I wish to be associated with the good wishes to Deputy John Curran on his elevation to Minister of State. I am sure he will prove to be an effective Minister of State.
I welcome this Bill, which I believe to be an honest attempt to bring some order to a situation that has spiralled out of control over the past few years, particularly with regard to special exemptions, the exploitation of loopholes in relevant legislation and other reasons. The current situation is not what we intended when we framed previous legislation and this Bill addresses many of the deficiencies that exist in the sector today.
We have to remember the amount of change that has taken place in our society in the past 20 years. We have acquired a very large number of new residents who have different traditions, traits and habits from ours. Society has not stood still and we have inherited a large number of difficulties resulting from the greater existence of wealth than was there half a generation ago. This legislative measure should help put things right and steer us back on track. I have met many people in the industry and they are broadly happy with what is proposed.
Most of the stakeholders in the industry are genuine in their attempt to curb youth and adult excesses, particularly binge drinking, and to bring about a genuine change in public order. There are some minor concerns and during my contribution I will allude to the changes I suggest and the measures I would like to see introduced. Having said that, this may not be the appropriate legislation under which some of these should be introduced.
I commend Dr. Gordon Holmes and the members of the alcohol advisory group on their work, but elected Members, through our unique experience, have a valuable role to play as well. I applaud the Minister for the changes he is proposing to the legislation and thank him for listening to me and other Members of this House. I have had to rewrite some of this contribution as a result.
I am concerned about the number of reports in other areas that have been introduced by unelected people and which are slavishly implemented. At times we do not make enough use of the vast resources we have on all sides in this Chamber. We have had reports produced on behalf of vested interests and if advisers are paid enough, they will provide whatever advice one wants and the conclusion one requires. These are put forward as independent reports and recommendations and occasionally find their way into law and Members of this Chamber are somewhat sidelined by this from time to time. This is not the case today, but we have seen instances in the past where there has been a rush to legislate on less than reliable evidence.
As it was originally framed, section 8 of the Bill would have been impractical in some cases because smaller operators would have found it difficult if not impossible to comply with the separation provisions contained therein, chiefly because they would have been hampered by fire regulations which probably would have meant they would have needed a new fire certificate. Additionally, because of the change of the physical layout which might require a new door to the street, they might have had to go through a lengthy and expensive planning process.
Putting in a separate till would mean providing extra staff and imposing extra costs, thereby handing the advantage back to the larger multiples. We should foster competition, not reduce it or put obstacles in its way. Some of the larger operators seem to be abusing their position, as was recently instanced by the report which shows the difference in supermarket prices in this jurisdiction and those in Northern Ireland.
If we are to introduce these measures, they should be for stores of a particular size. I am not sure what the optimum size would be, but it would not take a great deal of effort to establish it. This would not cause particular difficulty or any significant increase in staff for the larger supermarkets. A particular threshold of store size should be introduced over which the provisions of the Bill would apply. A year in which to implement the changes as envisaged in the Bill might be a bit tight and it may be necessary to allow more time to see all the changes comfortably implemented.
As well as dealing with the economic side of the problem, this is important social legislation and we should take the time to get it right. The Minister responded positively and sensibly here and has given the retail sector the opportunity to bring in a voluntary code to properly regulate this area.
I agree that these regulations should not apply to wine as those who purchase this particular beverage are of the more mature segment of the population, whether that be in age or attitude or both, and would need to be able to access the bottles to browse the labels and descriptions. Once more the Minister has taken a sensible approach and recognised this.
I have no difficulty with the requirement to keep spirits and high-alcohol drinks behind the counter. However, in the case of wines and beers, a shuttering device should be allowed to fulfil the intent of the legislation and to close the area completely outside of the normal trading hours for alcohol. This would give the small local store a chance to compete with the bigger operators and keep them in business for the benefit of the local population. After all, these are the people who continue to provide a service late into the night when the supermarkets are long since closed. In any event, wine is not a source of public order problems, as anyone close to the situation on difficult nights will testify.
A variety of groups came to see me when this measure was announced. I expected them to seek a change to the earlier closing time of 10 p.m. This was not the case however. There was universal agreement on it as the same circumstances will apply to everybody, endorsing their desire only to be able to compete on equal legal terms with the bigger players.
Let me turn to the case of the approximately 80 licensed premises which open at 7.30 a.m. This has its roots in tradition and they cater for a very specific clientele. They facilitate factory workers coming from night shifts, taxi drivers, nurses, security personnel and all-night workers in the markets, as well as a myriad of others in a variety of trades and professions. There will always be a legitimate need for what I might loosely describe as out of hours services. Recently, I saw where one particular business runs early morning dances for the same segment of the population, which are highly successful and give those people the same benefits and opportunities which the mainstream working population enjoys.
There are generally no public order difficulties in these licensed premises and they should be allowed to continue to trade at their unusual hours. An argument was put forward by the alcohol advisory group about late-night revellers eventually arriving at these places, but in practice they are not tolerated in these houses as it is seen to be bad for business. They accept that their regulars who come from work will not continue to go to these pubs if late-night revellers come in full of drink on a regular basis. To a great extent, they are self-regulating and they should be allowed to trade as heretofore and not made subject to the 10.30 a.m. opening time as universally proposed. These traders depend on their early morning business and are conscious of the need to mind it.
I am aware their licences also allow them to pursue an off-licence trade. I do not think this is desirable and there may also be a problem under competition law. In the interests of equality this should not be allowed, with early morning houses having to wait for off-licence sales until 10.30 a.m. the same as the rest of the industry. This is not likely to grow as a problem as the number of such businesses is small. However, we can make sure of it by applying a cap, confining the number to that which obtains at present. If any public order problems were to arise, the Garda should be able to deal with these at the time of the renewal of their liquor licence at the annual licensing court. There is adequate scope for this. This part of my speech was written prior to hearing the Minister's speech and we are on the same wavelength.
I referred earlier to the selling of wine. There is a proposal with regard to wine that retailers should now go for the renewal of their licence to the District Court and not to the Revenue Commissioners as is the case at present. I do not have a problem with this, but I wonder whether it is practical. Approximately 4,000 of these licences exist and they may clog up an already overstretched service. I do not feel there would be any difference between the courts or Revenue administering these licences, because there are no significant anti-social behaviour implications around the selling of wine.
I welcome the limitation on special exemption orders. They are far too easy to obtain and should only be allowed for bona fide reasons. It is proposed to strengthen Garda powers with regard to the public order offences aspect of these licences and their objections should be strongly noted. We should aim for a situation where these are hard-earned and only available to those who run a properly controlled and disciplined house. These licences only foster late-night drinking and tend to facilitate teen drinking because they are often at a time of local celebration. They have a history of trouble and I wonder how many traffic accidents with tragic results have been caused as a result of these late exemptions. They have little to offer the community and I have no doubt that there are spouses and children who dread the annual festival with the particular problems drinking can bring.
I note the proliferation of theatre licences granted recently, sometimes under very spurious circumstances in trying to get around the liquor laws as they now stand. It is no harm to put a curb on these licences, because I foresee a situation where even the most unlikely theatres, with threadbare productions, will be entitled to licences late into the night.
One of the important measures in this Bill is section 13 which extends Garda powers with regard to the confiscation of containers of alcohol in the possession of people and intended for the use of those under 18 years of age. I have received complaints from people throughout my constituency about people, young and old, drinking in open areas and other public places. The law to date does not appear to be strong enough to deal with this. Some towns and cities have by-laws, but these do not seem to have the same perceived effect as statute law and do not seem to be implemented with the same vigour.
Section 18 also refers to the interference with the peaceful possession of a person's property. This would be particularly relevant to house parties. The legislation seems to stop short of clarifying Garda powers on this. Often these parties cause more of a nuisance than anything else. This seems to be a difficult area to deal with and perhaps something needs to be put into the legislation. Perhaps the Minister will clarify this later. I realise it will be difficult to implement the law with regard to private dwellings or with regard to the possibility of a crime being committed, but house parties, where the drink flows freely until the small hours of the morning, have a particularly bad record of late. Many unlawful deaths and cases of violence have been associated with these parties and we need to clarify the law and the use of powers by the Garda in this area.
I thoroughly agree with the concept of test-purchasing by gardaí where they send in a young person under supervision to see whether the store or public house operates the age limit properly. I note the industry also agrees with this and has not made any complaint or protest about it. I welcome the strengthening of the law with regard to the closure of properties because of selling of alcohol to people who are under age. Will the entire outlet close for a period, or will it only be the area of the premises selling alcohol? The legislation does not appear to spell it out clearly and I ask the Minister to clarify this.
A number of provisions are not contained in this Bill and, on reflection, it may not be proper to include them but I would like to make reference to them. I never agreed with the abolition of the groceries order in March 2006 and it has not reduced prices. Can the Government ban the selling of low cost alcohol? I would like that to be introduced and I am mystified by the attitude of officials of the Competition Authority in their submission to the alcohol advisory group, when they said calls should be resisted for the reintroduction of a ban on below-unit cost selling of alcohol or for minimum prices for alcohol. They went on to state such measures make the sale of alcohol more profitable across all retailers and bars and, thus, encourage its sale and are contrary to the aim of reducing excessive alcohol consumption. They have no problem with an increase in price through excise duty, which suggests that they agree that price increase would be a factor. If they are opposed to the low cost order, there seems to be a contradictory position. They are saying if the price of alcohol is increased, sales will increase and, in the other circumstances, it will not. The Minister should consider bringing in a regulation that the sale of wine and spirits should only be allowed to those aged over 21. It follows that between the ages of 18 and 21, only beers or drinks below a certain level of alcohol content would be allowable. I would like tougher, perhaps criminal, sanctions for those who purchase drink for under age people. That practice is widespread and we are not being tough enough in this area. It is not difficult for young people to ask an adult to purchase for them as often an older sibling will do so or someone who will do it for a portion of the drink bought. It is very difficult to apprehend these people, but when we do, the law should be strict enough to discourage this practice as much as possible. It is a despicable practice with potential disastrous consequences for under age people.
Garda identification cards should be made mandatory for all of these drinking establishments. One of the submissions received suggested anyone under the age of 25 entering a public house should have a card. I have no difficulty with this, as other jurisdictions, whose regimes are far more liberal in other fields, implement strict guidelines in this regard. This would be a major part of the solution to the problem and the Garda ID system should be implemented without further delay.
It is some time since the then Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Mary Harney, declared we had a crisis of alcohol in this country. That was an honest statement from a Minister whose Department has had to deal with the fallout of the folly of individuals who overindulge in alcohol and the society, which not alone allows such excesses, but almost encourages them through our communal behaviour. Society in Ireland has paid a high price for our drinking, with our general hospitals, mental institutions, women's refuges and jails filled with the victims of overindulgence in alcohol. It is time we took a realistic stance on the matter and seriously directed our attention to the advertising of alcohol in public places, the sponsorship of high-visibility mainstream events by drinks companies and the casual promotion of alcohol in television programmes. During a recent home produced television programme, alcohol advertising signs were clearly displayed in a scene involving under age children. This should not have been allowed to happen. There should be an official watchdog for this purpose and we should not have to depend on some member of the public making a complaint.
Stronger action must be taken. We have allowed a situation to develop where alcohol has all but taken over a great number of lives and where excessive drinking on a weekly basis is the norm among a large percentage of our population . The expression, "drowning in a sea of drink" may be emotive but it is not an exaggeration. Historically, we, as a nation, have had our difficulties with drink but we have not learned from them. This measure is balanced, allowing leeway where it is logical, yet trying to eliminate dangerous situations for our citizens. We have much more work to do, but let us, as a start, ensure these measures are implemented in order that we can remove some of the risk for our people, particularly the young and vulnerable, who are often the targets of exploitative advertising, not only for alcohol, but for a wide range of goods. I commend the Bill to the House.