I welcome the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to the House. I also welcome the minor amendment which has been made to the Bill, which is important, as the Minister has said. I am glad that the Minister has not been lambasted in this House for rushing all Stages of the Bill through in one day. I listened to some of the Dáil debate on the Bill, during which the Minister was criticised for dealing with the Bill so quickly. Of all the Ministers who come to the Seanad, the Minister, Deputy McDowell, cannot be charged with trying to rush through legislation in any way. He painstakingly discusses each minute detail of every Bill. After the Minister has debated a Bill in the House, all Senators understand it thoroughly because we have been immersed in it.
The primary purpose of the Intoxicating Liquor Bill 2004 is to provide for the giving of clear statutory notice of alcohol-free events in licensed premises where alcohol is not being consumed to people under the age of 18. Such events can be held in hotel function rooms or other licensed premises. The Minister has said that before last year's legislation was introduced it was possible for children to stay in pubs until closing time, at 11.30 p.m. or midnight. In retrospect, it was an outrageous situation. It is no wonder this country's culture of using and abusing alcohol was allowed to develop in such circumstances. The Minister reminded us that it was quite possible for a 16 year old girl who dressed up well to drink to her heart's content in a pub with a crowd of people aged 19 or 20 without the fear of legal sanction. A non-uniformed garda does not have the right to enter a licensed premises. I imagine that gardaí who enter such premises in uniform might as well have a beacon over their heads. It was quite difficult to prove that a 17 year old was drinking the alcoholic drink in front of him or her. I am glad the new legislation will bring an end to such problems.
When the 2003 Act was being passed by the Oireachtas, I appreciate that the Minister did not intend to impede in any way the activities organised by certain voluntary bodies which do some fine work. It is important that the effect of this Bill is clarified for such organisations so that they do not have to second-guess the legislation. They should be able to pursue their good deeds, such as looking after the youth of the country. Similarly, a lack of clarity is a problem for some good people in the industry who provide space on their licensed premises to allow voluntary organisations to hold beneficial events for young people. Such people should not be subjected to prosecution as a result of ambiguity. I hope that the uncertainty which has surrounded this area since the 2003 Act was passed will be removed today.
As the Minister said, a certain amount of urgency was needed in this area because the DPP, the Minister and the Attorney General were at odds about the interpretation of the 2003 Act. There was a possibility that the DPP planned to instruct the Garda to bring prosecutions. I think the Minister mentioned that such a prosecution has been pursued in Galway. Such ambiguity needed to be attended to in the circumstances. It would have been inappropriate for all the good works I have mentioned to have been exposed to prosecution.
The Minister can be proud of the focus he has brought to bear on this issue since he came to office. As I have said, it is essential that children aged 13, 14 or 15 should not have absolute access to public houses. If I go into certain public houses in my constituency on a particular pay day, I will see children with school bags running around with crisps and orange. Their older brothers and sisters can be found on the same premises after 9 p.m. on the same day. I do not claim that such behaviour is unique to people in the lower strata of society. I am sure similar scenes are evident at the house parties of the rich and famous. Young people are often initiated by having their first alcoholic drink in front of their parents at such events. The drinking culture is embedded in that way and we are all to blame in that regard.
The Minister has been accused on a number of occasions of running a nanny state. Somebody will have to stand up and be counted if we cannot solve these problems by means of the educational system — I appreciate that we have not really started trying to do so to any great extent, if parents are not prepared to look after their children, for example by knowing where they are at all times, or if certain publicans are not prepared to look beyond their profit margins. The Minister happens to be prepared to stand up and be counted at present. For what it is worth, I think he is doing a fine job by introducing legislation and bringing a focus to this area. I may have heard the Minister say in the past that rather than legislating in this way, he would prefer alcohol to be made more widely available in different settings, such as coffee shops and pizza parlours. The Minister would like to change the environment in which alcoholic drink is consumed, so that people do not automatically stand at bar counters getting blasted, as they do. A new drinking environment and a different culture can be created, one in which food rather than alcohol is the predominant feature.
A survey on alcohol and drugs conducted in schools in 2000 showed that Irish 16 year olds are among the highest abusers of drink or binge drinkers in Europe. One in four reported having been drunk on ten or more occasions in the year in which the survey was carried out. A more recent report on health behaviour in schoolchildren showed that in under-15s the incidence had reduced, but there was no change in the drinking patterns of 15 to 17 year olds in 2002. In the 12 to 14 age group, 16% of boys and 12% of girls were current drinkers and for the 15 to 17 age group, 60% of boys and 56% of girls had experienced serious drinking.
It is in that context that the Minister is legislating, He must do so and there is no doubt that, as a nation, we have lost the run of ourselves regarding drinking. When young people go out at weekends, they do not have a social drink but get absolutely smashed, to use their own expression, and we must do something to confront that problem. Unless we can cope with this as a matter of urgency, we will see a whole generation of children brain dead, with liver damage or deaf as a result of the serious implications of loud music in discos. There is pressure on our health services, but if the situation worsened, it would have serious implications. Parents must be much more vigilant. It is one thing to make laws and another to impose them and ensure compliance. If parents do not know where their children are at night and are not prepared to take responsibility in that regard, it is quite unfair to expect teachers in schools or anyone else to look after their children for them.
It is not just a youth problem. We all bring something to the table when it comes to alcohol abuse. For example, my age group has probably been the slowest to adapt to the drink driving laws, primarily because we grew up with a culture of doing so and it is the hardest habit in the world to break. It is also hard for children exposed to drink at a very early stage in their lives to change their habits as they grow older. A much greater focus is being put on the extent of alcohol abuse and society is now aware of the fact that drink is probably the greatest torment of all, leading to thuggery and abuse. A Public Order Offences Act 1994 survey conducted between 1996 and 2002 found that there was a 160% increase in the amount of disorder caused by drunkenness. That is an indictment. The Minister must continue the fight and has our full support in that regard.