Tuesday, 14 June 2005
Dáil Eireann Debate
—provide the necessary resources and direction to the Garda to ensure that existing legislation is enforced and public disorder related to so-called super pubs is tackled in a consistent way throughout the country.
In the past few days, we have witnessed a significant and embarrassing public display of division and ineptitude within and between the parties in Government. It is a disgrace that it takes a Fine Gael Private Members’ motion and the threat of 40 Fianna Fáil backbenchers crossing the floor——
Mr. J. O’Keeffe: It is a disgrace that it takes a Fine Gael Private Members’ motion and the threat of 40 Fianna Fáil backbenchers crossing the floor and voting with us to get the Minister to act. It shows scant regard for the intelligence of the public for the Minister, fresh from his defeat, to tell us that his climb down and adoption of the Licensed Vintners Association’s proposals on restaurants is a more radical plan than the one he started with. To call that radical is ridiculous. At a very minimum, the Minister should learn a little humility at this stage. It would also help if he was a little more honest in his presentation of the situation. The way the Minister has handled this issue is playground politics of the lowest order and shows how tired and weak this Government has become.
Before the absurd events of recent days, Fine Gael put forward this motion on foot of the Minister’s complete dismissal of the professional opinions of many of the country’s most respected public health professionals. Dr. Joe Barry, a member of the strategy task force on alcohol and the former president of the Irish Medical Organisation, who I am sure the Ceann Comhairle will know, said “the Minister has got it wrong if he thinks his Bill is going to improve things. He’s actually going to make matters worse.” Dr. Ann Hope, the national alcohol policy adviser to the Minister’s party and his ministerial colleague, the Tánaiste, Deputy Harney, warned:
Now that the debate has moved on we have an opportunity to discuss the Government’s attitude to Ireland’s collective drink problem and the complete lack of consistency in its approach. In May 2002, the strategic task force on alcohol, commissioned by the Department of Health and Children, informed us that in the ten years to 1999 alcohol consumption per capita soared by 41%. It informed us that in 2000, we were second only to Luxembourg for alcohol consumption with a rate of 11 litres per head of population compared with an EU average of 9.1 litres.
That same Government commissioned task force produced its second report in September 2004. It stated categorically that the Government should aim to reduce Ireland’s total per capita consumption to the EU average and that in order to do so it should “Restrict any further increase in the physical availability of alcohol [including] the number of outlets and times of sale.” Could anything be clearer than that? Without equivocation, the recommendation was to restrict any further increase in the physical availability of alcohol, including the number of outlets and times of sale.
Meanwhile, at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, the Liquor Licensing Commission was busy at its own work. In July 2003, it produced a report. It said the opening of café bars was a possible way forward and flatly contradicted the findings of the strategic task force on alcohol. It said:
This is not the way to run the country. We cannot and should not have one branch of Government basing its decision on public health and another basing its decision on issues like competition and the principle of liberalisation in complete ignorance of what the other is doing. Worse still, we cannot have one of those opinions being swept under the carpet because the Minister of the day does not share that view. It is astounding that in the same July 2003 report, the Liquor Licensing Commission states that, “The need for a co-ordinated approach to the preparation and implementation of a national alcohol strategy is obvious.” It goes on to state that, “Many Government Departments and agencies have an involvement in this area and the lack of a unified and coordinated approach will inevitably lead to interdepartmental tensions and conflict between competing public policy objectives.”
We have the ludicrous situation that one arm of Government, the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, is calling for an integrated approach while being guilty of failing to adhere to that integrated approach in its later recommendations. The Minister has been extremely quick in acting on one of the recommendations, that is, café bars, but not so quick on acting on another recommendation, namely the integrated approach.
Lest the Minister put forward the usual old charge that Fine Gael has nothing positive to say, I refer him to the fact Fine Gael produced a policy document in 2003 on alcohol abuse. We are not visiting this issue for the first time. In that policy, Fine Gael called for exactly such a co-ordinated strategy through a Minister for State devoted to implementing Government policy on this. I am not suggesting for one moment that we should imitate what happens in the UK in every respect but at a very minimum, we can learn from its experience. It has the same types of problems and has a co-ordination system through the
Cabinet office. I am not saying we should follow it exactly but it highlights the fact our neighbouring island confronted similar types of problems and came up with a solution which I understand is working. It is a great shame that in the heat of the absurd debate on café bars this sensible proposal was not adopted. Surely it should have been the first proposal to be adopted, providing as it does, a mechanism through which other measures could flow. A co-ordinated approach would not allow the Minister to follow his every dream, but that is something without which the nation could easily survive.
The Fine Gael motion specifically calls on the Government to put in place a co-ordinated approach at Government level to the preparation and implementation of a national alcohol strategy. As the Minister is present, I might focus on his oft-repeated claim that his intention is to change drinking habits. In all honesty, does he believe café bars or this non-radical proposal of the licensed vintners in regard to restaurants to deregulate the restaurant industry will do that? Will either of those measures have any impact? I question if they will.
From an early stage I indicated my concern on behalf of the Fine Gael Party about the café bars proposal, but I agreed to examine it and I read the overwhelming evidence from health professionals that it would only add to the problem. It might sound fine in theory but in practice it would result in additional outlets and would involve additional drinking and additional problems in terms of alcohol abuse. That was the clear position I adopted and the Fine Gael parliamentary party endorsed it some weeks ago.
The Minister may later spell out the details of the latest proposal from the licensed vintners, that he adopted, but it is not a radical proposal. Its implementation would not change the situation unduly. I can understand the reason the Minister was prepared to adopt it. It enabled him to steer a course between the various rocks jutting out from the parliamentary party and other rocks jutting out from various vested interests. I do not suggest that it is other than a minor proposal but I am prepared to examine the details of it and form a view on it in due course. On the face of it, it will not affect the situation unduly.
In regard to the motion, I emphasise what is far more important is the issue of action on alcohol abuse generally. The strategic task force on alcohol sets us a target of 9 litres of pure alcohol consumption per capita. That is the EU average, but we are way above that target. Has the Minister any proposals on how we will reach that target? Is he preparing legislation, for instance, to ban alcohol company sponsorship of sporting events? Fine Gael called for that two years ago.
The strategic task force advises that: “Alcohol sponsorship links masculinity, alcohol and sport and provides promotional opportunities that go beyond the passive images of alcohol advertisements.” Where are the Minister’s proposals in this area? Why is he so concerned with, as the Taoiseach put it yesterday, “fellas having a donut and a glass of milk while the fella beside you whacks into the whiskey”? Why is he not more concerned with the deliberate targeting of young people through the branding of every drink under the sun on the sports field? Is this not a serious issue to confront the nation and that should have engaged the Minister’s attention rather than some of the ridiculous proposals with which he has come forward.
Mr. J. O’Keeffe: Where are the Government’s proposals on community initiatives designed to curb demand from young people in this area? Why, in 2005, with the country awash with money can we not boast a world-class local sporting infrastructure? The Minister described the Taoiseach’s Abbotstown proposal as being worthy of Ceausescu. Did he think beyond that sound bite to what the money should be spent on? The Government planned to spend €1 billion on the project. Where is the commitment to spend €1 billion on local sports facilities, on simple provisions as basic as goal posts and changing rooms for young people? Does he hope the 15 year olds hanging around street corners will go to their local restaurant and order dinner?
Is the Minister not aware of the Fine Gael proposals, in its comprehensive anti-social behaviour document, which include banning the sale of alcopops in off-licences and the establishment of alcohol-free hang out spots for young people? Is he not aware of the steps that have been taken in this area in other countries? Has he examined what changed the culture in regard to drink driving, to a considerable degree in Australia? It was very much related to random breath testing. The Government there established and advertised that such random breath testing would happen and such testing had a major impact on the driving habits of the Australian population.
Has the Minister examined the question of placing restrictions on the development of super pubs, in terms of their size and so on? Are these not the real issues? Are these not the types of possible solutions we should debate rather than the madcap, theoretical, social engineering idea of café bars on which the Minister has spent such time and energy?
While he is pondering that question, he might also ponder the issue of enforcement. The Fine Gael motion points to the necessity to provide
resources and direction to the Garda to ensure that existing legislation is enforced and to deal with public disorder, which in many instances relates to super pubs. Is that not the issue that should have engaged the Minister’s interest?
I am sure he will not thank me for reminding him of the famous 2,000 extra gardaí he and his Fianna Fáil partners — if he and they are still partners and can be considered in that capacity — promised before the last election.
Mr. J. O’Keeffe: Deputy Costello is right. The facts speak for themselves. Taking retirements into account, since 2002, the Government has put only an average of 81 extra gardaí per year on the streets. That is roughly three for every county. That is a disgrace. That is the only way to classify that deployment.
It does not take a rocket scientist to understand that we can have all the law we want, but without the gardaí to enforce it, we will never have any order. The number of assaults causing harm hovers at around 4,000 a year. There are 54,000 public order offences. The same complaint is heard again and again — where are the gardaí on the beat when they are needed? Why, on a Saturday night in Dublin city, is Garda visibility so low? Faced with that appalling vista perhaps the Minister’s role in this whole sorry mess is slightly easier to understand. Having failed to put gardaí on the streets, to tackle violent disorder and to deliver on many of his promises, which turned out to be empty, he decided to divert national attention away from his record in office. Instead of allowing the focus to centre on his appalling record, as usual, he went for the headlines. Café bars were a convenient headline and, he thought, a convenient cover. He thought wrong.
Dr. Twomey: I would like to know exactly what happened here in regard to café bars. I would like to know what power the 42 members of the espresso gang has within Fianna Fáil that has led to this debacle for the Minister. Will they take credit in their constituencies for preventing it being overrun by the ravioli and Chianti set or are they exercising a power over Ministers that we have not seen previously?
In the past two months we had a Private Members’ motion on BreastCheck and cervical cancer screening which looked at the number of women who die because their breast cancer or cervical cancer is not diagnosed in time. The same Government backbenchers voted against it not once but twice and even three times by walking through the division lobbies to show they did not care a hoot about women with cancer. A few weeks later we had another Private Members’ motion dealing with the abuse of alcohol within accident and emergency departments. This was a
specific issue which dealt with how innocent patients and staff are treated and threatened by people who abuse alcohol within accident and emergency departments. It was mocked and jeered by those same people who now have a big issue with café societies and are prepared to drag a Minister before their parliamentary party to make a big issue of it. However, they did not make a big issue about what was happening in accident and emergency departments. A fortnight ago we had a Private Members’ motion on the abuse of the elderly in nursing homes, an extremely disturbing issue for the population, following a “Prime Time” programme. The same people who have such a major problem with drink had nothing to say on those three major issues.
I would like those same people to ask the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, to come before their parliamentary party and explain why young women are dying of cervical cancer because it is not diagnosed in time, why older women are dying of breast cancer because it is not diagnosed in time, why our accident and emergency departments are taking on the appearance of war zones to the detriment of patients and staff and why the elderly who are at the most vulnerable stage of their lives are told by the Taoiseach they will have to wait until the autumn to get an independent inspectorate to protect their rights in nursing homes. Yet there has been such a hullabaloo over an issue that does not matter a damn to the majority of people. Whatever the Minister may feel about it, his café society was not going to come about, certainly not as quickly as he thought.
Too many Ministers within the Government are operating on a damage limitation exercise or on soft focus media interviews. What we notice is a distinct lack of leadership with Ministers behaving more like glamour boys in front of the TV cameras than doing their job and taking it seriously.
The Minister made a big issue of immigration, refugees and asylum seekers, yet it still takes four or five years for all these cases to be checked. Nothing has changed. This is the type of issue on which we would expect more from the Government. Café bars are nonsensical. Nothing has been done about the abuse of alcohol and it seems ridiculous that as a Minister and one who should know better, he sees alcohol as the same commodity as a loaf of bread or a car. Alcohol is totally different, it is a dangerous drug and the way it is dealt with in society is hugely important.
There are other proposals such as the direct selling of alcohol, where a 16 year old with a credit card can contact a company to deliver alcohol to his house. That is absolutely crazy from a medical point of view. The Minister needs to refocus on what he is talking about. Alcohol is a substance that is destroying Irish lives. The alcohol crisis in Irish society is probably as great as the child care crisis that is developing in certain
areas. Both are major issues, yet the Government has nothing positive to offer. It should be the intention of the Government to deal with those issues rather than continue the silliness that has been going on.
Mr. Hayes: I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Government’s proposal in regard to café bars, an issue about which I feel strongly. The serious problem of binge drinking in Ireland is being approached from the wrong angle. The proposal to introduce café bars is a quick-fix solution which assumes that if these venues are opened up all over Ireland people would flock to them to enjoy a slice of pizza or a glass of wine and that would end the uncivilised binge drinking. Perhaps in Dublin 6 where there is a wide variety of social outlets to meet the needs of a sizeable population, café bars would fit neatly into the landscape, but in rural areas attempts to impose a new culture from the top down are unlikely to succeed.
I favour a more long-term systematic approach to tackle the well-documented crisis of binge drinking. We must begin by asking ourselves why people choose to binge drink. I hold the view that alcopops are responsible for the problem. Manufacturers of alcopops target young people by mixing hard liquor with enough sugar and chemicals to make it taste tolerable. These drinks are not only affordable but are fashionable among the young. Advertisements portray alcopops as an important accessory for a cool young person on a night out. These products should be banned as there is nothing to be said in their favour.
The pub as a social scene is part of the cultural fabric of Ireland. For generations, public houses have served as meeting places for communities who wish to relax and socialise after a long day or week’s work. Recently, super pubs have distorted the image and function of the traditional pub and have no place here. Traditional pubs are not to be blamed for the binge drinking culture. Young people binge drink because there is nothing else to do. By their nature, people are sociable and need social outlets. Generally the only social outlet available to a young person, particularly in rural areas, is a public house. Unfortunately, many who know they will not be served in a public house choose to drink in another location and this is often more dangerous as it is not supervised. Providing young people with an alternative to this type of social life is the issue that needs to be addressed. This is where the culture shift needs to take place.
Young people should be educated to the consequences of alcohol abuse. As part of their education at second level they should be fully informed of the health risks associated with alcohol abuse, the effect alcohol abuse has on families and communities and the harrowing consequences of drink driving. Our young people are highly intelligent and should be provided with the
opportunity while at school to consider in a thoughtful way the effects of alcohol on society. In the long term we need to provide young people with alternative social opportunities. As a country we are sorely in need of youth clubs where young people from a community can come together and socialise. Some argue that the popularity of the pub is helped by the frequent rain. That is why young people need indoor facilities.
There are fine facilities in almost every parish. Unfortunately parish halls remain locked for most of the year due to lack of Government commitment and support to help pay insurance, heating, lighting and supervision costs. Some of the community schools and colleges have fine facilities available to the wider public but far too many schools with excellent facilities remain out of bounds for our young people after hours because of the cost of insurance. With a little effort and commitment to partnership from the Government the facilities of entire communities could be transformed overnight to provide alternative social outlets for our young people. For hundreds of years we have exported our young people. Given that they are staying at home, now is the time to provide facilities for them whether in rural or urban areas.
Mr. P. Breen: The Fine Gael Party was the first to point out the self-defeating role café bars would play in the Irish drink culture. I am pleased to note the Minister has abandoned these proposals. I am delighted he is back from the meeting with the parliamentary party and perhaps he will elaborate on it later. Both Deputy Hogan and I invited the Vintners Federation of Ireland to address the Joint Committee on Enterprise and Small Business recently, at which the vintners highlighted their concerns. We asked them to address the parliamentary party because we could see the problems associated with the Bill and with the café bar licences. While I do not wish to give in to the pressures from any particular lobby group, the vintners highlighted the issue of the viability of the industry and the dangers of introducing a free for all licensing system. This issue deals with more than simply the type of drink that can be ordered with a meal; it touches the serious and growing problem of alcohol abuse, particularly among young people. Deputy Jim O’Keeffe quoted Dr. Anne Hope, Dr. Colin Drummond and Dr. Joe Barry. The liberalising of restaurant alcohol licences will not reduce binge drinking but neither will it act as an encouragement. It will encourage people to eat and drink sensibly. If people want to drink themselves silly they will do so.
Two issues need to be addressed, namely the ready supply of alcohol and, more important, the thinking behind binge drinking which is the nub of the problem. The implementation of the national alcohol policy in this regard would be a useful step. I remind the Minister, Deputy McDowell, and the Tánaiste and Minister for
Health and Children that if she examines the shelves in her office she will discover that a national policy on alcohol existed and was drawn up by Deputy Noonan when he was Minister for Health. It is shameful that there have been three Ministers for Health and Children from the Government parties, Deputies Cowen, Martin and Harney, and they have all failed to advance the policy document drafted nine years ago by Deputy Noonan, the then Minister for Health. A decade ago the problems caused by alcohol were all too obvious. The Tánaiste would use her time much better if she consulted this strategy and its recommendations. Deputy Jim O’Keeffe has referred to some of the recommendations, among them the need for an integrated policy aimed at tackling the cause of excessive drinking through health promotion, education and the restriction of alcohol advertising.
I refer to a recently published European school survey project on alcohol. In this survey regular drinking is defined as being drunk ten or more times in the past 12 months. In 2003, Ireland ranked second after Denmark and highest of the 35 ESPAD countries in terms of the number of school going children who engaged in binge drinking three times or more. Binge drinking is defined as consuming five or more drinks. We have a national crisis which will be all too obvious to see when the exams finish this summer and the students celebrate with binge drinking. We do not have a targeted health promotion or a mandatory identity card scheme.
It has been argued that people will flock to superpubs in their hundreds. I am no fan of superpubs and they should not dominate this debate. As Deputy Hayes said, we should not forget the small, family-run pubs which are the backbone of the Irish hospitality industry and are an attraction for tourists. Every village and town in Ireland has a pub. They play an important role by giving local employment, providing a welcome retreat, offering food, drink, conversation and entertainment. They have played a significant role in the revival of Irish traditional music. Tourists do not come to Ireland to visit superpubs but rather to enjoy our traditional pubs which are becoming an endangered species. I am not a fan of superpubs. Traditional pubs are part of the fabric of society.
In my constituency of County Clare, 26 out of a total of 400 traditional pubs have closed in the past 12 months, a decline of 7.5%. Many of the remaining pubs exist on turnovers earned through long opening hours. Publicans have accepted the smoking ban. It is to be regretted that the Minister’s proposals did not deal with the protection of the traditional industry in the context of sensible drinking. Some publicans have been prosecuted for allowing underage drinking but the majority of publicans are law abiding.
Mr. Kehoe: I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important motion. I thank Deputy Jim O’Keeffe, Fine Gael spokesperson, and Deputy English for tabling this motion. It seems strange to be debating a subject which is a climb down for the Minister. In the face of the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party he had to say he was wrong. For a long time the Minister has been given a blank cheque by Fianna Fáil to dream up any legislation he wished. They found to their cost that the legislation on café bars was closest to his heart. He pushed his plan against the advice of most professionals and experts in the area until a rebellion on the Government backbenches caused his latest climb down.
The Minister is a very well-educated man but he went against the advice of the leading professionals in the Department of Health and Children and the National Youth Council of Ireland. Fine Gael has recently been organising public meetings across the country on anti-social behaviour. The café bar folly of the Minister would add to the problem of anti-social behaviour even though he argued that this proposal would help stop underage drinking and anti-social behaviour. However, he did not explain how it would stop binge drinking.
On the one hand, the Minister is bringing in the Criminal Justice Bill, with nothing to say on alcohol-related crime while on the other he wanted to dramatically increase the number of liquor licences by way of the Intoxicating Liquor Bill. This major confusion at the heart of the Government’s legislation will surely have an effect on the public. They will see that this coalition is at sixes and sevens and is paralysed at the highest level. It seems Fianna Fáil backbenchers are becoming nervous about the plans of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and there has been a rush of Government backbenchers running to the newspapers and calling the Minister’s proposals “daft”. Deputy McGuinness has been quoted as saying he was “fed up of Michael McDowell making pronouncements about everything”. He called these proposals “daft”. The Minister may smirk but he should not forget he is in Government with Fianna Fáil. When people on his side of the House are calling him “daft”, those of us on this side of the House cannot all be wrong.
Mr. Kehoe: Exactly. I applaud the Fianna Fáil backbenchers for killing the café bar proposal at birth. I admire the manner in which they opposed the Minister. He was like a spoiled child in that he had to get his own way so he decided to turn to the restaurants instead of the café-style bars. It was a case of getting them one way or another.
It took the threat of Fine Gael’s motion to make the backbenchers wake up and see the daftness of proposals being denounced by every medical organisation in the country. These proposals would have led to a massive strain on our accident and emergency departments as well as causing an upsurge in drink driving incidents.
Deputy Twomey recently tabled a Private Members’ motion on accident and emergency departments. Drink-related incidents create major problems in accident and emergency departments especially from Thursday night through the weekend in the main built-up areas. The strategic task force on alcohol last year recommended the need for a restriction on any further availability of alcohol for underage drinkers. At weekends we see people, especially under the age of 18, the minimum age for purchasing alcohol, falling around the streets. Café-style bars would give under age people another opportunity to readily get drink. If the Minister is really interested in addressing the problems of alcohol, he should consider the issue of under age drinking and tackle the problem head on, which he is completely failing to do.
—commends and endorses the policy goal of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to radically liberalise the law relating to alcohol sales in restaurants to give people a better opportunity to responsibly enjoy alcohol in the context of consuming food;
—calls on the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to develop provisions relating to the consumption of alcohol in restaurants which will end arbitrary and outdated distinctions and restrictions, and will give responsible consumers a real choice;
—welcomes the establishment of statutory linkages between the Planning and Development Acts and licensing provisions with a view to promoting coherence between the licensing and planning codes and ensuring compliance with building control and fire safety standards;
—draws attention to proposals to enhance Garda powers in relation to applications for retail licences, nightclub permits and exemption orders and to increase penalties and sanctions for breaches of licensing law; and
—commends the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform for his proposals in the Criminal Justice Bill 2004 to enhance the powers of the Garda in the investigation and prosecution of offences, in particular his proposal to provide for a fixed charge procedure in relation to less serious public order offences.”
Following enactment of the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2000, which gave effect to certain reforms of licensing law, the Government, in which my predecessor, Deputy O’Donoghue, was Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, established the Commission on Liquor Licensing in late 2000 under the chairmanship of Gordon Holmes. Its mandate was to review the liquor licensing system and to make recommendations for a licensing system geared to meeting the needs of consumers in a competitive market economy while taking account of the social, health and economic needs of a modern society.
The commission was a broadly representative body and contained members drawn from licensed trade bodies, employer and trade union groups, consumer and competition interests and from relevant Departments and public bodies. The commission produced four reports during its existence, including the final report, which the chairman presented to me in April 2003. This report contained certain urgent recommendations designed to combat drunkenness and disorderly conduct in and in the vicinity of licensed premises and to tackle the problems of under age and binge drinking. I took decisive action following receipt of the commission’s recommendations and introduced the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2003. The Government’s urgent response to the commission’s report has been effective in tackling serious problems to which the commission had drawn attention.
The Commission on Liquor Licensing also recommended a codification of the licensing laws in one of its earlier reports. Such a codification of the licensing laws is long overdue. It was first recommended as far back as 1899 when the Royal Commission on Liquor Licensing Laws stated “we are strongly of opinion that the Irish Licensing Laws should be codified and simplified in the same way that we have already recommended for England and Scotland”. Two subsequent Governments, one under Cumann na nGaedheal in 1925 and one under Fine Gael and others in 1957, appointed commissions, which also recommended that codification of the law in this area should be undertaken as soon as possible. I accepted the commission’s codification recommendation without hesitation and I am pleased the Bill I have brought forward is the first codification of licensing law since the foundation of the State.
The Government’s proposals for a comprehensive codification of our licensing laws and provisions relating to the registration of clubs are set out in the general scheme of the Intoxicating Liquor Bill 2005 which I published recently and on which I sought the views of the public and interested parties. The main purpose of the Bill is to streamline and modernise the liquor licensing laws. This involves repealing the Licensing Acts 1833 to 2004 and the Registration of Clubs Acts 1904 to 2004 in their entirety and replacing them with updated provisions more suited to modem conditions. The existing stock of more than 600 licensing and excise provisions that are spread over approximately 100 statutes will be swept away and replaced by a single statute. This will provide a modern regulatory framework for the 21st century.
The new code will clarify the law, streamline the licensing system, improve public participation and improve compliance with and enforcement of licensing law. That in itself will represent a tremendous contribution to the process of regulatory reform, including the repeal of pre-1922 statutes, to which the Government has committed itself. My proposal to codify the law has been broadly welcomed by the licensed trade and drinks industry, the Revenue Commissioners, the Courts Service, the Garda and all the organisations with an interest in this area.
As I said consistently from the outset, the primary objective of these reforms, apart from simplifying and streamlining the licensing system, is to encourage the consumption of food with intoxicating liquor. As I said many times, we need a cultural shift in our approach to alcohol consumption, a shift towards moderate social consumption and away from the excessive consumption patterns and binge drinking that so often result in alcohol-related harm.
The proposed Bill contains a broad range of structural reforms and I want to draw attention to the following aspects in particular. It proposes a new streamlined District Court procedure applicable to all retail liquor licences. It creates a new nightclub permit for nightclub operators that will replace the special exemption orders currently granted by the District Court. It provides for new theatre licence provisions which will require application to the District Court for a certificate and which contain new arrangements for opening hours. It replaces five types of manufacturer’s licence with a single producer licence. It replaces four types of wholesaler’s licence with a single wholesale licence.
Under the proposed new licensing system, all applicants for retail licences will in future need to apply to the District Court for a court certificate. The court will grant this certificate provided that the applicant can demonstrate compliance with the statutory requirements and provided that the court does not allow an objection by a competent objector on one or more of the listed grounds. The other main changes to the application procedure are as follows. In future, proof of planning permission and compliance with planning conditions and fire safety conditions will have to be presented to the District Court. No such statutory requirements apply at present even though some courts already insist on presentation of planning permission. Where the applicant for a licence is a company, the character and fitness of company directors may be taken into account by the District Court in deciding whether to grant a certificate for a licence. The applicant’s knowledge of the licensing laws may also be taken into account.
The current ad interim system for transferring licences, which is open to abuses, will be discontinued. In future a purchaser of licensed premises must apply to the court for a licence. The holding of licences in the names of nominees will be prohibited. The existing “adequacy” ground on which an objection may be made to the grant of a certificate, which is open to being used as an obstacle to prevent new entrants to the licensed trade, will be replaced by a new ground of “an undue risk of either public nuisance or of a threat to public order or safety”. The Health Service Executive will be made a competent objector to new licences. This will allow the Garda, for example, to object to an application on public order or safety grounds.
At present, the planning laws and licensing laws operate as separate codes. The Bill proposes to amend the Planning and Development Act 2000 to require planning authorities to include objectives for the location of licensed premises within the zoning provisions in their development plans. This change is in line with the recommendation of the Commission on Liquor Licensing in its final report where it stated, “local authorities rather than the courts are the appropriate bodies to assess the suitability and location of premises for the sale of alcohol”.
The Bill also makes an explicit link with the planning code in the streamlined court procedure for applications for certificates for new retail licences. In future, before granting a certificate, the District Court will require evidence that planning permission has, if required under the planning code, been obtained and that any conditions attached to the planning permission have been complied with. Moreover, certification of compliance with fire safety standards by a suitably qualified person will also be mandatory. This provision is designed to promote coherence between the planning and licensing codes and to ensure the safety of customers and staff in licensed premises. In the presence of my colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, I should add that he has recently taken steps to make the opening of an off-licence a matter that requires planning permission and not a matter for exemption under the Planning Acts.
The creation of a café bar licence was a recommendation in the final report of the Commission on Liquor Licensing. As stated, the commission was a broadly representative body, which included representatives of the licensed trade and the hospitality sector. It concluded that the historically restrictive nature of the licensing laws had resulted in the development of “super pubs” which, while generally well managed and catering for an important segment of the market, tended to create noise and nuisance for local residents and made compliance with and enforcement of the licensing laws more difficult for licensees and the Garda alike. The commission also considered that large numbers of people emerging from such premises at closing time increased the risk of public disorder.
The commission’s suggested alternative was continental-style café bars, which would be required, as a condition of the licence, to provide food as well as alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages and which could provide an atmosphere and ambience that encouraged the moderate consumption of alcohol. The café bar proposal was a delicately crafted, balanced compromise between radically differing alternative views, which sought to balance the interests of those resistant to change and those expecting reform. It is a tribute to the skills of Gordon Holmes that he managed to achieve a sufficient consensus on such a proposal. Like other Deputies, I recently received a submission from the licensed trade which sought to disparage the work of the commission and drew attention to the fact that a significant minority of commission members voted against the café bar proposal, which, while true, is somewhat disingenuous. Half the opposition to café bars came from those opposed to reform while the other half considered that it did not go far enough to satisfy competition requirements and consumer expectations. The latter group included representatives of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the Competition Authority, as well as Carmel Foley, the Director of Consumer Affairs.
Despite personal misgivings on my part that the café bar proposal did not go far enough towards broadening consumer choice and that the size limitation might jeopardise their financial viability, I was prepared to take forward the commission’s recommendation and to publish for consultation proposals for the creation of the new café bar licence in the codification Bill. I must stress that I put it forward on the basis of the commission’s proposals and not my own. The Government was conscious of the likely public controversy concerning the café bar proposal but instructed me to issue the proposal on a consultative basis to advance the public debate.
When I launched the general scheme of the Intoxicating Liquor Bill, I made it clear that the decision to introduce the café bar licence would await the outcome of the public consultation process. Based on the outcome of that process and following consultation with the Taoiseach, I propose to replace the café bar concept with a radical reform of the licensing regime for restaurants. In the absence of the commissioner’s report, this would have been my preferred way to proceed.
Mr. McDowell: The Intoxicating Liquor Act 1988 created a special restaurant licence. It may be obtained from the Revenue Commissioners on foot of a Circuit Court certificate and on payment of a fee of €3,805. Despite reforms in the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2000, many unreasonable and discriminatory restrictions still apply to the special restaurant licence. The so-called declaratory procedure, whereby a person proposing to construct or acquire licensed premises may obtain the necessary court approval in advance, does not apply to applicants for this licence. Instead, an intending applicant is expected to undertake the investment in the restaurant without any guarantee that a Circuit Court certificate will eventually be granted. An applicant for a public house licence can, on the other hand, avail of the declaratory procedure and can secure the certificate before embarking on the project.
Holders of special restaurant licences are restricted from engaging in any other business that is not ancillary to the provision of substantial meals. This prohibits them from providing accommodation for guests, from operating fishing trips or horse riding, from operating a gift shop or from selling local crafts to guests. There are no prohibitions of this nature on vintners. Holders of the special restaurant licence are not allowed to obtain an occasional licence from the court for an event taking place at a location that is not licensed, even if the event for which the licence is being sought is a dinner or meal for a particular organisation or group which a restaurant would be well suited to providing. Intoxicating liquor cannot be served in such a restaurant while a menu is being considered but only when a meal is ordered. The fear presumably has been that guests might have a drink and then leave without having a meal, doing damage to local pubs by giving custom to restaurants. Alcohol served with a meal must be consumed before, during or within 30 minutes of completing a meal. Anybody who wants a drink after this 30 minute period is expected to visit the nearest public house or hotel. All alcoholic drinks must be paid for at the same time as the meal. This means a guest or member of a group cannot purchase drinks unless these are paid for by the host at the same time as the meal itself.
The fact that, 16 years after the 1988 Act, there are still only about 300 special restaurant licences may be explained by the continued operation of outdated restrictions which are designed to discourage its use and to make life difficult for those who go to the trouble of obtaining it. I propose to sweep away all these arcane restrictions. Most restaurants do not have a special restaurant licence and cannot sell beer or spirits. I reckon that only 10% of restaurants have gone through the process of getting those special certificates because they are so onerous.
As part of the reform package, I intend to retain and adapt the wine retailer’s on-licence which I had originally intended to drop in favour of the café bar licence. In future, it may be obtained from the District Court, subject to payment of a fee, rather than directly from the Revenue Commissioners. On its own, it will be a licence to operate a wine bar and there are no size restrictions on such premises. Combined with a restaurant certificate, which is provided for in the draft Bill, it will continue to provide a basis for operating a restaurant and supplying all types of alcohol to persons consuming a substantial meal. It will still be possible for holders of this licence to apply for special exemption orders.
The reforms I am proposing to the licensing regime for restaurants, as well as the sweeping away of unnecessary and anti-competitive restrictions, will contribute in a practical and meaningful way to the development of a continental café restaurant culture in this country.
Mr. McDowell: It has been suggested recently that the vintners’ organisations have themselves proposed the reform of restaurant licence rules as an alternative to the café bar licence. I welcome their support, but I am quite sure that support would not have been voiced were it not for the decision to hold a public consultation on the café bar licence.
The so-called extinguishment requirement is the current rule whereby an applicant for a new licence for a public house or for an off-licence premises must present the court with evidence that an existing licensee has agreed to extinguish a current licence. I had intended to retain this provision, which many regard as restrictive and anti-competitive, as part of an overall package that included the creation of the new café bar licence. Without the café bar element, its retention will have to be reassessed. A question that now needs to be addressed is whether the decision to replace the café bar licence by a liberalised restaurant licensing system constitutes an obstacle to freedom of movement within the EU and infringes EC treaty rights to establishment and freedom to provide services. For example, if an EU national wishes in future to exercise his or her right of establishment to open a bar in this country, that person will now have no option but to seek to obtain, by whatever means, the agreement of an existing licensee to extinguish a current licence. There is no discrimination involved, as the rule applies to all, but the procedure lacks transparency and certainty.
For example, there is no register of licences available for extinguishment. There are, admittedly, auctioneers and agents who seek to put intending applicants in touch with licensees who may, depending on price, be willing to extinguish a licence, and licences for extinguishment are occasionally advertised in the newspapers. Availability also depends on demand, and as our population increases beyond 4 million and new urban centres are developed, there is a real probability that the price of extinguishment will increase. It has already increased from about €75,000 a few years ago to about €170,000 today.
The major driver behind this phenomenon is the increase in off-licence premises. Those who are concerned about the proliferation of off-licences should remember that the current boom in the value of licences for extinguishment is largely driven by the boom in demand for off-licence premises.
I am conscious that retention of the extinguishment rule without the alternative of a café bar would be construed by the European Commission as a means of discouraging non-nationals from exercising their rights of establishment and freedom to provide services in this country. Currently there are no EU laws relating to the operation of licensed premises and member states remain generally free to operate their own rules. The developing case law of the European Court of Justice suggests, however, that even in non-harmonised areas, member states must have regard to basic EC treaty freedoms. It could be claimed in defence of the extinguishment requirement, as has been argued recently by certain public health interests, that it is a necessary public health measure designed to limit the availability of alcohol. Unfortunately, alcohol consumption data suggest otherwise. It might be hard to convince the European Court of Justice of its public health merits given that a licence can be transferred from small uneconomic premises in a rural area to a superpub in some expanding urban centre. Its effectiveness is also doubtful in light of the 41% increase in alcohol consumption per capita which, according to the strategic task force on alcohol, took place between 1989 and 1999 with no increase in licence numbers. There is also an issue of population growth.
In any event the Court of Justice, while recognising the validity of health arguments, would be likely to question the proportionality of such a requirement and seek to explore whether less restrictive alternatives might not achieve the desired public health objectives. The matter is under consideration in my Department and the advice of the Office of the Attorney General has been sought. Any proposal to retain the extinguishment requirement might yet have to be notified to the European Commission under the so-called transparency directives. These directives are intended to give the Commission, and the other member states, an opportunity to consider member state proposals which might have an adverse impact on the exercise of EC treaty rights in the Internal Market.
In bringing forward proposals to reform the licensing laws, I am conscious of public concerns about alcohol-related harm in our society. For this reason, the proposed Bill contains safeguards that are intended to combat such harm. These include extending the jurisdiction of the courts to all retail licences and nightclub permits and giving specified notice parties and the public the right to object to the grant of a licence or permit, streamlining the system for renewing licences and clarifying the right of members of the public to object to such renewal on stated grounds, strengthening provisions designed to combat sales to under-age persons by requiring all off-licences to have written policies and control procedures, creating a new offence of being in possession of a forged Garda age card, as well as increasing the levels of penalties and sanctions, including a proposal that all temporary closure orders should involve closure for a minimum of two days.
The Bill does not propose any significant changes to existing opening hours. Certain changes recommended by the Commission on Liquor Licensing were introduced in the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2003, such as earlier closing on Thursday night, and no significant changes are proposed in this Bill. A number of relatively minor adjustments are included which relate mainly to the longer opening hours permitted under general exemption orders and exemptions for special events.
In all cases, reform is intended to clarify the law with a view to improving compliance and facilitating enforcement by the Garda. The new licensing arrangements set out in the Bill will allow the Garda to object to applications for retail licences, nightclub licences, special exemption orders and club registrations on grounds of undue risk of public nuisance or threat to public order or safety. In addition, the Garda will be able to apply to the District Court to have a nightclub permit revoked on the grounds set out above. Provision is made for offences relating to drunkenness and disorderly conduct on licensed premises and under age drinking. Certain provisions will be strengthened to combat under age consumption of intoxicating liquor, in which context a new offence of being in possession of a forged or altered age card is being proposed. In future, a member of the Garda will have the right to arrest a person who refuses to give his or her name and address, which right does not currently exist in all circumstances.
The Bill will provide for a consistent and coherent system of sanctions and replace the current patchwork of penalties which has evolved over time. Increased fines and penalties are proposed, including a minimum closure order of two days. Clarifying and streamlining the licensing code will help to improve compliance by licensees and enforcement by the Garda. The Garda already has extensive powers under the Public Order Acts of 1994 and 2003 to deal with the effects of intoxication and disorderly conduct in public places. The 2003 Act provides that the District Court can make an exclusion order as an additional penalty where a person is convicted of a public order offence under the 1994 Act. An exclusion order prohibits a person from entering or being in the vicinity of specified premises covered by the Act. The Act also allows the Garda to apply to the District Court for a closure order in relation to premises such as pubs, off-licences, nightclubs and food premises where there are disorder or noise problems.
I wish to discuss my fundamental approach in this area. I listened with interest to the contributions of the Deputies opposite which ranged in tone and content. It is interesting that a series of proposals from Government in the form of draft legislation in response to the report of a broadly-based commission has encountered in the House negativity and opportunistic posturing on the part of the proponents of tonight’s motion.
Mr. McDowell: Should Baileys Irish cream or anything that sweetens alcohol be banned? I would like to understand the proposition better. Likewise, it has been proposed that alcohol related sponsorship should be prohibited at all sporting events. Are we to allow Liverpool to appear on our television screens with Carlsberg emblazoned on their chests or say that no Irish team can display such sponsorship? Are the Budweiser Derby and the Heineken international rugby competition to be banned in Ireland? Where are the well thought-out proposals?
Mr. McDowell: The more I listen to Deputy Jim O’Keeffe’s ponderous vacuity, I realise that none of the thoughts he expressed this evening has been thought through for one minute. None of the implications has been thought through, which was not the case with the intoxicating liquor commission which sat for a number of years.
Mr. McDowell: I wish it to be very clear to the House that we face in Ireland a number of problems, one of which is the abuse of alcohol by young people. One of the ways in which we must respond is to provide social outlet choices of the kind referred to by Deputy Jim O’Keeffe and other contributors which do not involve the consumption of alcohol.
Mr. McDowell: It is an accepted point of view. However, those people who go drinking should be given the choice to eat and drink in moderation rather than have to go to exclusively drink orientated places which have a monopoly on the sale of spirits and beer. Young people in Ireland deserve the choice and I make no apology for saying I will do my best to bring it to them.
Anyone who opposes choice with a stethoscope round his neck while his hand is on the lever to pull a pint is dressing up economic reasons as health concerns and I have little time for him. While I realise that some Fine Gael speakers spoke from an exclusively health perspective, others stood up behind them and revealed the reality.
Irish society is moving on and changing and it has problems. The alcohol problem derives in large measure from a superabundance of resources in the hands of a young generation in their late teens and early 20s around whom a social structure exists in which entertainment and amusement is centred on the consumption of drink. We live in a society in which off sales are growing and alcohol is available in slabs of cans to be brought home and consumed.
Mr. McDowell: No one has a problem with that. The House is also obliged to provide for a modern generation of young Irish people the opportunities to which they are entitled. The House has an obligation to put before those people a real choice. They should not have to choose between beer and food as is currently the case. We have the opportunity to adopt a more continental approach, to be brave and to put our bow into the wind instead of being frightened by vested interests and others and cajoled into doing nothing. We know what the problems are.
Mr. McDowell: It is not an answer to say we should ban all sports-related sponsorship by alcohol producers, it is, rather, impractical and foolish. It would be impossible to achieve on an international level and would put Irish sport at a very serious disadvantage.
Mr. McDowell: I believe most emphatically that the consumption of alcohol with food is part, though, I concede, not the entirety, of the solution. As long as we surrender to vested interests to separate the consumption of Irish produced alcohol, be it spirits or otherwise, from food and withdraw from most people in Ireland the opportunity to combine the two, we must take moral responsibility for the emergence of superpubs and the binge drinking culture. We cannot have it both ways.
Mr. McDowell: ——and presenting naked advocacy of vested interests as a concern for public health does no credit to the people who moved tonight’s motion. The record shows that when Gordon Holmes produced the commission’s report there was not a squeak from Fine Gael. The party’s participants in chat shows postured as advocates of modernisation and reform only to engage——
Mr. J. O’Keeffe: The Minister should tell the House about the squeaks from the Fianna Fáil backbenchers and describe how they treated him. The Minister should show us the scars and stop his huffing and puffing.
Mr. McDowell: This is the truth. I put it out there and we have had a public debate. I will be the person and the Government will be the Government that has done something about this matter. The waffle, posturing and moralising opposite will be long dead——
Mr. Costello: The Labour Party welcomes this timely Fine Gael Private Members’ motion. I also welcome most of the amendments to the motion tabled by the Minister, including the proposal to allow restaurants a full drinks licence, which is both desirable and timely. I further welcome the proposal to give greater powers to local authorities regarding the licensing of premises. I hope that provision will not be watered down.
I am concerned however at some of the Minister’s remarks, especially his representation of Mr. Gordon Holmes of the Commission on Liquor Licensing, to which I will return in a moment. I am also particularly concerned with the proposal the Minister slipped in on page 14, that gardaí may in future arrest without warrant a person who refuses to supply his or her name and address when requested to do so by a garda. There is no reference to suspicion of involvement in any offence or to a reasonable belief that a crime has been committed.
Mr. Costello: I consider the stark way it is put undesirable. I do not accept that the Minister’s proposed provisions will combat the sale and supply of alcohol to under age persons, no more than café bars would have contributed to a reduction in under age drinking and binge drinking. The Minister is aware of my opinion on this matter, that the problem cannot be addressed without tackling sales to minors from certain off-licences. This matter has never been addressed. I repeat ad nauseam that the only way to tackle it is to address the identification and labelling of units of alcohol emanating from off-licences, which could be done through the use of bar coding or some other aspect of modern technology.
The Minister’s coalition colleagues have shafted him and the shafting of a Minister is not a pretty sight under any circumstances. The Dublin based Licensed Vintners Association and the country based Licensed Vintners Federation went into overdrive when the Minister published the general scheme of the Intoxicating Liquor Bill 2005 a few weeks ago. Local councillors and Oireachtas Members the length and breadth of the country were heavily and intensively canvassed. The powerful Fianna Fáil publican lobby was out of the traps like a shot. More than half of the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party spontaneously signed a motion condemning the initiative.
None of the questionable actions and statements by the Minister in the course of the past three years, such as the harsh terrorism and immigration laws, the buying of land for a prison at ten times the market value, the closure of five prisons in a three-year madcap industrial relations dispute with prison officers, the call for a level of inequality in the market place that would exploit workers, his outspoken desire to turn back “bogus” asylum seekers at ports to avoid due process and international obligations to immigrants — elicited a squeak from Fianna Fáil backbenches. However, they squeaked and hollered when a core Fianna Fáil value and a raw Fianna Fáil nerve was tweaked.
The chant from the Fianna Fáil backbenches was that the Minister should keep his hands off their pubs and publicans. The core Fianna Fáil value was to retain the status quo, the cosy cartel of a limited number of licences in expanding urban areas, to restrict competition and maintain high drink prices to the detriment of citizens. The Minister announced tonight that the cost of a licence has gone up to €170,000. Ironically, this Fianna Fáil approach conflicted with the Minister’s and the Progressive Democrats' core value, which is for deregulation, unrestricted competition and free-for-all in the marketplace. Two great ideological beasts squared up to each other in mortal combat. I am afraid the Minister lost the battle.
The gloss the Minister put on the show-down on last night’s “Questions and Answers” where he did not acknowledge there was a show-down, represents one of the great works of fiction, revisionism and U-turns I have ever experienced from a Member of this House. I remember the day three years ago when the Minister climbed the pole in the 2002 election and declared “One-Party Government — No Thanks” and pleaded to a gullible electorate to allow the Progressive Democrats to ride shotgun on Fianna Fáil. That is a very dim memory.
Mr. Costello: Is it not time to recognise after succumbing to Fianna Fáil over the second terminal at Dublin Airport and most recently on the café bars issue that the Progressive Democrats are now lame duck coalition cheerleaders, no longer watchdogs as they purport to be to the public? No matter what way the Minister tries to portray his new proposals for the liberalisation of restaurant alcohol licences, the simple fact remains that the abandonment of his plans for café bars is a total climb down in the face of opposition from the Government backbenchers.
I take issue with the Minister who stated that the café bar proposal came from the report of the Commission on Liquor Licensing. By his account, he got Cabinet approval for that report and then entered into a consultation period. The proposal for café bars did not receive support — or so the Minister stated — and he reverted to his original and preferred proposal, the lifting of restrictions on restaurants.
Mr. Costello: The trouble with this version of history is that it is demonstrably false. Outside of Dáil Éireann one could call it a lie. Inside the House, one is restricted to describing it as a wilful misrepresentation of the facts, promoted in order to conceal the truth and save face. The proposals of the Commission on Liquor Licensing in regard to café bars were designed simply to allow for new small pubs. It said that: “The current requirement to extinguish an existing on-licence should not apply where the premises for which the licence is sought does not exceed a maximum total floor area of 130 sq. m.” Launching the report, the Minister stated:
At no stage in its consideration of the need to facilitate the growth of smaller premises did the commission refer to food. There is one passing reference in its report to the fact that “a person can drink a cup of coffee in such premises alongside other people who are taking alcohol”. Nor did the Minister in his response refer to a mix of food and drink as being definitive of the café bar. It was simply an exotic name for a new, small pub to be contrasted with the superpub.
The commission made a specific recommendation, No. 42, that the definition of “bar” should reflect a clear distinction between the services provided at bars and restaurants. However, the Minister now proposes to eliminate that distinction and to combine the two on small premises, while attributing the concept to the commission. The Minister will have to read the report again.
The reality is that the proposal is the Minister’s and not the commission’s, as he claims. At no stage did the commission recommend that small premises, as a condition of their licence, be required to provide food as well as alcoholic and non-alcoholic drink. The idea was the Minister’s and was promoted by him alone. Having an unfettered, free-for-all environment in which the market rules represents a core value of the Minister and his party, the Progressive Democrats. This idea bites the dust in an abject and embarrassing surrender to 42 Fianna Fáil backbenchers.
Mr. O’Shea: Tááthas orm labhairt ar an díospóireacht thábhachtach seo ar an moladh a bhí ag an Aire Dlí agus Cirt, Comhionannais agus Athchóirithe Dlí ceadúnas a chur ar fáil chun “café bars” a oscailt. Tá sé sin curtha ar leataobh agus is é atá i gceist anois go mbeidh cead ag bialann de gach aon sórt alcól a dhíol agus nach mbeidh aon teorann ar líon na mbialann. Molaim Fine Gael as ucht an rún seo a chur os comhair na Dála agus tugaim mo lán-tacaíocht dó.
There is a danger in this debate on the proposed café bars that in the Minister’s manoeuvrings we will effectively lose sight of the real problems surrounding alcohol abuse and its health-related and social consequences. When Deputy Costello published the Labour Party policy document, Alcohol Use and Abuse: New Culture of Responsibility, in May 2003, he gave some background to alcohol use and abuse in Ireland. He stated Ireland had, in 20 years, moved from being a nation of moderate drinkers to being one of the main consumers of alcohol in Europe. There has been a 49% per capita increase in consumption in ten years. Alcohol consumption per adult in Ireland was 56% higher than the EU average.
What was most alarming in the Labour Party document was the description of the patterns of drinking among the young. The changes in this category were even more dramatic than those in other categories. Some 50% of Irish children under 12 were found to have experimented with alcohol and two thirds of 15-year-olds and 16-year-olds were current drinkers. Half of 15-year-olds and 16-year-olds engaged in binge or crash drinking.
A survey by the Department of Health and Children from April 2003 found that one in every four young people between ten and 16 had been drinking alcohol in the previous month. The fallout in regard to alcohol abuse by young and old was extremely depressing. The estimated cost to the Exchequer of alcohol abuse last year was €2.5 billion. Some 40% of traffic deaths and 30% of roadside deaths were found to result from drink driving. A 370% increase in the numbers of teenagers intoxicated in public places was recorded between 1996 and 2002. This is the real problem.
The Private Members’ motion first deals with concerns regarding the plans by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to increase the number of outlets selling alcohol by providing licences for the opening of café bars. My colleague, Deputy Costello, has just dealt with this in some depth. The genesis of this proposal is interesting. The proposal of the Commission on Liquor Licensing regarding café bars was designed simply to allow for new, small pubs. This was very much welcomed by the Minister as a proposal for the creation of new small premises licences for new entrants to the licensed trade. The Minister stated applicants for such a licence would no longer be required to extinguish an existing licence but, rather, to pay an appropriate fee determined by the Minister. I recall the figure of €5,000 per licence. At no stage did the commission refer to the need to serve food in these smaller outlets. This was the Minister’s proposal. Some 55% of public houses already supply food of some sort. This gives rise to the question as to what scientific evidence exists to suggest café bars would in any way influence the level of alcohol consumption in any real or significant way.
Discussing the proposal on café bars is pretty redundant at this stage. The Minister contends that by taking the route he is now taking, that is, fully licensing restaurants, he is being more radical and comprehensive. He also described it as his preferred route. He has in the past described the need for the Progressive Democrats to be radical to escape becoming redundant. His Progressive Democrats-inspired café bar proposal is well and truly redundant and the party is convincing nobody that its proposal to license fully restaurants is radical. The president of the Progressive Democrats needs to assess how the party stands.
There are problems with the price of drink that need to be addressed but an ideologically inspired and poorly thought-out one-size-fits-all regulation will not bring about real competition. There are very wealthy publicans but there are many others who work hard to make a decent living. There are already regulations in place that need to be implemented fully. The local public house is an important part of the social structure in both urban and rural areas. A distinction must be made between large pubs whose only real motive is to sell as much drink as possible and local pubs which, in many cases, have a very important and worthwhile role.
There needs to be better control over the off-licence trade. The Minister has referred to this. I recall meeting a rehabilitated drug addict who spoke of alcohol being her drug of entry. When I asked her when she started drinking she said, “At 12 years of age.” I asked her how she had access to alcohol. It seems that various children went around to each other’s house and took some of the drink that was available on the basis that the parents might not notice. She also said that with the “bush drinking”, in lonely places, it was always possible to find someone over 18 to purchase drink for them, so that they could drink at that early age. That is a problem which needs to be rooted out.
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