Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2021: Motion

I move:

"That Seanad Éireann resolves that the period of operation of sections 1 to 7 and 9 of the Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2021 (No. 14 of 2021) be extended for a period of 6 months, beginning on the 1st day of December, 2021 and ending on the 31st day of May, 2022."

I am introducing a resolution to extend the sunset clause in the Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2021. Members will be aware that section (9)(4) of that Act provides that the Act, other than section 8, shall continue in operation until 30 November 2021 unless a resolution approving its continuation has been passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas before that date. That section outlines that the period of operation may be extended for such further period or periods, each not extending six months, as is specified in a resolution passed by each House of the Oireachtas.

In light of the ongoing risk from the disease and uncertain future trajectory of Covid-19, I am bringing forward a proposal that the Act shall continue in operation until 31 May 2022. We are all too aware that these are extraordinary times. I acknowledge that the public health restrictions that have been in place since the outset of the pandemic have not been easy. Unfortunately, the recent trend meant the Government last week asked businesses in the night-time economy to close earlier. This motion underlines the importance of the continuation of this Act to provide clarity for those pubs, bars and clubs who are in a position to provide an outdoor seating area to their customers and members. The Covid pandemic has seen businesses adapt to public health guidance in this unprecedented time. The introduction of this Act brought clarity and addressed an uncertainty in the law for those licensed premises offering an outdoor seating area to their customers. The use of these spaces gave people the opportunity to socialise safely while adhering to public health guidance. Weather conditions are no longer as they were in the summer when this legislation was introduced, but we want to preserve the use of outdoor spaces for the period ahead.

The need for the Act became apparent during the summer months, in conjunction with the health measures in place at that time. However, we still find ourselves in a place where health measures are being applied and are of the utmost importance in light of ongoing public health considerations and the uncertainty of the trajectory of Covid-19. I am conscious that this is a necessary, temporary solution. As Senators will be aware, the programme for Government is committed to modernising alcohol licensing. The Minister, Deputy McEntee, is committed to delivering this piece of work.

While it may be difficult to see past these extraordinary times in which we find ourselves, we will come through this pandemic. I want to ensure we are making plans for the future and providing a framework for the dynamic and diverse society and economy that we have become. The Government gave its approval in September for the drafting of the general scheme of the sale of alcohol Bill. The complexity of the law and the challenges of this matter demonstrate the real impetus for this reform. The matters being addressed in this Act will be addressed in the legislative reform as part of a permanent solution in a more coherent licensing system. The Minister will announce a public consultation on the alcohol licensing laws later. We actively encourage engagement with this consultation.

The matter before the House is relatively straightforward. I am simply proposing the continued, but time-limited application of the legislation that was scrutinised and passed by this House before the summer recess.

I commend the resolution to the House and I thank Senators for their attention.

None of us wishes to be where we are. I appreciate what the Minister of State said about the renewal of this legislation. Necessarily, when we passed this Act into law earlier this year we included a sunset clause because we all hoped that there would be an end to this and it was recognised that there was a certain draconian element to the regulations that needed to be revised. We now recognise that the numbers are not where we would like them to be. I understand that the expert advice to Government is that this should be extended.

Without wishing to be overly melodramatic about it, it is with a heavy heart that we endorse the motion. We acknowledge that it is necessary, but I want to acknowledge the Minister of State had to say generally about licensing law. This is a matter I have discussed with the Minister, Deputy McEntee. I welcome the idea that we would examine reform of our licensing laws because the reality is that they are quite outdated in many respects. For a long time, I have felt that the more we treat people like children in respect of their use and access and alcohol, the more they are likely to behave like children. It is important that we revise the systems that are in place. We should say to people that they are adults and citizens and they have the right to do as they please, but they must also take into account the effects of certain behaviour and, for example, the abuse or overuse of alcohol.

When it comes to pubs all emptying out onto the streets at the same time, restricted access to the purchase of off-licence alcohol after 10 p.m. and minimum unit alcohol pricing, I recognise the policy basis for these decisions and the reason these rules are in place. I recognise that there is an academic basis that supports and underpins them, but I do not agree with them. We need to approach this from a different angle. We need to say to people that they are adults and citizens and they must take responsibility for their behaviour in the same way as anyone else and that extends to alcohol. We should start with an education programme from the point at which children are at school before they are legally entitled to drink. We should teach them the dangers associated with alcohol, the effects of alcohol and the pitfalls that come with its use and consumption.

That equally applies to this motion because there is also an element of personal responsibility in people's behaviour in the pandemic regarding the restrictions that none of us want to see in place but that we also recognise are necessary to protect everyone. It is tremendously important to acknowledge that we have made great progress in vaccination and that we stand very high in the tables of the vaccination programmes across Europe and the world. That can be seen that result in the figures even though they are elevated and, in many respect, inexplicably high. Those who are in ICU and in our hospitals and those who are, regrettably, unfortunately and tragically dying from Covid, are much more disproportionately in groups that are not or cannot be vaccinated than they are in those who have been vaccinated.

The element of personal responsibility must ultimately prevail, but I also recognise the need for Government to renew these regulations. For that reason, the Fine Gael group will support the motion. I would like to make one other comment in respect of vaccination because there has been talk in this Chamber and other political chambers about the approach of the Government to vaccination, particularly the use of vaccine certificates. As elected representatives and people who must have at the heart of their concerns the public good and the safety of the population as a whole, we should send out the message, first and foremost, that the vaccines work. People do not have to take our word for that because the figures and research show it clearly in terms of the numbers of people who are ill or in hospital. There is a good policy reason, however difficult or unpalatable it might, why the vaccination certificates are being used.

These regulations need to be renewed. It is not to penalise any group. God knows all of us have received emails in a certain tone suggesting there has been segregation. I have seen words such as "apartheid" used. Such words are totally misplaced and inappropriate. There is no desire to segregate society but those who choose not to be vaccinated and those who choose not to follow regulations must also accept that consequences flow from that for them personally.

The most difficult category, however, is those who cannot be vaccinated for a medical or other reason. They are in a very difficult position. There are others who choose not to be vaccinated and who contact my office and say they cannot eat indoors with their friends because they have decided not to be vaccinated. I do not recognise the primacy of that choice. I do not recognise the parity of that choice with those who cannot be vaccinated. It is important to make that distinction. It is not an attempt to separate or segregate people; it is an attempt to safeguard everyone. The same policy underpins this motion and that is why we will be supporting it.

The Minister of State is welcome to the Chamber. I am not going to talk about vaccinations. I am going to talk about the piece of legislation that is before us here today. This legislation allows for the use of outdoor seating for venues with liquor licences. It was introduced in July 2021 to facilitate the outdoor-only dining and drinking recommendation from the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET. The legislation is set to lapse at the end of this month and the Government is seeking its extension. This legislation was instrumental in allowing vintners and publicans, as well as restaurant owners, the ability to make a living when indoor dining was put on hold. While outdoor dining may not be the most attractive prospect at this time of year, spring will roll around soon enough and there will be a gradual return to it as we enter the summer.

I wonder if people can remember the circumstances of this law. The messaging in the lead-up to the reopening at the time was that a full return to hospitality was going to occur. This was thrown into doubt about a week before the due date and, after a period of uncertainty when no one knew what was going on, NPHET ruled that outdoor-only was the way to go and this legislation was typed overnight to try to facilitate that. It seems like a long time ago but, in reality, it was all quite recent. Many issues with the Government's communication around that area were raised in the Lower House at the time. There needs to be clarity in order that people understand why decisions are made and what is happening. Last-minute changes of heart do not inspire confidence. Unfortunately, we are still in a situation where the advice is pertinent. I feel the ghost of a meaningful Christmas past may spook policymakers in the opposite direction to last year, lest consecutive January spikes are one too many.

This legislation is perhaps the least offensive of that brought in on the back of Covid-19. Whereas many laws brought through this House over the past two years have been restrictive in nature, confining people in a location or constraining them in their activity, this sticks out as legislation which actually provided certainty as to the legality of operating an outdoor premises. We might remember the Government proposed that the thing to do was to allow for drinking outdoors for months without checking to make sure it had the legislation in place. Here we are now and to enable pub and restaurant owners who wish to operate an outdoor premises to do so, I am happy to support the legislation.

I would like to see the statistics on the law so far. Do we have figures from An Garda Síochána with regard to the policing of this legislation, including prosecutions under section 3 or closure orders under section 4? We cannot fall into the habit of passing laws and forgetting about them. Constant assessment to inform revision must be present.

To be quite honest, I would support a much longer extension of this legislation. I think having an outdoor space available for publicans and restaurateurs is something we should look at installing for the long term. We should not take that space away from them once the pandemic is over.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit ar ais go dtí an Teach. The Minister of State is welcome back to the House. I remember when the difficulty arose with this legislation six months ago when premises were extended to facilitate outdoor dining. It created a difficulty for the Garda and the business owners because there was a bit of a grey area as to whether the piece they added onto their premises, grounds or whatever was licensed. That caused some difficulty. I raised the matter in the Seanad at the time and I was delighted the Government moved swiftly to address that particular anomaly.

Here we are now. It is hard to believe it is six months later and we are, unfortunately, extending the legislation again, due to Covid. It is commonsensical legislation. None of the legislation taken in by the Government is taken in lightly but we are in the middle of a pandemic. We are in a war against Covid-19 and that war, unfortunately, continues. Like many other governments around the world, this Government is forced to react to an ever-changing situation. It must be on its toes in that regard. This is commonsensical legislation and I am delighted to support it for another six-month period. I hope there will be no need to extend it any further when we consider it again in six months.

This is perhaps an opportune time to review licensing laws and see what comes in. I look forward to everyone taking part in that review.

This is a difficult time for businesses, especially those in the hospitality sector. Even though their doors may be open today, it is unfortunate that the flow of customers coming through that they would normally expect is not there. With that in mind, I am delighted the Taoiseach and, indeed, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform have agreed to meet representatives of the hospitality industry because they are going through a very difficult time. It has been a difficult time for all businesses but those in the hospitality sector have been hit the hardest. People who would normally go out for a bite to eat or a pint of beer are not doing so out of fear in this climate. The hospitality sector will miss out on the revenue it would normally hope to get in at this time of year. This is a busy time of year and people would normally be organising Christmas parties and what have you. It is a normally a good time of year for the hospitality sector but, unfortunately, we do not live in normal times. I hope the Government will listen to the hospitality sector. Businesses in that sector are constrained in the revenue they can take in. I hope the Government listens to them and puts measures in place to compensate them at this difficult time so that, when things improve, everyone will be in a position to move on and get back to business as usual, if I can use that term.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. Ar dtús báire, ba mhaith liom mo leithscéal a ghabháil leis as a óráid tosaigh a chailleadh ní ba luaithe. The Minister of State is very welcome to the Seanad. I apologise for missing his opening remarks. I was at a meeting of the Seanad Committee on Parliamentary Privileges and Oversight. Because I have come straight from that meeting to the Chamber, I am going to read my notes from my phone. I do not like doing that. Excuse me, but I did not have the opportunity to print them off.

Like other colleagues, Sinn Féin supports the motion. Put simply, it is about trying to live as normal a life as possible in the middle of a pandemic. It is about trying to ensure businesses that rely on customers survive in the middle of the pandemic. It is also about achieving both of those objectives sensibly and in a legal context.

The motion has a particular poignancy, given we are in the middle of another surge of the virus, the implications of which are not yet clear for us all. In this context, it is a worrying time for the business community, given the expectation that a positive corner was being turned, however slowly, in the plan to return to a normal, or at least more manageable, life. On my behalf and that of Sinn Féin, I thank all those who provide a business service and who take personal and financial risks to keep their doors open in the best and most difficult of times. I commend the workers in the private sector. Both business owners and staff have been through a lot of difficulty over the past two years and continue to face uncertainty at this time.

The motion extends for a six-month period the special circumstances arising from the pandemic which legally permit the lawful sale and consumption of alcohol in outdoor seating areas. It correctly identifies the outdoor seating areas which have been permitted by local authorities on public land or outdoor areas on private land next to licensed premises and why these regulations need to be renewed.

Accompanying these designations is the important clause obliging the owners of licensed premises to maintain good order in the areas identified. Understandably, the special circumstances arising from the pandemic required careful consideration and legal clarity for businesses, local authorities and An Garda Síochána. This motion provides all three parties with the knowledge and authority to act for the common good and, in doing so, assist the ongoing opening of a vital sector in the economy and the enjoyment and opportunity to relax for those availing of outside socialising.

The motion also has to have a weather eye on the level of threat from the virus for the general population and I believe it is in keeping with the public health advice on Covid-19. We are all on a learning curve when it comes to understanding the behaviour of the virus and its ability to adapt and change tack.

I will speak to the population the law serves in its contribution to normalise society while the medical experts advise and protect us. Flexibility and diligence are required to keep ahead of the virus and the extension for six months of the provisions in the motion we are speaking about will further the objective we all share, namely, the eradication of the virus and the restoration of unrestricted life we had a few short years ago, which I am confident we are steadily making progress towards.

The flexibility in the motion and in the virus must also be seen in the Government's approach to the latest surge. It is important the various support measures, such as the CRSS and the EWSS are implemented again in full for workers and businesses across the live entertainment, late night sector who are seriously impacted by these latest restrictions. Workers in the live entertainment hospitality, nightlife and tourism industry have been left high and dry. The PUP should be reinstated for those workers who need it. Restrictions on restaurants, bars and night clubs came as a bitter disappointment for many across the sector. The Government must continue to resource and support businesses. Much progress has been made curtailing the pandemic and protecting people's lives but, as we see from the latest surge, it is far from over. Until it is, those most in need have to be helped out by the Government.

I support the motion to extend and, like other colleagues, I acknowledge, in the midst of all this, the key priority to keep people safe and well, as well as to provide them with the opportunity to avail of the social outlets we all need at times, in the most appropriate, safe and legally compliant way possible.

I thank the Senators for their time and contributions. These are still extraordinary times and, with the extension of this Act to 31 May 2022, I hope it sends a message of our determination to support and provide clarity to businesses, An Garda Síochána and our communities.

This extension clarifies the position of licence holders who wish to sell and serve alcohol adjacent to a licensed premises in an area approved by the relevant local authority. Under current legislation, these premises have no remedy to amend their licence to include such an area. In addition, to ensure maximum equity with businesses, it was considered prudent to provide clarity and assurance for licensees who were relying on private property immediately adjacent to their licensed premises to provide outdoors seating areas. With the extension of this Act, continued certainty is provided to licensees. This will ensure we do not end up in a position where further emergency measures are required in the coming months to address the gap in licensing legislation in respect of outdoor seating areas.

Providing clarity to licensed premises, An Garda Síochána and our local authorities and communities was, and is, of the utmost importance. We can all agree these measures address this matter for licensees, have worked effectively and will continue to do so for the period ahead with the support of these Houses.

I acknowledge again the importance of the work being undertaken to deliver on the Government's commitment to modernising alcohol legislation. We look forward to brighter days ahead and producing legislation to codify the licensing laws and bring a more permanent solution to the situation this Act addresses.

We as a Government want to do as much as we can to support the night-time industry and I look forward to working with the House on this legislation. In these challenging times, I understand how difficult it has been for businesses and workers. Everyone wants to continue to make a living and operate safely. The surge we are experiencing is a stark reminder of the threat Covid-19 continues to represent. The importance of this Act is evident to us all. We continue to provide clarity on this matter to businesses, local authorities and An Garda Síochána. In addition, public interest is best served by having the provisions of this Act available for the protection of public health. I thank Senators for their support.

Question put and agreed to.
Sitting suspended at 1.25 p.m. and resumed at 2.30 p.m.