I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
It is ten years since the then Minister for Justice, Mr. Gerry Collins, changed the drinking regulations substantially. In retrospect, those relatively modest changes, which were designed to meet the transformation taking place in Irish society, worked well. They did not lead to widespread drunkenness, nor did they exacerbate the problems associated with excessive drinking. Time has moved on and society continues to evolve, its needs altering in the last decade. The composition of the workforce has changed, as have patterns of work. Thousands of young people want to drink at their convenience and in the manner to which other young Europeans are accustomed. The time is ripe to update the licensing laws.
This Bill seeks to meet that challenge by updating and modernising the present licensing laws, which are obsolete. This Bill proposes a relatively modest increase in opening hours, coupled with the abolition of the "holy hour". In addition, the Bill seeks to regularise some anomalies in the licensing laws in relation to clubs, public houses and off-licences. Over the years, bar workers have expressed concern about the hours they are expected to work. These concerns are addressed comprehensively by the Bill, which is based on the fundamental principle that the consumers' concerns should be met in the widest ranging and most comprehensive way possible, while protecting the legitimate rights of those who work in the industry. The Bill is based on the concepts of partnership, choice and freedom. The consumer should be given more choice, while those working in the industry should have the freedom to opt out of extra unsocial working hours if they so wish. Alternatively, the Bill ensures that if they work late into the night they should be rewarded adequately for doing so.
Ireland has developed at an unprecedented rate over the past decade. Consumers want increased options for their leisure time and this Bill ensures that they can exercise their wish to drink for a longer time if they so desire. Large numbers of people find opening hours particularly restrictive at weekends and this leads to an inordinate amount of after hours drinking, which is very unsatisfactory. If the law cannot be enforced, which I believe to be the case, it is important that it be changed so that it can be enforced and respected. There is an outcry in four western counties which provides a clear example of how this law has been disregarded.
I understand the frustration of the drinking public, but I also sympathise with publicans, who are torn between an anxiety to satisfy their customers and an anxiety to act within the law. That frustration is made all the more acute by virtue of the heavy penalties that can be attached to breaches of the licensing laws by publicans. There can be no quibble with the Garda in their enforcement of the law. They must do so in a manner compatible with the other demands on their time and resources. However, in the dying days of the 20th century, it seems bizarre that the Garda find themselves imposing sanctions on adults consuming alcoholic drink. Keeping this law on the Statute Book reflects poorly on our self-confidence and maturity as a nation. It is time to treat the public as mature adults capable of looking after their own affairs without having the State poking its nose into their private matters.
The level of consumption of drink in Ireland is average by international standards for modern developed economies. The most recent EU data shows that the Irish consumption level is clearly in the middle of the 15 EU countries. It is the eighth highest or eighth lowest, depending on the end of the table one counts from. When the comparison is broadened to OECD countries, Ireland figures in the second half of a table of 21 countries. Consumption here is less than in Australia, New Zealand, Hungary and the Czech Republic and is only marginally higher than that of South Africa, the United States of America, Japan and Poland. Those who oppose drink claim this figure is too low because it does not take the large number of Irish teetotallers into account. That claim is incorrect. The number of adult teetotallers, at 24 per cent, is almost identical to the average for 21 developed countries.
Those who claim that the Irish are a nation of drunkards who will drink themselves to destruction if the State does not interfere seem to be harking back to the images published byPunch magazine at the turn of the century. This magazine portrayed the Irish as a nation of gormless drunken imbeciles unable to control their drinking habits. That was never true and the data available to disprove it have proved solid over a long period.
There has been significant liberalisation of licensing laws in two countries which are similar to Ireland, New Zealand and Scotland. They have liberalised their laws without any significant damage to their populations. That liberalisation is believed to have been particularly beneficial in Scotland, where drunkenness seems to be less common. Antisocial behaviour on the part of those leaving public houses has declined and liberalisation appears to have had a civilising effect on the population.
Although this Bill's proposals differ from the changes made in Scotland, there are parallels between the two situations. This Bill approximates to the Scottish provisions and the extra time provided for drinking will allow the public to adopt a more civilised approach to drinking. It will help to eliminate stockpiling of drink by customers as closing time approaches and to eliminate the dumping of large numbers of people on the street by bar staff at closing time. It is easy to understand why bar staff take this approach. They are worried that they may be found guilty of breaking the law and about the consequences for their employers.
There can hardly be any doubt there are significant differences in the demand for drink in different parts of the country, and in the same parts of the country at different times of the year. It is obvious that areas which cater almost exclusively for the tourism industry have radically different needs from the areas where the tourism industry is of no great significance. To some extent, existing legislation seeks to cater for these differences although in a somewhat convoluted manner. For example, an extra half hour is allowed for drinking in the summer. The law also caters for events by providing for a degree of flexibility in granting extensions when festivals and other important local events take place.
This Bill seeks to rationalise the present practice by allowing the courts to vary the time of closing in different areas in accord with the needs of the locality. The proposals provide for the courts to extend or restrict the hours of opening in accordance with local needs. The Bill provides explicitly for the courts to be able to modify the hours of opening in accordance with the needs of the tourism industry and in relation to the special needs of areas which have a booming night life, such as the Temple Bar area of Dublin. It also allows the courts to take into account the type of customers which frequent a public house as well as the type of area in which the public house is located.
The Bill specifically provides for residents in a residential area to petition the courts to restrict the hours of opening in the event of customers behaving in a manner which constitutes a significant nuisance for the neighbourhood. This is a new provision, which allows resident groups, who feel their lives are being made miserable by noise or nuisance, to have their concerns remedied. I hope it will meet the concerns of resident groups who are currently being exposed to unacceptable harassment arising from the manner in which some people behave on exit from public houses.
A feature of the Irish licensing laws is the provisions which exist for granting exemptions. These provisions and what happens in reality is a convincing argument in favour of the need to modify the existing laws. These provisions clearly undermine any principled objection to the extension of the present licensing laws. In the year ending 31 July 1997 a staggering 65,096 licensing extensions were sought in the courts. Statistics are not available to enable one to say how many of these applications were granted. However, it seems reasonable to conclude a significant number were acceded to.
If one works from the assumption that last year's figures are a reasonable representation of what has been happening over the past decade, approximately half a million exemptions to the existing law were sought since the law was last altered. By any standards this is an exceptional phenomenon. It is difficult to envisage any other law which needs to have so many exemptions applied to it. This experience is one of the clearest arguments in support of the proposition before the House.
The tourism industry is a major source of income and employment and has huge potential for further growth. While there is no clear evidence that tourists come to Ireland specifically to drink, there can be little doubt those who come like to sample the atmosphere of the Irish public house. For many tourists familiar with liberal opening hours, especially those from North America and mainland Europe, the experience of being thrown out of the pub at closing time is amazing.
Many of these tourists are acquainted with the phenomenon of the Irish pub in their own country. There are many differences in the nature of the Irish pub overseas and in Ireland. However, one of the more unpleasant differences for holiday makers is the manner in which the law requires the pubs here to close very early in the middle of summer, at the peak of the tourist season. For many publicans in tourist areas the short few weeks while the tourists are around is their chance to make enough money to tide them over the rest of the year when the local trade is slow. It seems reasonable that this group should have the option of making hay while the sun shines and allowed to trade into the night while a demand exists.
The holy hour must be a unique and strange phenomenon for visitors to Ireland. It must be puzzling for tourists from countries in mainland Europe where there is a culture of having a long lunch washed down by an appropriate amount of alcoholic drink. I am sure they question what type of country they are visiting. In the past it was deemed necessary to have a holy hour in Dublin and Cork to ensure those who went to pubs at lunch time did not remain there for the rest of the day. That law was changed by Gerry Collins when he was Minister. It has been suggested that the holy hour was designed with civil servants in mind. I presume this stemmed from the Myles na gCopaleen era when it is claimed people went to pubs at lunch time and the country ground to a halt in the afternoon as they wrote worthwhile essays. There has been no significant problem in this regard since the law was changed. I believe the holy hour on Sundays will also be abolished.
A large section of the public like to go to pubs for their lunch on Sundays. Many pubs give very good value in the quality of food they provide at a cost within the budget of most of the public. There is no reason the public should not be allowed to consume their lunch in peace without having to watch the clock. For many, Sunday lunch is the only time in the week when they get the chance to relax. For many families it is the only time in the week when they can relax together and they should be allowed do so in a public house if they wish.
The Bill proposes that opening time on Sundays should be the same as during the rest of the week. This provision would allow those who wish to have a drink on Sunday morning to do so. The 12.30 p.m. opening on Sunday may have its genesis in a fear that having pubs open on Sunday morning would prevent the public from going to church services. This concern is no longer relevant for a variety of reasons. Many church services now take place on Saturday evenings. It is difficult to believe it was ever relevant and the Bill seeks to end it.
Section 2 deals with anomalies in the law in relation to opening hours for public houses and registered clubs. It proposes to put both on the same footing as far as opening hours are concerned. There is currently some doubt about whether the law allows for drinking up time in clubs. In the definitive book on the Irish licensing laws by Constance Cassidy, the author alludes to this possibility, even if she does not make a definitive statement on the exact legal position. That would be an interesting case to test in the courts. However, the provision that clubs can open for a limited period on Christmas day for members has not been altered. The underlying principle behind this Bill, that where possible the choice open to the public should be maintained and expanded, underpins the decision not to change the current provisions in relation to clubs, except that they should have the same drinking up time as public houses.
There are some differences between the law as it relates to the sale of goods other than alcoholic drink in public houses and off-licences. Public houses are allowed to open at 7.30 a.m. for the sale of products other than alcoholic drink, while off-licences can only open for the sale of such products at 9 a.m. This anomaly should be cleared up and the Bill removes it to permit both off-licences and public houses to open at 7.30 a.m. However, no changes are made in the time at which the two outlets are allowed to commence selling alcohol in the morning, which remains at 10.30 am. The anomaly whereby off-licences are prevented from opening till 9 a.m. is a source of considerable annoyance to those who live near these premises. Many people would like to avail of the services of off-licences in terms of the nonalcoholic products which many of them sell. It seems unreasonable they should be prevented from opening until 9 a.m.
The Bill provides that St. Patrick's Day and Good Friday should be treated as any other day of the week and that there should be no special provisions applicable to these days. At present St. Patrick's Day is treated as a Sunday under the law. A central principle of this Bill is that the law should be streamlined and be as simple as possible. Accordingly I see no reason special provisions should apply to St. Patrick's Day. In any case the Bill treats it as similar to a Sunday.
Over the past 20 to 30 years there have been significant changes in the way the public behaves on Good Friday, 30 years ago Good Friday was treated in an exceptionally solemn manner and the country virtually closed down. Commerce more or less came to a halt. The national radio station closed down. Little happened except religious services or essential services. In the intervening period there have been many changes in the manner in which the public behaves on Good Friday. It is still a very significant day in the religious life of many people. However, for many others Good Friday is like any other bank holiday. Many shops remain open and some provide extra shopping options. Many use the day as an occasion to increase sales. The Bill provides that those who feel like a drink on Good Friday should have the option of getting it. It is difficult to estimate how many people would avail of such a service. However, the Bill provides that those who want to avail of the service will be able to do so and those in the trade who want to provide the service will be free to do so. Needless to say, there is no obligation on pubs to open on Good Friday or any other day and there is no obligation on people to visit them either.
No change is proposed in the law as it applies to Christmas Day. I believe there is no significant demand for pubs to remain open on that day. In addition, it seems unlikely that those who own pubs or work in them would be interested in opening for business on Christmas Day. Many pubs in Dublin do not open or, alternatively, open for very short periods on St. Stephen's Day and for some days following depending on what day of the week they occur. There appears to be no demand for opening on Christmas Day, nor is there any wish to provide a service on that day.
During the preparation of the Bill, I became aware that some centres involved in the past in the production of alcoholic drinks have been converted into heritage centres which are part of the tourism industry. One such centre is based in Tullamore, County Offaly, and was brought to my attention by my colleague, Senator Gallagher. He pointed out that this centre, formerly the location where Tullamore Dew was produced, could not sell alcoholic drinks under the present law. This seems inappropriate. Many people visit these centres to study and understand the drinks industry and to get a flavour of its heritage. These centres can be used very effectively as a tourism feature in the areas in which they are located. Their attractiveness to tourists would be enhanced by allowing those who visit them to buy drinks and to sample the produce manufactured there in the past.
The Bill provides that these centres should be allowed to sell alcoholic drinks. The proposals contained in the Bill would regulate the sale of alcoholic drinks at these centres in a manner similar to the way the sale of alcoholic drinks is controlled at horse racing meetings and similar events. The heritage centres would not be allowed to sell drink after 9 p.m. at night. In these centres drinks purchased to be consumed off the premises would be limited to the product produced at the centre in times past. For example, it would be limited to Tullamore Dew in the case of the heritage centre in Tullamore. I thank Senator Gallagher for his background work in relation to the legal technicalities surrounding this part of the Bill.