I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I thank the House for agreeing to deal with the Intoxicating Liquor Bill as an urgent matter and I look forward to the co-operation of both Houses in having the legislation enacted before the summer recess.
There is broad recognition in this House and beyond that legislative reforms are needed to tackle public disorder and alcohol-related harm resulting from excessive alcohol consumption. We routinely see evidence of this need on our streets and in the accident and emergency departments of our hospitals. We see it on our television screens and in the newspapers. The problem is not confined to large urban centres but affects small and medium-sized towns across the country as well.
This is a relatively short but ambitious Bill that will give effect to reforms recommended by the Government alcohol advisory group. I take this opportunity to thank the Chairman of the group, Mr. Gordon Holmes, and its members for their work and especially for submitting their report and recommendations within the very tight time limit set by Government. Moreover, I thank the 200 or so organisations and individuals who took the time to make submissions to the group and to outline their particular concerns and priorities.
The advisory group submitted its report to my predecessor, Deputy Brian Lenihan, on 31 March. The action taken by the Government by way of very early publication of this Bill is a measure of the urgency and seriousness with which the Government wants to deal with the alcohol-related problems identified in the group's report. I urge the House to give favourable consideration to the proposals in the Bill.
The strategy underpinning this Bill is also one which tackles the increased visibility and availability of alcohol through retail outlets with off-licences, while tightening the conditions under which premises with on-licences qualify for special exemption orders permitting them to remain open beyond normal licensing hours. The Bill places renewed emphasis on enforcement of licensing law, particularly in relation to underage drinking.
The Bill also strengthens public order provisions by including measures to curtail alcohol consumption in public places, especially by those under 18 years, and allowing gardaí to seize alcohol. The Garda Síochána will also have powers to seize alcohol from any person, regardless of age, where the consumption of alcohol in a public place is causing, or likely to cause, annoyance or nuisance or a breach of the peace.
The factors which influenced the advisory group in framing its recommendations are explained in the report and I do not propose to enter into the detail today. It is worth recalling, however, that Ireland has one of the highest alcohol consumption levels in the European Union. Average consumption of pure alcohol per person over 15 years of age in 2006 was 13.36 litres. This means that each person aged 15 and over consumed an average of 20.8 standard units of alcohol per week. Since the recommended maximum weekly consumption levels are 14 units for women and 21 for men, this means that many people are drinking more than the recommended limits. Moreover, when account is taken of the fact that up to 20% of adults do not consume alcohol at all, the amount consumed by those who do is even greater and this increases the likelihood of alcohol-related harm and public order offences.
Ireland also stands out as having a particular problem with binge drinking. The 2007 Eurobarometer survey found that 34% of Irish drinkers consumed five or more alcoholic drinks in one sitting compared with the EU average of 10%. When asked about the frequency of consuming five or more drinks on one occasion, 54% of respondents in Ireland stated that they did so at least once a week. This was the highest figure recorded in the survey.
Regrettably, abuse of alcohol is also common among those aged under 18. The 2006 national study of health behaviour in school-age children found that half of those aged 15 to 17 reported being current drinkers and over a third reported having been "really drunk" in the previous 30 days.
The harmful effects of excessive consumption of alcohol have been well documented in recent health research findings. The 2007 report by the Health Research Bureau entitled Health-Related Consequences of Problem Alcohol Use gives a good overview of the current situation. More recently, the HSE report on alcohol-related harm in Ireland brought together various data to illustrate the consequences of alcohol abuse on health and other areas. It makes for uncomfortable reading. For example, 28% of all injury attendances in accident and emergency departments in acute hospitals are alcohol-related, alcohol was a contributory factor in 36% of all fatal crashes, alcohol was involved in a quarter of severe domestic abuse cases and 46% of those who committed homicide were intoxicated at the time.
Workplaces are not immune either. A survey by IBEC reported that alcohol and alcohol-related illnesses were cited by 12% of companies as a cause of short-term absenteeism from work by males and by 4% of companies as a cause of short-term absenteeism by women. There are serious public order issues arising from excessive alcohol consumption. Adult offences for intoxication in a public place have doubled in the period 1999-2005 and juvenile offences have almost trebled during the same period. While assault offences peaked in the period 2000-02, public order offences, the majority of which are alcohol-related, continue at unacceptably high levels. I am sure that all of us in this House in our role as public representatives know families who have direct experience of loss of life, sickness, injuries, threats and abuse caused by excessive alcohol consumption.
It was against this background that the Government established the Government alcohol advisory group in January last. The group was asked to examine key aspects of the law governing the sale and consumption of alcohol with particular reference to public order issues. It was specifically requested to examine the following matters and to report to the Minister with its assessment of the best way forward by 31 March 2008. The issues were as follows: the increase in the number of supermarkets, convenience stores and petrol stations with off-licences and the manner and conditions of sale of alcohol products in such outlets, including below unit-cost selling and special promotions; the increasing number of special exemption orders which permit longer opening hours being obtained by licensed premises around the country; and the use, adequacy and effectiveness of existing sanctions and penalties, particularly those directed towards combating excessive and under age alcohol consumption.
As I mentioned already, Dr. Gordon Holmes acted as chairman of the group and the membership included a professor of criminology, a public health specialist, a senior member of the Garda Síochána and representatives from the Departments of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, and Health and Children. The group was, therefore, able to draw on a considerable level of knowledge and expertise in the course of its work.
Following extensive consultations and discussions with interested parties, the group submitted a report containing 31 recommendations, the majority of which advocate reform of the licensing laws and public order legislation. These are the recommendations which form the basis of the Bill before us. The group's remaining recommendations are the subject of further discussions with Departments and the Garda Síochána. Preparatory work on their implementation has already commenced.
The proposals in the Bill, taken together, represent a coherent and carefully balanced package of practical measures and reforms which are designed to reduce access to alcohol, including its visibility within retail outlets, while at the same time strengthening measures to tackle public disorder and anti-social behaviour on the streets and in our communities.
I know that the group's chairman, Dr. Holmes, had an exchange of views at an early stage of the consultation process with the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights and that the various views expressed by members on that occasion informed the group's subsequent work. In addition, following publication of the general scheme of the Bill in late April, my predecessor, Deputy Brian Lenihan, presented the proposed contents of the legislation to the select committee. I understand that committee members were broadly disposed towards the Government's intentions.
A Bill to curtail the abuse and excessive consumption of alcohol would not be complete if it did not address the public order problems that are so often associated with excessive consumption. The Bill, therefore, identifies two specific areas where action is both possible and necessary.
The first of these areas concerns the possession of alcohol by young persons under 18 years and its removal by gardaí. The second concerns situations where the presence of alcohol is likely to result in annoyance, nuisance or a breach of the peace. In such cases, gardaí are given powers to seize the alcohol and move on the persons concerned.
Provisions relating to persons under 18 years are set out in section 13 of the Bill. They apply to situations where persons under 18 years are found in possession of alcohol in a place other than a place used as a private dwelling. This could encompass a public street, a river bank, an unoccupied or derelict dwelling or a building site.
Part IV of the Intoxicating Liquor Act 1988 already makes it illegal for a person under 18 to buy alcohol or to consume it in any place outside the home or in another person's home where they are present by right or with permission. Section 13 adds a new section — section 37A — to Part IV. Under the new section, where a garda suspects that a person is under 18 years and that the person or anyone accompanying that person is in possession of alcohol for the purpose of consuming it in a place other than in a place used as a private dwelling, the garda may seek an explanation and if not satisfied with the reply, he or she may seize the alcohol.
A number of steps are required. The garda will first ask that the alcohol be handed over voluntarily. Where that does not happen, the garda will give a warning that he or she may arrest the person and seize the alcohol and may use such force as is necessary to do so. A person who fails to co-operate in either handing over the alcohol or in giving details of his or her name, address and age may be arrested and charged with an offence. On conviction, section 37A provides for a fine of up to €500. The garda must make and retain a record of any alcohol seized and disposed of.
Section 18 provides for the second major element of the public order aspects of the Bill. It amends the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994 by inserting a new section — section 8A — into that Act. The new section is intended to deal with persons of any age who are in possession of alcohol in a place other than a place that is used as a private dwelling and who the garda believes are causing or are likely to cause a nuisance or annoyance to others or there is or there is likely to be a danger to persons or property or a breach of the peace.
In these circumstances, the Bill gives the garda powers to seize the alcohol and authority to direct the persons to desist from their activities and to move on. In this section,"place" has the same broad meaning as in the new section 37A. The procedures to be followed by the garda are the same as those in section 37A which I have already outlined. As in the new section 37A, failure to co-operate with a request to hand over the alcohol or to give a name and address is an offence with a maximum fine of €500. The maximum fine in the case of a failure by an individual to comply with a direction to desist from his or her activities or to move on, is €1,000.
Powers of entry for the purposes of operating the new sections 37A and 8A are set out in the new sections 37B and 8B, respectively. In this instance, we are talking about entry into, for example, unoccupied houses and flats, derelict sites or building sites. As Deputies will be aware, our Constitution makes very clear provision on the inviolability of a domestic residence. The powers being granted here take full account of that provision but also ensure that gardaí are given a clear basis on which they can use the powers granted by the new sections 37A and 8A.
A garda must have reasonable grounds for believing that section 37A or 8A applies before exercising the entry powers under section 37B or 8B as the case may be. Of course, it may not become clear until after entry has been completed whether it is section 37A — a person is under 18 years — or section 8A which applies. The entry provisions are framed to deal with that situation by requiring that the garda be satisfied before entry that one or other or perhaps both sections are applicable. There are a few additional points I want to make about the new Garda powers to seize alcohol. First, these new powers are in addition to existing powers to deal with public order offences. Indeed, the real benefit of the new powers is that they will permit early intervention by gardaí and will, therefore, help to prevent offences taking place.
Where the parties co-operate with gardaí, the matter ends there. The question of arrests and prosecutions arises only where there is resistance or a failure to co-operate. These new powers will, therefore, not only assist gardaí in responding to and preventing unacceptable behaviour but they have the potential to enable gardaí to achieve that end, while reducing the time-consuming activities connected with prosecutions and court appearances. From the offender's perspective, he or she will avoid a criminal record where he or she co-operates with gardaí in the exercise of these new powers.
Deputies will note that the procedural requirements to be followed, including the warnings to be given by the garda, are set out in a detailed manner in the two sections. I attach considerable importance to this aspect of the new provisions. The explicit description of the procedural steps to be followed is intended to ensure that even where the opportunity for judicial supervision does not arise, for example, when the parties concerned co-operate with gardaí and, as a result, no court proceedings are involved, we can nevertheless be reasonably satisfied that due process has been observed.
Sections 11 and 17 introduce revised definitions of "bottle or container" for the purposes of the 1988 and 1994 Acts. This will ensure a consistent approach. In respect of public order matters, I am also pleased to inform the House that in line with another of the advisory group's recommendations, I am making arrangements to introduce fixed charge penalties for offences under sections 4 and 5 of the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994. Provision was already made for these charges in section 184 of the Criminal Justice Act 2006, but certain technical amendments are required with regard to the administration of the fixed charges, for example, arrangements for payment of the charges. My aim is to ensure the new charges will be introduced to coincide with the commencement of the relevant provisions of this Bill.
It is important that we recognise the significance of the introduction of fixed charges in this area. Although they have applied for some time now in the case of certain road offences, this is the first time we have applied them to public order offences. The arrangement has potential benefits for all concerned. The offender avoids a criminal record and pays a charge that is significant but, in all probability, lower than the fine that might have been imposed by the court.
An offender who disputes the charge retains his or her right to go to court and to have the matter settled there. Needless to say, an offender who fails to pay the charge will be prosecuted for the original offence. The system also has benefits for the Garda and the courts. It provides gardaí with an additional option, which may be more appropriate in many cases, while remaining a deterrent. It will reduce administration time and time spent in court. I fully support this new departure and think it has potential for further development. However, it will be necessary to evaluate these first, albeit limited, steps before considering any expansion.
There has been a significant increase in the number of supermarkets, convenience stores and petrol stations with off-licences in recent years. At the same time, there has been a remarkable increase in the scale and frequency of alcohol promotions and price discounts. The result has been a marked increase in alcohol availability and visibility within these mixed trading premises.
There are basically three types of off-licence, which correspond with the three main categories of alcohol products, namely, spirits, beer and wine. Specialist off-licences, supermarkets and many convenience stores hold all three licences and can, therefore, sell all types of alcohol. Other retail outlets may have a licence to sell wine only.
To obtain the necessary off-licences to sell spirits and beer, an applicant must apply to the District Court for a certificate which, if granted, is then presented to the Revenue Commissioners. Revenue then issues the licences, subject to tax compliance requirements. The District Court will not issue the required certificate unless the applicant satisfies the court that an existing licence holder, usually the holder of a public house licence, is willing to extinguish an existing licence when the new licences are issued. Grant of the certificate is also dependent on the court not accepting an objection on any of the grounds on which an objection can be lodged. Neither a District Court certificate nor extinguishment of an existing licence is required to obtain a wine only off-licence. These are issued directly to applicants by the Revenue Commissioners.
In 2001, the Revenue Commissioners issued off-licences permitting the sale of spirits and beer to more than 790 outlets. This had increased by about 70% to more than 1,300 outlets by 2007. The number of wine only off-licences almost trebled over the same period. More than 3,600 wine only off-licences were issued in 2007. This is the background against which the advisory group formulated its recommendations to restrict both the supply and visibility of alcohol in mixed trading premises.
Section 4 of the Bill proposes to restrict off-sales of alcohol to the period between 10.30 a.m. and 10.00 p.m. and 12.30 p.m. to 10.00 p.m. on Sundays and St. Patrick's Day. This new restriction will apply to premises with on-licences as well as off-licences. It also means the existing provision, which permits the sale of alcohol from 7.30 a.m. in mixed trading premises such as supermarkets, convenience stores and petrol stations, will be repealed. This proposal will reduce the time during which mixed trading premises may sell alcohol by 29 hours per week. Existing prohibitions on the sale of alcohol on Christmas Day and Good Friday will remain in place.
Section 5 provides that an applicant for a wine off-licence will in future require a District Court certificate. As already mentioned, this requirement already applies to applications for spirits and beer off-licences. Section 6 provides for the possibility of lodging an objection to the grant of a District Court certificate for an off-licence on any of the following grounds: the character of the applicant; the appropriateness of the premises; the needs of persons residing in the area; and the adequacy of the number of licensed outlets already in the area.
Currently, objections to certificates for spirits and beer off-licences are generally limited to the character of the applicant and the suitability of the premises. The new provisions will permit gardaí or local residents to object, on the grounds that an off-licence is not required to meet the needs of residents or because there are already enough off-licences in the neighbourhood. Subsection (2) provides that the District Court may require the installation or operation during licensing hours of a closed circuit television system on granting a certificate. This is intended to deter people from loitering in the vicinity of off-licences and to combat secondary purchasing, namely, where under-age persons try to persuade or pressurise adults to purchase alcohol for them.
The result of the implementation of sections 5 and 6 is that the same grounds for objections will in future apply to on-licences and off-licences. It will remove differences of treatment between premises seeking on-licences and those seeking off-licences, and between off-licences selling all alcohol products and those selling wine only. Section 7 is a technical proposal which gives jurisdiction for granting the certificate for a wine retailer's off-licence to the District Court and provides for the giving of advance notice of applications for such licences.
Section 8 provides for the separation of alcohol products from other products in premises which are engaging in mixed trading, for example, supermarkets, convenience stores and petrol stations. It provides that alcohol shall be displayed and sold in a separate area of the premises to which access is controlled. Where a structural separation is not feasible, for example, because of the size of the premises, alcohol products must be displayed and sold from a part of the premises where public access is prohibited, for example from behind a counter. Subsection (3) provides that structural separation will not apply to specialist off-licences or to duty free shops. As implementation of the structural separation provisions may require structural alterations within premises, the Bill provides for delayed implementation of section 8.
The advisory group's recommendation for structural separation of alcohol products was motivated by its concerns that the display and sale of alcohol side by side with ordinary foods served to create the impression that alcohol is an ordinary retail product. It also exposes children to alcohol products at an early age. Restricting sale and display to a separate area will emphasise the difference between products which require a licence for sale and those which do not require any such authorisation.
On Friday last, I held detailed discussions with the trade bodies representing supermarkets and convenience stores on the structural separation proposals in section 8, and their impact. During these discussions, the bodies concerned offered to implement an agreed voluntary code of practice as an alternative to implementation of section 8. The code would cover issues such as the location and display of alcohol within premises, signage, warning signs, in-store advertising, as well as staff training standards. Implementation would be overseen and enforced through an independent audit and verification mechanism. I am awaiting details of the proposedcode.
If agreement can be reached on its contents and the necessary level of support for its strict implementation across the mixed trading sector, if I am satisfied the proposed code would achieve in effect what we have set out to achieve through structural separation and if the code is subject to independent verification on an annual basis, I would be disposed to deferring implementation of section 8 for the present. If independent verification of compliance were to show 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 not, I will not hesitate to do so.
Following last week's discussions, I intend to table an amendment on Committee Stage to exempt wine from the requirement that in cases where structural separation is not possible, the sale of all alcohol products shall be confined to a part of the premises from which the public are excluded. This will permit customers to continue to browse while purchasing wine.
Section 9 amends existing statutory provisions under which the District Court may grant special exemption orders, which permit extended opening hours for special occasions. The conditions under which such orders can be made are being amended to require the operation of a CCTV system at venues where the public are admitted, for example, nightclubs and late bars. The public order ground on which objection may be made by the Garda to the granting of such orders is also strengthened. Moreover, the District Court shall not grant such orders in future unless satisfied that the premises concerned comply with fire safety standards under the Building Control Act 1990. I understand that some courts already insist on compliance with such standards, but I now propose that it will apply in all cases. In future, all applicants for special exemption orders will need to present certification by an appropriately qualified person that the premises comply with the relevant fire safety standards to the District Court.
Section 10 deals with the sale of alcohol in premises with theatre licences. Under existing rules, such licenses may be obtained from the Revenue Commissioners without a court certificate and the normal licensing hours do not apply. In theatres, the sale of alcohol is permitted both before and after performances. The result is that premises with theatre licences often remain open until 3.30 a.m. or 4 a.m., long after other premises operating on the basis of special exemption orders have closed their doors. This has created a strong incentive for nightclubs and other late-night venues to obtain theatre licences and thereby circumvent the special exemption order provisions. For these reasons, there has been a very significant increase in their number in recent times. In 2006 and again in 2007, a total of 76 theatre licences were issued by the Revenue Commissioners. So far this year, 80 have been issued in Dublin alone, with 20 further applications pending. This is a serious problem that must be addressed.
The reforms contained in section 10 will mean that the sale of alcohol before and after performances will only be permitted during normal licensing hours, or during extended opening hours under a special exemption order granted by the District Court. This will enable the Garda Síochána to object to any such orders on public order grounds and will also ensure compliance with fire safety standards. It is intended that there will be equality of treatment for all premises operating as late night venues.
The advisory group did not confine its examination of extended opening hours to late night opening. It recommended repeal of the provision which allows supermarkets and convenience stores to sell alcohol from 7.30 a.m. This recommendation is given effect in section 4.
The group also proposed repeal of the general exemption order provisions contained in the Intoxicating Liquor Act 1927 Act which permit the early opening of licensed premises located in the vicinity of fairs and markets. This exemption from normal licensing hours was mainly intended to cater for people travelling long distances to fairs and markets and to ensure that they could receive food and refreshment when they reached their destination. Also, sailors who had not been on shore for some time might obtain refreshment if their boat docked in the early hours of the morning.
The advisory group considered that changes in our society rendered this type of arrangement redundant and recommended its abolition on the ground that it is now used mainly by late night revellers on their way home and by problem drinkers.