Wednesday, 9 July 2008
Seanad Eireann Debate
Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Conor Lenihan): On behalf of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, I thank the House for agreeing to deal with the Intoxicating Liquor Bill as an urgent matter. Senators’ co-operation in this regard is greatly appreciated and assists with having the legislation enacted before the summer recess.
There is broad acceptance now that legislative reforms are needed to tackle public disorder and alcohol-related harm resulting from excessive alcohol consumption. We see evidence of this disorder and harm on our streets on a nightly and almost daily basis and in the accident and emergency departments of our hospitals, particularly at weekends.
This is a relatively short Bill that will give effect to reforms recommended by the Government alcohol advisory group. The strategy underpinning the Bill tackles the increased visibility and availability of alcohol through retail outlets with off-licences, while tightening the conditions under which premises with on-licences qualify for special exemption orders permitting them to remain open beyond normal licensing hours.
Ireland has one of the highest alcohol consumption levels in the European Union. Average consumption of pure alcohol per person over 15 years of age in 2006 was 13.36 litres. This means that each person aged 15 and over consumed an average of 20.8 standard units of alcohol per week. Since the recommended maximum weekly consumption levels are 14 units for women and 21 for men, this means that many people are drinking more than the recommended limits.  When the fact that up to 20% of adults do not consume alcohol at all is taken into account, it means that the quantities consumed by those who do are even greater.
Ireland also stands out as having a particular problem with binge drinking. The 2007 Eurobarometer survey found that 34% of Irish drinkers consumed five or more alcoholic drinks in one sitting, compared with the EU average of 10%. When asked about the frequency of consuming five or more drinks on one occasion, 54% of respondents in Ireland stated that they did so at least once a week. This was the highest figure recorded in the survey. Abuse of alcohol is also common among young persons under 18 years of age. The 2006 national study of health behaviour in school-aged children found that half of those aged 15 to 17 reported being current drinkers and over a third reported having been very drunk in the previous 30 days.
The recent HSE report on alcohol related harm in Ireland has brought together various data to illustrate the consequences of alcohol abuse in health and other areas. It makes for uncomfortable reading. For example, some 28% of all injury attendances in accident and emergency departments in acute hospitals are alcohol related, alcohol was a contributory factor in 36% of all fatal crashes, it was involved in a quarter of severe domestic abuse cases and some 46% of those who committed homicide were intoxicated at the time. In addition, there are serious public order issues arising from excessive alcohol consumption. Adult offences for intoxication in a public place have doubled in the period 1999-2005 and juvenile offences have almost trebled during the same period.
It was against this background that the Government established the Government alcohol advisory group in January last. The group was asked to examine key aspects of the law governing the sale and consumption of alcohol, with particular reference to public order issues.
The proposals in the Bill, taken together, represent a coherent and carefully balanced package of practical reforms which are designed to reduce access to alcohol, including its visibility within retail outlets, while at the same time strengthening measures to tackle public disorder and antisocial behaviour on the streets and in our communities. A Bill to curtail the abuse and excessive consumption of alcohol would not be complete if it did not address the public order problems that are so often associated with excessive consumption.
The Bill therefore identifies two specific areas where action is both possible and necessary. The first concerns the possession of alcohol by young persons under 18 years and its removal by the Garda Síochána. The second is where the presence of alcohol is likely to result in annoyance, nuisance or a breach of the peace or where there are concerns for the safety of persons or property. In such cases, the Garda is given powers to seize the alcohol and move on the persons concerned.
Provisions relating to persons under 18 years are set out in section 14. They apply to situations where under-18s are found in possession of alcohol in a place other than a place used as a private dwelling. This could encompass the public street, a river bank, an unoccupied or derelict dwelling or a building site. Part IV of the Intoxicating Liquor Act 1988 already makes it illegal for a person under 18 years to buy alcohol or to consume it in any place outside the home or in another person’s home where they are present by right or with permission.
Section 14 adds a new section 37A to Part IV. Under this new section, where a garda suspects that a person is under 18 years and that the person, or anyone accompanying him or her, is in possession of alcohol for the purpose of consuming it in a place other than a place used as a private dwelling, the garda may seek an explanation and, if not satisfied with the reply, may seize the alcohol. A number of steps are required. The garda will first ask that the alcohol be handed over voluntarily. Where that does not happen, the garda will give a warning that he or she may arrest the person and seize the alcohol and may use such force as is necessary to do so. A person who fails to co-operate in either handing over the alcohol or in giving details of his or her name, address and age may be arrested and charged with an offence. On conviction, section 37A provides for a fine of up to €500. The garda must make and retain a record of any alcohol seized and disposed of.
Section 19 provides for the second major element of the public order aspects of the Bill. It amends the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994 by inserting a new section 8A. This new section is intended to deal with persons of any age who are in possession of alcohol in a place other than a place that is used as a private dwelling and who a garda believes are causing, or are likely to cause, a nuisance or annoyance to others or there is, or there is likely to be, a danger to persons or property or a breach of the peace. In these circumstances, the Bill gives the garda powers to seize the alcohol and authority to direct the persons to desist from their activities and to move on. In this section, “place” has the same broad meaning as in the new section 37A. The procedures to be followed by the garda are the same as those in section 37A, which I have already outlined. As in the new section 37A, failure to co-operate with a request to hand over the alcohol or to give name and address is an offence with a maximum fine of €500. The maximum fine in the case of failure to comply with a direction to desist from the activities or to move on is €1,000.
Powers of entry for the purposes of operating the new sections 37A and 8A are set out in the new sections 37B and 8B, respectively. We are referring here to entry into, for example, unoccupied houses and flats, derelict sites or building sites. As Senators will be aware, our Constitution makes very clear provision on the inviolability of a domestic residence. The powers being granted here take full account of that provision but ensure that gardaí are given a clear basis on which they can use the powers granted by the new sections 37A and 8A. A garda must have reasonable grounds for believing that either sections 37A or 8A applies before exercising the entry powers under sections 37B or 8B, as the case may be. It may not become clear until after entry has been completed whether it is section 37A, that is, the person is under 18 years, or section 8A which applies. The entry provisions are framed to deal with that situation by requiring that the garda be satisfied before entry that one or both sections will apply.
I will elaborate on these new Garda powers to seize alcohol. These powers are additional to existing powers to deal with public order offences. The real benefit of the new powers is that they will permit early intervention by gardaí and will help to prevent offences from taking place. Where the parties co-operate with gardaí, the matter ends there. The question of arrests and prosecutions arises only where there is resistance or a failure to co-operate. These new powers will therefore not only assist gardaí in responding to and preventing unacceptable behaviour but they will have the potential to enable gardaí to achieve that end, while reducing the time consuming activities associated with prosecutions and court appearances. From the offender’s perspective, he or she will avoid a criminal record by co-operating with a garda in the exercise of these new powers.
Senators will note that the procedural requirements to be followed, including the warnings to be given by a garda, are set out in a detailed manner in both sections 37A and 8A. The Minister attaches considerable importance to this aspect of the new provisions. The explicit description of the procedural steps to be followed is intended to ensure that even where the opportunity for judicial supervision does not arise, such as when the parties concerned co-operate with the garda and, as a result, no court proceedings are involved, we can nevertheless be reasonably satisfied that due process has been observed.
In regard to public order matters, the Minister is responding to another of the advisory group’s recommendations by advancing arrangements to introduce fixed charge penalties for offences under sections 4, intoxication in a public place, and 5, disorderly conduct in a public place, of the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994. Provision was made for these charges in section 184 of the Criminal Justice Act 2006 and this Bill contains certain technical amendments on the administration of the fixed charge system, including arrangements for payment of the charges. These are set out in sections 20 and 21. It is important that we recognise the significance of the introduction of fixed charges in this area. Although they have applied for some time in the case of certain road offences, this is the first time we have applied them to public order offences. The arrangement has potential benefits for all concerned. The offender avoids a criminal record and pays a charge that is significant but in all probability lower than the fine that might have been imposed by the courts. An offender who disputes the charge retains his or her right to go to court and to have the matter settled there. Needless to say, any offender who fails to pay the charge will be prosecuted for the original offence. The system also has benefits for the Garda and the courts. It provides the Garda with an additional option which may be more appropriate in many cases while remaining a deterrent. It will reduce the time spent on administration and in court. This approach has potential for further development but it will be necessary to evaluate these first steps before considering any expansion of the system to other offences.
Senators will be aware of the significant increase in the number of supermarkets, convenience stores and petrol stations with off-licences in recent years. At the same time, there has been a remarkable increase in the scale and frequency of alcohol promotions and price discounts. The result has been a marked increase in alcohol availability and, especially, its visibility within these mixed trading premises. There are basically three types of off-licence, which correspond to the three main categories of alcohol products, namely, spirits, beer and wine. Specialist off-licences, supermarkets and many convenience stores hold all three licences and can therefore sell all types of alcohol. Other retail outlets may have a licence to sell wine only.
To obtain the necessary off-licences to sell spirits and beer, an applicant must apply to the District Court for a certificate which, if granted, is then presented to the Revenue Commissioners and a licence is issued subject to tax compliance requirements. The District Court will not issue the required certificate unless the applicant satisfies the court that an existing licence holder, usually the holder of a public house licence, is willing to extinguish an existing licence when the new licences are issued. Grant of the certificate is also dependent on the court not accepting an objection on any of the grounds on which an objection can be lodged. At present, neither a District Court certificate nor extinguishment of an existing licence is required to obtain a wine only off-licence, which is issued directly to applicants by the Revenue Commissioners. In 2001, the Revenue Commissioners issued off-licences permitting the sale of spirits and beer to about 790 outlets. This had increased by about 70% to more than 1,300 outlets by 2007. The number of wine only off-licences almost trebled over the same period, with more than 3,600 wine only off-licences issued in 2007. This is the background against which the advisory group formulated its recommendation to restrict both the supply and visibility of alcohol in mixed trading premises.
Section 4 proposes to restrict off-sales of alcohol to the period between 10.30 a.m. and 10.00 p.m., or 12.30 p.m. and 10.00 p.m. on Sundays and Saint Patrick’s Day. This new restriction will apply to premises with on-licences as well as off-licences. Section 3 repeals the existing provision which permits the sale of alcohol from 7.30 a.m. in supermarkets, convenience stores and petrol stations. These proposals will reduce the time during which mixed trading premises are permitted to sell alcohol by 29 hours per week. Existing prohibitions on the sale of alcohol on Christmas Day and Good Friday will remain in place.
Section 5 amends existing statutory provisions pertaining to general exemption orders or early morning houses. It provides that in future such orders shall only be granted to licensed premises which were already availing of the facility on 30 May 2008, that is, the date of publication of the Bill. The sale of alcohol for consumption off such premises before 10.30 a.m. is prohibited under section 4.
Section 6 provides that following implementation of this legislation an applicant for a wine off-licence will require a District Court certificate. This requirement already applies to applications for spirits and beer off-licences.
Section 7 provides for the possibility of lodging an objection to the grant of a District Court certificate for any off-licence on any of the following grounds: the character of the applicant; the appropriateness of the premises; the needs of persons residing in the area; and the adequacy of the number of licensed outlets already in the area. At present, objections to certificates for spirits and beer off-licences are generally limited to the character of the applicant and the suitability of the premises. The new provisions will permit the Garda or local residents to object on the grounds that an off-licence is not required to meet residents’ needs or because there are already enough off-licences in the neighbourhood.
Subsection (2) provides that the District Court may require the installation or operation during licensing hours of a closed circuit television system on granting a certificate. This is intended to deter people from loitering in the vicinity of off-licences and to combat secondary purchasing, namely, where under-age persons try to persuade or pressurise adults to purchase alcohol for them.
Implementation of sections 6 and 7 will remove differences of treatment between premises seeking on-licences and those seeking off-licences and between off-licences selling all alcohol products and those selling wine only. Section 8 is a technical proposal that gives jurisdiction to the District Court in respect of granting a certificate for a wine off-licence and provides for giving advance notice of applications for such licences.
Section 9 contains proposals for the separation of alcohol products from other products in premises engaged in mixed trading, namely, supermarkets, convenience stores and petrol stations. It provides that alcohol shall be displayed and sold in a separate area of the premises to which access is controlled. Where structural separation is not feasible, for example because of the size of the premises, alcohol products other than wine must be displayed and sold from a part of the premises where public access is prohibited, namely, from behind a counter. Structural separation will not apply to specialist off-licences or to duty free shops. As implementation of the structural separation provisions may require structural alterations within premises, the Bill provides for delayed implementation of section 9. The advisory group’s recommendation for structural separation of alcohol products was motivated by its concerns that the display and sale of alcohol side by side with ordinary foods such as milk and bread serves to create the impression that alcohol is an ordinary grocery product. It also exposes children to alcohol products at an early age. Restricting sale and display to a separate area will emphasise the difference between products which require a licence for sale and those which do not require any such authorisation.
Following publication of the Bill, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Dermot Ahern, held discussions with the trade organisations representing supermarkets and convenience stores on the structural separation proposals and their impact. During these discussions, the bodies concerned offered to implement an agreed voluntary code of practice as an alternative to implementation of section 9. The code would cover issues such as the location and display of alcohol within premises, signage, warning signs, in-store advertising as well as staff training standards. Implementation would be overseen and enforced through an independent audit and verification mechanism.
The Minister subsequently indicated the possibility of deferring implementation of section 9 if the following conditions are satisfied: agreement can be reached on the contents of the code and the necessary level of support for its strict implementation across the mixed trading sector is forthcoming; if the Minister can be satisfied that the proposed code would achieve in effect what we have set out to achieve through structural separation and, if the code is subject to independent verification on an annual basis. The Minister went on to say that if independent verification of compliance were to show that the code is being implemented effectively across the country and achieving in effect what the Government set out to achieve through structural separation, it might not be necessary to commence section 9. However, if the relevant conditions were not met, the Minister confirmed that he would not hesitate to commence the provision.
Section 10 amends existing statutory provisions under which the District Court may grant special exemption orders which permit extended opening hours for special occasions. The conditions under which such orders can be granted are being amended to require the operation of a CCTV system at venues where the public is admitted, namely, nightclubs and late bars, and to require that all door supervisors on duty at events covered by such orders hold the required licence under the Private Security Services Act 2004.
The public order ground on which objection may be made by the Garda to the grant of such orders is also being strengthened. Moreover, the District Court shall not grant such orders in future unless satisfied that the premises concerned comply with fire safety standards under the Building Control Act 1990. Some courts already insist on compliance with relevant fire safety standards but the proposal now is that compliance will be mandatory in all cases.
Section 11 deals with the sale of alcohol in premises with theatre licences. Under existing rules, such licences may be obtained from the Revenue Commissions without any court certificate and the normal licensing hours do not apply. In theatres, the sale of alcohol is permitted both before and after performances. The result is that premises with theatre licences often remain open until 3.30 a.m. or 4.00 a.m. which is long after other premises operating on the basis of special exemption orders have closed their doors. This has created a strong incentive for nightclubs and other late-night venues to obtain theatre licences and circumvent the special exemption order provisions. There has been a very significant increase in the number of theatre licences issued so far this year. In 2006 and again in 2007, a total of 76 theatre licences were issued by the Revenue Commissioners of which 36 were in Dublin. The reforms in section 11 will mean that the sale of alcohol before and after performances will only be permitted during normal licensing hours or during extended opening hours under a special exemption order granted by the District Court. This will enable the Garda to object to any such orders on public order grounds and will ensure compliance with fire safety standards. In short, it is intended that there will be equality of treatment for all premises operating as late-night venues.
Section 14 provides for the introduction of test purchasing of alcohol products in the New Section 37C to be inserted in the Intoxicating Liquor Act 1988. It provides that the Garda will be permitted to send a person aged 15, 16 or 17 years into a licensed premises for the purpose of seeking to purchase or being permitted to consume alcohol. Written consent of a parent or guardian will be required in all cases and all reasonable steps must be taken to protect the young person concerned. Test purchasing will be implemented in accordance with guidelines to be issued following consultation wit the Garda Commissioner and the Department of Health and Children. It is hoped that this measure will lead to greater use of the Garda age card and to a stronger culture of compliance with provisions regarding under age persons.
Sections 13 and 15 provide, as recommended by the advisory group, for a minimum two-day closure in respect of temporary closure orders made by the District Court on the conviction of licensees for certain licensing offences. The relevant offences include the sale of alcohol to a person under 18 years and permitting drunkenness and disorderly conduct on the premises. Currently, the law provides that the closure period may not exceed seven days in respect of a first offence but does not specify any minimum period. The advisory group stated in its report that in some cases the courts had imposed closure orders of only a few hours. Such closure orders do not represent an effective deterrent.
Section 16 provides for the making of regulations which may prohibit or restrict the advertising, promotion, sale or supply of alcohol at reduced prices to reduce the risk of a threat to public order and for health-related risks arising from the excessive consumption of alcohol. Reduced price in this context will include the award, directly or indirectly, of bonus points, loyalty card points or any similar benefits and the use of such points or benefit to obtain alcohol or any other product or service at a reduced price or free of charge. Permitting excessive consumption of alcohol at events held anywhere other than in a private residence is also covered by this provision. Making regulations at a later date to deal with these matters will facilitate advance communication of draft provisions to the European Commission under the EU standards directives.
Section 17 provides for increases in fines for certain licensing offences set out in Schedule 1. These include the sale or provision of alcohol to a person under 18 years and permitting drunkenness and disorderly conduct on licensed premises. Section 22 provides for increases in the fines levels in the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994 as set out in Schedule 2. This short, but strategic Bill is intended to tackle public disorder and health-related harm resulting from excessive alcohol consumption. I commend this Bill to the House.
With the permission of the Leas-Chathaoirleach I thank Members for their kind and generous remarks in regard to my late ministerial colleague, Deputy Seamus Brennan of whom I have fond memories. He was very kind to me as a young candidate and gave me great advice on how to organise myself when seeking election. I will never forget him for that.
Senator Eugene Regan: I add my voice to the expressions of sympathy on the death of former Minister, Deputy Seamus Brennan. I recall his courage in dealing with difficulties within his party and the stance he took in terms of standards in public life. That is my abiding memory of the man.
I thank the Minister of State for his presentation of this Bill. However, I disagree with the point made by him that we agreed to deal with this legislation as a matter of urgency. This House is being forced to rush through this legislation as was the Dáil when this Bill was guillotined resulting in only 13 of the 56 amendments tabled being debated. I do not know if the Minister of State is listening to me.
The Minister of State indicated that we had agreed to deal with this Bill as a matter of urgency, but that was forced on this House by the procedures adopted by the Government. It is therefore being debated here under the strongest possible objections from this party on a point of principle. Legislation should not be pushed through without adequate consideration, opportunity for public consultation, consideration of amendments and debate. I wish to make known my objections in that regard.
The Bill itself reflects in large measure the recommendations of the report of the Government alcohol advisory group, which reported on 31 March this year, dealing with the increase in off-licenses granted to supermarkets, convenience stores and petrol stations. The increased number of special exemption orders was noted and the existing enforcement measures were found not to be adequate. The report called for a number of reforms, including the granting of certain off-licences by the District Court rather than the Revenue Commissioners, changes to hours of opening and the physical separation of alcohol from non-alcohol products in mixed trading premises. It also recommended the implementation of test purchasing and certain conditions to be applied with regard to granting licences, including the possibility of a requirement that CCTV systems be put in place. Many of these recommendations are appropriate. It was also recommended that early house licences be abolished, but the Minister has now resiled from the proposal, and I concur with that decision. It also recommended increases in fines and that where local authorities had not adopted by-laws prohibiting the consumption of alcohol in public places under section 19 of the Local Government Act 2001, they should do so.
The backdrop to the Bill is the large increase in licences and special exemption orders in the past five years, the trebling in the number of off-licences in the past seven years, and the dramatic increase in public order offences — 60% in five years — which is linked to these to a certain extent. There is a high level of alcohol consumption in Ireland, but it is also important to note that the rise in consumption which was evident for many years reached a plateau in 2006. These measures are being adopted in the context of an overall stabilisation in consumption. A thousand public houses have closed down in the past three years. When we consider the extent of the increase in off-licences, we can see there is an issue of competition. There are also issues of public order and enforcement, about which the report of the advisory group made specific recommendations. The Bill endeavours to deal with these.
The fact that pubs and nightclubs provide a controlled and safe environment for socialising and drinking is often overlooked. Restricting the supply of alcohol to mature adults does not necessarily reduce demand. The “Big Brother” approach does not work. Restricting closing times, as we know from past experience, merely induces over-drinking before or at closing times. In some sense the measures take us back to the 1970s, when there was a curtailment in the availability of alcohol to adults, but there was no evidence that it reduced consumption. The main objective of the Bill is to deal with the issue of public order offences associated with late-night pubs and nightclubs. However, it makes matters worse in that regard because we know that common closing times, at which many people exit premises at the same time, result in problems. We are now harmonising closing times for every premises and that is where this legislation is fundamentally flawed. For this reason in particular, it is unfortunate that the Government did not allow proper time for debate on this Bill.
There is the issue of an identification system to prevent under-age purchasing of alcohol at off-licences. Now that we are introducing a system of test purchasing, there is a problem for off-licence owners who will be subjected to this system despite the absence of an adequate identification system. Many under-age purchases from off-licences are facilitated by persons over 18 who purchase alcohol for minors. The Bill fails to address this. It also fails to deal with direct deliveries. People can order alcohol to be delivered to their homes and this can be done by under-age persons. There is no provision to curtail this practice.
The Bill fails to regularise the licensing laws, which was one of its objectives. It adopts a “Big Brother” approach on closing times and threatens to worsen public disorder with its insistence on common closing times. It does not deal adequately with the issue of under-age drinking.
If the Government was of a mind to consider properly amendments that may be put to it, there would be time for proper consideration. We are now transferring to the courts, as distinct from the Revenue Commissioners, the onus of awarding licences. The court application must be attended by a Garda sergeant or superintendent from each Garda station in the district in which a licence is being applied for. There might be 20, 30 or 40 members of the Garda Síochána in a court. Even if they are not objecting to a licence they must be present. In view of the scarcity of Garda resources, it should be provided for in the Bill that a garda can be designated to cover more than his or her own district. This would obviate the need for the tying up of so many gardaí in the awarding of licences. Now that the onus is on the District Court to deal with a whole array of licences, it is important that resources are made available to the courts to do so. I understand that a code for small retailers may be agreed regarding the logistics of partitioning premises. There is also the mixed trading house and specialist off-licence exemption and the lines of distinction between these types of premises are blurred. This issue should be dealt with and further consideration of it is needed in this Bill.
The Bill does not take up a number of points that were in the advisory report, including adequate training standards for staff involved in the sale of alcohol, a minimum age for people selling alcohol in licensed and mixed-trading premises and the issue of young people serving in licensed premises.
By failing to maintain the existing approach of the sequential closing of late-night premises and nightclubs this proposed legislation undermines the very objective sought by the advisory group and the Bill itself. The stated objective of the Minister is to address the issue of public order offences. I noticed in the debate in the Lower House references to practices in other jurisdictions but the only example used is Northern Ireland. Sequential closing is of fundamental importance and the Garda has gone on record to point this out. By failing to deal with this issue the credibility and objective of the legislation are undermined.
In introducing the Bill the Minister stated that it addresses “the public order and licensing aspects of our national problem with drink”. The reality is that the Bill does not do this — it is regressive, rather than progressive in this regard and I will table amendments to reflect some of the points I have made.
Senator Denis O’Donovan: I am glad to have the opportunity to speak on this Bill. Like the previous speakers, I express my sincere sympathy for the family of Séamus Brennan, former Senator and Member of the other House.
I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy John Curran, to the House. This is the first time I have spoken here while he has been present and I am delighted he received his well-deserved promotion. As one who served with him in the Lower House for the past five years I have great admiration for his abilities. It is great to see people of his ilk being recognised.
It is a sad reflection on Irish society that, basically, we are a nation of alcoholics. We are probably second worst in Europe in this regard and there is no point denying this. One may quote the statistic that 20% of people here do not drink — good luck to them, I wish the figure was twice as high — but, as a parent, it is frightening that instead of alcohol consumption being curtailed in the past two decades it has increased. The statistics are frightening.
I understand the concerns of the Opposition, their wish to delay passage of the Bill and their unwillingness to accept the guillotine proposed for tomorrow. I said on the Order of Business today that I have no objection to this House sitting next Tuesday and Wednesday, if necessary, to deal with Committee and Report Stages if the House so desires. That said, some of these issues have been in the public domain for some time. Realistically, two or three lobby groups have certain agendas and wish to steer us in a particular direction regarding amendments and so on.
A number of important areas of this Bill should be praised. Up to this Bill there has been abuse of theatre licences. Theatre licences were probably introduced for a good reason but they have been exploited. This year more than 100 applications for theatre licences are before the Revenue Commissioners but I doubt there are even 100 theatres in the country. If there are, I doubt these theatres seek the licences. Certain establishments, including lap dance clubs, have availed of this loophole so I am delighted it is to be closed.
I am not the oldest Member of this House, I suppose I am somewhere in the middle. When I went dancing in my youth alcohol was not allowed in the dancing establishments and if one showed signs of having consumed it one would not gain entrance. As a practising solicitor, I remember when if an establishment sought a special exemption it had to provide a substantial meal to patrons. This requirement has only been changed in recent years. There must be restrictions. Once these ridiculous theatre licences have been sidelined greater flexibility in nightclub closing times could be sought. I think the Minister proposes that closing time for nightclubs should be 2.30 a.m. with half an hour of drinking time and, by and large, this seems reasonable. I would not have a problem if closing time was 3 a.m. but I do not think nightclubs should stay open until 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. It is said that it takes half an hour to clear a premises but I sometimes pick up one of my children from a disco and, to my knowledge, the aftermath can go on for an hour to an hour and a half.
There is a problem with public order and this Bill may not resolve it. It may take further legislation this year or next year to stymie societal problems relating to drink and if this is the case it should be welcomed. Much of this relates to attitudes; Senator Regan is correct to point out that while we could close discos at midnight and pubs at 10 p.m. if people are intent on obtaining alcohol, as in the prohibition period in late 1920s America, they will get it anyway. There must be rules and regulations.
When this legislation was first mooted there was a threat to early house licences. There are about 46 early houses in the country and, in his wisdom, the Minister has decided not to do away with them. From time to time I have lived in large urban areas in Ireland and abroad and I understand that people who regularly work night shifts may wish to relax by having one or two drinks in the morning. I have no problem with this as long as it is not abused. I have done some research into this and, to my knowledge, most of the public houses that open early are well run and there are rarely problems.
There are several small mini markets in my constituency; I am not talking about Tesco, Lidl or Aldi but supermarkets of up to 3,000 sq. ft. It was proposed in the legislation that alcoholic drink products should be segregated from other products, that they should not be displayed in the same area as bread and other groceries, but I am glad the Minister has allowed latitude on this in the Bill. The retailers in question are to operate under a code of conduct. The Minister is, laudably, putting the legislation in place as a warning to retailers. It will not be strictly enforced and if retailers can work within a code of conduct the Minister will address the area in a sensible and practical fashion. I would fear that in places around west Cork, including Schull, Castletownbere, Rosscarbery and Dunmanway, where one or two such establishments are in town, it could cost retailers up to €100,000, and perhaps more, to provide a till totally segregated from the rest of the shop. This would be an extraordinary and inordinate expense to impose on any small retailer.
It is not long since we introduced the rule that one must apply to the District Court to obtain a wine licence. An advisory group was set up to consider such issues. The number of wine licences issued has increased substantially in the past five or six years. The rule that one must apply to the District Court for a wine licence is probably a good handbrake measure and it is sensible given the increase in the number being issued. Most applications are relatively simple and the licences must be renewed annually. From my experience of the District Court, the application process is a formality once there is no objection by the Garda or some party with a reason to object.
The Minister of State might consider the cost of applying for special exemptions, which has increased to €410 from €210. This is probably not an exorbitant increase but it could become a problem for a nightclub operating five or six nights per week, which must pay €410 plus the legal costs each night it opens. Most nightclubs in my area restrict their opening to the weekends.
One critical measure in the Bill is that the Garda will have the power to confiscate drink from young people and apply a sort of penalty points system or impose an on-the-spot fine. This is appropriate in respect of minor drink-related offences. If, as we say in regard to Gaelic games, there is a bit of “handbagging”, or pushing and shoving or messing around by young fellows that is not too serious outside a disco, the Garda can impose a fine on them. The nature of the fine has yet to be decided but it is a good provision because it is not the intention to drag people into court over very minor issues.
It is ridiculous and unfortunate that, in some instances, customers of some of the bigger stores used bonus points accumulated on their other purchases to purchase alcohol. This practice is being banned in the Bill. We can listen to criticism but, overall, we must acknowledge there are many salient features in the Bill. I welcome it and, if there is a problem completing Committee, Report and Final Stages tomorrow, I will not have a problem sitting next week. It is critical that we deal with the Bill before the summer recess. I object strenuously to the postponement of the Bill until October. If there is a problem with time, let us sit next week.
I have significant problems with this Bill. While we must face up to a considerable challenge regarding alcohol, I regard the Bill as rushed legislation of the worst kind. The alcohol advisory group, chaired by Dr. Gordon Holmes, was given five weeks in January to make a submission before March. Since then, the Minister has sprung the Bill on us and has not given us enough time to deal with it.
Senator O’Donovan stated that we can sit next week. However, this is no good because, if we have amendments, the time frame is such that they will not be considered seriously. Even if the Minister was tempted to accept one of our laudable amendments, he would not do so because the Dáil will be in recess.
While the Bill is rushed legislation of the worst kind, there are many other reasons it is not acceptable. We have a significant problem with alcohol. I proposed some years ago that we should place a levy on alcohol advertising in sports promotion — there was an article on this some time ago in The Irish Times.
Senator Feargal Quinn: There should be a 100% levy on the advertising spend, all of which would go to an anti-alcohol lobby group. This is the real solution and it is achievable. If we are to attempt to solve the problem of public disorder, this is the kind of step we must take.
I am sure there is a great deal in the legislation that is very valid and sensible and I will not cover matters that have already been touched upon. My main concern is that the legislation is rushed and does not provide for a regulatory impact analysis. We agreed years ago that no legislation should come through the Houses without such provision. I am told the likely cost to supermarkets and other shops of what is proposed in the legislation, which may not be commenced at this stage, is €200 million. The structures the shops would have to put in place would not even be manufactured in Ireland because we no longer have the sort of industry required. The materials would have to be imported from abroad. The legislation is very bad in that it suggests approaches and does not go ahead with them. The failure to include provision for a regulatory impact analysis is the principal reason the legislation should be delayed.
I do not condemn every aspect of the Bill. I gather the Minister listened to several points that were made thereon. That he had to make adjustments is significant. Consider, for example, the provision regarding early morning pubs. Quite sensibly, this has been dropped, as Senator O’Donovan and others stated. The provision regarding structural divisions has not been dropped but as a test it will not be commenced. The case of the nightclubs has been heard and listened to. These are some of the matters that lead me to believe the Bill should not have been proceeded with. I hope the Minister will consider seriously its postponement tomorrow on Committee Stage, provided we get a chance to proceed that far.
I am pleased with the provision on advertising in that the failure to address it presented a clear danger. This danger is the reason I am so opposed to the promotion of alcohol, particularly given that the aim of the Bill is to tackle public disorder, as the Minister stated. We must address this problem.
It seems it is mandatory in every other European country to carry an age card but this is not provided for in the Bill. It is very simple to provide for this and I cannot understand why we have not done so. This could have been one simple measure to address public disorder, particularly among the young. The necessary technology exists and this would have reduced the cost. I understand all those in the business are genuinely concerned about the issue of identification.
I am concerned about the applications for wine licences in the District Court, which is a technical matter. The owner of a couple of supermarkets with wine licences must now go to the District Court to renew them, thus incurring extra costs. The Bill refers to the “good character” of applicants. However, if they already have a couple of wine licences, why must they apply to the District Court if they require another? This should be re-examined seriously.
I have a query in respect of the provision on minimum times for closure. I can understand the reason for a judge to state that one must close down for a certain length of time and a minimum time of two days now is being specified. In the game of rugby, it was very hard to send off a player in a match because once one of the 15 players had been sent off, the game ended as there was no chance for that team. The rugby authorities introduced the sin bin, which was a marvellous solution. Although it punished those who had been bold by putting them off the field of play for ten minutes, the game continued. A minimum time of two days is not necessary. Judges will decide not to close down a big supermarket for that length of time simply because it made a mistake. They will close them down for an afternoon, a morning or something similar. Consequently, I do not believe such a specified minimum time is required.
Senator David Norris: I thank Senator Quinn for sharing his time with me and, following the changing of the guard, I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Micheál Kitt. Numerous Ministers of State are coming and going.
Although the Minister of State’s speech summed up the problem well, this constitutes a weak method of addressing it and does not go half far enough. He indicated problems with which all Members are familiar. There is a problem regarding excessive drinking in Ireland that leads to all kinds of social disorder. The reason is known, namely, availability and price. The Government has done nothing for years on price. It now has begun to act at the margins of availability and this limited initiative is to be welcomed.
I refer to licensing and the reference to the District Court. I got into great trouble because I stated on television that I did not know what kind of lunatics were handing out licences. I stated they seemed to be handing them out like Smarties, were merely rubber-stamping the applications and that I had seen this in court. While this was the case, it was 15 years ago and at the time I made the remarks only one person was engaged in this process. Although I did not know of his existence and had not heard of his name, he sued. While that was the Judiciary’s response, its members should have considered the situation. I repeat the phrase, “rubber stamp”. While 40 gardaí may be involved in respect of applications from approximately 100 people, the gardaí usually do not even give evidence.
The Minister of State should recommend what should happen for inclusion in this Bill or a subsequent one. The Garda should be present and should be represented by gardaí with knowledge. If a single garda is to be responsible for a series of areas, that officer must be supplied with the information. Moreover, a certificate should be issued each year stating that a particular pub has not transgressed. It was a rubber stamp previously and I stand over that. Moreover, it still is. I recall a case in which the local community, the Garda and the civic authorities objected to a licence for a premises that was sending people who were absolutely stocious spewing out on to the streets of inner city Dublin. Although all three elements objected, the licence was granted. One is entitled to know the reason. Perhaps the judge was constrained or perhaps the gardaí had not been obliged to give evidence. However, even when they did, it was not taken into account and this is worrying.
I am pleased the Bill includes provisions to take drink from people. Such provisions existed years ago, when I was a child. They may have been under the Vagrancy Acts or similar measures that may have been abolished. However, there is a place in Marlborough Street, close to where I live in the north inner city, that looks after drunks and druggies. At a certain hour, they are moved on and a herd of them migrate. They collect extra supplies from Booze 2 Go and sit on the steps in North Great George’s Street. The 18th century houses there have wide steps that serve as a nice platform for them. They urinate, excrete, have sex and do everything else on the steps and no one does a thing about it. Why? This must be addressed.
The problem also arises from the fact that the abolition of the groceries order was a terrible mistake that encouraged below-cost selling by supermarkets, which promoted themselves using alcohol sales. Every little huxter’s shop in Dublin stocks beer, wine and spirits up to its rafters. While the issue is addressed to some extent in this Bill, this is not due to idealism but to the strength of the drinks lobby and is to even the playing field for publicans.
I have been briefed by people from the nightclub industry and am partially, if not 100%, sympathetic. I do not care whether people drink or whether drink is available around the clock. It is not a question of when people drink, but of their behaviour. As long as nightclubs are managed well, I do not care a damn. It has been put to me that the reduced opening times on Sundays will put a large number of people out of work and the Minister should reconsider this proposal. Moreover, it is regulating the behaviour of the proprietors. I happen to know the people who briefed me on this issue. They are well-established and come from good background.
I also note that a section deals with containers. This legislation was rushed and the National Youth Council was not involved, although it should have been. The advice given by various professional groups was either lumped in or ignored. However, for example, a suggestion had been made that, arising from the other aspects of nuisance, that is, the distribution of containers, bottles, empties and so on around the place, there should be a point of sale indicator on them. In other words, there should be some form of labelling so that one could identify where such items were bought. This is an important point and I ask the reason it was not included in the Bill.
I probably will table two amendments, although it possibly is futile. The first will require certificates from the Garda because there is no point in having 40 gardaí in court if, as I witnessed, they are never asked a question about the reputation of a premises. The second will pertain to the business of labelling. I am glad a tiny move has been made in this regard. Moreover, I read with interest the comments of the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, who poured scorn and contempt on the futile little advertisement notices that ask people to be careful while consuming an alcoholic product. What they mean is that while people should drink as much as they possibly can and get absolutely twisted, such notices constitute the producer’s fig leaf. MEAS is the name of the organisation and I have no meas or respect for it as a serious problem exists. Half of the murders and manslaughters in this jurisdiction have an alcohol ingredient, as do one third of the road traffic deaths. That describes the scale of present behaviour. This Bill is doing what used to be called a baby step in the game relievio. It is neither a scissors step nor a giant step but is a baby step. While it is at least in the right direction, this legislation is rushed and does not go halfway far enough. Moreover, there are areas, such as those raised by my friends representing nightclubs, that should be reconsidered. I ask the Government to consider the two areas in which I suggested amendments might be made.
Senator Dan Boyle: It is only belatedly in political debate that a consensus has been reached in respect of the difficulties that alcohol causes to our society. We have tended to live on a national myth that alcohol is part of what we are and even to celebrate the fact it is so widely used and abused in our society. However, we have begun to perceive the social consequences of being so attached to such a mythology. While I enjoy alcohol and must admit there are occasions on which I take alcohol to excess——
Senator Dan Boyle: As a parent, my responsibility now has passed into the twilight as my daughter has reached the age of 18. Despite my concern the drink culture has managed to worsen. When my generation began to drink and to frequent public houses and nightclubs, the idea was to consume as much alcohol as possible, but to do so in a way that showed one could sustain such use of alcohol. A new generation has arisen in which the purpose of alcohol consumption is to maximise alcohol intake and to become intoxicated in the quickest possible time. This frightens me. Such alcohol abuse can be linked with poly-drug use, whereby many young people take drugs, which of themselves are not addictive and if taken in isolation, may not have a short-term medical consequence. However, when they mix them together in a cocktail of pill-popping, smoking and drinking, it indicates a generation that has threatened itself medically in a manner like no previous generation. There is an onus on Members as parliamentarians to introduce legislation that identifies such risks and tries to codify the law appropriately.
The imposition of time limits for the consumption of alcohol is almost self-defeating because part of the culture in Ireland is for large groups of people to go out at 9.30 p.m. or 10 p.m. to consume large amounts of alcohol before the official closing time. In view of the way our licensing hours are structured, a large number of people, who have consumed large amounts of alcohol in a short period of time, come out into urban centres — it is becoming an increasing phenomenon in rural areas — and cause untold social difficulties. What we need is a licensing system that would measure and regulate that more effectively so that people, first, would have a more mature attitude to alcohol and, second, would consume alcohol at different times.
We have just come out of a European treaty referendum, but in terms of our use of alcohol we are far from European. The norm in mainland Europe is to encourage young people to partake of alcohol with meals at an early age and to consume alcohol in small quantities at various times during the day. In Ireland, we have lost sight of that. We have bought into a cultural myth that we must binge on alcohol. While we might not be as bad as our near neighbours in that regard, we have basked in a cultural reflection of our use of alcohol. If we have any intent to assert ourselves as a nation that has more pride about ourselves, it is an element of our culture we need to lose quickly.
This Bill is born out of the need to construct such a debate and laws along those lines. A valuable job of work has been done by the alcohol advisory group whose recommendations have been discussed in this House in the past.
I accept that elements of the legislation could be drafted in a more effective way, and that is something we need to look at in the context of how we measure our business in this House. I also believe that it is important for the main thrust of the Bill that its contents are brought into being as quickly as possible because the summer period is the time of maximum consumption of alcohol and where many of the social difficulties come about from this culture.
That said, I am conscious of some of the concerns about what is being proposed in this Bill. I already stated that a strict time limit may not be the best way to proceed and perhaps future legislation would deal with the idea of rolling closing times between establishments in a given area or having them changed in a round robin fashion so that people drink in different establishments at different times and come out on to the public streets at different times.
While there are bigger issues being discussed in this debate on which several amendments are being tabled, I welcome the fact that changes to the licensing of early drinking houses has not been included in the legislation. They are an historical artifact from what were known as docker exemptions, mainly in the urban centres, but because to the changed nature of work they have become a social outlet for shift workers such as those working in health care. As long as we do not extend the number of outlets, I believe we should maintain the licences as they are.
There is an anomaly that results from that. As many early drinking houses were given such licences, they were also given six-day rather than seven-day licences. The 2000 Act allowed an opportunity for six-day licensees to become seven-day licensees by paying an appropriate fee to the Revenue Commissioners. That was time specific and only lasted 12 months after the enactment of the Act. I am lead to believe that there are no more than half a dozen such licences left in the country. It would be in order to restore that section of the 2000 Act into this Act for a further 12-month period allowing for an increase in the fee to the Revenue Commissioners to reflect inflation in the meantime. I am hopeful that the Minister will be open to that. Senator Mark Daly has asked me to indicate that we will be tabling an amendment in that regard. If we rid ourselves of the anomaly of six-day houses and if we limit the number of early houses, the Bill will be doing effective work.
Senator Dan Boyle: ——I am not sure whether the more controversial aspect that has been heavily lobbied in this case can be dealt with at this stage of the legislation. However, I would reiterate my case, that the possible solution is the staggering of opening times and round robin use of those opening times in any local area. I hope consideration will be given to that.
Senator Alex White: No one can doubt the background against which we are having this debate. We discussed it on a number of occasions in this House and it was discussed elsewhere. I refer to the abuse of alcohol, the problem of binge drinking, and the knock-on effect right across a range of social and personal problems such as mental health problems. All of these issues and their impact have been documented and elucidated in this House many times over.
No one questions the commitment of all of us, Senators on both sides of the House, to address this fundamental problem with which Dr. Gordon Holmes, in his insightful report, assisted us so much. The fact that all on this side of the House are complaining that this is, as Senator Quinn stated, “rushed legislation of the worst kind”, are criticising the legislation and the manner in which it has been introduced, and the speed with which it is being forced through both Houses, can not be taken as indicating any less of a concern on the part of those of us on this side of the House.
However, it must be asked if the Bill addresses the issue. Dr. Holmes, in his report, wrote of the need for a comprehensive approach to this problem across society but that is not what is in this Bill. The Bill contains a number of welcome provisions, but this is not the comprehensive attack on a serious social problem that we all know is needed. It is not consistent with debate, analysis, careful scrutiny of the problem and then the bringing forward of solutions to have legislation in this House, for the first time in my relatively short period here, where the deadline for amendments on Committee Stage came before the Second Stage, although there was some flexibility indicated for later today. It is ludicrous for us, who are expected to carry out the important constitutional function, to scrutinise legislation and to decide whether it is appropriate that it should be passed, to be faced with such a situation.
I heard one of my colleagues state that he was lobbied by one of the associated bodies, I understand it was the nightclub association. I have not had time to be lobbied by them. There is not enough time to meet the people who have expressed an interest and an involvement. Those involved are just as entitled as anybody else to raise their concerns with legislators. What we do about that is another matter, but we should have an opportunity to listen to them and to consider carefully what they have to say. While I have not had an opportunity to meet anybody, I have a file of e-mails that I have received from people, not just from the nightclub industry but from youth organisations and organisations across the board, but I have had no real opportunity to properly consider them.
A long debate into the late hours tomorrow night, or on Friday or next week, does not address the problem I raise. The Leader has constantly stated that the Government would not impose a guillotine and we can debate all night long. That does not address the issue. The issue is having a sufficiency of time between the different Stages of legislation so that a real public debate can occur. We are not having that. We, not just us Senators but those we are supposed to serve, are being deprived of that.
It has been stated that the Bill is founded largely on a need to address the public order side of matters. To some extent, I acknowledge that it does touch on a number of the issues about which one would have concern and on which one would want to see amendments introduced in legislation. It includes new powers afforded to the Garda related to a right of seizure, a right of entry and so on. I have not examined the legislation in great detail, but I question whether those new powers are required. If they are required, they should be given to the Garda. However, we have repeatedly introduced legislation to deal with social problems such as anti-social behaviour, crime and other such concerns. Our job is to legislate, but the notion that simply introducing another Bill or affording new powers to the Garda will, of itself, address these issues is bogus.
We have seen measures introduced in the past such as anti-social behaviour orders. My colleague, Deputy Jan O’Sullivan, pointed out recently the many powers in the Children’s Act 2001 dealing with parents, parental involvement and trying to ensure parents take action in respect of their recalcitrant children. Although these powers are enshrined in legislation, many have never been acted on. I question whether the proposed Garda powers of seizure and entry will be any use in practice. Will the Garda have the resources and the time to use these powers? As a public representative, I am frequently lobbied by residents’ associations, local residents and other concerned about anti-social behaviour such as people drinking close to off-licences and so on. The concerned people cannot get the Garda to deal with these problems. This is not a meant as a criticism of individual members of the Garda, superintendents, or Garda stations, but the force simply does not have the resources. I doubt the proposed Garda powers of seizure allowing the force to take bottles from children and so on will have a significant effect.
Nobody doubts the concerns we have about this issue but this does not mean we should take a steamroller approach, or use legislation in an attempt to address a wider social problem. The proposal to close nightclubs earlier or the earlier proposal, now withdrawn, to discontinue licences to early morning houses are examples of this approach. There are other proposals in the Bill which are, ultimately, directed towards the end that we have set ourselves, but which appear to be excessive.
I have heard it said there is an abuse of theatre licences and no doubt there are many venues using a theatre licence and operating under a flag of convenience by so doing. This points to the necessity of introducing a proper licensing system for nightclubs and this is perhaps what Senator Boyle meant when he referred to the matter. Why should nightclubs depend on the fiction of a theatre licence? In this country we are not very good at facing up to problems when there is a need, but let us address it. Nightclubs are nightclubs. In any city in the world where there are nightclubs, there is an expectation that they will stay open later than other licensed premises. It does not make sense that people are disgorged onto the streets of Dublin, Cork or wherever at the same time because of pubs and nightclubs closing simultaneously.
We should not assume people go to nightclubs for the sole purpose of drinking. Some others, including Senator Boyle and I, have said they occasionally frequent night clubs. I do not believe this is necessarily declaring a conflict of interest, but I have no difficulty with a properly regulated system of nightclubs in any modern city. People do not go to these places to simply tank up further, they go for many reasons. The music industry is an important element of the nightclub scene and people go to nightclubs to dance and enjoy themselves. There is responsible adult consumption of alcohol. This steamroller notion that we roll over the nightclubs, early morning houses and provide extra powers to the Garda is excessive.
The legislation seems to try to serve as a panacea and demonstrate to the public that we are addressing what is a much wider and more serious social problem. Some aspects of the legislation are fine but it purports to be a more comprehensive measure than it is in reality. I disagree with my colleague, Senator Denis O’Donovan, in that I see no reason why this measure cannot be postponed until the autumn.
Senator Alex White: This would give the public an opportunity to debate it and give all the interested parties an opportunity to contribute. Let us then have a level-headed debate in the autumn. Senator O’Donovan is incorrect in that nothing will happen during the summer that this Bill would otherwise prevent. Let us leave it and debate the matter more carefully in the autumn.
Senator Jim Walsh: I welcome this Bill and many of its provisions. There has been debate surrounding the length of time provided to discuss the aspects of the Bill, which I understand. The provision of sufficient time to deal with Bills is a very important part of the process in the Houses. This Bill is focused on some very specific areas and serves as a prelude to more comprehensive legislation which will come before the Houses in the coming year. Consequently, I fully support the provisions and the intent of the Bill.
Various surveys have identified alcohol as a problem for society in the west generally. However, the problem is probably more acute in Ireland. This is borne by some of the surveys and statistics which have emerged. I note the EU wide study showing an average alcohol consumption of 21 units per person per week. This is high taking into account that some 20% of the population do not drink at all, and many others are moderate drinkers. In addition, from a health perspective the maximum recommended consumption in one week is 21 units for men and 14 units for women. This shows a significant proportion of the population is in excess of the recommended weekly amount of alcohol consumption. This brings many other problems and difficulties for individuals and society, especially in the area of public health.
There have been various debates about expenditure on health services, value for money and such issues. There has been a significant increase in investment in the past decade; it has quadrupled in this area. It is significant that some of this expenditure has been targeted at facilities in accident and emergency departments of hospitals. Some 28% of adults reporting to accident and emergency departments are apparently presenting with drink-related problems, which is an exceptionally high proportion.
Senator Mary M. White yesterday spoke of matters related to suicide in society. It is recognised that in many cases alcohol is a factor. This is a serious mental health issue and over-consumption of alcohol for a period of time can lead to severe physical aliments too. I was involved in a study some years ago which showed that the fourth largest reason for death after cancer and heart ailments was alcohol. That was a significant and, pardon the pun, sobering statistic.
Alcoholism is a disease and must be recognised and treated as such. However, there is a new phenomenon in society of binge drinking, to which several speakers have referred. I have a friend of the same age group, Mr. Paddy Quinn, who has a hotel in my local area. I recall speaking with him some time back. He said that when we were at that stage, if one had sufficient money one might occasionally get drunk, although people did not go out with that intention. He told me he now sees young people coming in groups with the sole intent of getting drunk on a night. They drink Bacardi Breezers and various other alcopops, which lead to drunkenness, and this has significant effects for those people. It also shows a change in mindset which we probably need to tackle.
It is interesting that the EU report found that in any one sitting, 34% of people out drinking in this country consumed five or more units. In Europe, the proportion of people consuming that level of drink is down at 10%. This Bill is definitely a step in the right direction and I support the Minister in restricting the availability of drink, particularly through off-licences, petrol stations and supermarkets, where it is often used as a loss leader to get people in.
Interestingly, we had a meeting not long ago of the joint policing committee in New Ross. The superintendent indicated that the trend away from drinking in pubs to drinking at home has led to one particular increased crime statistic over a 12-month period, that of domestic violence. He attributed this rise to the phenomenon of people drinking more at home than would have been the case previously.
I agree with the Minister in his attempts to bring about the structural separation of alcohol products and the making of regulations regarding advertising. We must ensure that the drinking culture is changed. As with others here, I enjoy a drink. Like everything, a drink in moderation — if it can be kept so — is an enjoyable and good social experience. They say everything should be in moderation, including moderation itself. This Bill makes an effort to inculcate this into society and particularly into our young people.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: I welcome the Minister to the House and the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Intoxicating Liquor Bill. The Minister of State, Deputy Conor Lenihan, stated this morning that there is a broad acceptance that legislative reforms are needed to tackle public disorder and alcohol-related harm resulting from excessive alcohol consumption. The Minister of State is correct in that there is a need to debate it and it is important we take urgent action.
Increased visibility and availability of alcohol in retail outlets referred to by Senator Walsh, such as garages and off-licences, has become noticeable in the past ten years. It is a sad indictment of policy that we have allowed alcohol to be sold freely in many corner shops, and it is much more available than it was before. We should not confuse nightclubs and pubs with the corner shop, bars in clubhouses or sporting facilities or the local bar.
I welcome the fact gardaí can seize alcohol. We have by-laws in my city of Cork preventing people from drinking in public places. I wonder about the success of such a by-law as I am unsure we have the necessary resources to help gardaí. Action must be taken.
It is disturbing that we have a high rate of alcohol consumption in this country. Senator Boyle referred to our Irish culture but such drinking should not form part of it. We should move away from the old Irish tradition of drinking pints of Guinness and where we are seen as the land of alcohol. Shame on us. St. Patrick’s Day should not be a day for alcohol consumption but a day of celebration. Two years ago President McAleese indicated a need for a national debate on alcohol consumption and she is right. We need a debate on the issues surrounding alcohol consumption.
The Minister has missed an opportunity with regard to the sequential closing of nightclubs. I do not understand why we cannot have the staggered closing of nightclubs. Those of us, including the Acting Chairman, Senator Keaveney and myself, who go out on a Friday or Saturday night to nightclubs——
It does not make sense that at the close of business in Cork, Dublin or anywhere in the country, everybody piles out to a central point. I fail to see why we cannot have staggered closing times. I was in Barcelona recently and the establishments did not close until 5 a.m. There were no public order issues and nobody was falling around the place drunk. I cannot understand the problem.
I hope we will have education programmes in schools which are well-resourced and have meaning. We must tackle the problems associated with alcohol consumption and binge drinking, which we are not doing. It is important we take action with regard to off-licences and allowing supermarkets to sell below cost. Last weekend, in some of the big chains of supermarkets one could buy 20 bottles of Miller for €20.99. That is cheaper than bottles of Coca-Cola or 7Up. It does not make sense that we are allowing this happen. We should tackle cheap alcohol and promotional efforts in supermarkets and other places.
The use of alcohol can lead to deaths and ill-health. The issue of “pre-loading” has come into the public domain, and Senator Walsh referred to it. This is where more people are starting to drink at home before going out when they are tanked up. They arrive at pubs and nightclubs already drunk. This Bill will not stop the practice.
Senator Jerry Buttimer: ——to see what happens. The Washington Street village concept, as promoted by Paul Montgomery and the people in Cork city, is of responsible nightclub owners who take their job seriously and manage it properly.
I welcome the reprieve for early morning houses. In Cork we have two very well run establishments and neither they nor their patrons cause trouble. I am glad the Minister rolled back those provisions. Will the Minister consider specialised licences for nightclubs?
Senator Paddy Burke: I welcome the Minister to the House and some aspects of the Bill. Like my colleague, Senator Regan, I do not think it is acceptable that this House will not be able to make amendments. Any amendments made will not be carried through because of the Dáil schedule. I have a number of questions to ask on this legislation, which was rushed through this House and the Dáil.
An issue was raised by Senator Norris relating to down-and-outs and people we might term as “winos”. When they drink in town halls or public places, what will the Garda do upon implementation of this Bill? Will they confiscate the drink or move them on? With regard to by-laws passed by local authorities either permitting or banning the drinking of alcohol in public places, what will be the position of these upon enactment of this legislation?
Section 9 of the Bill relates to the separation of alcohol products. It is an unbelievable section which gives effect to the sale of wine, with approximately 14% alcohol content, with unrestricted display while restricting products such as beer produced in this country, which has 4% or 5% alcohol content. We are making it lawful for people to sell products with 14% alcohol content, produced around the world, in an unrestricted fashion. Wine is not manufactured to any great degree in this country. Meanwhile, we are restricting the sale of drink products from this country that have only 4% or 5% alcohol content. This is poor legislation. Restrictions should apply to all alcohol or none. I urge the Minister to reconsider the provisions of the Bill, particularly section 9, because it sends out a message that people can take home products with an alcohol content of 14% but restricts the sale of Irish manufactured beer.
I welcome the Minister to the House to present this fine Bill. This is welcome legislation, particularly its provisions on public disorder and alcohol related harm, notably to young people. It is past time that action was taken to tackle drinking in public places, a practice in which underage young people engage and which causes considerable damage. Gardaí should have greater powers to intervene in such circumstances and should question young people found drinking in public places about the source of their alcohol. Parents have a major role to play in this regard and should not shirk their responsibilities. Many parents do not know where their children are at late hours.
Section 8 deals with the sale of alcohol from off-licences, supermarkets and petrol stations. From my discussions with the owners of such premises, I am aware that smaller stores operate a strict code on the sale of alcohol, especially to young people. The practice of salespersons handing over alcohol products affords them an opportunity to judge the age of the purchaser. The majority of those who sell alcohol operate in a responsible manner and want to abide by the law. Unfortunately, as in all businesses, a minority of retailers brings the sector into disrepute.
Greater emphasis should be placed on penalties for those who buy alcohol for underage persons. This practice causes distress and should be frowned upon. Those who engage in it should be fined heavily and named and shamed in the local press when they are prosecuted.
I welcome section 13 and the new section 37A which gives the Garda greater powers. Gardaí do a good job; for example, in my area they recently brought a young fellow who had been drinking home to his mother and father who were not impressed with his behaviour. It is good the Garda has the power to do this.
I compliment the Minister on meeting representatives of retailers some weeks ago and taking into account their concerns. I also compliment retailers on the responsible manner in which they have dealt with this legislation and the Minister. The provision requiring mixed traders to construct a structurally separate area for the display and sale of alcohol would place a major burden on small retailers as it could necessitate changes to building structures for which planning permission probably would be required. I understand that, having spoken to representatives of the retail sector, the Minister has assured them that this provision will not be implemented immediately.
Senator Ann Ormonde: I welcome the Minister and wish him every success in his new brief. This legislation is a welcome and prompt response to a report published only a few months ago by the alcohol advisory group. The Minister has moved quickly to introduce legislation on the sale of alcohol products in supermarkets, convenience stores and petrol stations and to address the issue of low cost selling and special promotions.
All Members have been contacted by representatives of retailers to discuss how to proceed, particularly with regard to the provisions on supermarkets. I am pleased the Minister has decided to step back and allow the retail stores to produce a code of practice for managing the sale of alcohol. Issues to be addressed include signage, advertising and persons entitled to purchase alcohol. Greater awareness is needed because young people still do not know when they are breaking the law. Retail outlets must be made responsible for creating greater awareness.
I am concerned about the impact of excessive alcohol consumption, which is a cultural and social rather than legislative issue. We must all take responsibility for addressing the problem. Parents, residents associations, communities and local authorities are failing to fulfil their roles. Legislators can take action but parents must be made aware and local authorities must deal with issues such as drinking in open spaces and the granting of planning permission.
I am not convinced by the argument that closing time should be staggered. It is preferable if all patrons of licensed premises leave at the same time as otherwise they move from one premises to the next.
Senator Nicky McFadden: I thank the Minister for taking time to come before House. The Intoxicating Liquor Bill 2008 is the product of the reforms recommended to the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform by the Government alcohol advisory group established in January 2008 to investigate the current functioning of the laws regarding the sale and consumption of alcohol and specifically to scrutinise matters of public order.
I wholeheartedly disagree with Senator Ormonde on closing times. How will closing nightclubs at the same time as late bars help public order? The Bill’s provisions are misguided. Instead of attempting to address issues of public disorder on our streets, it will increase the number of violent and drunken incidents on our streets.
The Bill proposes to repeal theatre licences for nightclubs. In theory, this is an attempt on the part of the Government to limit the amount of alcohol available to the public at certain hours. In practice, however, it will mean that all late bars and nightclubs will close at 2.30 a.m. rather than 3.30 a.m. or 4 a.m. and that there will be an exodus onto the streets at the same time. This will lead to absolute uproar. As a parent of young adults, I have been obliged to make collections at this time of the morning and have witnessed what occurs. It is extremely frightening to see everyone coming onto the streets at the same time. What happens is extremely dangerous. The effects of this proposal will be most severe in large urban areas.
Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Deputy Dermot Ahern): There are special exemptions which can be obtained and under which establishments must stop serving alcohol at 2.30 a.m. Provision is made for drinking up time of 30 minutes; therefore, closing time is 3 a.m. There is no other mechanism available other than the theatre licence, of which 76 were granted in 2007. To date this year, 150 such licences have been granted.
As stated, the effects of this proposal will be most severe in large urban areas. There is already a major strain on public transport, particularly taxis. People congregate outside public houses, chip shops and nightclubs in search of taxis. When large numbers of individuals gather in this way, trouble usually occurs. There must be staggered closing times for pubs and nightclubs. That is the only option.
We need to regulate and formalise the nightclub industry. A protest took place on the street outside the Houses last week in this regard. I am convinced that thousands of jobs will be in jeopardy if the Bill becomes law. This sector of the economy is already suffering. We should be trying in the Bill to protect young people, our most valuable asset, but I do not believe we will do so. Since 2000, the nightclub industry has been promised new licensing laws that would specifically regulate its business. Not only has the Minister failed to deal specifically with the industry in the Bill, he is effectively also going to destroy the industry. If we want our streets to be safer for young people and other citizens, we must legislate in respect of them. The reforms in the Bill do not in any way attempt to address the serious issues of public disorder and our drink-related culture. Hitting the nightclub industry will only galvanise young people further. The majority of young people are law-abiding citizens who wish to enjoy their weekends. I am concerned that they will be encouraged to drink alcohol in uncontrolled environments.
The central aspect of this matter is the need to examine and investigate our drink-related culture. To do the latter, we must consider how our lives are centred around alcohol. While I acknowledge that the State and the Oireachtas have a key role to play in ensuring licensing laws and legislation to control alcohol intake are in place, ultimately responsibility lies with parents in educating their children to have respect. In addition, alcohol should not be a prominent feature of every family celebration. We must also not overlook the importance of individual responsibility when it comes to the consumption of alcohol. We must discuss and debate responsibility and our relationship with alcohol in order to address the seriousness of the problem. Senator Buttimer referred to youngsters tanking up on cheap wine before going out in the evening. In the past people in this country suffered from low self-esteem. However, times have changed and citizens are now much more confident. We must change our mindset in respect of alcohol. Statistics indicate that 46% of murders are committed when the perpetrators are intoxicated. In addition, much of the abuse perpetrated against women occurs when those responsible for such abuse are intoxicated.
Senator Cecilia Keaveney: I come from a rural background. I served as chairperson of a committee that compiled a number of reports on the issue of alcohol. In such circumstances, there is no need for me to outline the reasons the Bill is so important.
Many discussions have taken place on the Order of Business and at other times about the difficulties in this country with our alcohol-related culture. As is usually the case, however, when action is taken and a Bill introduced, a lobby decides to protect its interests and states there is nothing valid in the legislation. I am completely opposed to such behaviour.
Senator McFadden disagreed with many of the provisions in the Bill and stated we must examine the position on our drink-related culture. What could change that culture more than examining access to and the availability of alcohol and the times at which it may be sold?
I accept that change is difficult and that people can rebel against it. That became perfectly clear when measures relating to the tobacco industry — another strong lobby — were introduced. I do not, perhaps, understand all of the debate relating to the Bill and its provisions. Members of the Opposition can enlighten me in that regard. I have listened to their contributions and I am trying to understand from where they are coming in respect of this matter. If we can reach the stage where nightclubs will not be disgorging people onto the streets at 3.30 a.m. or 4 a.m., our towns — I am not referring to Dublin in this regard — will benefit. The Garda sergeant in my area stated that since the costs relating to exemption orders increased, his officers finished their duties and the streets became quiet two hours earlier than previously. The increase in costs means that it is not economically viable to apply for an exemption order in rural or smaller urban areas. When I worked as a teacher in England, my friends and I would leave between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. when we were having a night out. We would eat a meal between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m., go on a pub crawl through the town in which we lived and still be home by 11 p.m. or 11.30 p.m.
Objections have been made in respect of Sunday closing times. It was stated everything must remain open all night to cater for the needs of tourists. However, we must also consider the position as regards Irish people who either arrive late for work on Monday morning or who do not arrive at all. I am not opposed to alcohol. In many circumstances, I would be one of its greatest advocates. We must consider, however, if we can change the culture, even in the context of the times at which people drink, and whether we might pull back to a certain degree in that regard. This is one of the core issues relating to the Bill. I accept that it will be hard for some to come to terms with it but we must do so.
A previous speaker referred to wine. People in this country consume more wine exported from Chile than their counterparts anywhere else in the world. I could quote many statistics in this regard but will not do so.
Consideration should be given to making provision for calorie-content labelling on alcohol products when the next Bill relating to this matter is introduced. There has been much discussion about obesity and eating disorders. I can go into a shop and buy food products on which are listed the salt content, calorie content, etc. However, with the exception of diet drinks, it is not possible to discover the number of calories in an alcoholic product. As a consumer, I have as much right to know the contents of what I drink as I do the contents of what I eat, although I accept that this is a minor point.
An Cathaoirleach: Business has been ordered that Second Stage of the Bill adjourn at 2.30 p.m. It will resume after No. 4. Will Senator Keaveney move the adjournment of the Bill? She has three minutes remaining.
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