Thursday, 26 February 2004

Questions (8)

Róisín Shortall


8 Ms Shortall asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform when he intends to use the powers available to him under the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2003 to introduce regulations providing for traceability of alcohol sold in off-licences; if the EU has been notified of the proposed regulations; if a response has been received from the EU or other member states; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [6257/04]

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Oral answers (9 contributions) (Question to Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform)

The powers are contained in section 22 of the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2003. They provide for the making of regulations to specify particulars to be affixed to a container in which intoxicating liquor is sold for consumption off the premises, which would enable the licensee and the licensed premises concerned to be identified.

I am consulting interested parties prior to making regulations with a view to ensuring implementation of this measure is effective. Discussion of issues arising in this context is ongoing between officials in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and representatives of trade organisations and other interested parties, including the Garda. I intend to notify the European Commission of proposed regulations in accordance with the so-called technical standards or transparency directives to avoid a later challenge to regulations made under section 22.

These directives have been put in place at EU level to give the European Commission and member states an opportunity to examine, in advance, proposed national standards and rules in the interests of transparency and the smooth functioning of the internal market. The notification will take place when consultations with interested parties have concluded and details of draft regulations have been progressed.

This is not an easy question. It would be a great idea if every tin of cider, beer or whatever or every bottle of wine could be labelled in every off-licence, supermarket and so on so that its source could be identified. Nothing sounds easier. However, if a tray of beer needs to be disassembled so that bottles can be marked or bubble packs must be cut apart to mark each bottle with something that is identifiable with every off-licence, that presents significant difficulties for large supermarkets, in particular. Although one might think the common-sense approach to this would make for a simple solution, it is not that simple.

It would be twice as difficult to introduce a system that would require the incorporation of marking into the product because it would have to be considered whether a foreign manufacturer would have to incorporate such marking at the point of manufacture or whether it could be applied at a later stage in the retail distribution network. It is easy to discuss this issue but it is difficult to do something about it.

The question is about traceability provisions for off-licence sales which are provided for under the intoxicating liquor legislation and have not been introduced. The Minister has trotted out the same response as previously and I do not know whether he has conducted research into the issue other than to acknowledge there is a problem, which he does not know how to resolve. If so, he should consult technical experts. Every item purchased in a supermarket has a bar code and the price is identified as it is scanned. Modern technology can overcome the difficulties of disassembling trays of liquor and so on. The Minister should consult the technical experts. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government did not deal with electronic voting successfully but an effort is being made to consult.

The Minister has made no effort. He said he will contact the European Commission and various interest groups, which comprise vintners and sales people, but they are not interested because it will involve expense. Has the Minister checked this provision since the legislation was passed? The provision was included in prior legislation and nothing was done then either. Will he not bring in technical expertise? He has already spent €30 million on various consultants since coming to office. He could check this out and try to have it implemented. It is the only way to determine the origin of liquor that has been consumed in the public arena, perhaps by minors, so that the Garda can achieve convictions. Unless we do this there is no sense in enacting legislation.

First, I have not spent anything like €30 million on consultants.

Did the Minister give incorrect figures in an answer to a parliamentary question?

I answered a question today from a member of Deputy Costello's party saying that the answer given to a written question was, unfortunately, misleading and wrong——

That is what we say all the time.

——and that 90% of the sums in question had nothing to do with consultancy. Unfortunately, this miscategorisation took place and the Deputy has been making hay from it ever since. The fact is that 90% of that expenditure had nothing to do with consultancy.

Officials of my Department are engaging in a process of consultation with the licensed trade, both on and off. However, saying that bar coding is the answer to the problem does not answer the question of when the bar code is to be put onto the product. The answer to that question is by no means clear to me. If it is to be put on at the point of manufacture we have a serious European internal market issue. If it is to be put on by individual distributors in Ireland in their premises, other problems arise. If there were to be a bar coded label on every bottle of beer sold in an off-licence one would have to rip apart the six-packs and put labels referable to the particular trader on each bottle. This solution is not as easy as is being made out.

The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform has no aversion to making regulations when they are reasonably capable of being made. However, there is no point, as I am constantly reminded in this House, in making a futile regulation which could have no outcome.

Even if one could prove conclusively that a bottle of beer came from a particular outlet, the owner of that outlet would not be exposed to prosecution merely because the bottle or can of beer ended up in the hands of a 14 year old. One cannot have a law of that kind. One cannot punish people for having sold a product which later ended up in the hands of a child. One could — and I agree that the measure could have this beneficial effect — work out where the children in an area were generally obtaining their product——

And get a pattern of sales.

——and investigate the issue. One could not simply say that, because a 14 year old had a tin which came from a certain off-licence, the owner should be prosecuted. That would not be a workable law and it will never be the law in Ireland, as far as I can see.