I welcome several aspects of the Intoxicating Liquor Bill 2008. We need to target the significant increase in the number of supermarkets, convenience stores and petrol stations with off-licences. We must specifically examine the issue of below cost selling and special promotions. I also welcome the move to review existing sanctions and penalties, particularly those directed towards combating excessive and under age alcohol consumption.
I am not completely convinced that reducing the opening hours of certain bars will, in one fell swoop, rid us of all the modern day ills of alcohol. Many are concerned about the proposal to reintroduce closing times which they regard as an unwanted intrusion in their lives. I simply wish to voice these concerns; it is an issue on which the Give us the Night campaign has been vocal. The Government has a duty to strike a correct balance between individual freedoms and the proper regulation of the industry.
Proper planning is required, including in the area of opening hours. For example, taxi deregulation eliminated many of the queues for taxis faced by those leaving licensed premises late at night. The vast majority of those who go out late in the evening are clubbing or are, by nature, late socialisers. They go out to have a beer, listen to good music and dance. I am concerned that this group will be restricted by the 2.30 a.m. closing time. Perhaps a more sophisticated approach should be taken to closing times to ensure we do not unduly discriminate against those who wish to socialise, particularly after a hard working week.
The 1 a.m. closing rule for Sundays does not reflect the changed work environment. The large numbers working in the service and retail sectors such as cafes want to enjoy themselves as much as the rest of us. Sequential closing times of bars and nightclubs have been proposed. For obvious reasons, the alternative term — "staggered closing times" — is not considered the best use of words. Joking apart, an argument can be made for some form of sequential closing to ensure people leave premises at different times during the evening. This would relieve much of the pressure on public transport and fast food restaurants and could result in a reduction in the number of public order offences. In short, it would lead to a more orderly dispersal of people onto the streets.
Such a system could be regulated by geographical location and types of bars and nightclubs. I hope the Minister will consider such an approach. We should reflect on what works elsewhere. In Italy, for example, the level of binge drinking is perhaps 2% compared to a figure in excess of 30% here. We could learn lessons from the continental model. From my experience, having lived in Italy some time ago, there is a strong association between food and alcohol. In small bars, even those no bigger than the Dawson Lounge not too far from Leinster House, food is served at all hours of the day and night. While there has been a move towards providing more food in pubs in recent years, the shutters still tend to go down in mid-evening. If one walks into almost any Irish pub after 9 p.m. and asks for food, the chances are one will be offered nothing more than a packet of peanuts. Likewise, the later it is in the evening the less likely it is that one will have the choice of having a non-alcoholic beverage such as tea and coffee. Much could be done in this area.
The pricing structures on licensed premises need to be examined. The price of a non-alcoholic beer is frequently equal to or greater than the price of alcohol. The Minister may need to address this issue in this Bill or future legislation.
There are other matters that could be addressed, namely, the advertising of alcohol. I concur with those who argue for a blanket ban on such advertising. We have a difficulty with alcohol in this country. As a result, it should not be promoted through the medium of sports events or advertisements which, to a certain degree, glamorise it. We should reconsider the position in respect of its advertising.
While we should consider the responsibilities of the users of alcohol, we should also examine those of publicans. There is an onus on them not to serve those who are clearly intoxicated. From my limited knowledge of the Temple Bar area in the centre of Dublin, I cannot but be of the view that many publicans are disregarding this aspect of the licensing legislation, in which it is stated people who are clearly intoxicated should not be served. I am not referring to those who might be tipsy or merry. I refer instead to the many people one sees on the streets of Dublin who were obviously visibly drunk when they were served alcohol in pubs. We should take greater action in respect of this matter.
In the United States, not only the owners of public houses but also their bar staff are liable for the actions of those to whom alcohol is served. If a person knocks back three or four drinks and then drives his or her car, legal liability rests with the individual who served him or her alcohol. If we were to extend legal liability in this country, not only to publicans but also to their staff, it would concentrate their minds on the need to ensure people do not leave their premises in a state of severe intoxication. Such an extension of legal liability merits investigation.
I wish to vent my spleen on the issue of super-pubs. I reiterate that the emergence of such establishments during the past decade has led to a dramatic deterioration in the behaviour of patrons and in the quality of drinking places throughout Ireland. Small, intimate venues that were strong in heritage have been literally ripped apart in order to allow for greater amounts of alcohol to be served. Some of the pubs I frequented in my younger drinking days such as the Temple Bar and many other establishments in that neck of the woods have had their hearts ripped out and been replaced by premises with all the atmosphere of an airport departure lounge. We should reconsider those aspects of the licensing laws which allow for massive increases in the areas of public houses given over to drinking.
I am concerned by the phenomenon of "vertical drinking", whereby those who own pubs remove most of the seating on the premises, turn up the volume on the sound system, refuse to serve food and try to shove as much alcohol as possible down the throats of their patrons. This type of establishment represents a huge step backwards and is far removed from the small, intimate bar in which one can have a conversation with the owner who will then keep an eye on one and refuse to serve if one is clearly drunk.
The legislation is a step in the right direction in some respects. However, I am concerned about the proposal to reduce opening hours. Sequential closing might have a great deal to offer in combating the binge drinking culture. I have no doubt that the Minister will examine other aspects of the legislation on Committee Stage.