Written Answers. - Liquor Licensing Laws.
564 Mr. Timmins asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform the plans he has to address the difficulties of under age drinking; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8247/01]
565 Mr. Timmins asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform the measures he has taken since 1997 to deal with the difficulty of under age drinking; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8248/01]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 564 and 565 together.
The Intoxicating Liquor Act, 2000 which I initiated and which came into effect on the 6 July last, provides for a considerable strengthening of the law on under age drinking. The Act takes into account many of the recommendations of the Oireachtas committee which reported on the whole area, including those recommendations which related to under age drinking. I also took into account the many submissions received from groups and members of the public following a consultation process.
With a view to strengthening those provisions which already existed in legislation of 1988 in relation to the supply or sale of intoxicating liquor to under age persons, I abolished the defence of "reasonable belief" in any proceedings against the licence holder, increased the fines for breaches of the law on under age drinking and provided for a new penalty – a temporary closure order – for conviction of the sale of alcohol to under age persons. The removal of the "reasonable grounds" defence is complementary to the voluntary age card scheme which I introduced in April 1999 in that it makes reliance on the age card scheme by licensees more important. No defence is permitted where a person wilfully supplies liquor to an under age person. Work is also in progress on preparation of the regulations necessary to give effect to section 15 of the Act of 2000. These will prescribe the form of the notice to be displayed in licensed premises containing a statement of the offences in relation to under age drinking.
The age card scheme allows any person who has attained 18 years of age to apply for an age card at his or her local Garda station in order to confirm that they have attained the legal age for the purchase of intoxicating liquor. The Garda community relations section in Harcourt Square, Dublin 2 has overall responsibility for the issuing of the cards. The cards have security features, which include a hologram, incorporated into their design. I am happy to say that to date, in excess of 23,000 age cards have been issued.
With a view to promoting the scheme, I launched the age card scheme awareness campaign in Dublin Castle on 6 September 2000 in conjunction with the Garda authorities who have taken the following steps to promote the use of the age card. All Garda stations have been notified of the age card scheme and issued with application forms and posters; non-Garda outlets have also been issued with application forms and posters; a poster campaign has been initiated to target all pubs, stand alone off-licences and grocery based off-licences, night-clubs and dance halls, etc; youth information centres-youth groups nation-wide have been issued with information, posters and contact numbers for further support; Garda juvenile liaison officers-community gardaí are visiting post-primary schools, youth clubs, special projects, etc. highlighting the age card scheme; there is ongoing liaison between the drinks industry and the Garda Síochána and new avenues of ensuring young people get the age card message are being explored.
The additional provisions, in conjunction with the national age card scheme already outlined, will assist in combating the scourge of under age drinking.
As to the immediate policing response, the Garda Commissioner has indicated on a number of occasions that special emphasis is being placed by the Garda on the enforcement of the law in relation to street crimes. A national public order initiative known as Operation Oíche has been launched by the Garda Commissioner to tackle street violence and public disorder on the streets of large towns and cities. This project essentially involves the strategic use of extra gardaí to tackle the problem of violence amongst young people at or in the vicinity of certain discos and places where youngsters gather at night. The operation focuses on the primary areas of public disorder, public intoxication, under age drinking, illicit drugs use and under age alcohol sales. Operation Oíche began as a pilot scheme in Dublin, and has been extended to large towns and cities which, in the Garda view, require a similar targeted response.
The process of reforming our intoxicating liquor laws has not ended and on 1 November last, I established a Commission on Liquor Licensing under the chairmanship of Mr. Gordon Holmes. The membership of the commission represents a wide range of interests and the terms of reference include all aspects of the operation of the licensing laws including an examination of the problems associated with underage drinking. I will carefully consider the commission's recommendations in due course, on their publication.
While legislative measures, together with initiatives such as the voluntary age card scheme, can help to curtail the problem of under age drinking, they cannot be viewed as the only solution. Dealing with the demand side of the under age drinking problem should not be seen as the province of the State agencies alone – in particular, parents, teachers, politicians, the drinks industry, and the creative media must also play their part in helping to address that side of the problem.