I have been thinking about this Bill for quite some time. Its slow passage to this point has not gone unnoticed. It has been so well documented that I have had ample time to consider the matter. The truth is that I remain unconvinced. I agree that we must tackle the issue of alcoholism and that we must tackle excess drinking. Who in this Chamber, were it fully attended, would not agree with those sentiments? However, I am unconvinced by the measures set out in this legislation. I am unconvinced by the provisions in the Bill in respect of advertising, labelling and, most of all, minimum unit pricing. I support the aims of the Bill, but I disagree with the detail. In short, I want to see action against alcoholism, but I feel these measures squeeze the people on the lowest incomes and the smallest producers.
I do not think there is anyone in this House who underestimates the turmoil, the toll and the cost that alcoholism visits individuals, their loved ones and on society at large. There is no one in this House who does not believe that we need to battle the causes and effects of alcoholism. However, we appear to differ on the interpretation of the data at our disposal and on the effectiveness of the measures that are proposed in this Bill. On the data, we can see that alcohol consumption in Ireland has plummeted since 2001.
We can also see that it is somewhat of a generational thing, with European teenagers 37% more likely than Irish teenagers to have consumed alcohol in the past 30 days and European teenagers on average 25% more likely to binge drink than Irish teenagers. In fact, Irish teenagers are the second most sober in the EU, a statistic we should be proud of.
My generation has a very different view from those who came before us when it comes to alcohol. Sitting in the Chamber yesterday and listening to the contributions, I was treated to some tremendously outdated views of youth, young adults and drinking. This view is not borne out by the data in the slightest. Nevertheless, it seems to stick and is commonly wheeled out.
In terms of the industry, the smallest producers are set to suffer most. When it comes to labelling, and when it comes to the impacts on producers, we need only look at the craft beer industry, which we often laud and celebrate in this House as a source of exports, jobs, regional development and tourism. We heard on "Prime Time" on Tuesday night from a Wicklow-based brewery, Wicklow Wolf, who testified that this makes their economies of scale more difficult, and that it may cause them to rethink their plans. This is the same for many craft breweries and is a direct consequence of the labelling issues. Each product will now need a domestic label and a foreign label, a domestic canning press and an export one. These are expensive pieces of equipment that affect the economies of scale. For craft brewers, canning procedures are a significant burden and expense. This has not been considered in the drafting of the Bill. Similarly, it strikes me as incongruous that we as a House supported craft breweries developing visitor centres in Deputy Alan Kelly’s Breweries and Distilleries Bill, yet do not make it clear if these same visitor centres will be included in an advertising ban. Fianna Fáil had an amendment in the Seanad in this regard, but withdrew it; I do not know why.
On minimum unit pricing, and this is perhaps my biggest issue with the Bill, I find it difficult to conclude that minimum unit pricing is born of anything but middle class guilt. It strikes me as being middle class guilt with working class consequences. Alcoholism and abuse of alcohol can happen just as easily to someone on a salary of €80,000, €90,000 or €100,000 as it can to someone on the average wage or below it. The aforementioned middle class guilt, combined with the desire to be seen to do something - anything - comes at the expense of those who work hard, already pay taxes in abundance and drink modestly.
It all strikes me as similar to "Upstairs, Downstairs". People can just as easily succumb to alcoholism on a high income as they can on a low one, and as we move upward through the income brackets, minimum unit pricing will clearly have a rapidly diminishing effect as a deterrent. Indeed, across my constituency among people I know, I can see how these measures will be welcomed in principle in a broad sense. Everybody agrees alcoholism is a bad thing, after all. When it comes to the actual implementation, among people I know in my constituency this will be keenly felt and coldly welcomed. For the woman who spends €35 a week on groceries and €5.50 on a bottle of wine, or for the man who buys four cans of beer on a Saturday night, this makes a big difference to their budget, to their week and to their lives. They suspect and expect that minimum unit pricing is something that will apply to other people. However, as the Minister of State and I know, that is not the case. That €5.50 bottle of wine will become €8 under minimum unit pricing. A difference of €2.50 might not mean much to me or the Minister of State, but it could mean an awful lot to an individual for whom it is a once-off treat as part of their groceries. It is a 63% price increase. The four cans of beer will go up by 50%, but to what end? My constituents will lose out, retailers will win, and normal people will lose.
To hone in on what I mean when I say that retailers win, one issue with the Bill that was not highlighted at all yesterday is that the introduction of minimum unit pricing of alcohol will actually put more money into the pockets of the likes of Tesco, a point outlined in the Oireachtas Library and Research digest of the Bill. Our local pubs will not benefit from the minimum unit pricing payment to the same extent as Tesco. Off-trade retailers are expected to benefit by €69 million while on-trade will benefit by €9.3 million. This gets to the nub of my issue with the Bill. This money does not go towards the health service or education in this field. In fact, incredibly, the research indicates that revenue to the Exchequer will reduce by €34 million per year as a consequence of the Bill.
Deputy Boyd Barrett railed yesterday against the retail and alcohol industry, saying he does not care about its profits, which is perhaps a good thing as this Bill looks certain to increase them. A better way for the Government to proceed would be to reintroduce the ban on below-cost selling, which was removed by the Fianna Fáil Government in 2006 when the then Minister for Enterprise, Deputy Micheál Martin, ended the old groceries order. Not only did this mean that retailers could sell alcohol below cost price, but it also led to a situation where supermarkets could recover the VAT on the difference between the sale and cost price, which is yet another cost to the Exchequer and the taxpayer. Alcohol NGOs were rightly critical of this move. The State lost out on revenue and low-cost alcohol became far more widely available as a result of this short-sighted policy by Fianna Fáil.
To my mind, there is an open question about the mechanism of minimum unit pricing. When people see these price rises, and presumably they will very much see them because otherwise what is the point of the disincentive, they will assume this is a tax. They will assume the Government benefits and that it is going towards a health, education or alcohol deterrence policy. That would be a better outcome but, incredibly, it is not the case. I am not sure my constituents, who enjoy an occasional weekend drink, will enjoy being lectured to and patronised, and having the privilege of paying for it, by politicians and anti-alcohol advocates who have never seen the inside of an Aldi or a Lidl.
There is also still a large open question about its effectiveness. It is said that this can only be brought in when Northern Ireland does the same, but while we might then both have minimum unit pricing, it is fair to say that alcohol in Northern Ireland will remain substantially cheaper, as the prices in both jurisdictions will increase in lock-step with each other, effectively preserving the status quo. Scandinavia has been mentioned quite often in this debate as an example to look towards and, surprisingly, it provides an example for my point also via Tony Connolly’s book on Brexit. It involves a shopping area called Nordby, where Norwegians have spent about €100 million euro every year of the last decade on cross-border shopping. Norway has a punitive sugar tax, so shopping centres in Nordby, which is just over the border in Sweden, have brilliantly lit outlets brimming with chocolate and sweets dotting the way across the border. Unsurprisingly, it is home to Scandinavia’s biggest shopping centre, yet the municipality in which it exists has a population of only 6,300. It strikes me that this Bill could push Newry towards being the new Nordby as people will go up North in search of alcohol at a reasonable price. That would not be a good outcome for us.
Many of my constituents work in Dublin Airport, as do those of the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath. Normally, the airport is exempt from alcohol legislation. Those who have been through either of the terminals will be aware they have a fairly elaborate global whiskey shop. I am led to believe it has the largest selection in Europe. Some of these are extremely rare, with maybe only one bottle making it to Ireland, and perhaps as few as ten in existence globally. Incredibly, no exemption is given for these when it comes to labelling requirements. It would be expected that a custom label would have to be created. This simply will not happen, as anybody with common sense will realise. A small amendment could allow for even a minor exemption for airports whereby the labelling warning would be required to accompany the purchase. This would seem to be a fairly common sense solution.
Broadly speaking, and with those criticisms in mind, I agree with the thrust of this Bill and with the need to curb problem drinking, alcohol addiction and problems in our society caused by alcohol. This Bill will not achieve that, however. The most substantive thing it does is require one third of a label to be devoted to a warning, therefore tying one hand of our craft beer industry behind its back. It requires normal people to pay a minimum unit price, which arguably will not change consumption patterns in any respect but will simply mean people pay more. It will not fund the Exchequer or indeed fund any sort of health or education programme which could make a difference. Instead, it is a straight cash transfer from the citizen to the retailer while the Exchequer actually loses out.
There are improvements and amendments to be made and I would appreciate it were the Minister to convey to his colleagues in Cabinet that this Bill can be improved. We all agree that alcoholism is not a good thing for society and that we should all be doing our level best to prevent it.