I did not realise I would be coming into the Seanad until approximately one hour ago. I have heard most of the points raised by Members and broadly speaking, they are in agreement. I take into account some of the points made regarding the rushed nature of the legislation. In response, I note it is interim legislation. While it is quite ambitious, this matter must be dealt with right now. I take the points made by Senators John Paul Phelan and Coffey and I wish to comment on a number of issues.
At the outset, I must state that I had an interest in the industry. While I am long-departed from it, nevertheless I built up experience over the years. I have made the point consistently that alcohol legislation requires radical change. I had the experience of being a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children for some time, which commissioned a report on the high levels of suicide in Ireland. More importantly, the report considered the linkages between alcohol consumption and high suicide incidence and demonstrated that in each European country, a rise in alcohol consumption was paralleled by a rise in suicide. In itself, this necessitates an early examination of the laws and regulations pertaining to alcohol. It also is fair to point out the recommendations of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children made it quite clear that this was an issue, particularly as approximately 450 people take their lives by suicide. Consequently, I welcome this Bill.
I am glad the legislation deals with alcohol related harm and also issues of public disorder. Senator Twomey made a point about the evolving change in the licensing laws over the years. He clearly made the point that not too long ago we had the holy hour. That, in itself, shows the changing pattern of the availability of alcohol. I recall some years before that the nonsense in the early 1960s, so laughable in this day and age, referred to then as the bona fide laws where somebody would have to travel three miles to purchase alcohol. In my home town cyclists would travel from Mountmellick to Rosenallis and meet the Rosenallis lads travelling back to Mountmellick. All over the decades the pattern of availability has changed.
The issue now is the total availability, which is something that we have tried to deal with. It is important that even though this is interim legislation, nevertheless it goes on to deal with that. It is also important to note that the Government's alcohol advisory group made its recommendation shortly after Easter. All in all, it is a matter of an open discussion on the issue of alcohol availability, the side effects of the issue of public order and how we come up with ways and means of dealing with all of this.
I take the point made by Senator Bacik that during the lead-up to the debate there have been ongoing talks with the alcohol industry, with some organisations totally opposed to the availability of alcohol, while the vintners' groups and those who clearly do not want the effects of a nanny state imposed on them.
It is important not to rush to legislation. At the same time it is important to put down a marker that the issue will be dealt with but, more importantly, to state that we cannot continue with the level of easy availability. The point made about alcopops was that the campaign is toward easy availability by way of having sweet-tasting alcohol. All of that shows the nature of the industry in terms of targeting the drinking habits of the very young.
One of the areas I am particularly interested is how we come to deal with the issue of the advertising of alcohol. I am glad that Senator Twomey made the point that the rural or smaller pub cannot be given the same consideration as the nightclub. No publican wants his house to be considered a house of easy availability. It would do no publican any good if his name was associated either with under age drinking or easy availability. Even though it is the one product, we must devise ways and means of separating the type of distribution outlet. That is the challenge for the new, more comprehensive legislation.
It is simply not possible, however, within the tight time frame in which we are working to accommodate in this Bill the many proposals and suggestions which have been made during the contributions of Senators. While this is an ambitious Bill it is also an interim measure. I hope that Senators would not feel that it is not going far enough or is rushed. The main matter to consider here is that it is an interim measure.
The Government legislative programme provides for publication of a comprehensive sale of alcohol Bill later this year and this will provide the opportunity for a more thorough discussion of the role of alcohol in our society and, more importantly, how to regulate its sale while, at the same time, protecting the vulnerable groups. This Bill will modernise and streamline all the licensing laws by repealing the Licensing Acts 1833 to 2004 and replacing them with a single updated statute. The law makers, the Garda and the industry welcome that there will be one statute rather than a gamut of legislation dating over 70 years.
Research published by the Health Research Board indicates that alcohol consumption in Ireland increased by 17% between 1995 and 2006. In the report published by the Joint Committee on Health and Children, we correlated the rise in alcohol consumption and the incidence of depressive illnesses and suicide. It is important that we take that into consideration in the main legislation.
The resulting public disorder and health-related harm cannot be ignored or tolerated. While I generally accept the points made about the need for a change of culture regarding alcohol, I nevertheless believe that Government has a responsibility to ensure that licensing law and public order legislation are sufficiently robust to address these problems in an effective manner. That is the purpose of this interim Bill.
Parents also have responsibilities regarding their children, nor can we overlook the need for personal responsibility and the example that we, as adults, give to our children. I gather Senators are broadly supportive of the Bill. They made a number of detailed points which need to be clarified on Committee Stage and it is fair to give a commitment that they should be.
In the meantime, I want to take the opportunity to clarify a few points. As regards wine off-licences, section 6 provides that the requirement to obtain a District Court certificate will only apply to new applications made after the commencement of the section. The same applies to the new grounds for objection set out in section 7. In short, existing licences are not affected by the proposed changes.
With regard to the issue of the renewal of wine off-licences, the current legal position under the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2000 is that an objection may be made to such renewal on stated grounds. Where an objection to renewal is made, a District Court certificate is required. That is the position under existing law and it will not change under the Bill.
The question of whether a temporary closure order applies to the entire premises or a part only has been raised following publication of the Bill. Under existing law, the District Court may make an order for the closure of the premises or any part thereof. The extent and duration of closure orders are, therefore, matters for the court to determine and the only change proposed in the Bill is that the minimum closure period will in future be two days.
I take the point made on the staggering of closing times — that is a word that needs to be changed. This was mentioned in several contributions. The Bill proposes no change whatever in the duration of special exemption orders. Under the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2000, it will remain the case that special exemption orders expire at 2.30 a.m., and 1.00 a.m. on Sunday night-Monday morning. The Government's alcohol advisory group had recommended that 2.30 a.m. be brought forward to 2 a.m. but this was not accepted by the Minister or Government.
Recently, certain late-night venues, including some nightclubs and late bars, have sought to exploit a loophole which has opened up as a result of a High Court decision on theatre licences last year. This was referred to by Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú. The result has been a proliferation of theatre licences and a resulting circumvention of the special exemption order provisions. The proposals in the Bill will mean that this loophole, which is being unfairly exploited by some operators, will be closed. This will restore fair competition between all late night venues.
Alcohol promotions and price discounts cause considerable concern among advisory groups. As regards special promotions involving reduced prices and discounts, the advisory group acknowledged in its report that the increased affordability of alcohol is a result not only of reduced prices but also the increased disposable income levels that have resulted from the rapid economic progress and prosperity of recent years. The advisory group was satisfied, however, that the price at which alcohol is sold remains an important influence on purchasing patterns and that lower alcohol prices are being used as a means to attract customers. The group also concluded that reduced prices are being used to attract customers in the expectation that they will purchase other products as well as alcohol once inside the premises.
Section 16 provides for the making of future regulations prohibiting or restricting the advertising or promoting the sale or supply of alcohol at a reduced price, or free of charge, on the purchase of any quantity of alcohol or any other product or service. There is a broad definition of "reduced price" in subsection (6) which encompasses the award of bonus points, loyalty card points or other indirect benefits.
Preparatory work has commenced on the drafting of these regulations. In view of their potential impact on the EU internal market rules, it will be necessary to submit the proposed regulations in draft form to the European Commission for clearance. I do not foresee any specific difficulties with implementing such regulations at this stage but failure to follow specified procedures could lead to a legal challenge and the subsequent striking down of regulations on technical grounds.
On the issue of public order provisions, Senators from all sides of the House gave a favourable response to the proposals in the Bill that are aimed at tackling the public order problems associated with excessive alcohol consumption. It is fair to say we do not see this issue arising in rural pubs. There is a recognition that such consumption leads to severe public order problems. Apart from the upset and annoyance this causes to the public in general, it places the Garda under serious pressure. The proposals for the seizure of alcohol will be easier to enforce and will be effective in pre-empting and preventing public order offences being committed.
On the seizure of alcohol, I emphasise that the new powers to seize alcohol either in the case of persons under 18 years or from persons causing or likely to cause annoyance or a breach of the peace can be used even in the case where an offence has not been committed. These new powers are designed primarily to pre-empt and prevent the commission of an offence. The Garda will continue to have a wide variety of powers to deal with offences, but this new set of powers will add significantly to the range of options on which the Garda relies.
I thank all those who contributed to the debate. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and his Department have taken note of all the points made. While it might not be possible to have regard to all of these points in this Bill, the Minister will consider them in the context of the Sale of Alcohol Bill he intends to bring forward in due course.