respond were it not for the fact that Deputies Flanagan, Jim Higgins and Naughten took up a considerable amount of my time with contributions which were both negative and illusory.
Mr. O'Donoghue: Deputy Jim Higgins accused me of failing to deliver on the comprehensive reorganisation of our liquor laws. It must be within the comprehension of the Deputy that this short Bill, even as originally proposed last June, was not intended to be such. I restate my unequivocal determination to introduce wide-ranging changes to the licensing laws, which will go far beyond the measures proposed by Deputy Jim Higgins or other Deputies in their comments on the Bill, the changes they proposed in Government or anything they implemented.
It is worth noting that the Deputy referred to the report of the Oireachtas joint committee and accused me of ignoring the recommendations therein. However, he also ignores a core recommendation of the committee in the area of permitted hours, that closing times on Sundays to Wednesdays should be 11.30 p.m. and closing times on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays should be 12.30 a.m. Instead, the Deputy seeks to accommodate the interests of one group. He fails to recognise, for example, that changes made to the trading hours of pubs should lead logically to similar changes to the trading hours of registered clubs and licensed restaurants.
The Deputy's concept of balance and mine are different. Is there a balance where what one group in the licensing trade, for example, advocates as essential is regarded by other sectors of the trade as an unjust attack on their ability to make a living and vice versa? The difficulty is that for every view put forward in this area there is, in many cases, a contrary view. Public debate on the issues is not only complex but extremely sensitive. It is that complexity and sensitivity which does not permit simple solutions.
Mr. O'Donoghue: Deputy O'Sullivan referred to the need to provide for worker protection. I  am not convinced that the Bill or any Intoxicating Liquor Bill is the appropriate place for such a provision. The concerns expressed by the Deputy are adequately covered in existing industrial relations and employment rights legislation, sponsored by the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment. The Industrial Relations Act, 1990, establishes machinery to facilitate and conciliate in the resolution of disputes arising between employers and employees in line with our voluntarist tradition of collective bargaining. Minimum employment rights are established under various statutes dealing with holidays, payment of wages, working time and other conditions of employment. The statute which establishes the rights in each case also provides a remedy for an employee whose statutory entitlements may have been denied or infringed.
The Deputy also raised the question of providing for a widening of the circumstances under which a licence can be given to sell intoxicating liquor. I do not regard this as an issue appropriate to the Bill. I intend to develop that in the context of my wider reaching proposals. The Government has agreed to the establishment of a commission on licensing. One of the core areas for consideration by the commission will be an examination of the scope which exists for a system of additional licences and, specifically, to examine aspects of the licensing system, such as licences for places where the sale of alcohol is ancillary to the main business carried out. The position of interpretative centres will be included in such an examination.
Deputy Crawford referred to unacceptable scenes in Clones at the beginning of the summer when a large number of people congregated in a relatively small area, having had their fill of drink. My proposal will have the effect of avoiding such flashpoints where large numbers of people congregate in a limited number of outlets. There will be public order considerations to be taken into account and the Garda Commissioner has assured me he is conscious of the additional demands likely to be placed on the force on this occasion.
Browne, John (Wexford).
de Valera, Síle.
Harney, Mary.  Tá–continued
| Ó Cuív, Éamon.
Wright, G. V.
Browne, John (Carlow-Kilkenny).Bruton, John.
Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.
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