On behalf of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, I thank the House for agreeing to deal with the Intoxicating Liquor Bill as an urgent matter. Senators' co-operation in this regard is greatly appreciated and assists with having the legislation enacted before the summer recess.
There is broad acceptance now that legislative reforms are needed to tackle public disorder and alcohol-related harm resulting from excessive alcohol consumption. We see evidence of this disorder and harm on our streets on a nightly and almost daily basis and in the accident and emergency departments of our hospitals, particularly at weekends.
This is a relatively short Bill that will give effect to reforms recommended by the Government alcohol advisory group. The strategy underpinning the Bill 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.
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. When the fact that up to 20% of adults do not consume alcohol at all is taken into account, it means that the quantities consumed by those who do are even greater.
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. Abuse of alcohol is also common among young persons under 18 years of age. The 2006 national study of health behaviour in school-aged children found that half of those aged 15 to 17 reported being current drinkers and over a third reported having been very drunk in the previous 30 days.
The recent HSE report on alcohol related harm in Ireland has brought together various data to illustrate the consequences of alcohol abuse in health and other areas. It makes for uncomfortable reading. For example, some 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, it was involved in a quarter of severe domestic abuse cases and some 46% of those who committed homicide were intoxicated at the time. In addition, 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.
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.
The proposals in the Bill, taken together, represent a coherent and carefully balanced package of practical 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 antisocial behaviour on the streets and in our communities. 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 concerns the possession of alcohol by young persons under 18 years and its removal by the Garda Síochána. The second is where the presence of alcohol is likely to result in annoyance, nuisance or a breach of the peace or where there are concerns for the safety of persons or property. In such cases, the Garda is given powers to seize the alcohol and move on the persons concerned.
Provisions relating to persons under 18 years are set out in section 14. They apply to situations where under-18s are found in possession of alcohol in a place other than a place used as a private dwelling. This could encompass the 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 years 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 14 adds a new section 37A to Part IV. Under this new section, where a garda suspects that a person is under 18 years and that the person, or anyone accompanying him or her, is in possession of alcohol for the purpose of consuming it in a place other than a place used as a private dwelling, the garda may seek an explanation and, if not satisfied with the reply, 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 19 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 8A. This 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 a 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 name and address is an offence with a maximum fine of €500. The maximum fine in the case of failure to comply with a direction to desist from the 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. We are referring here to entry into, for example, unoccupied houses and flats, derelict sites or building sites. As Senators 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 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 either sections 37A or 8A applies before exercising the entry powers under sections 37B or 8B, as the case may be. It may not become clear until after entry has been completed whether it is section 37A, that is, the 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 both sections will apply.
I will elaborate on these new Garda powers to seize alcohol. These powers are additional to existing powers to deal with public order offences. The real benefit of the new powers is that they will permit early intervention by gardaí and will help to prevent offences from 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 will have the potential to enable gardaí to achieve that end, while reducing the time consuming activities associated with prosecutions and court appearances. From the offender's perspective, he or she will avoid a criminal record by co-operating with a garda in the exercise of these new powers.
Senators will note that the procedural requirements to be followed, including the warnings to be given by a garda, are set out in a detailed manner in both sections 37A and 8A. The Minister attaches 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, such as when the parties concerned co-operate with the garda and, as a result, no court proceedings are involved, we can nevertheless be reasonably satisfied that due process has been observed.
Sections 12 and 18 introduce revised definitions of "bottle or container" for the purposes of the 1988 and 1994 Acts. This will ensure a consistent approach.
In regard to public order matters, the Minister is responding to another of the advisory group's recommendations by advancing arrangements to introduce fixed charge penalties for offences under sections 4, intoxication in a public place, and 5, disorderly conduct in a public place, of the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994. Provision was made for these charges in section 184 of the Criminal Justice Act 2006 and this Bill contains certain technical amendments on the administration of the fixed charge system, including arrangements for payment of the charges. These are set out in sections 20 and 21. It is important that we recognise the significance of the introduction of fixed charges in this area. Although they have applied for some time 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 courts. 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, any 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 the Garda with an additional option which may be more appropriate in many cases while remaining a deterrent. It will reduce the time spent on administration and in court. This approach has potential for further development but it will be necessary to evaluate these first steps before considering any expansion of the system to other offences.
Senators will be aware of the 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, especially, its visibility within these mixed trading premises. There are basically three types of off-licence, which correspond to 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 and a licence is issued 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. At present, neither a District Court certificate nor extinguishment of an existing licence is required to obtain a wine only off-licence, which is issued directly to applicants by the Revenue Commissioners. In 2001, the Revenue Commissioners issued off-licences permitting the sale of spirits and beer to about 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, with more than 3,600 wine only off-licences issued in 2007. This is the background against which the advisory group formulated its recommendation to restrict both the supply and visibility of alcohol in mixed trading premises.
Section 4 proposes to restrict off-sales of alcohol to the period between 10.30 a.m. and 10.00 p.m., or 12.30 p.m. and 10.00 p.m. on Sundays and Saint Patrick's Day. This new restriction will apply to premises with on-licences as well as off-licences. Section 3 repeals the existing provision which permits the sale of alcohol from 7.30 a.m. in supermarkets, convenience stores and petrol stations. These proposals will reduce the time during which mixed trading premises are permitted to 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 amends existing statutory provisions pertaining to general exemption orders or early morning houses. It provides that in future such orders shall only be granted to licensed premises which were already availing of the facility on 30 May 2008, that is, the date of publication of the Bill. The sale of alcohol for consumption off such premises before 10.30 a.m. is prohibited under section 4.
Section 6 provides that following implementation of this legislation an applicant for a wine off-licence will require a District Court certificate. This requirement already applies to applications for spirits and beer off-licences.
Section 7 provides for the possibility of lodging an objection to the grant of a District Court certificate for any 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. At present, 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 the Garda or local residents to object on the grounds that an off-licence is not required to meet residents' needs 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.
Implementation of sections 6 and 7 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 8 is a technical proposal that gives jurisdiction to the District Court in respect of granting a certificate for a wine off-licence and provides for giving advance notice of applications for such licences.
Section 9 contains proposals for the separation of alcohol products from other products in premises engaged in mixed trading, namely, 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 structural separation is not feasible, for example because of the size of the premises, alcohol products other than wine must be displayed and sold from a part of the premises where public access is prohibited, namely, from behind a counter. 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 9. 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 such as milk and bread serves to create the impression that alcohol is an ordinary grocery 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.
Following publication of the Bill, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Dermot Ahern, held discussions with the trade organisations representing supermarkets and convenience stores on the structural separation proposals 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 9. 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.
The Minister subsequently indicated the possibility of deferring implementation of section 9 if the following conditions are satisfied: agreement can be reached on the contents of the code and the necessary level of support for its strict implementation across the mixed trading sector is forthcoming; if the Minister can be satisfied that 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. The Minister went on to say that if independent verification of compliance were to show that the code is being implemented effectively across the country and achieving in effect what the Government set out to achieve through structural separation, it might not be necessary to commence section 9. However, if the relevant conditions were not met, the Minister confirmed that he would not hesitate to commence the provision.
Section 10 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 granted are being amended to require the operation of a CCTV system at venues where the public is admitted, namely, nightclubs and late bars, and to require that all door supervisors on duty at events covered by such orders hold the required licence under the Private Security Services Act 2004.
The public order ground on which objection may be made by the Garda to the grant of such orders is also being 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. Some courts already insist on compliance with relevant fire safety standards but the proposal now is that compliance will be mandatory in all cases.
Section 11 deals with the sale of alcohol in premises with theatre licences. Under existing rules, such licences may be obtained from the Revenue Commissions without any 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 4.00 a.m. which is 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 circumvent the special exemption order provisions. There has been a very significant increase in the number of theatre licences issued so far this year. In 2006 and again in 2007, a total of 76 theatre licences were issued by the Revenue Commissioners of which 36 were in Dublin. The reforms in section 11 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 to object to any such orders on public order grounds and will ensure compliance with fire safety standards. In short, it is intended that there will be equality of treatment for all premises operating as late-night venues.
Section 14 provides for the introduction of test purchasing of alcohol products in the New Section 37C to be inserted in the Intoxicating Liquor Act 1988. It provides that the Garda will be permitted to send a person aged 15, 16 or 17 years into a licensed premises for the purpose of seeking to purchase or being permitted to consume alcohol. Written consent of a parent or guardian will be required in all cases and all reasonable steps must be taken to protect the young person concerned. Test purchasing will be implemented in accordance with guidelines to be issued following consultation wit the Garda Commissioner and the Department of Health and Children. It is hoped that this measure will lead to greater use of the Garda age card and to a stronger culture of compliance with provisions regarding under age persons.
Sections 13 and 15 provide, as recommended by the advisory group, for a minimum two-day closure in respect of temporary closure orders made by the District Court on the conviction of licensees for certain licensing offences. The relevant offences include the sale of alcohol to a person under 18 years and permitting drunkenness and disorderly conduct on the premises. Currently, the law provides that the closure period may not exceed seven days in respect of a first offence but does not specify any minimum period. The advisory group stated in its report that in some cases the courts had imposed closure orders of only a few hours. Such closure orders do not represent an effective deterrent.
Section 16 provides for the making of regulations which may prohibit or restrict the advertising, promotion, sale or supply of alcohol at reduced prices to reduce the risk of a threat to public order and for health-related risks arising from the excessive consumption of alcohol. Reduced price in this context will include the award, directly or indirectly, of bonus points, loyalty card points or any similar benefits and the use of such points or benefit to obtain alcohol or any other product or service at a reduced price or free of charge. Permitting excessive consumption of alcohol at events held anywhere other than in a private residence is also covered by this provision. Making regulations at a later date to deal with these matters will facilitate advance communication of draft provisions to the European Commission under the EU standards directives.
Section 17 provides for increases in fines for certain licensing offences set out in Schedule 1. These include the sale or provision of alcohol to a person under 18 years and permitting drunkenness and disorderly conduct on licensed premises. Section 22 provides for increases in the fines levels in the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994 as set out in Schedule 2. This short, but strategic Bill is intended to tackle public disorder and health-related harm resulting from excessive alcohol consumption. I commend this Bill to the House.
With the permission of the Leas-Chathaoirleach I thank Members for their kind and generous remarks in regard to my late ministerial colleague, Deputy Seamus Brennan of whom I have fond memories. He was very kind to me as a young candidate and gave me great advice on how to organise myself when seeking election. I will never forget him for that.