Dáil Éireann - Volume 658 - 02 July, 2008
Intoxicating Liquor Bill 2008: Second Stage (Resumed).
Question again proposed: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”
Deputy Joe Costello Deputy Joe Costello
Deputy Joe Costello: Last night before the proceedings were adjourned I broadly welcomed the proposals for reforming the liquor licensing laws included in the Intoxicating Liquor Bill 2008. However, the issues of public disorder and behaviour related to alcohol abuse which is the real thrust of this legislation are unlikely to be resolved solely through enacting legislation. This can be shown by the fact that each Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has produced new Bills to curb alcohol abuse in his or her time, yet each Minister has dismally failed in his or her efforts. Ironically the previous Government introduced later opening hours for public houses, while the current Minister is reducing the opening hours for off-licences.
There is a considerable body of existing legislation which is not being implemented. The first imperative should be to effect measures to ensure implementation of existing, appropriate, relevant and pertinent legislation on the Statute Book. For example, the Intoxicating Liquor Acts 1999 and 2004 contain provisions for labelling alcoholic products sold in supermarkets, convenience stores, petrol stations and dedicated off-licences. The relevant sections of that legislation provide for traceability of all cans and bottles sold on these premises by means of a bar code or other labelling mechanism, which immediately identifies the outlet where the alcohol was sold. This allows for rogue off-licence outlets selling alcohol to minors to be identified quickly by the Garda and prosecuted effectively. These sections of the legislation require ministerial order, but no order has ever been activated by any Minister.
The proposals in the current Bill are substantially directed at the various off-licence outlets through curtailing hours of opening, providing for structural separation of alcohol products from other products, installing closed circuit television systems and giving local gardaí and residents a greater say in objections. These provisions are, of course, welcome. However, there is no reference in the Bill to labelling provisions. I call on the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to either activate the provisions in previous legislation which would provide for labelling and traceability of all alcoholic products sold at off-licences, or to introduce new  updated provisions by way of an amendment to the current Bill, or to indicate in his response that he will accept amendments to that effect.
I am chairman of the supply control committee of the Dublin north inner city drugs task force. This is an initiative that started in Blanchardstown but has moved into the inner city, especially the Store Street area and it operates largely from there. The committee aims to address the link between alcohol and drugs in public houses. We have established on a fairly successful pilot basis a procedure to “dial to stop drug dealing” campaign. We are using beer mats in public houses and signs are being erected in such pubs indicating they are a drug-free area. This has been done in the Store Street area since Christmas and is proving to be quite effective. There is anecdotal information that people are using the service to stand up to drug dealers.
The programme’s purpose is to prevent the multi-use of alcohol and drugs, as public houses in inner city and other areas have often been used as a location for the sale or consumption of drugs, with drink an added element to the combination.
I would like the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform to streamline that measure, which does not really require any legislation. The drugs task force would be very anxious to see that introduced. There are some good and pragmatic proposals in this Bill. If they were added to by the traceability and labelling provisions already in legislation, which could be boosted by being updated and included in this legislation, it would be very welcome.
Deputy Beverley Flynn Deputy Beverley Flynn
Deputy Beverley Flynn: I wish to share time with Deputy Pat The Cope Gallagher. Perhaps the Acting Chairman will let me know when ten minutes of the slot has expired.
Like other Members, I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Intoxicating Liquor Bill. I commend the Minister on his prompt response to the report of the alcohol advisory group, which reported in March this year after only being set up in January. I compliment the group on its quick work and the Minister on the speed with which he brought this legislation before the House because it is a very important issue.
There is not a town or village in the country today which does not have problems relating to public disorder. I welcome that the Bill will tackle public disorder and alcohol-related harm. Society in general is suffering, as well as people’s enjoyment of their environment.
The health of individuals — in many cases, under age people — is also suffering as a result of problems related to the sale of alcohol to them. It is important action is taken to curtail drinking in public places, particularly by under age drinkers. In every town in the country we know the various locations where under age people congregate to drink alcohol, and it is important that this Bill provides measures to tackle the problem. We have facilitated the necessary mechanisms for gardaí to be able to act on the problem.
To put the issue in context, between 1996 and 2002 public order offences increased by 247% in this country. That sets the tone and indicates very clearly to us what we already know from anecdotal evidence. This is a serious problem along the length and breadth of Ireland. Sadly, we have the largest number of binge drinkers in Europe among our young population.
Traditionally, all our social events in Ireland tend to have drink as a central focus, which is disappointing. It will take many years to change our cultural attitude to drink in this country, although this is a welcome first step. I welcome the Bill being brought before the House.
To me, one of the most important parts of the Bill is section 18, which I will focus on in the small amount of time available to me. This deals in particular with the new powers being given to the Garda Síochána to seize bottles or containers in the possession of people who appear to  be under 18, and where it is assumed by gardaí that alcohol is intended to be consumed by a person under 18 in a place other than a private dwelling.
This is important, even regarding my own town of Castlebar. I can identify many places where under age people are drinking. In the past, gardaí probably felt they did not have the necessary powers to confront these individuals, seize these containers and stop the practice. These young people eventually congregate around chip shops later in the night and this is where all the public order problems seem to happen, as much alcohol has been consumed from many of the off-licences in the town. Drink has been obtained by these people and sometimes it is bought for them by people older than 18, which is an act that must be frowned on by society.
In fairness to many off-licences, petrol stations and supermarkets, they have a strict policy. Having spoken with a deputation from small supermarkets in my own locality in recent weeks, I know they have a very strict policy on the sale of alcohol to under age people. They also have a very strict training programme. It must be acknowledged that these shops have a very serious policy and in some shops, staff face instant dismissal if alcohol is sold to a person under 18.
It is very clear that in businesses where the name of the operator is over the door, a reputation is valued very strongly. These people are anxious to ensure alcohol is not sold to people under 18. Many of these operators have asked that some form of a national identification card system be put in place to make their job a little easier.
Another section of the Bill deals with the segregation of alcoholic products from other parts of the shop so they can be closed off. There is also the option of selling alcohol from behind a counter. To my mind, the most important thing we can put in place is that, at the point of sale, a person over the age of 18 should be able to prove this to the person at the till. That would be an effective step. I welcome that the Minister is prepared to look at a code of practice with regard to the segregation within these places of business. If we could strengthen the position at the point of sale, it would be an effective mechanism.
With regard to section 18, I welcome the new powers permitting the seizure of bottles and containers of alcohol where there is a reasonable apprehension of public disorder. This can happen even when people are over the age of 18. This is an important strength to give to the Garda Síochána in dealing with the idea of public order or where gardaí feel public disorder is about to take place. It is important that aspect is there irrespective of age and it may be the most critical part of the Bill. Public disorder is one problem society at large is crying out for us to do something about and it is important that it is tackled.
Sections 12 and 14 of the Bill relate to penalties. I welcome that penalties have been strengthened. If penalties are not severe enough to ensure compliance, sadly, it will not occur. I welcome the minimum penalty of two days closure where it is shown that alcohol has been sold to persons under the age of 18. This will ensure publicans and those selling alcohol will put measures in place so that sale of alcohol to minors will not happen. It is critical this provision be put in place.
Section 9 of the Bill relates to extended opening hours. I have some points on this, particularly as it relates to late bars. At the moment many late bars are applying for special exemption orders. My understanding is these were intended to be made available through the District Court for special occasions. In practice, many late bars in every town in the country get exemption orders every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night.
The difficulty is there are now many people, including those from nightclubs and late bars, congregating on the street at the same time. If the focus in the courts, when they are granting these exemption orders, was to give them only for a special occasion — the original intention — it would provide a necessary safeguard.
 I welcome the new provisions where the District Court can require that a CCTV system be installed. This is important in terms of tackling crime, identifying those who are guilty of public disorder on our streets and in ensuring premises are fully compliant with safety standards. It is hard to believe the measure had to be introduced in this Bill and did not exist before. It is an important provision.
My main point is that we should try to restrict the number of special exemptions given by the District Court in the first place. This would make it easier, certainly in towns, for gardaí to monitor the level of public disorder and number of premises people leave at a late hour. As is consistently pointed out in debates on this issue, the reason for having pubs and nightclubs close at different times is to prevent the patrons of all licensed premises converging on the streets at the same time. The special exemption orders should be reviewed on the basis that they negate this reason.
On the sale of alcohol, I welcome the provision to require wine off-licences to obtain a certificate from the District Court because it is a transparent mechanism. I welcome, in particular, the provision that in granting new off-licences consideration will be given to the needs of the neighbourhood in question and the adequacy of the existing number of off-licences in the area.
I am aware of a small supermarket in my town which was doing good business in the sale of groceries and had no plans to enter the off-licence trade. However, as every small grocer now has an off-licence and people are no longer prepared to stop at a grocery and an off-licence, the owner was compelled to obtain an off-licence to continue the core grocery business. The proliferation of off-licences and small supermarkets selling alcohol is creating a major problem in terms of the visibility of alcohol and its accessibility to young people. This is a disappointing development but I am not sure what action can be taken to roll it back.
While I welcome the code of practice, I ask the Minister to give serious consideration to introducing a identification card to try to improve the regulation of off-licences.
Deputy Pat The Cope Gallagher Deputy Pat The Cope Gallagher
Deputy Pat The Cope Gallagher: I welcome the opportunity to participate in this important debate. For some of the past 11 months I had responsibility for health promotion, during which time I took a special interest in the marketing of alcohol, as well as the issues of communications and sponsorship. I am pleased progress was made with the industry during this period, culminating in an agreement between the Department of Health and Children and the sector to strengthen the code of practice. Compliance with the current code of practice stands at almost 100%, which leads me to believe that we will have full compliance with the stronger code of practice.
All Members are concerned about the impact of alcohol advertising on young people. I welcome the decision of the industry to buy into the strengthened code and pay tribute to it and the departmental officials with whom I worked for securing an agreement through a partnership approach. While it was suggested this matter should be addressed by way of legislation, I believed the objective could be achieved more expeditiously by strengthening codes of conduct because legislative measures would have taken a considerable period to implement.
I refer to this process because it is intertwined with the Intoxicating Liquor Bill 2008. This legislation is motivated by the concern of the alcohol advisory group that the display and sale of alcohol side by side with ordinary foods serve to create the false impression that alcohol is an ordinary retail product. The group’s view was that restricting the sale and display of alcohol to a separate area would be beneficial. While this proposition is fine in theory, following meetings with representatives of the retail sector, including business people from my constituency, I  concluded that implementing such a restriction would cause considerable disruption and impose considerable costs on smaller shops and supermarkets.
I am pleased retailers have, by and large, bought into the spirit of the Bill. Bearing in mind that the Minister shares Deputies’ anxiety to enact the Bill before the summer recess, his meeting with representatives of the retail sector several weeks ago was welcome. The meeting culminated in a proposal to introduce a code of practice. The retail industry has shown good will on this issue and is anxious to submit a proposal to the Minister, one I hope he will be in a position to accept.
The proposed restriction is a matter of concern for small and medium-sized businesses in the retail sector which provide services in rural areas and towns but may not prove too onerous for larger businesses. I understand off-licences which decide to sell goods other than alcohol may not be required to comply with the requirement to separate alcoholic and non-alcoholic goods, whereas businesses with an off-licence which are engaged substantially in the sale of non-alcoholic goods would be required to comply with the provision. I accept, however, that the problem would only arise if the legislation were enacted as presented. This is no longer the case, thanks to the pragmatic approach taken by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Dermot Ahern.
The vast majority of retailers do not want to make a profit from young people and realise, as Deputies do, that young people are vulnerable and habits formed at an early age persist throughout life. Retailers do not want to be party to this problem and are concerned about the name over the door of their businesses.
The Minister addressed the issues I raise in his Second Stage contribution, which is welcome. Nevertheless, I am concerned about the necessity of the decision to block up the courts with 5,000 to 6,000 wine licence applications. It remains to be seen if this potential problem materialises and it is the Minister’s call as to whether applications should continue to be made to the Revenue Commissioners. We should consider the impact of requiring retailers of wine to go to court every year to secure a wine licence.
Secondary purchasing is a major problem which cannot be dealt with by the retail sector. The authorities must clamp down on the practice which is difficult to detect. Most of those who buy drink in shops and take it outside to minors are responsible people. A major change in culture is required. We must call on people to drink in greater moderation because it is in the best interests of everyone, especially young people. Drinking at an early age has an impact later in life.
While the early opening of licensed premises was important in rural and coastal areas a long time ago, this is no longer the case. I would not have a difficulty with a ministerial decision to close early houses. I accept, however, that this is an issue in cities. I am confident the Minister will do what he believes is right.
Mar focal scoir, tá áthas orm go bhfuair mé deis páirt a ghlacadh sa dhíospóireacht seo ar feadh cúpla nóiméad. Fágfaidh mé mar sin é.
Sitting suspended at 1.30 p.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.
Dáil Éireann 658 Intoxicating Liquor Bill 2008: Second Stage (Resumed).