Dáil Éireann - Volume 519 - 25 May, 2000

Intoxicating Liquor Bill, 2000 [ Seanad ] : Second Stage.

Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. O'Donoghue): I move: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”

The Bill marks an important milestone in the Government's approach to the reform and modernisation of our licensing laws. It is the most comprehensive package of reform measures introduced to the Oireachtas on this issue. It has benefited from sound and productive debate in the Seanad, where it was initiated, and I look forward to further debate in this House.

The Bill is wide-ranging and progressive in that it introduces a system of permitted hours in line with public expectation and demand and on terms which are economically and socially acceptable. It does away with decades-old restrictive legislation governing access to the market without undermining the economic basis which obtains for the holders of licences. It introduces innovative, workable and strict penalties against those who engage in the criminally irresponsible practice of selling or supplying intoxicating liquor to under age persons. It also introduces complementary and, in certain cases, much needed reform of the law as it pertains to registered clubs. I am sure most people would agree that the package of measures provided for in the Bill is progressive and responsive to modern needs.

The gestation period for the Bill has been long. I prefer to think it reflects a solid process of consultation, reflection and determination to deal with the issues. Anyone who knows the licensing laws knows they are labyrinthine in their complexity. It is also the case that everyone has a view on them and that these are widely differing and strongly held. I am sure this will be borne out by the debate. I expect there will be many contributions, all of them worthy and reflective of the personal and political views of Deputies on a subject which excites sometimes passionate views. It was important to me that, because of that interest, I take the time to canvass widely for views before I put forward my policy proposals [1650] to the Government. I can safely say that, in developing the proposals in the Bill, I have interpreted the public mood correctly as far as what is demanded by way of change is concerned and, more importantly, what changes will work and gain acceptance across many different strata and interests.

I do not claim that what I propose will fully satisfy every member of the drinking and non-drinking public, every publican, restaurateur or other licence holder or every Member. There will be some who will consider that I have not gone far enough, as there will be some who will hold the view that I have gone too far. I am convinced that the proposals in the Bill represent the best possible deal for all in that they strike a fair balance among the many different interest groups, be they groups representing the licensed trade, such as publicans, hoteliers, restaurateurs, night club operators or off-licence holders, or groups in society, not least the consumer and responsible parents concerned about the negative consequences of under age drinking.

The process of examination and change to the licensing laws, especially as far as the licensing system is concerned, does not end with this Bill. I recognise more remains to be done. For this reason I will shortly establish a commission on licensing. Following the publication of the Bill and its passage through the Oireachtas, there will be a clearer picture of the new law and, consequently, it will be possible to establish a clearer remit for the commission. The commission will review the scope for a system of additional licences in the context of the new law in this area. It will examine the nature of the off-licence and other forms of licence and it will seek to establish what premises might benefit from licences and how such premises might be licensed. This will be achieved in a programmed and coherent way, consistent with public expectations and the common good. The commission will be a representative one whose membership will include Departments, representatives of the trade and of consumers and other interests. The details are being progressed following on the Government's approval in principle for the establishment of the commission.

I pay tribute, as I have done consistently, to the Oireachtas joint sub-committee which undertook a study of the licensing laws and whose report represented an informed basis for my detailed policy examination of this area. I have taken many of its recommendations on board in the Bill and I was grateful for the informed view it offered me of cross-party thought on reform of the law. I acknowledge the interim report of the Competition Authority and the many submissions I received from interest groups and members of the public.

I am sure Deputies will agree it is no exaggeration that almost every provision in the Bill is of importance and of effect on persons in varying degrees, depending on whether they are licensees of one class or another or customers. There is, [1651] therefore, much to inform the House on the Bill, but I will be as brief as possible.

Part 1 contains standard provisions dealing with the Short Title, collective citation, construction and commencement and defining some of the terms used in the Bill. As far as commencement is concerned, it is my hope, as I am sure it is the hope of the House, that the main provisions of the Bill will be brought into effect as quickly as possible on enactment so that the benefits of extended hours, for example, can be enjoyed for the coming summer. Part 2, containing sections 3 to 14, deals with the general question of hours of opening of licensed premises and registered clubs.

Section 3 provides for the abolition of the distinction between summer time and winter time so that licensed premises will be permitted to remain open from 10.30 a.m. to 11.30 p.m. on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays and from 10.30 a.m. to 12.30 a.m. of the following days, on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Sunday opening will be from 12.30 p.m. to 11 p.m. This means that Sunday closing between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. is also abolished. There is no change to Sunday night closing time and Christmas Day, except in the case of limited opening for hotels and restaurants, and Good Friday will continue to be days on which there are no permitted hours. On St. Patrick's Day, no matter on what day this falls, opening times will be between 12.30 p.m. and 12.30 a.m. on the following day. On 23 December, if it falls on a Sunday, opening will be permitted between 10.30 a.m. and 11.30 p.m. On Christmas Eve and the eve of Good Friday opening hours will be between 10.30 a.m. and 11.30 p.m. and on the eve of any public holiday premises may remain open until 12.30 a.m. on the following day. Thirty minutes drinking up time will also be permitted on all days.

These changes are progressive. They introduce trading hours which reflect the changed pattern in drinking habits without applying a free for all, as would be the case if the Government had opted to provide for 24 hour opening of licensed premises. I am sure most Deputies agree there is no demand for 24 hour opening. No set of closing times will suit the needs and expectations of every individual. My view was that if I had to place a time limit on closing, it should satisfy the greatest number. That is what I have done. The package of permitted hours put forward in the Bill represents the greatest level of consensus, not just from within the trade and among customers but also from within the House.

Section 4 introduces important changes to the law relating to premises engaged in a mixture of retail activity, licensed and non-licensed. Under existing legislation, the hours of trading of supermarkets, including small independent supermarkets and convenience stores, are regulated, not just in respect of alcoholic products but also in respect of other products which constitute the bulk of the trade of those outlets, for example, groceries. This means that premises which engage [1652] in mixed trading are restricted with regard to the hours during which their non-licensed business may be carried out. The Bill, as amended, provides that premises which engage in mixed trading will be permitted to open at any time to engage in their business of selling groceries and other non-alcoholic products.

I am also providing for a certain relaxation with regard to the hours during which licensed trade can be carried out in these premises. Those premises will be permitted to open for the sale of intoxicating liquor at 8 a.m. to 10.30 a.m. on weekdays and on a Sunday which falls on 23 or 24 December. This is a consumer friendly change which greatly enhances the opportunities of supermarkets and other retail outlets. The change is a response to representations made by IBEC on the matter.

Section 5 is an important section for nightclub and disco operators. It changes the law as it applies to special exemptions. These are granted by the District Court and permit the sale of intoxicating liquor on special occasions in licensed premises after normal closing time. The section abolishes the need to provide a meal as a condition of an exemption in the case of a special occasion, which is a dance, held in a ballroom licensed under the Public Dance Halls Act, 1935, as well as the requirement that a premises be a hotel or restaurant. It also removes the restriction on the granting of a special exemption for any time on a Sunday, that is, after midnight on Saturday night and after normal closing time on a Sunday evening. It retains, however, the restriction on special exemptions for Monday morning beyond 1 a.m., except on a Monday morning that is a public holiday. The special exemption orders will be granted in normal circumstances to 2.30 a.m. unless the court considers it expedient for stated reasons to grant an exemption for a shorter period.

The special exemption order, together with the dance hall licence, is the means by which a nightclub operates. Many customers in a nightclub do not frequent it to partake in a meal. The main activity is dancing to music and socialising. It is widely accepted that the meal requirement under the law as it stands makes little sense in those circumstances and should be abolished. The need to provide a meal in respect of a special event organised for the entertainment of the members of a particular association, organisation or other such group or on the occasion of a private function remains on the basis that a meal forms a part of such events in the first place.

It has been brought to my attention that public dance licences may in some cases permit dancing until 1 a.m. or 1.30 a.m. only. This could give rise to a situation where a licensed premises with an exemption order to 2.30 a.m. may have to end the dancing before the end of the exemption. That would not make sense. The solution in section 5 is that where a special exemption order is in force the dance licence will be deemed to be a licence which will permit dancing for a period beyond the [1653] period of the special exemption. This will have the effect of ensuring that the status quo remains in relation to dancing and extended opening hours and that future situations will not be created where there may be an anomaly between the dance licence and the special exemption, or where the dance licence might serve to limit the time to which a special exemption might be granted.

This section further provides that the number of special exemption orders which may be sought in respect of a day of general or local festivity is being increased from six to 12. This change in the law will serve to benefit local areas where there are dances being held in conjunction with a local festival. Section 5 also introduces a requirement that the grant of the special exemption order will not cause undue inconvenience to persons residing in the vicinity of a premises. This is a new requirement and one which is useful and necessary. It means the court will act as the guardian of the rights of local residents and be in a position to protect local residents where the late opening of a licensed premises might not be appropriate.

Section 6 provides for an exemption to the permitted hours where alcohol is served in a hotel or restaurant. It extends permitted hours in these circumstances by one hour over and above the time in which these premises may lawfully sell intoxicating liquor, provided it is supplied with a meal. However, the section does not overly restrict where the liquor should be consumed or when it should be paid for. This should provide restaurants and hotels and their patrons with a certain flexibility, while ensuring the premises will not be used for the purpose of obtaining after-hours drinks only. To ensure conformity in the law, I am also providing for a similar provision in relation to clubs registered under the Registration of Clubs Acts. Section 7, in effect, applies the hours contained in section 3 to clubs registered under the Registration of Clubs Acts, 1904 to 1999. Clubs will also benefit from the type of exemption allowed in respect of hotels and restaurants in section 6.

Section 8 permits drinking-up time of 30 minutes after a period of a special exemption, in respect of licensed premises, or a registered club, following a club authorisation. This means that in cases where a special exemption has been granted to 2.30 a.m., for example, customers will no longer be forced to stop drinking at that time, but will be given adequate time to finish their drinks in an orderly manner.

I am providing in section 9 for a small change in relation to area exemption orders. These are granted for special events such as local festivals, outside the Dublin county borough. At present, such orders cannot be granted for more than nine days in any one year in respect of a locality. The section provides for an increase, from nine to 12, in the number of days for which licensed premises may seek area exemption orders and it allows such orders to be sought for a range of periods, lasting two, three, four, five or more days.

[1654] In section 10, I am removing the prohibition on the grant of an occasional licence on a Sunday. Occasional licences are granted to a licensee by the District Court in respect of an unlicensed premises for a particular event. Many festivals, shows or exhibitions are held over a weekend, and it has been represented to me that the relaxation of this prohibition will greatly benefit such activities. Persons who attend such an event over a weekend will now be able to enjoy a drink on Sunday as well as on Saturday.

Section 11 amends the period for which a general exemption order may be granted. It is a technical amendment which follows as a consequence of the amendment of permitted hours in section 3. Section 12 extends to restaurants which hold a special restaurant licence, namely, a full drinks facility, the revised permitted hours available to all other licensed premises under section 3. It also extends permitted hours by one hour over and above the time in which these premises may lawfully sell intoxicating liquor, provided it is supplied with a meal.

Part 3, by way of sections 13 and 14, contains important provisions regarding under-age persons. These will be by way of amendments or additions to provisions in the Intoxicating Liquor Act, 1988. The main curbs provided for in that Act are that under section 33 it is an offence for any person under 18 years of age to purchase alcohol, whether in an on-licence or off-licence, or to consume it in any place other than a private residence. Under section 32, it is an offence for any person to purchase alcohol for consumption by a person under 18 years in any place other than a private residence. Under section 31, it is an offence for a licence holder to sell or deliver alcohol to a person under 18 years or to permit consumption of drink by or the supply of drink to those under 18. Under section 37, intoxicating liquor in the possession of under 18s in any place other than a private residence may be seized by the Garda. Under section 34, persons under 15 years are not allowed into the bar of a licensed premises unless accompanied by a parent or guardian. Under section 35, a person under 18 years is allowed in the part of licensed premises where an extension under a special exemption order is in force—

Mr. McGahon: The Minister cannot be serious.

Mr. O'Donoghue: —and, under section 36, those under 18 years are not allowed on off-licensed premises unless accompanied by a parent or guardian.

Other legislative provisions of general application in liquor licensing, public order, road traffic and public health legislation aimed at controlling drinking in public places reinforce the specific underage drinking provisions. My concern in this Bill is to strengthen the law further to ensure it reflects the concerns of parents.

There will be a new penalty, by way of section 13, to strengthen the provisions against the supply [1655] or sale of intoxicating liquor to under-age persons. This section inserts a new section 36A in the Intoxicating Liquor Act, 1988, and provides that, where a conviction for the sale of alcohol to an under-age person is upheld, a licensed premises will be the subject of a mandatory temporary closure order. Premises which are the subject of such an order will have to display a sign indicating the reason they have been closed temporarily. Endorsement of licence provisions in current law will remain, but it will now be discretionary and not mandatory. The purpose of the new temporary closure provision is to provide a strong deterrent to abuses of the law in this area because it is designed to hit at the pockets of offenders, and publicly identify them, without necessarily having the looming prospect of forfeit of a licence – a sanction which has been rarely applied by the courts.

Section 14 provides for even further strengthening of the law on under-age drinking. The 1988 Act permitted a licensee to rely on the “reasonable grounds” defence in any proceedings against the licensee. This section removes that defence. This will place a much greater onus on the licensee and his or her staff to demand proof of age and the national voluntary age card is proposed as the appropriate means open to a licensee to establish such proof. Provision is also made in the Bill to remove the mandatory endorsement of a licence which follows conviction for an offence relating to under-age persons, although under section 12 forfeiture of a licence remains available at the discretion of a judge.

I am aware these provisions represent some of the toughest ever brought into force against the scourge of under-age drinking. However, they are being introduced for a very good reason. Under-age drinking is a serious problem. Reference has been made to the fact that it is an even greater problem than the abuse of controlled substances and that the age at which persons are now presenting themselves at alcohol treatment centres has fallen dramatically. We have a duty to our young people, our children. Under-age drinking must be tackled and if this is what it takes to tackle it, then this is what we must do.

Mr. McGahon: What about the use of advertising?

Mr. O'Donoghue: I am gratified by the level of support I have received for these strong sanctions against those who engage in the criminally irresponsible act of serving alcohol to children. I have no doubt I will receive similar support from all sides of this House.

Section 14 also provides for clarification in the law on the employment of young persons in certain licensed premises. Section 38 of the 1988 Act already prohibits persons under the age of 18 from being engaged in the sale of intoxicating liquor – with certain exceptions for apprentices and relatives of a licensee. The Bill makes clear [1656] that lounge staff may be employed to serve on tables but not from behind the bar of a licensed premises.

Part 4, which contains sections 15 to 18, deals with the issue, upgrading and transfer of licences. The effect of section 15 is that there will be a requirement simply to extinguish one licence from anywhere in the State when applying for a certificate from the Circuit Court entitling a person to receive a licence from the Revenue Commissioners. Restrictions such as population increases, opening within a mile of an existing premises and the prohibition on the use of a rural licence in a town or city are abolished under this section. The need to prove rateable valuation is dispensed with in relation to the grant of a new licence.

The courts will take into account the fitness of an applicant and the unfitness or inconvenience of the new premises, their unsuitability for the needs of persons residing in the neighbourhood and the adequacy of the existing number of licensed outlets. The latter requirement of adequacy is not a condition as to the effect new premises will have on the business of existing premises. Rather, it is designed to permit the courts to assess whether a locality is sufficiently served by a particular form of licensed outlet, be it on-licence or off-licence. It will require the courts to assess also whether a premises would be suitable in a particular location allowing for the needs of persons residing in the neighbourhood proposed to be served by the new premises. In this way, the adequacy provision is designed to operate to the advantage of places that are currently under-served as far as licensed premises are concerned. The Government has approved my proposal for the establishment of a commission on licensing. The commission will have ample scope to deliver quality advice to me, as Minister, my successors and the Government of the day in relation to such diverse areas as access to licences, the nature of premises that can or should be licensed, the distribution of licences, and the licensing system.

The effect of this provision relating to the grant of new licences will be greater mobility of licences from over-provided for and mainly rural areas to locations where there is a demonstrable need for such licences, particularly on the fringes of our major conurbations. It could have the effect, for example, of inducing existing licensees, persons experienced in the trade, to move from areas where they may or may not be operating in a commercially viable way, to areas where there will be greater opportunities for them to provide a service to the public. It will also permit new entrants to the trade by making access to licences easier. I was not convinced, and neither was the Government, by the arguments put forward for full deregulation of access to the licensed trade, as if a licence for the sale of intoxicating liquor could be equated with a licence to sell postage stamps or sweets. Whether we like it or not alcohol is not the same as other retail products, and I [1657] am mindful of the very negative consequences of alcohol abuse and the effect a totally deregulated regime, introduced all at once, could have.

Section 16 provides a mechanism whereby the small number of persons who are the holders of restricted licences, for example six-day licences, can convert them to ordinary seven-day licences. The holder of a restricted licence can at present acquire a full seven-day licence. This involves extinguishing an existing licence or licences. Arguments have been put forward that many of the holders cannot afford to extinguish an existing seven-day licence and are finding it difficult to compete in the licensed trade. The cost of the conversion under the Bill is a one-off fee of £2,500, payable to the Revenue Commissioners and is an attempt to pitch the amount to match the ability of genuine traders. Arguments have been advanced that many holders of six-day licences are operating on the margins of economic activity and would not be in a position to afford a substantial conversion fee. Holders of restricted licences are being given one year to avail of the provisions of the conversion scheme.

I am concerned to avoid speculation in restricted licences which would appreciate considerably in value if converted as a result of any conversion scheme. This will be avoided as subsection (4) of section 16 ensures that the scheme of conversion will be subject to certain conditions. These are, in addition to the payment of a fee of £2,500 to the Revenue Commissioners, that the premises and restricted licence attached to it have been held by the applicant for a period of five years, or that the licence holder inherited the premises, was given the premises by a relative or purchased the premises as a going concern. Additionally, on conversion the licence holder must, under subsection (4)(c), undertake not to dispose of the premises, transfer the licence or consent to its extinguishment for reward for a period of five years after the date of the first issue of the new full licence.

Should circumstances arise whereby the holder of a newly converted licence experiences a difficulty, for example a financial difficulty, and would be subject to hardship if he or she had to comply with the conditions provided for in paragraph (c), the District Court may, by virtue of subsection (7), waive or modify compliance with those conditions.

Section 17 ensures that an examination of the character of the person applying for an ad interim transfer of a licence under section 1 of the Licensing (Ireland) Act, 1855 is undertaken, and the court will refuse such an application unless it is established that the applicant is a fit person. At present, the ad interim transfer arrangement is subject to three criteria: (a) notice given of the application, (b) the reason for the transfer, and (c) that the applicant is not disqualified by law, and these, of course, will continue to apply. The addition of the requirement that the character of a person applying for an ad interim transfer of a licence will be examined will ensure that An [1658] Garda Síochána will be in a position to challenge applicants who are not of good character and who might otherwise get a foot in the business without proper scrutiny.

Section 18 of the Bill simply ensures that in any proceedings under this part of the Bill, relating to licences, the premises may be described by reference to a map, for ease of reference.

Section 19 extends the scope of the licences already available to race tracks, licensed under section 18 of the Intoxicating Liquor Act, 1962 and racecourses licensed under section 65 of the Irish Horseracing Industry Act, 1994. Under the section, greyhound race tracks and racecourses will be permitted to supply intoxicating liquor at certain authorised events, such as trade fairs, exhibitions or concerts . The section provides an opportunity for these race tracks and racecourses to generate additional income on days when race meetings are not being held and, thereby, contribute to their viability. The types of function envisaged are ones which could not be held in ordinary licensed premises and the number of such events is being restricted to 15 per year.

Significant increases in fines are provided for a range of offences. These are set out in the Schedule to the Bill. I draw Members' attention, in particular, to those for under-age offences and these have received the greatest increases. I am concerned to ensure that the increased opportunities available under the Bill for the sale and consumption of intoxicating liquor do not lead to an increase in the incidence of under-age drinking.

Mr. McGahon: It will.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: The Minister's time has concluded but if the House is agreeable to his putting the remainder of his speech on record, he may do so. Is that agreed? Agreed.

Mr. O'Donoghue: Thank you. I am placing the highest onus on licence-holders to act in a responsible manner in this regard. Coupled with the tough new provisions regarding temporary closure of premises, I am confident that the law in relation to under-age persons is being suitably strengthened under this Bill.

Section 22 introduces a relaxation of the law as it relates to the sale of alcohol in restaurants. It permits the holder of a restaurant certificate and wine on-licence to serve beer in conjunction with a meal. It will not be open to such a person to offer off-sales of beer or to have a bar on the premises. This section should assist restaurateurs to realise the economic potential of their establishments, provide a better service to customers and assist the attraction of such restaurants from a tourism perspective.

Section 23 amends the 1988 Act in relation to special restaurant licences, namely a restaurant which is already permitted to serve a full range of alcoholic drinks. The 1988 Act requires a premises with a special restaurant licence to have a waiting area not exceeding 20% of the floor [1659] area of the dining area. I am removing this requirement, the purpose of which was to counter the possibility that such restaurants might become drinking emporiums in their own right. In reality, however, other restrictions such as the ban on a bar and the definition of the premises as a restaurant, where other business is ancillary, achieves this. The limitation on the size of the waiting area has given rise to design and architectural difficulties for many restaurants, particularly country houses, and these difficulties are being addressed in the Bill.

Section 23 also removes the requirement for Bord Fáilte certification as a requirement before the Circuit Court issues a certificate entitling a person to a special restaurant licence. The reality is that after some 12 years of operation, and, notwithstanding the unprecedented economic success enjoyed by the country, the number of premises having a special restaurant licence remains around the 200 mark. The representative body for restaurants, the Restaurants Association of Ireland, has pointed to unnecessary regulation and that the slow take-up of special restaurant licences is indicative of the fact that these regulations are overly restrictive. The Oireachtas joint sub-committee, in its review of the licensing laws, called for the relaxation of the standards and I am happy to oblige. It would, of course, remain open to my colleague, the Minister for Tourism, Sport and Recreation, Deputy McDaid, to introduce a grading structure for restaurants, independent of the special restaurant licence, which would operate as a standards and-or marketing vehicle.

I am also introducing some changes to the code governing registered clubs. Section 25 serves to clarify the position in relation to the holding of functions. It sets out what is and is not an acceptable use of a private club premises, while not disadvantaging the use of the club premises in relation to functions that are of benefit to the community, from a charitable or benevolent perspective. The section also removes any doubt as to the use of a private club premises by a member of the club for a private function, such as a member's retirement or wedding anniversary celebration.

Section 26 deals with the circumstances in which intoxicating liquor can be supplied to non-club members. Under existing law, visitors may only be supplied with liquor on the invitation and in the company of a club member and the name of the visitor and address must be kept in a book, showing the date of each visit. I will not change that provision. The section, however, provides special arrangements for visiting teams, as opposed to individual visitor guests. It will be sufficient for a club official to enter the name of the visiting team and its number in the visitors book. While these visitors are on the club premises they can be supplied with liquor at the request and in the presence of an official of the club. This will [1660] allow a club to cater for visiting teams in a more flexible way.

Present law restricts the advertising of social functions by clubs. The effect of current law is that it is unlawful for a group to advertise the holding of a meeting, for example, to form a residents' association, if the meeting is to be held on the premises of a registered club. Such an advertisement cannot even appear in a parish newsletter or community magazine. Section 27 permits such advertisements, but only in respect of functions at which intoxicating liquor will not be served.

The law as it stands in section 47 of the 1988 Act is that it provides for a ban on the sale of alcohol by self-service methods. It is framed to apply only to off-licensed premises in which mixed trading is carried out, typically supermarkets, and was intended to combat under age drinking. Operation of the section is subject to the making of a commencement order but no such order has ever been made. That non-commencement has meant uncertainty for supermarket owners as to whether or not to organise their premises in anticipation of the making of such an order. Section 28 repeals section 47 of the 1988 Act. I am satisfied that the Bill, combined with the provisions of the 1988 Act, provides for strict penalties where there is a breach of the law relating to under age drinking. The most potent weapon is the removal of the “reasonable belief” defence and the accompanying provision that a premises or portion of a premises can be closed temporarily in the event of breach of the law on under age drinking. These new provisions offer better safeguards and more than compensate for the repeal of section 47. They will have the effect of targeting and penalising transgressors and not the entire supermarket sector, which can hardly be held collectively responsible for the actions of any rogue elements among its number.

Section 29 repeals section 8 of the Intoxicating Liquor (General) Act, 1924, which requires that all sales of alcohol in an on-licence must be for “ready cash”. In the context of present day circumstances, including widespread use of credit cards, this prohibition is regarded as unenforceable.

Section 31 relaxes the conditions under which a wine retailer's off-licence may be obtained, while section 32 removes an anachronistic provision which does not have a place in the modern code. Under section 2 of the Beer Licences Regulation (Ireland) Act, 1877, there can be a three month delay following acquisition of a property before a beer retailer's off-licence can be granted. In certain circumstances, for example, where the entire premises is licensed, this means that the outlet cannot begin to engage in even its non-licensed business for a period of three months after it is ready to open its doors to the public. The removal of this restriction will bring a beer retailer's off-licence in line with the spirit retailer's off-licence and a publican's on-licence, neither of which have a prior occupancy requirement. This will remove [1661] a certain amount of red tape, and facilitate people developing new outlets. Section 33 tightens the law where a company seeks a licence, renewal of a licence, or transfer of a licence.

The task of reforming our licensing laws has not been an easy one. It has probably been one of the most difficult tasks in which I have been involved since taking office. However, it has also been one of the more rewarding. The Bill is ground-breaking in many respects, and I am convinced that it will provide a modern code of law for the coming decade at least. It removes those provisions which no longer represent what the market expects or demands, but it achieves a certain balance in that it reflects the thoughts and concerns of the general public on the law and how it should relate to the availability of alcohol. It is forward looking, its thrust is genuinely positive, and it is responsive to the expectations of the vast majority of our citizens. I commend the Bill to the House and thank the House for facilitating me with additional time to complete my contribution.

Mr. Higgins (Mayo): I wish to share time with my colleague, Deputy McGahon.

While there would seem to be a general welcome for the proposals to amend the liquor licensing laws there is considerable disappointment that the Minister did not avail of the opportunity to carry out a long overdue, wide-ranging reform of the entire liquor licensing area. While the measures in the Bill are generally welcome, it is nevertheless a Bill which merely tinkers around with closing and opening hours, dates, transfer of licences and peripheral areas relating to clubs and discos. There is also considerable disappointment that the Minister did not avail of the opportunity to consolidate and codify the mass of complicated legislation under which the sale of liquor has operated and continues to operate. While the broad thrust of what the Minister is doing is sensible in itself, by not availing of the occasion to consolidate in a consolidating Bill the huge accumulation of legislation while at the same time introducing another enactment, he is now adding yet another legislative layer on top of the 80 or so liquor related Acts which have found their way on to the Statute Book since 1833.

The Bill represents another missed opportunity. We are legislating here for one of the most potent influences on human and social behaviour. To change the licensing laws in complete isolation without addressing the much wider agenda is not the way to proceed. One need look only at the broken homes and the wrecked marriages and partnerships destroyed by the excesses of alcohol, and the weekend casualty units in hospitals following road traffic accidents and street and domestic violence to realise that there is a huge problem in Irish society which is being totally ignored. One need look only at the increase in the number of teenage pregnancies and the huge increase in child pregnancies to see that alcohol abuse is a rampant threat, which is not being addressed in [1662] any coherent fashion and which is gnawing its way right into the fabric and heart of society. The mass human drunken exodus on to the streets of cities, towns and villages from disco-land in the early hours of Sunday mornings is a stark counterbalance to our image of the modern Ireland of the new millennium populated by a bright, responsible, motivated young generation. To change and liberalise the liquor licensing laws without complementing such relaxation with a thoughtful, planned and comprehensive policy to combat the use and abuse of alcohol is not a irresponsible way to proceed.

Such a policy has been promised in the past. Before the rainbow Government left office the then Department of Health produced the national alcohol policy. It was an excellent document drafted after widespread consultation with lay people and professionals. The alcohol policy set down as its aim:

To influence people's attitudes and habits so that for those who choose to drink, moderate drinking becomes personally and socially acceptable and favoured in the Irish culture.

The policy document recommended a range of initiatives aimed at increasing knowledge of the health effects of alcohol, increasing awareness concerning sensible drinking guidelines, targeting certain groups, including youth, parents and students, and providing better treatment services for people afflicted with alcohol problems.

It also dealt in some length with the glamorising and promotion of alcohol by way of advertising. Instead of the policy being used as a blueprint to address the alcohol epidemic, however, the report has been shelved and totally ignored. There has not been a public education programme worthy of the name. Nothing has been done to promote the document's sensible drinking guidelines. The national alcohol policy naively hoped that the drinks industry would confine advertising to the provision of factual information about the price, availability and mode of manufacture of alcohol. Instead of the positive and constructive targeting of youth as recommended in the policy, the very opposite has happened with the youth being systematically targeted by the alcohol industry with slick, sophisticated and stylish talk and cinema messages linking alcohol with sex, success and the good life. Alcohol treatment services are virtually non-existent except for those who are fortunate enough to have private health insurance cover. Certainly let us change our drinking hours but let us do so in conjunction with a sustained, effective and professional national campaign to promote sensible drinking habits. Let us mount a national advertising campaign to tell the truth about alcohol and the tremendous toll its abuse can have on family life. Let us spell out in clear terms the devastating effects of cirrhosis, pancreatitis, brain damage and alcohol related cancers. In this country we are in the early stages of compensation claims against tobacco companies by smoking damaged [1663] patients. If the American experience is anything to go by the tobacco companies can expect a long, testing and expensive run before our courts. I suspect that it is only a matter of time before we have a similar spate of claims for alcohol related medical conditions and illnesses.

Apart from the health and social dimensions, imagine the savings that would accrue from reduced pressure on the health services, particularly on accident and emergency departments, the reductions in working days lost because of alcohol abuse and the reduced costs on the Justice, Equality and Law Reform Estimate because of reduced demand and pressure on the Garda Síochána, the courts and the prisons. We often delude ourselves by drawing comfort from statistics showing comparative data for alcohol consumption expressed per head of population. The real situation is masked by the fact that historically Ireland has had a high proportion of non-drinkers, thanks to the success of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association. If adjustments are made, the real situation becomes obvious and Ireland soars to the top of the European alcohol league. We have a major alcohol crisis in this country and there is no strategy at either local or national level to come to grips with it.

Tribute has rightly been paid by the Minister to the sub-committee on legislation and security which, under the chairmanship of Deputy Flanagan, produced an excellent report entitled, A Review of Liquor Licensing. While the Minister quite rightly acknowledges that certain of the recommendations contained in the review document have been incorporated in the Bill, it is to be regretted that a substantial number of very worthwhile recommendations have not been accepted.

The sub-committee examined the administration of liquor licensing. The administration is divided between the Circuit Court and the Revenue Commissioners with the District Court having a minor role. The sub-committee believed that it was an unnecessary complication to have two separate and distinct agencies involved in the granting of new licences and that it would simplify matters considerably, rather than a dual system of licensing and administration, to have a single licensing authority. Such a streamlining would seem to have obvious merit. The sub-committee recommended that a specialist licensing court should be established within the Circuit Court. It would have permanently assigned judges who would be conversant with the whole area of licensing and the wider range of issues which are peripheral to it. Unfortunately such an excellent and sensible proposal is not contained in the Bill.

Certain public houses and discos conduct their business with a total indifference to and a total contempt for those residents living in their vicinity. Night after night, and particularly at weekends, residents must suffer blaring music, clients fighting on the premises, clients fighting after [1664] hours on the streets outside, roaring, shouting, associated vandalism and damage to property. For settled residents in areas where such badly run premises are situated, life at night is a nightmare. Young children and elderly people are unable to sleep until the crowd clears at four or five o'clock in the morning.

Because liquor licenses are renewed in September each year without any court intervention provided that excise duty is produced and an audited statement and a tax clearance certificate furnished, this represents a real problem for those who wish to object to the renewal of the licence. Notice of objection must be made to the District Court and a court hearing must take place. A real dilemma arises however in that a District Court judge has only two options – to renew or refuse. There is no intermediate sanction even though the grounds for the objection are valid. There is, nonetheless, a quite understandable reluctance on the part of the court to refuse outright the licence application. The review group report sought to address this problem in a very practical way. It proposed that the licensing authority, the Circuit Court, should be empowered to order the temporary closure of premises for a proportionate number of hours, days, weeks or even months in cases in which objections are upheld.

I welcome the Minister's decision to acknowledge the merit of this recommendation. However, he has only partly embraced this proposal in the Bill. Section 13 has provision for a temporary closure order but only in respect of the conviction for the sale of alcohol to an under-age person. I can see no valid reason such a temporary closure order should not be introduced for any premises which does not conduct its business in a responsible and orderly fashion. The expiry date for the annual renewal of licences is 30 September. This also creates a problem from the point of view of somebody wishing to lodge a valid objection against a licence renewal because of the manner in which the licensee is conducting his or her business. The sub-committee examined this problem and came up with a proposal that, “on application at any time of the year to the Circuit Court based on an objection to the manner in which the premises is being run, the court should be free, if satisfied of the substance of the complaint, to order the temporary closure of the premises or to impose temporary restricted closing times in its operation”.

The proposal is quite obviously very commendable. It addresses a real problem whereby, at present, disturbances at Christmas cannot be dealt with in terms of penalising the publican or the licensee until nine months later at the September renewal. The sub-committee's proposal would have the immediate effect of curtailing the possibility of a licensee flouting his obligations by giving the plaintiff immediate access to the court to have his grievance and objection heard. Again, the Minister for some reason best known to himself, failed to have regard to the sub-committee's [1665] views. I will be proposing an amendment to this effect.

One of the main features of the Bill is the proposed extension of hours of trading. The Minister proposes the abolition of the present winter and summer closing. I welcome this. What does not make sense, however, is the introduction of three different closing times all in the same week. On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday the closing time is to be 11.30 p.m. and 30 minutes drinking-up time. On Thursday, Friday and Saturday the closing time is to be 12.30 a.m. with 30 minutes drinking-up time. I believe, and the vast majority of publicans believe that having three different closing times within a seven day period is ridiculous and will lead to wholesale confusion. The sub-committee report recommended a two-tier week. Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday should have closing times of 11.30 p.m. plus 30 minutes with 12.30 a.m. plus 30 minutes for Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

We should look at two options with regard to Sunday. We can accept the sub-committee's recommendations that Sunday, like the subsequent three days, should have an 11.30 p.m. closing plus the 30 minutes drinking-up time or we can regard Sunday as a continuation of the weekend, with the same closing times, in other words 12.30 a.m. plus 30 minutes. What does not stand up is the argument that because Monday is a working day, the extra time on Sunday night is going to lead to wholesale absenteeism from work the following day. If one is to believe such an argument then surely it would undermine the argument for 12.30 a.m. closing on Thursday night on the basis that it would interfere with Friday's work attendance. I will be introducing an amendment on Committee Stage to have Sunday's closing time conform to that of Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. This is the sub-committee's proposal of 11.30 p.m. plus 30 minutes drinking-up time.

I fully support any measure, however draconian, to curb the scourge of under-age drinking. We really have to come to grips with a situation which is totally out of control. Each survey confirms a further reduction in the age threshold at which youngsters start drinking. Youngsters at 12, 13 and 14 years of age openly admit, when surveyed, that they drink. Young people are now drinking six years under the legal limit. We now have a children's drink problem. We now have teenagers graduating from post-primary schools indulge themselves to such an extent that their graduation functions have become such orgies of alcohol and misbehaviour that they have become no-go events for parents or for teachers who have taught them for the previous five years. What a sad reflection on modern young Ireland. Nothing is being done to come to terms with the alcohol crisis and to inject a more responsible culture into a bright, intelligent, but misguided, young generation.

The Minister is introducing tough legislation, which I welcome, but it alone will not solve the [1666] problem. It is only a small part of the equation. It is difficult to understand the indifference of parents to the welfare of their children, the failure of parents to establish and to know exactly where their children are, with whom they are or what they are doing and the failure of parents to check if their 13, 14 or 15 year old has the smell of alcohol on his or her breath when they return home at night. There is a scandalous degree of parental negligence. If parents do not care, and there is a growing number who do not care, it is difficult to expect the law, the Garda or the schools to fill the vacuum.

As regards this legislation, I understand the Minister's motivation in removing the defence of reasonable belief. This defence operates on the basis that the licensee can contend that he or she had reasonable grounds for believing that the young person was 18 years of age. We must be ruthless in dealing with publicans and licensees who knowingly and deliberately sell drink to under-age youngsters. If, however, the defence of reasonable belief is to be withdrawn, there must be a mandatory identity card scheme. The Minister invoked the relevant sections of the heretofore dormant 1988 Act to introduce an identity card scheme to be operated by the Garda. However, it has had little effect because it is not nationwide but is optional and voluntary. On Committee Stage I will introduce an amendment Bill so that every young person seeking to be served alcohol must produce, if requested, the official Garda issued identity card.

It is very difficult to get the balance right; we are talking about competing interests. We are talking about pubs, clubs, off-licences, supermarkets, discos, etc. It is, however, important to get the balance right and that is the reason the joint committee has agreed to accept submissions from the various interest groups which we will meet next week. It is not our intention to hold up the progress of the Bill. We accept the thrust of what the Minister said and want the Bill on the Statute Book before the summer. It is important, however, to listen to and canvas as wide a range of views as possible.

One of the things that surprises me about legislation such as this – we are dealing with a drug which has a very potent influence on human and social behaviour – is that the Minister did not look at the kernel point of the joint committee's report. It set out to establish the principles underlying the liquor licensing system. It said it is not possible to devise or operate a rational system of governing the granting and distribution of liquor licences without having a clearly thought out strategy and a set of policy principles and objectives which the system is designed to serve. We should work back from those set of objectives and principles. In other words, it is incredible that in introducing a Bill, which the Minister says is ground breaking, far-reaching and designed to serve the industry well into this century presumably, we do not set down a clear mission state[1667] ment in regard to what the alcohol industry is about.

Mr. McGahon: Money.

Mr. Higgins (Mayo): One of the issues which has not been addressed is the fundamental question of why should there be so many different types of licences. Why, for example, should there not be one type of retail liquor licence and limitations on its use should be by way of attaching conditions thereto? Why should we have separate beer licences, wine licence and spirit licences? One would imagine there would be one generic licence to which one could attach a series of conditions.

I support the broad thrust of the Bill but I regard it as a missed opportunity. It is terribly important when we are embarking on a new licensing regime that we take cognisance of the deeply human and social aspects of the Bill which have not been addressed. I accept one cannot include in the legislation many of the social principles but one would have thought it would have been a fairly significant part of the Minister's Second Stage speech.

Mr. McGahon: I speak on this Bill against the backdrop of a definite threat of closure of two breweries in my town of Dundalk which have been there for generations and have provided gainful employment to hundreds of people. I ask the Minister to ensure every effort is made to maintain that employment in Dundalk or to minimise the reduction in the number employed. Having said that, I will not be deterred from my comments on what I regard as the greatest social ill in Irish society, that is, the tragic affinity Irish people have with alcohol. As Deputy Higgins said, we have some type of flawed gene in relation to alcohol which we do not seem to be able to handle compared to other continental countries. It accounts for at least 80% of the social ills.

The refusal of this Assembly, including my party, to address this matter sticks in my craw. The tragedy drink has visited on every family, including my own, cannot be overstated. It is easier to hone in on the cigarette industry for health reasons. I am conscious I am talking in the presence of the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, Deputy O'Hanlon, who knows a thing or two about the evils of cigarette smoking and drink. The sheer hypocrisy of all Governments in closing the door on cigarette smoking while at the same time promoting the indiscriminate sale of alcohol leaves me with a problem. Will this House ever recognise our national problem? I do not think so, and it illustrates the grip drink has on Irish society and the strength of the vintners lobby.

Deputy Higgins instanced cases of young girls who, in many cases, find themselves pregnant following visits to public houses and whose lives are destroyed. The rise in the number of unmarried [1668] mothers and the number who are in their tender years illustrates the scale of the problem, yet this House will still not address it.

The number of watering holes in the country defies logic and the number has increased tenfold in recent years. There is not a football club which does not have a bar. If a camogie team wins an award, the medals are presented in the local watering hole, the pub. That is why so many young people are being seduced into drinking. I do not advocate prohibition; I would certainly not do so in the presence of a certain Senator who is watching the proceedings. However, the curtailment of the availability of drink to young people should be a priority. Surely it is more important to eliminate the glamorisation of drink in our society than extending the opening hours of public houses.

Deputy Higgins also illustrated the difficulties faced by elderly people living beside pubs and discos, which are modern hell holes. They fail to get a night's sleep and fear that perhaps their homes will be invaded or that they may be attacked by people under the influence of alcohol. Unfortunately, the promotion and sale of drink seems to be a Government objective, for which I am not blaming the Minister. It seems to have been an objective of all Governments.

I cannot see how granting pubs extra opening hours will minimise the awful problem that drink creates for some people. For many people alcohol is a social relaxant and they can take it, but for those who fall by the wayside, it is a terrible scourge for them and for their families. How many families are left without food or are subjected to abuse arising from the consumption of alcohol? We are now encouraging that at a time when there is a public house at every crossroads. I feel sad that there is not a recognition of our national illness.

Many of these proposals, while they are well meant by the Minister, who is a decent man, will not be implemented because we have so much legislation on the Statute Book dealing with drink, that we would need the Army as back-up to the Garda to ensure they were implemented. There are abuses countrywide and nobody would be short of a drink at any hour of the morning.

The glamorisation of drink aimed and targeted at youth concerns me. Cigarette companies have to carry a health warning – why do drink companies not have to carry the same? Why is our youth subjected to what I describe as seductive and deceptive advertisements every ten minutes on television involving a good looking woman or man and spontaneous gaiety in the pub. It does not show the family perhaps cowering at home, waiting for a father or, in modern times, a mother to come home four sheets to the wind.

The glamorisation of drink has to be attacked, if not by the Minister, then by a future Government. I look forward to the day when that happens. The lack of any control of advertising, particularly on television, is a definite weakness in that case. If we are sincere about looking after [1669] our youth, we must home in on advertising. While young people are watching television, they are asked every ten minutes whether they are going for a Harp, Carlsberg or Furstenburg or some other drink. That repetitive propaganda has an effect. They become seduced by it. They grow up believing that is the only way of life. That is an elementary matter for the Government to address if it is sincere about dealing with the problem of the number of young people being attracted to drink.

I pay tribute to the Pioneer movement, which has probably seen its best days because of the peer pressure among young people. I admire its continued defiance of the demon drink. I also commend the efforts of Dr. Loftus of Mayo, who tried to direct Government attention to a major national problem because he saw so many people mangled and mutilated by drunk drivers, another area to which we sometimes tend to turn a blind eye. He saw the damage done to people. He was in some cases described as an extremist, as I would be, but nevertheless, Dr. Loftus was on the right road. It is a great pity that more attention was not paid to his comments. He was a coroner as well as being a GP, and saw, at first hand, the problem that drink presents to society.

There are areas which required more modern legislation but even if I am the only one in this House to do so, I had to describe the Minister's move to increase the hours available for drinking as an act of madness. I hope there will not be too many extra people or families who will point the finger at him and his Government for providing more stimulus to the biggest problem that faces this country.

Ms Shortall: I welcome the debate taking place at last. This Bill has been a long time in coming. The Minister has told us about the lengthy consultation process in which he engaged and the various discussions he had with many interested bodies. It is only right that should happen. In the context of that long consultation process, the Bill, while containing many admirable sections, is overall a disappointment. The Minister's approach in introducing this legislation is particularly disappointing, in that he has failed to put this legislation into any kind of social context. As the two previous speakers said, we have to closely examine the central role that alcohol now has in society and examine the reasons for that and the trends taking place regarding alcohol use and abuse. We must ensure that we formulate a policy and legislation which ensures we have a mature approach to alcohol and that we do not encourage our young people to have an over-reliance on alcohol, which many of them have currently. We should ensure that we develop mature attitudes to the use of what is, after all, a lethal, mood altering substance but which is also, as we all know, a very pleasant substance which should be a regular part of our lives.

The starting point should have been to examine the place of alcohol in our society. We should be [1670] cognisant of the serious damage in human, social and medical terms which it causes. We should especially examine the trends in alcohol use and abuse. If we took time to examine the trends in alcohol use and abuse, especially among young people, we would find them quite shocking. We have reached a point where the principal national pastime for many young people is to go out and get drunk at the weekend. This is an entirely new trend in recent years. We have always had a problem of young people abusing alcohol, where they would go out in a group and have a few cans or drink cider on the local green. We have gone beyond that in terms of shocking trends where many young people go out at the weekend and often midweek as well, with the intention of getting drunk. That poses questions for us as legislators, in terms of the urgent need for us to take a far more responsible attitude to the place of alcohol in our society. The Minister has not recognised this issue at all. I look forward to commenting further on the Bill when the debate is resumed next week.

Debate adjourned.