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 Paul Kehoe: I wish to share time with Deputies Enright, Terence Flanagan and Burke.

[433]   An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Is that agreed? Agreed.

  Deputy Paul Kehoe: I welcome the opportunity to speak on this very important Bill. I have strong views on under-age drinking. The Intoxicating Liquor Bill goes far but not far enough in some areas. Under-age drinking is a considerable problem, not only in cities but also in every town, village and pub in the country. The Government has had numerous opportunities in the past ten years to address it but the problem has worsened. Not only do I refer to a drink culture but also to drug taking by young teenagers who persist into their late teens and early twenties. Had the Government taken this matter by the scruff of the neck some years ago and established structures of redress, the problem would not be as bad as it is.

I agree with some parts of the explanatory memorandum to the Bill, but believe the Government has not gone far enough in others. The fine of €500 for those who fail to give their proper names and addresses to the authorities is short change to many of them. The provision does not extend far enough.

On the granting of liquor licences to petrol stations or off-liccences, the explanatory memorandum states, “When granting a certificate, the District Court may also impose a condition that a CCTV system be installed”. This should be mandatory. We all want to tackle under-age drinking but the word “may” is not strong enough. Most public houses now have CCTV cameras installed. It should be mandatory that such cameras be installed at counters and other points of sale in off-licences, supermarkets and other locations where alcohol is for sale. This would strengthen the law in trying to prevent under-age drinking and making alcohol freely available to those who are under age.

Deputy Flanagan listed statistics, one of which indicates that there was a 57% increase in the number of public order offences between 2003 and 2007. No Deputy would disagree. I regularly speak to my local superintendent and local gardaí in villages throughout County Wexford who tell me many public order offences are not reported because those affected believe the Garda has its hands tied, is unable to help or does not have the time or energy to solve the problem. Moreover, one can see an increase in general thuggery, robberies or whatever, all of which comes down to anti-social behaviour. Much anti-social behaviour in estates happens late at night when such people are filled with drink and have no fear of consequences.

Although I am almost certain the Minister has rowed back on the proposal to restrict the sale of alcohol to a separate part of a shop, I make the point that many such shops are stuck for space. Were I to enter my local branch of Dunnes Stores in Enniscorthy at a time when alcohol is not for sale, that section would be railed off. That is a good idea as people then know alcohol is not for sale because it is out of hours. The Minister should seriously consider the possibility of obliging off-licences and supermarkets in particular that gain wine or spirit licences to rail off the shelving after closing time or when they are obliged to desist from selling alcohol.

I revert to my original point, which is that while the Bill has gone far, it has not gone far enough.

  Deputy Olwyn Enright: I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate. As a country, we must face up to the difficulties caused by alcohol abuse. The HSE’s report in April highlighted some of the negative impacts of alcohol abuse both to people’s health and to society. It is important, however, that Members should consider its role in issues such as domestic violence, murder, manslaughter and public order offences as being a factor, rather than their sole cause, in order that it is not perceived to be an excuse. I share the concerns expressed by the Minister regarding alcohol abuse among young people and I will return to this point briefly.

[434] However, in addressing this problem and the need for cultural change, honesty is required in this debate. When dealing with the abuse caused by a minority as a result of irresponsible drinking, Members have a tendency to introduce measures to restrict the free will of the majority who drink safely and sensibly, know not to drive, know when to go home and who simply know how to behave properly.

That said, Members must realise a cycle pertaining to drinking in Ireland has been passed from generation to generation and the majority of social events have an alcohol component. Adults, in their frequent lamentations about the behaviour of young people regarding drink, must realise that behaviour is learned and the attitudes of young people frequently, although perhaps not always, reflect the circumstances in which they were brought up, as well as the attitude of their families and peers to alcohol.

This legislation appears to have come from a public order perspective and I welcome the clarification it will bring to the Garda’s ability to seize in particular. However, the majority of alcohol consumption among minors does not take place in licensed premises. Moreover, a degree of fairness is required in this regard, particularly from the perspective of retailers. I believe that many wish to ensure the law is upheld and do not wish to sell alcohol to minors. Likewise, they do not want employees who are minors to sell alcohol. I have had the experience a few times of being at checkouts and being told by the checkout assistants that they are unable to serve me because they are under age, although I obviously am not. In the absence of a national identification card, people are being asked to uphold a law and are being told they will be punished if they do not. However, they are not being provided with a proper opportunity to verify a person’s age. Effectively, this makes the legislation a half measure, which will have serious consequences if someone is convicted of serving alcohol to an under age person. I urge the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to deal with this issue when he introduces the amended version of the Intoxicating Liquor Bill that has been promised for later this year.

As for the proposed infrastructural changes in retail outlets, I remain unconvinced of the practicality and effectiveness of what was proposed originally. The costs involved would make it prohibitive for some retailers to continue selling alcohol, which obviously could give rise to competition issues and could cause difficulties for the viability of their businesses. It may be that one would be creating a “back of the shop” mentality for the sale of alcohol and I do not believe this would do anything to curtail binge drinking or excessive consumption. I believe that people enter shops with the intention of purchasing alcohol if they want it, rather than making a purchase on a spur of the moment impulse. While I have no difficulty with alcohol not being dotted throughout shops, complete segregation would prove to be impractical. Moreover, the practice of dotting alcohol throughout a shop is far more prevalent in major supermarkets than in small retail units, which lack the space to do so. In the main, small local shops are owned and run by families who act responsibly.

I wish to turn to the issue of young people and alcohol. The submission made by Youth Work Ireland on this subject was quite informative. It stated the problems young people have with alcohol happen within the context and as a direct result of a broader societal problem and cannot be ring-fenced or dealt with in isolation. While under age drinking undoubtedly is a problem that can affect young people, it is important to state it is quite natural for young people to wish to experiment and to push out their own limits. It is when they go beyond this at a young age or when drinking, particularly to excess, becomes a habit, that there is a real need for concern.

The legislation addresses this issue from a “stick” approach that is aimed at the retailer, rather than at young people. I was interested in the comments of Ruairí McKiernan of Spun[435] Out, when he stated that young people are tired of being negatively stigmatised. They want to be listened to and get involved in what is happening in their lives, be it at home or in their class, locally or nationally.

The Ombudsman for Children’s report also was informative regarding the views of young people on these types of issues. In that report, the second issue highlighted by young people was that of play and recreation. I visited a youth project in Camross, County Laois, recently that runs two nights a week between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. and 10 p.m. and 12 midnight for older teenagers. It has fantastic facilities, including DVDs, couches, PlayStations and so on and is supervised, but in a highly non-invasive way. This is the type of project that should be rolled out nationwide for young people. Similarly, I refer to the issue of providing facilities such as skateboard parks in order that people have alternatives. I ask the Minister of State to ask the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to make a decision finally as to whether it will provide funding this year. I understand it has a scheme for local authorities regarding such facilities ready to go but has not received sanction to so do. If people are to be penalised for this, alternatives must be offered.

  Deputy Terence Flanagan: I also welcome the opportunity to speak on the Intoxicating Liquor Bill 2008 and thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle in this regard. This Bill certainly is a small step in the right direction by the Government towards controlling the supply of alcohol to the public and certainly is not before its time. As Members are aware, major problems arise nationwide, at weekends in particular, on many of our main streets. Much binge drinking takes place, both by young people and those of all other age groups. Binge drinking certainly can lead to public disorder and to problems on our streets, particularly after the closure of the nightclubs or late pubs when everyone congregates on the streets at the same time. As there has been a 35% increase in the number of off-licences from 2003 to 2005, it is no wonder statistics show there has been an increase of 17% in alcohol consumption in the past ten years. As alcohol is so readily available, many more public order offences are being committed at weekends. All Members can pinpoint black spots in their constituencies, where problems take place and where the Garda must maintain a presence in large numbers, particularly late on Friday and Saturday evenings. In the absence of sequential closing times, this problem is set to continue.

The attitude and tolerance in Ireland towards drink and the drinking culture must change dramatically if we wish to stop accident and emergency wards being clogged up by drunks. At weekends, accident and emergency units in particular experience a much greater volume of people, some of whom, unfortunately and sadly, are young people who arrive in a particularly bad state and who must be looked after by the medical staff. This issue must be examined.

4 o’clock

The Bill certainly is a positive step towards changing things for the better in society and contains many positive elements. However, there are blatant omissions from the Bill that Members from the Fine Gael Party will seek to have included on Committee Stage. I note the sale of alcohol in off-licences will be restricted to the hours of 10.30 a.m. to 10 p.m. from Monday to Saturday. On Sundays and St. Patrick’s Day, off-licences will open from 12.30 p.m. and will close at 10 p.m. However, we appear to experience many more public order offences on St. Patrick’s Day than on other days, particularly in Dublin. A former Lord Mayor of Dublin, Councillor Michael Conaghan, attempted to close off-licences a few years ago because of the ready supply of alcohol and all the problems and public order offences that take place on St. Patrick’s Day. Perhaps the possibility of more restrictive hours could be considered, particularly on Ireland’s national feast day, which seems to turn into a drink festival for many young people.

[436] I am glad to see that under section 5, an applicant for a wine off-licence will now have to obtain a District Court certificate. This is currently the case for beer or spirit off-licence owners, and it is good to see this anomaly closed off in the Bill. Section 8 relates to the structural separation of alcohol products from other products in commercial premises, particularly those engaged in mixed trading. A separation is badly needed. We have all received feedback that the cost factor is a major issue for convenience stores, especially with costs up to €50,000 per annum to keep the alcohol in a separate section in the shop. We will be looking for more of a turnstile approach, which seems to be the case in Northern Ireland, rather than forcing traders to redefine their shops completely. In many supermarkets, alcohol is displayed in one’s face as one walks in the front door. One should not have to walk past all the alcohol to get to the groceries section.

A national identification card is needed in this area. We oppose the test purchase of alcohol until such a system is brought in. Young people should not have to use passports, as many of them lose their passports when they go to pubs and clubs. By introducing a national ID card, we will ensure there is less of a risk of that happening.

Sequential closing times are not addressed at all in the Bill. We need to look at that, as the vast majority of public offences occur when people come onto the streets of our towns and cities at the same time. There is no evidence that early houses are causing these problems, rather it is our late pubs and nightclubs.

This Bill is very welcome. The area of binge drinking needs to be examined. There are some good points, but there are also omissions in the Bill, and we will be trying to rectify that on Committee Stage. We also look forward to the forthcoming sale of alcohol Bill.

  Deputy Ulick Burke: I welcome the opportunity to say a few words on this Bill. When we examine some of the legislation on alcohol that already exists, we have to wonder if sufficient legislation is already in place. The only problem seems to be that it is not being effectively applied. There is no use in blaming the Garda. If the Garda had sufficient resources and numbers, many of the difficulties caused by the abuse of alcohol could be easily tightened up. I am glad to see that one of the points that the advisory group on alcohol raised related to the adequacy and effectiveness of existing sanctions and penalties. That is the kernel of the problem.

When we tried to eliminate the sale of tobacco to under age people, health board officials sent minors into shops to buy cigarettes in order to catch out the retail agent. I do not agree with that, but this Bill is even worse as gardaí will be able to send a minor, with parental permission, into an outlet to try to purchase alcohol. That is a retrograde step, because such a minor will become a hero among his peers. I ask the Minister of State to bring this issue to the notice of the Minister. It should be withdrawn from this Bill. It is an admission that the law is unable to monitor adequately the difficulties surrounding the sale of drink at existing outlets. Using a minor to purchase alcohol is to renege on our responsibilities.

About six weeks ago, I raised a matter on the Adjournment that dealt with the importation of what are known as “shots” from Mexico, the US and Canada. These drinks are targeted at young people and contain 80% alcohol. The company’s marketing statement claims that it has revolutionised the alcohol industry by introducing a single shot premium liqueur in a lightweight and durable plastic pouch. It states that the 50 ml shots come in a safe, break-resistant plastic pouch which makes them safer than glass, and have a built-in spout that makes them ready to use in any location.

[437]   An Ceann Comhairle: The Deputy’s time has expired.

  Deputy Ulick Burke: The Minister gave an undertaking that, in conjunction with the Minister for Health and Children, he might ban these particular products. I welcome the advertising code on alcohol that was published yesterday, even though it was only voluntary, but if the Minister does not amend the Bill to ban the sale of products such as these, then we are turning our back on one of the most deadly instruments out there. They can be bought on-line and delivered to the home. The idea behind them is that the individual buying them can hide them on his person.

The voluntary code published yesterday states that the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland has a separate advertising code, stipulating that alcohol advertising shall not link the product to physical well-being or sexual attractiveness. One of the promotions that I have before me clearly indicates the latter category. I want the Minister to act on that.

  An Ceann Comhairle: Deputies are not permitted to bring posters into the Chamber, as Deputy Burke well knows.

  Deputy John McGuinness: I welcome the opportunity to say a few words on this important Bill. The last debate we had on café bars triggered a public response and a political debate on whether we had enough alcohol outlets. Towards the end of that debate, I was asked on radio if I was a publican. I did not presume that I was, but I had a loose connection as I had a publican’s licence. Therefore, while I do not operate a pub, as a person who owns a property that contains a public house, it may be no harm to state that.

This does not mean that I do not have a view on these things. As someone in business who is familiar with how bar licences operate, I consider the debate on this Bill to be very worthwhile. The vintners’ groups have made a positive contribution. The advisory group on its operation is a model that could be used in many other areas of legislation. It brings together the stakeholders involved and gives them the opportunity to put forward their views and even their solutions to the many problems that are affecting society in general. When trying to find a solution to the problem, we should seek the views of those who are central to it, be they the publicans or the Garda and so on, so that legislators can be fully informed when making their decision. From that point of view, the exercise of going through the advisory group was a good one.

This legislation is only part of an overall approach. A number of pieces of legislation, which will follow subsequently, will deal with the other complex issues that constantly plague society arising from the abuse of alcohol. As legislators, we can try to offer workable solutions to the problem.

It is an opportune time to acknowledge that over the years publicans, those who hold restaurant licences and all of the entrepreneurs involved in this business throughout the country have invested vast amounts of money in their premises. We must acknowledge such businesses exist, that their owners want to participate fully in them and are responsible people delivering a service that is in demand. In difficult times it is good to acknowledge that they continue to make such investments.

Some of the issues raised in the context of people doing business include local charges and rates, which impact on the level of business being conducted. Those matters, which do not form part of this Bill, are related to local government, but the background to this Bill and the consultation that took place show solutions can be found.

[438] I welcome the general thrust of the Bill. I am glad that the Minister, in the context of section 8, is dealing with off-licences in the way he has outlined, through a voluntary code of practice. It is an issue that arose early on in the debate on this Bill. People were genuinely concerned as to how they might operate their premises should they have to separate the off-licence from the general business area within their retail outlets. If one looks at the structure of retail outlets, particularly the changes that have taken place in recent years, the corner shops are generally gone and are replaced by named outlets. There is a methodology of doing business in them and there is space in some of them for off-licences. The example of Northern Ireland which was given, where the off-licence can be separated and features a turnstile operation, is a reasonable way to look at this.

The voluntary code of practice is to be welcomed. It will now be down to the industry to show its credentials and show it is a responsible group in abiding by that code. The Minister stated clearly that if that does not work, an alternative option exists. The code of practice shows that we, as legislators, and the Minister in championing this Bill, are prepared to listen, particularly to people who are making a significant investment and having an impact on society.

I want to conclude my remarks by referring to the issue of anti-social behaviour arising from drink. This is to the fore in every constituency right throughout the country and plagues many of our housing estates, river banks, derelict sites and other areas where people can gather.

In my local authority area, a by-law has been introduced to impose a fine on those who enter certain areas to drink in public, but rarely have I seen that implemented. In fact, all around the signposts along by the riverbank, which state that those drinking in public places will be fined, one can see such public drinking going on. It is a source of nuisance and of anti-social behaviour, and it is has got out of hand.

Likewise, late night drinking is something that annoys residents in most towns and cities throughout the country because there is an outturn onto the streets at a particular time and the row usually starts at a chip shop or other location along the route from the premises where the drinking occurred. Local authorities have a role play in this in that they provide planning permission and consider the opening and closing hours of enterprises. The planning permission itself can be policed. The local authority should play an active role, with the Garda, to ensure that some of the nuisance experienced in our towns, villages and cities can be eliminated. This legislation will not be the answer to everything. It will take a great deal of effort at local level to ensure that local government and other agencies play their part, with the Garda and in accordance with the legislation, to ensure that what is proposed happens.

I welcome the legislation. I welcome the change the Minister has introduced and hope the Bill will have a speedy passage through Committee Stage.

  Deputy Michael Creed: I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to contribute briefly on this legislation. Regrettably, my overall view is that it will have little, if any, impact on the problem it is intended to resolve, namely, anti-social behaviour.

We seem to have a fascination with talking about the drinking culture and its consequences. It seems to be the stock in trade of any Oireachtas term now that legislation is being introduced in this area, yet the problem continues apace. That is a matter we need to reflect on. If we were to stand back and take an entirely market approach to this issue on the basis that people have a fixed amount of money to spend on alcohol and they should be allowed to get on with that, we might find that the structures or artificial controls we are putting in place are more of a hindrance than a help in many respects.

[439] For that reason, I want to make the point that pubs and publicans have taken a hammering, and particularly in rural Ireland. That is happening for a variety of reasons, such as that people’s behaviour patterns are changing, but it must be said that the safest place for anybody to drink is probably in a regulated, well-supervised, well-run public house and the problems of anti-social behaviour are often the consequences of people opting out of that environment and drinking elsewhere. That is something we should examine. In fairness to the overwhelming majority of publicans, they are committed to running orderly public houses and to supervising their clients in an acceptable manner. It is worth noting the number of public houses that are closing, particularly in rural areas. I am sure the Ceann Comhairle would be aware of this. It is a factor in Macroom where I live, but is probably equally a factor in every country town where publicans have simply gone out of business.

A significant contributory factor to anti-social behaviour, which is not addressed in this Bill at all, is the cross consumption of drugs and alcohol. As much as alcohol contributes to anti-social behaviour, so too do illicit drugs. That is something of which we need to be conscious.

Another issue that is not addressed in the Bill is that of sequential closing. The previous speaker, the Minister of State, Deputy John McGuinness, made the point that local authorities have power to deal with these issues when planning permission is granted. I am not sure that that is the appropriate place. The opportunity was lost when framing this legislation to take an initiative here in terms of obliging public houses and especially nightclubs to address that issue.

The real problem of anti-social behaviour stems from people pouring out of public houses and especially nightclubs at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. looking for taxis and chippers. If one took the free market approach and abolished closing times, people would go home at various hours as it suited either their pocket or their obligation to get up for work the following day and so on. There might be some madness initially while such a proposal took root, but there is some merit in examining the proposition. The moral police will probably crucify me for making this suggestion, but we must acknowledge all the efforts made to date have only tinkered with the problem and not brought about a solution.

If we were serious about tackling the problem of under age drinking, we would have addressed the issue of a national identity card, either in this legislation or separately. There is a problem with under age drinking and people acquiring drink for those who are under age. The previous speaker alluded to people consuming drink subsequently on the banks of rivers, unsupervised, and the consequent dangers. The single instrument of a national identity card would substantially stem the flow of alcohol to those who are by age not entitled to drink it, instead of creating these facile impediments dictating how and where alcohol can be sold in a garage forecourt or a supermarket. I fail to see the civil liberty issues that make this a matter no Government appears willing to grasp and tackle, which is regrettable.

As I come from a rural constituency, I am aware, as is the Minister, Deputy Ahern, of the practices of small shops and supermarkets selling alcohol, including bottles of wine and cans of beer and so on. The initial costs associated with the legislation for such merchants will be significant and there will be no benefit in minimising the outflow of alcohol. If a person walks into a local supermarket and wants to buy a bottle of wine, he or she does not want to be staring through a grill. People like to browse when they buy a bottle of wine. As I understand the legislation, all of those products will be behind a grill or counter. A customer might want a bottle of Chardonnay, or to have the option of looking see if the wine he or she had last Saturday when out for a meal is in the local supermarket. The broad thrust of the proposals is bordering on the ridiculous and should be examined. There will be additional costs for small shops, but such costs will not pose a problem for the big supermarket chains such as Tesco, [440] Quinnsworth and so on. I do not have anything against these multiple outlets, but we must examine how smaller shops can survive and trade against them.

There is an issue with below cost selling of alcohol where bonus points are available. This is another issue that could have been usefully addressed in the legislation. There may be ways of encouraging people to consume alcohol in licensed public houses under appropriate supervision. This would be preferable to allowing a person to go to the local supermarket or retail outlet to buy a slab of cans for less than €1 per can, or to buy 24 bottles of Miller or a similar beer for the same price, and go to the bank of the river with mates to drink. This legislation presented an opportunity to tackle this matter, with below cost selling. I do not know if it would be appropriate to ban low cost selling in legislation, but these are measures that would make a practical contribution to stemming the flow of alcohol to under age drinkers. The prosecution of persons who procure and provide alcohol for minors should also have been dealt with in the Bill.

The Minister is not short of advice on the shortcomings of the legislation and what I have said is probably not new. We have a fascination with discussing this matter, but despite all the efforts made, we have made little progress. As a nation, we have a serious alcohol problem. Alcohol consumption is glorified, especially in advertising. Alcohol has too close an association with sports activities. These issues need to be addressed, but without adopting a nanny State approach. Placing alcohol behind the counter and out of sight will not address the issue.

I hope the Minister will accept these comments in the spirit in which they have been offered and be willing, open-minded and consider amendments on Committee Stage which might result in better legislation at the end of the process.

  Deputy Dermot Ahern: I thank all speakers for their contributions and words of advice. In the context of Deputy Creed’s comments and those of other Deputies on browsing in the purchasing of a bottle of wine, I indicated earlier on Second Stage that I was prepared to bring forward an amendment on Committee Stage to exempt wine sales from the structural separation requirements because it is a drink that is purchased after browsing.

On the matter of staggered closing hours, I have heard the arguments and there is strong lobbying by night club owners on the disgorging of large numbers of people onto the streets at the same time. In practice — I said as much to those I met — is it not the case that if one has staggered closing hours, people will leave the bar with normal opening hours, go to the late bar with a special exemption order and perhaps even go on to the nightclub? Such persons will move from one place to the next. That would defeat the purpose in having staggered closing hours.

I read a report issued recently from the UK Local Government Association which examined the effects of the extension of drinking hours introduced in November 2005 in the United Kingdom. The report stated the Ministers who had promoted the legislation wanted to promote what was called a café culture in an effort to reduce the level of disorder following the calling of “last orders” when everyone emerged out onto the streets at closing time. The survey suggested that nearly one third of primary care trusts had reported an increase in the number of alcohol related incidents. Half of the police authorities had reported that the Act had merely resulted in incidents occurring later in the night. More than two thirds of health authorities believed they had to spend more as a result of alcohol related admissions in accident and emergency units.

[441] Sir Simon Milton, chairman of the Local Government Association, said the new drink laws had had no impact whatsoever on reducing the alcohol related violence that blighted towns and turned them into no-go areas on a Friday and Saturday night. The then Minister with responsibility for culture, Ms Tessa Jowell, said the reason they had moved to more flexible licensing hours was all the evidence that crime and disorder were at their peak at chucking-out time. Apparently, the report is now indicating the opposite is the case some two years after implementation. From what I have seen of it, the UK Department of Culture, Media and Sports states there is other research which suggests the overall figures for alcohol consumption are down. I do not believe, therefore, that there is an easy solution to this matter.

I wish to be fair to all concerned and level the playing field as much as possible. The response by the British Government to a report was to say the legislation was not going to be a silver bullet to solve alcohol and public disorder problems. Similarly, I am not holding out this legislation as the panacea for all the ills.

I have said it is a very small attempt, particularly in the context of asking that it be passed before the summer in order to give the Garda the powers in this Bill relating to public order. It will equip gardaí properly before the summer starts with a vengeance, weather-wise, and give them the power to apprehend people who have alcohol in cases where there is public disorder.

I have already indicated that there will be a comprehensive sale of alcohol Bill later this year, which will provide the opportunity for a more thorough and comprehensive discussion of the role of alcohol in our society. This Bill will modernise and streamline all the licensing laws by repealing the Licensing Acts 1833 to 2004 and replacing them, in effect, with one consolidated and updated statute.

As I mentioned here last week, research published by the Health Research Board indicates that alcohol consumption in Ireland increased by 17% between 1995 and 2006, with binge drinking a particular problem. The resulting public disorder and health-related harm cannot be ignored or tolerated and although I accept the point made by several Deputies that a change of culture regarding alcohol is required, the Government has a responsibility to ensure licensing law and public order legislation are sufficiently robust to address these problems. That is the purpose of the Bill before us.

With regard to wine off-licences, section 5 provides that the new requirement to obtain a District Court certificate will only apply to new applications made after the entry into force of this legislation. The same applies to the new grounds for objection set out in section 6. In short, existing wine off-licences are not affected by the proposed change.

As regards renewal of wine off-licences, the existing position under the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2000 is that an objection may be made to such renewal. Where such an objection is made, a District Court certificate is required before the Revenue Commissioners will issue a renewal. That is the position under existing law and it will not change under this Bill.

The question of whether a temporary closure order applies to the entire premises or a part of the premises only was also raised in contributions. Under existing law, the District Court may make an order for the closure of the premises or any part thereof. The extent and duration of closure orders are, therefore, matters for the court to determine and the only change proposed in this Bill is that the minimum closure period will in future be two days. We came across a number of instances where temporary closure orders were made for a matter of a few hours, which is not acceptable.

I referred to the staggering of closing times, which was mentioned in several contributions. The position is that this Bill contains no proposals to change rules covering the duration of special exemption orders. It will remain the case that special exemption orders expire at [442] 2.30 a.m., or 1 a.m. on Sunday night and Monday morning. The Government alcohol advisory group had recommended that 2.30 a.m. be brought forward to 2 a.m. but this was not accepted by the Government.

Recently late-night venues, including some nightclubs and late bars, have sought to exploit a loophole which has opened up as a result of a High Court decision on theatre licences last year. The result has been a proliferation of theatre licences and a resulting circumvention of the special exemption order provisions. It is also resulting in a significant loss of revenue to the Exchequer. The proposals in the Bill will mean this loophole, which is being unfairly exploited by some operators, will be closed and this will restore fair competition between all late night venues.

As regards test purchasing, I note the comments made by some speakers even today. I intend to table an amendment on Committee Stage which will provide that test purchasing be carried out in accordance with procedures set out in guidelines which will be drawn up following consultation with the Garda Commissioner and the Minister for Health and Children.

Regarding structural separation, I repeat what I said earlier in order to avoid any misunderstandings. During discussions with organisations representing supermarkets and convenience stores two weeks ago, the bodies concerned offered to implement an agreed code of practice as an alternative to implementation of the section 8 provisions. The code would cover issues such as the location and display of alcohol within premises, signage, warning signs and in-store advertising, as well as staff training standards. Implementation would be overseen and enforced through an independent audit and verification mechanism.

I received a first draft of the proposed code from Retail Ireland earlier today and it will now be examined in my Department and in the Department of Health and Children. On cursory examination, it does not seem to go far enough so we will raise the issue with the groups concerned. The groups must demonstrate widespread support for its contents from all the bodies representing mixed trading outlets across the country.

If agreement can be reached on its contents and the required level of support exists for its strict implementation across the mixed trading sector, if I can be satisfied that the 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, I would be disposed to deferring implementation of section 8 for the moment.

If independent verification of compliance were to show that the code is being implemented effectively across the country and achieving, in effect, what we have set out to achieve through structural separation, it may not be necessary to commence section 8. If it does not achieve this — I want to repeat this — I will not hesitate to commence section 8.

Many contributions to the debate mentioned the special promotions and price discounts that have become so prevalent and are almost the norm in recent times. The advisory group acknowledged in its report that the increased affordability of alcohol is a result not only of reduced prices, but also the increased disposable income levels that have resulted from economic progress and increased prosperity. The group was satisfied, however, that the price at which alcohol is sold remains an important influence on purchasing patterns and that lower alcohol prices are being used as a means of attracting customers in the expectation that they will purchase other products as well as alcohol once inside the premises.

For this reason, the group identified the control of those promotional and pricing practices which appear to encourage increased purchases of alcohol as a potentially important means of tackling excessive consumption patterns. Section 15 of the Bill provides for the making of [443] regulations prohibiting or restricting the advertising or promoting the sale or supply of alcohol at a reduced price, or free of charge, on the purchase of any quantity of alcohol or any other product or service.

Preparatory work has commenced on the drafting of these regulations and because of their potential impact on the EU Internal Market rules, it will be necessary to submit the proposed regulations in draft form to the European Commission for clearance. I do not foresee any specific difficulties with implementing such regulations at this stage, but failure to follow specified procedures could lead to a legal challenge and the subsequent striking down of regulations on technical grounds.

With regard to special exemption orders, existing law currently provides that these may be extended to 2.30 a.m. on the following day and 1 a.m. on Sunday night and Monday morning. When 30 minutes drinking-up time is added, it means that these premises normally close at 3 a.m. The District Court may, for stated reasons, grant orders for a shorter period, which it does. The Bill strengthens the public order ground on which the Garda may object to such orders and, in future, a CCTV system will be a requirement for all events to which the public have access.

I intend to table an amendment on Committee Stage regarding a new provision which will require applicants for special exemption orders to ensure all door supervisors on duty during the events for which the orders are being sought hold the required licences under the Private Security Act 2004. This is intended to assist the Private Security Authority in the enforcement activities under that Act. As I mentioned at the outset, compliance with fire safety requirements will also become a statutory requirement for the grant of special exemption orders.

I am pleased that Deputies from all sides of the House gave a favourable response to the proposals in the Bill that are aimed at tackling the public order problems associated with excessive alcohol consumption. Apart from the upset and annoyance this causes to the public in general, it also places the Garda under serious pressure. I am aware that the point was made in the debate that the success of the public order reforms will be evident only if there is full and vigorous enforcement. I can say that, in drawing up the current proposals, both my predecessor and I were very conscious of that point and, as a result, I believe that in our new proposals for the seizure of alcohol we have come up with a mechanism that is not only going to be easier to enforce, but more effective in pre-empting and preventing public order offences.

I take this opportunity to emphasise once again that the new powers to seize alcohol — either in the case of persons under 18 or from persons causing or likely to cause annoyance or a breach of the peace — can be used even where an offence has not been committed. These new powers are designed primarily to pre-empt and prevent the commission of an offence. The Garda will continue to have a wide variety of existing powers to deal with offences.

Deputies will recall I mentioned my intention to press ahead with plans to introduce fixed charges for certain public order offences, namely, being drunk or being disorderly in a public place, as soon as technical amendments I will introduce on Committee Stage are in place. These amendments will be primarily concerned with removing the Garda from the administrative aspects of the new arrangements. This should add to the attraction, from a Garda perspective, of using the new procedures. While I will spell out the details of the amendments on Committee Stage, suffice to say their introduction should lead to improved enforcement by the Garda.

A number of Deputies drew attention to serious incidents which have arisen in recent times from rows developing at house parties. Unfortunately, a number of people have died in such cases and there is every reason to believe alcohol consumption contributed to many of the incidents in question. Deputies will be aware that, as a rule, there are limitations on the right [444] of the Garda to enter private dwellings. These arise from the Constitution’s protection of the inviolability of the private home. As a result, there can be no question of granting powers to the Garda to enter homes in a routine way to seize alcohol. Apart from the constitutional aspects, such a power would be regarded by many as excessive and disproportionate. The law on nuisance is probably more relevant when dealing with problems of this kind. Gardaí may respond if complaints are made about noise and, once at the scene, take steps to disperse a group or to give warnings about the need to desist.

I thank Deputies who contributed to the debate. I have taken note of the points they made and I appreciate their co-operation. I hope the legislation will be passed before the summer recess. I look forward to discussing the wider issue of the sale of alcohol when more comprehensive legislation is introduced at the end of the year.

Question put and agreed to.

Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 8 July 2008.