Wednesday, 25 June 2008
Intoxicating Liquor Bill 2008: Second Stage (Resumed)
This Bill, if colleagues will excuse the pun, has been doing the rounds in recent days. It appeared in one manifestation but will leave the House in another, not unlike what happens on a Saturday night.
We need to ask ourselves what is the intent of the Bill. Is it to resolve an issue, deal with the problem of alcohol in society or is it a PR exercise by a Minister who has now gone on, to use his own words, to deal with a housing crisis?
Three obvious areas could have been addressed in this Bill — traceability, promotion and advertising of alcohol products and 21 year old people purchasing alcohol in off-licences. The Minister had an opportunity to introduce traceability whereby youngsters under the age of 18 found in possession of alcohol——
I thank the Acting Chairman and Deputy Ciarán Lynch. I did not appreciate that the previous business would be dealt with so quickly.
I argued last night for the few meaningful sections of this Bill to be incorporated into the promised sale of alcohol Bill. That would represent a more considered approach to alcohol abuse in our society and its implications for public health and safety. This Bill is a rushed effort, already much altered by the Minister. His presentation last night dealt at length with the harmful effects of alcohol abuse on society. However, the Bill is a narrow, modest measure which does not respond to most of issues raised by the Minister himself. I cannot recall the Government producing a single public health measure since 1997 to combat the harmful effects of alcohol abuse.
The Bill avoids addressing most of the Minister's own arguments. Its focus is on teenage drunkenness and public disorder, and there is no doubt that the availability of cheaper alcohol in unregulated retail outlets exacerbates this endemic cultural malaise. However, after this Bill is enacted, it will still be possible to purchase alcohol at bargain basement prices in supermarkets. Alcohol sales are blatantly used as loss leaders in supermarkets. The Government seemed only too content until now to tolerate high prices for food and other essentials and knockdown prices for various alcohol products. Nothing in the Bill will change this practice of high prices for food and low prices for alcohol.
The Minister announced last night that he will not proceed with the proposal to cease the operation of early houses and that there will no longer be a requirement for wine to be separated from other products. Moreover, in the matter of the separation of alcohol from other products, he announced that his plans may now be met by a voluntary code to be devised by retailers. We must probe this in considerable detail on Committee Stage. However, it must be asked how it diminishes public disorder and enhances public safety to require all nightclubs to disgorge their clientele onto the streets at the same time. I do not much care whether the Minister cuts back the hours of operation of such establishments, but the proposal in this Bill will merely invite agitation and irritation and strain public transport and other services.
There are important issues in the report of the alcohol advisory group which are not dealt with in this Bill. Instead of rushing at half cock to legislate, the Minister should be taking those issues on board and incorporating them into a considered sale of alcohol Bill. Dr. Gordon Holmes says in the preface to this report: "A more consistent and co-ordinated approach to alcohol-related problems is required across the Government system." This Bill only adds to the existing half thought-out and inconsistent approach. The Minister has already dropped some of the ill-considered sections but is pressing ahead with others which will require detailed scrutiny on Committee Stage.
While the Minister insists on disgorging the clientele of pubs and nightclubs onto the streets at a uniform time, with the inevitable congregation of patrons at fast food facilities, this Bill will have the opposite effect to that which he desires. What is needed is a considered sale of alcohol Bill with public health and safety at its core and where proper thought is given to issues such as below cost selling, advertising, education, regulation of retail outlets and other pertinent issues raised by the Dr. Gordon Holmes committee. This Bill falls a long way short.
It is essential that sufficient time be afforded on Committee Stage to debate this legislation. I drew the Taoiseach's attention this morning to the unprecedented experience of receiving a schedule of business for this week which indicates that Report Stage of the Bill is listed for next week. I am only the second speaker on Second Stage. Committee Stage has not even been scheduled. How then can we jump to Report Stage next week? That is no way to process legislation in this House. There is no point in the Government trying to bludgeon us into submission because they have surmised that we will be reluctant to deal with the issue of teenage drunkenness and public disorder. We are not at all reluctant to deal with it. On the contrary, we want to deal with it comprehensively and safely.
The Minister has promised a sale of alcohol Bill. It would have been much better for him to have taken a considered approach rather than going off at half cock. The Minister admitted in a radio interview this morning that he is puzzled as to why proposals on early houses were included in this Bill. One does not see many youths going on the rampage because they have been served alcohol in early houses. The Minister has done a deal with retail outlets whereby they will introduce their own code of conduct. He no longer wants to separate wine so that those of us, unlike the Minister, with a predilection in that area can now fondle the bottle to our heart's content. We had the revelation from the Minister last night that he may not be entirely averse to that product, which is not in keeping with the Calvinist image he has portrayed in the House for the past 20 years.
I am glad to hear he is in touch with the real world. As such, he will know that forcing people out of nightclubs and onto the street at the same time, when their drinks are half drunk, is only inviting trouble. There must be a drinking-up time facility. I am aware of at least one such place where gardaí go in on the hour to round up people onto the streets. Without allowing for drinking-up time, one invites irritation and difficulty. Throughout the State, such difficulty as takes place usually occurs adjacent to fast food facilities where people congregate at the same late hour.
I do not dispute that the Minister's objective is worthy in seeking to contain public disorder and to address the endemic abuse of alcohol by young people. However, the measures must be considered. There is a great deal more in the Dr. Gordon Holmes report than is incorporated into this slight Bill. It is becoming more slight every day — if the Minister receives any more representations, there will be nothing left in it. It would be far better to incorporate these provisions into the promised sale of alcohol Bill. We must give some considered thought to the damage being done to public health by the abuse of alcohol and we must come forward with some considered measures.
We will require time on Committee Stage to deal with the various issues we wish to raise in the context of the Bill. It is simply unacceptable that there should be a departure in the case of this legislation from the protocol that Members should have reasonable time to prepare amendments, after the completion of Second Stage, and to thrash them out on Committee Stage before moving on to Report and Final Stages. Let us extend the sitting time of the House or find some other means of ensuring the time is available. I do not mind what means the Minister prefers to accommodate that. However, I object to being railroaded into agreeing to legislation I consider defective and which the Minister himself has effectively admitted is defective in that he has already excised significant elements of it. We must have time to tease it out and to examine other aspects of this issue.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on this Bill. It has been clear for some time that legislation of this type is necessary. We are all aware of the difficulties associated with the abuse of alcohol and of the necessity to introduce some measures to curb the consumption of alcohol. However, that has to be set against a backdrop of a culture of the consumption of alcohol. I listened to the debate last evening and I have just listened intently to Deputy Rabbitte. I suppose he is right in suggesting no Bill will resolve this problem, whether this one or the sale of alcohol Bill, as proposed.
The introduction of this Bill and the subsequent debate will help highlight an issue that needs to be addressed. It will always be difficult to address a cultural issue. There is little doubt that our current status in terms of the consumption of alcohol has been developed over a considerable period. For many years, Irish people consumed more alcohol than their European neighbours and continue to do so. The buoyancy in the economy in recent years has certainly aided and abetted the increased level of alcohol consumption, particularly among young people. That is an issue that needs to be addressed.
This Bill is a first step. A number of Opposition speakers have indicated it does not go far enough, as did Deputy Rabbitte. It is about setting a target whereby the Government will be in a position to take this issue seriously and attempt in legislation to curb the consumption of alcohol, so far as it can. Taken with the promised sale of alcohol Bill, there will be a suite of measures to help. At the end of the day it is rather like road safety. Clearly the two are linked and there is personal choice. We live in a democracy. To the extent that one can prevent people doing the dastardly acts outlined by many speakers, there is a limit as to how far one can go in legislation. The issue will require a much greater level of debate in society.
In regard to our thinking about alcohol, we have to look at the education system. Other societies have a much more mature way of dealing with alcohol. For example, in France wine is almost part of the diet and, as such, there is not the same excitement about young people obtaining access to alcohol where it is treated in the same way as many of us treat water. For that reason a cultural shift is required and this can only happen through debate. Our habits and practices have developed over many years and are very different from European and international practices.
Some of the benchmarks identified in terms of the level of alcohol consumption here versus others probably do not give fair recognition to what truly goes on. I read some statistics recently which seem to suggest that an Irish person is more likely to take up to five drinks at one particular event. That is not to suggest people drink every day, whereas in other countries people will have a couple of glasses of wine, perhaps, every day. Perhaps we are not as bad as some of the international statistics suggest.
It would be wrong not to compliment the Government's alcohol advisory group, chaired by Dr. Gordon Holmes, on the efforts it has made in informing the debate. In its report the group has identified methodologies of dealing with this problem while clearly recognising there are limitations as to what can be done in a democracy and how one can help prevent the problems society is encountering in this regard.
Certainly there was concern about the increase in the level of off-licence trade and its impact on the consumption of alcohol. We have all seen the development of the larger supermarkets and the aggressive approach adopted in regard to the sale of alcohol, for example, below-cost selling and promotional practices that have encouraged volume sales. It is not unusual to see a number of young people walk out of some of the larger supermarkets with a slab of cans. That is becoming a regular sight. The restriction proposed for opening hours is welcome. That it will apply to supermarkets and off-licences is helpful.
The below-cost unit selling and the special promotions were particularly disingenuous from so-called responsible retailers who set themselves up in communities. They work with schools through the provision of tokens to buy computers and do much to generate business in their communities but, on the other hand, use alcohol products as a loss leader to attract people to their stores. It is only right that those practices be prevented. They do nothing for the children in our society. Many supermarkets work with communities and have various programmes for providing IT equipment for schools. That they do the two, side by side, is disingenuous and I would hope the issue can be resolved without legislation. We are all contributors to the problem and can have an input into its resolution. We need to appeal to those involved in the sale of alcohol, not necessarily to stick to the letter of the law but to have a conscience about the predatory practices they employ. If that could be done, it would deal with the issue in a more sensible way than bringing forward legislation that it may not be possible to enforce.
The alcohol advisory group, chaired by Dr. Holmes, looked at the special exemption orders and some of the longer opening hours that have developed. It looked also at the existing sanctions and penalties for those people who broke the law. It is right and fitting that the sanctions be commensurate with the profits that can be made from the sale of alcohol and the provision of facilities in that regard. I would hope that sanctions and penalties could be used effectively where people have been found to be in breach of the law. It is all about combatting excessive under age drinking.
If those who are under age begin to consume far too much alcohol it can have a huge impact on their ability to continue in education or find suitable employment and can cause devastation in their lives. It is not just about the impact on the street at night — public order offences are a concern at another level — the grip of alcohol, together with drugs, can have a huge impact on lives. For that reason it is right and fitting that we should find methods to deal with it.
Ireland has one of the highest alcohol consumption levels in the EU. That, combined with the lethal cocktail of drugs, poses a real problem particularly around binge drinking, which has a negative effect on society. We all know its impact in terms of road deaths. Some 36% of fatal crashes involve alcohol consumption and 28% of injuries at accident and emergency departments involve alcohol in one way or another. It plays a huge role in domestic violence. Almost half of those who have committed homicide offences were intoxicated. It is important that we continue to highlight the problem and generate publicity as we have done in regard to some of the health promotion measures that have taken place, particularly in the area of smoking. Some of the measures taken by the Government in the past, while not legislative, to promote a healthier lifestyle have been helpful in terms of changing people's practices in regard to smoking and eating. We debated some serious issues in terms of a balanced diet and its impact on public health. Clearly alcohol should also be looked in terms of a public health policy. Investment, through education and an effective campaign promoting public health will ultimately have a beneficial effect, perhaps greater than any restrictive or legislative practice a Government may introduce. That is not to suggest I do not support the Bill which I do and I support the Minister's efforts in regard to the development of the sale of alcohol Bill. We must be practical however and view the issue in the context of the current situation and of our overall culture on the consumption of alcohol. There is little doubt that the misuse of alcohol has a tremendous impact on the economy, especially in terms of the loss of working days in the commercial and public sectors. That aspect is probably not highlighted sufficiently. Absenteeism is a problem, especially on Mondays. Changes in that regard may be in the pipeline due to the straitened economic circumstances in which we find ourselves. The level of absenteeism in certain professions and sectors is significant and that needs to be addressed within the workplace. If people felt their jobs would be in jeopardy if they did not show up on Monday, it might contribute to a change in behaviour on Sunday night much more than would a change to the closing time of bars. To find a solution, we need to examine the matter in a holistic way.
There is a difficulty with public order in certain areas and the impact drunkenness has on the lives of other people, especially late at night. There is also an impact on tourism. For many years Ireland was seen as a country where people enjoyed a drink. We might have consumed a little more alcohol than our European neighbours or our friends in America but, notwithstanding that, we were seen as jovial characters. The caricatures that emerged were by and large positive. Unfortunately, alcohol and drug consumption by some younger people causes aggressive behaviour which has tarnished that image. That mix has changed the way in which people behave and led them to take things too far. We are at risk of significant losses if we are not prepared to tackle the problem and to deal with it in a measured, effective way.
We need to get tough on public order. I am sure the Minister is in contact with the Garda. Powers must be available to the Garda that will allow it to do its job effectively so that drunkenness and loutish behaviour is removed from our streets in so far as possible and as quickly as possible in a manner that will ensure people do not continue to serially offend. I refer for example to anti-social behaviour orders and other legislative measures.
The Bill deals with restrictions on the opening of off-licences. It is especially welcome that these measures are being extended to some large supermarkets. There is effectively a duopoly within the supermarket sector, as two of the large chain stores that are omnipresent throughout the country have a hold on the retail grocery trade. They have been branching into below cost selling of alcohol and the practices I outlined earlier in terms of the sale of multiple packs of cans of alcoholic drink known as slabs of cans. It is regrettable that this is happening and it is correct that the opening hours for their off-trade would be restricted in the same way as off-licences.
I am delighted the Minister has decided to change his mind on early houses. I was one of the people who had lobbied him on the matter — not that I have ever stood in an early house, to the best of my knowledge. I walk by an early house on my way to the Dáil every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday morning and I regularly banter with a couple of fellows who stand outside the door smoking cigarettes. They do not seem to pose a public order threat. From talking to other people who have encountered the phenomenon of early houses, that appears to be the general consensus. It is clear that the problem does not lie with early houses. While it might have provided the Minister with an opportunity to demonstrate a "get tough" attitude, it would not have had any effect. I am delighted he avoided the opportunity to look tough and has been much more practical in the measures contained in the Bill.
It is correct that the off-sales criteria that apply to off-licences would also apply to early houses. Existing early houses will continue to be treated in the same way they are currently. That is a workable solution and will help to protect some of the character of society. Had we chosen the other option, it would have been regrettable because early houses have become a feature of a certain part of city life for some people. They are a source of wonder and amusement for visitors. To some extent, early houses are a tourist attraction. I am not sure if tourists drink in early houses but they certainly visit them and talk about this aspect of Irish life.
I remain somewhat concerned about the necessity for a District Court certificate for wine retail outlets or off-licences. I have been lobbied by people, some from small retail stores, who do not see wine as being a major problem. There is no evidence of large amounts of wine being consumed to the detriment of society in a way that would constitute a threat to public order. I am more concerned about below-cost selling and cheap beers in terms of public order. Cheaper sources of alcohol are available than wine. I am not certain there is a necessity for the measure, which may only result in the courts being clogged up when we would be better advised to keep them free to deal with more serious offences. The Minister appears to have made up his mind but perhaps he will reconsider it at a later Stage.
I welcome the practical approach adopted by the Minister to the structural separation of alcohol from other products in retail outlets. I lobbied the Minister on the issue, as did other Members on this side of the House, about the difficulty it would have created for many convenience stores and smaller supermarkets in rural areas. Clearly, they provide a service where people generally purchase off-licence sales for consumption at home. That measure would have created an almost impossible burden on most of the shops I know where space is not available. The range of products stocked by many convenience stores is such that one is not required to travel to a large multinational store, which is helpful. If the Minister were to opt to separate alcohol products, that would drive consumers further into the grip of the duopoly that exists within the supermarket business. In the long run, that would be to the detriment of competition and rural communities.
I welcome the Minister's helpful approach to engage with the industry. He has invited the industry to come forward with a voluntary code of practice. The Minister has indicated that if the measures are independently verifiable he will consider not commencing section 8. That is a genuine effort on the part of the Minister to try to resolve the matter, and one where I hope the interaction between the two sides will be such that a solution can be found that does not damage the viability of smaller stores.
I welcome the fact that wine is to be exempt from any separation or code that might emerge. Deputy Rabbitte used flowery language about the fondling of wine bottles. That has become the practice for people, who, whether they are wine connoisseurs or not, like to give the impression that they are. In these times of straitened economic circumstances one would not want to take that from people if they feel it necessary to touch their purchase. The tightening of the special exemption order is welcome. The insistence on the use of CCTV is also helpful. To the best of my knowledge all good public houses that seek a late exemption or have night club businesses believe CCTV is an integral part of the security of the business.
It is helpful that theatre licences have been removed. I hope the Minister will review the nightclub sector. The Irish Nightclub Industry Association has sought a definition of nightclubs in law, which would be welcome. They should also be granted an annual nightclub permit.
Further to what Deputy Rabbitte said about sequential closing, the Minister should consider ending the prohibition of entertainment during the drinking-up time. At the moment during the half-hour drinking-up time nightclubs and bars are prevented from playing music, which adds to the speed at which people exit the building. If they were allowed play music for that half-hour, albeit with the bars closed, it would delay the exit from the building and allow a degree of sequential movement on to the streets.
Historically we as Irish people have had a somewhat ambiguous relationship with alcohol and its impact on our society. There is a sneaking regard for a man that can hold his drink. We associate some of our great literary figures and their work with alcohol. Every Irish social occasion involves alcohol. In recent years we have developed as an economy. We develop and export software and pharmaceuticals. We service and contribute to an international financial services industry. However, if we go anywhere in the world, what it is that makes us distinctively Irish? What is it that makes us stand out? The answer to those questions is the Irish pub. Practically every European, American, Asian, African and Australian city boasts its own authentic Irish Pub. One of the first introductions the people from the former communist bloc eastern European countries had to Western culture was the Irish pub. This in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. We have long been associated with hospitality and the clichéd céad míle fáilte. The pub has long been one of the cornerstones of Irish culture, where babies' heads are wetted, political careers established and funeral wakes conducted. It has been stated that prior to our independence the British authorities were quite happy to have the people of Ireland as inebriated as possible in order that rebellion would not take place. It is difficult to rise against the oppressor with a bellyful of ale on board.
I welcome the proposal in the Bill to introduce test purchasing of alcohol for both on-licence and off-licence premises. It would appear that gardaí will be allowed to test pubs and other outlets by sending in under-age people to try to buy drink, in order to expose breaches of the law. The principle of this is fine and should tighten up sale to those who are under age. The previous Minister spoke of using this method "subject to the necessary safeguards". I ask the Minister elaborate on this. Has this type of action using people under the age of 18 been used in any other sphere of Garda activity previously? Are there any constitutional issues in using children to implement legislation in this manner? Surely a national identity card should form a cornerstone of such a proposal.
I welcome any initiative regarding the manner in which alcohol is promoted and discounts applied. There is sophistication in all alcohol advertising. Drinks companies are obviously making vast sums of money when we see the film-type quality of their television advertising.
A friend of mine had occasion to visit Canada in the mid 1990s to attend an event sponsored by a well-known international drinks company. At the time the company referred to the vast untapped market for a new product, alcopops. He did not know what they were and felt the whole thing was daft. Here we are a number of years later with the whole alcohol consumption issue turned on its head. There has been a revolution in what and how people drink. It would be very naïve of us to think that this happened by accident.
We have seen another recent development in the sale of alcohol in that we are now in the era of "buy one get one free". This is a most unwelcome development and reflects on the marketing departments of drinks companies. Allowing the industry to self-regulate and follow a code of practice developed in conjunction with the Department of Health and Children has been the modus operandi heretofore. Perhaps it is time we a had a more vigorous approach as to how alcohol is promoted in society.
Statistics show that approximately 40% of proceedings taken each year for public order offences are for intoxication in a public place. I welcome that fixed-penalty charges for drunk and disorderly offences are planned in this legislation, which should free up the District Court. The Bill also allows a member of the Garda Síochána to seize any bottle or container which is in the possession of a person who appears to be under the age of 18 and which the member suspects, with reasonable cause, contains alcohol which is being consumed, or intended to be consumed, by a person under 18 years in a place other than a private residence.
Surely the substantive issue must be that a person under 18 years should not be consuming alcohol. While I understand that again there are constitutional issues regarding the private residences, is the Minister saying that in the case of a person under 18 found in public by a garda with alcohol the defence of claiming to be on the way home with alcohol will suffice? The Minister stated that alcohol would be seized in public if trouble was brewing and from people under 18 if gardaí think it will not be consumed indoors. Surely if those under 18 are found with alcohol it should be automatic that it be confiscated.
I understand the Minister has rowed back on the part of the Bill relating to early houses, which I welcome. There would not appear to be any element of public disorder associated with these premises. While they may not be to everyone's liking, we need to stay close to the principles of the Bill and temper all proposals with their impact on the relationship between alcohol and public order. I note the Minister has stated there is evidence showing these early houses are now used by people with drink problems. By all means he should show us this evidence and allow us make an informed decision.
We have seen a proliferation of off-licences in recent years. The culture of drinking has changed from the pub to the purchase of alcohol for consumption elsewhere. I have some reservations about the structural changes required under the Bill for mixed-trading retailers in that a structurally separated area will need to be constructed for the display and sale of alcohol. In essence for many businesses they will need to place the alcohol behind the counter and this measure is simply not practical in terms of space and because nearly all beers are now stored in refrigeration units. There are other means to achieve what the Minister wants to achieve on this issue. For instance all alcohol could be sold from a dedicated till covered by CCTV. Secure units could be used for the display of alcohol in a defined area of the shop or quite simply a trader's licence to trade alcohol could be removed immediately on conviction of a breach of the Intoxicating Liquor Acts. With respect to the physical separation of alcohol from the main store it would be more practical to adopt the Northern Ireland model whereby the authorities there have separated the area in which alcohol is sold by providing a physical barrier with access through a gate, turnstile or similar device.
It would be worth considering the introduction of an officially recognised training scheme for those involved in the sale of alcohol. While some responsible traders operate such a scheme, the Bill should compel anyone who sells alcohol to have participated in a scheme. I acknowledge the Minister has stepped back from the structural changes proposed for off-licenses within stores, which I felt were impractical. The Minister must clearly define what he means by a code of standards which he mentioned in his speech to this House last night.
The State has a key role to play in ensuring licensing laws and public order legislation are adequate and effective. Parents, too, have a role to play. We should continue to always underscore the importance of personal responsibility regarding the consumption of alcohol. Our drink culture has changed and become more aggressive. The philosophy of drinking to simply get drunk has become more common over the years. We have public health issues associated with alcohol that we did not have previously. This legislation goes some way towards finally acknowledging that we, as a people, have problems in this area.
We have been talking for a long time about the need for Government action to tackle the very many problems caused to Irish society by alcohol abuse. That day has finally come for what looks like being a partial Bill to do something about it. As has been said, Fine Gael supports it, though with some serious reservations, which I will touch on later. For the most part this Bill is a good start, although I agree with Deputy Rabbitte that much more needs to be done. I assume we will deal with much more substantial aspects of alcohol abuse and intoxicating liquor after the recess.
Alcohol abuse affects every strata of society, age group and socioeconomic class, male and female. Along with the considerable human misery it causes — ruining relationships, marriages and families, leading to underage sex and resultant pregnancies, social problems, mental health issues and public order offences — it places a considerable financial burden on society. That is why, while it may be much more politically advantageous to concentrate spending on public capital projects such as the extension of the Luas or a metro system, shiny, bright new infrastructure and services that will gain kudos from the public, there should be much more investment in social capital. That is a moral obligation which we, as legislators, cannot and should not ignore. Ignoring it, unfortunately, will not make it go away. On the contrary, our head in the sand approach to the problem up to now has allowed it to get worse.
There must be a much more cohesive strategy in time to deal with the problems we face. This strategy must come from the public health sections of the Department of Health and Children and the HSE, and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government via the Planning and Development Act, which allows the opening of certain facilities including fast food outlets and the opening hours attached to businesses selling alcohol. The Departments of Arts, Sport and Tourism and Education and Science must also join together to try to deal with the problem once and for all. Drunkenness in the streets is what we see at one end of the scale. If that strategic, cohesive campaign was put together well once, we would be able to deal with many of those problems. It is a complex and deep-rooted problem and because of that there is no easy, quick fix solution. That is why we need to take action which deals with the issue in a comprehensive way that is practical and workable.
There is much talk about drug abuse, however the most available drug for teenagers is alcohol. There have been 96 prosecutions in five years for illegally supplying alcohol to those who are underage. Irish society does not report on others. We do not report on the local publican who gives these children drink, even though we have seen them drunk in our pubs time and again. How often has one gone out for Sunday lunch with one's family and seen people settling down for the entire afternoon to watch a match on television? How often do we later see the parents of children very drunk, the children becoming agitated and bored in the pub because they have nothing to do and no interest, and then a row breaking out? How often do we report these matters to the publicans or the Garda? We do not. There is as much onus on society and those of us who are responsible to take the matter in hand and deal with it.
The issue of underage sex, which is linked to alcohol use in pre-teens and teenagers, is a little discussed problem in this country. The prevalence of "field drinking", that is gangs of teenagers gathering in places like fields and parks to drink excessively, is known to lead to under-age sex. Some of this could be categorised as abusive, for example it has been reported to me that drunk minors engage in sexual activity with more than one person or in the company of others. Surely no right-thinking person, young or old, would ever consider this if they were not seriously drunk. We have not even begun to examine the psychological effects of such activity on those engaging in it, quite apart from unwanted pregnancies. This legislation allows the Garda to confiscate the alcohol. It is a bit late at that stage for gardaí to come and take alcohol after actions of that nature have happened.
The number of off-licences in the State has trebled in seven years. Alcohol is available in far more outlets now, such as smaller shops, service stations and the like, as well as the big supermarkets. I take issue with the many adults who buy drink for underage people. They feel they are doing them a service, but if anything they are doing them a major disservice. Many of these outlets are open too late, drink is too easily available and the Bill will try to deal with some of that.
It is not overstating the case to say advertising often glorifies the use of alcohol. We are shown images of groups of friends gathering in pubs, getting the pints in, all good cheer and friendly chat. Those featured are often depicted as being heroes. The link with sports needs to be seriously questioned. The inclusion of professional sports people, whom young people look up to and see as role models, is a matter of concern. The subliminal message being sent out all the time is that alcohol is cool. Little or no message is sent out about the associated problems of alcohol abuse. There is very little reporting that many professional sports people do not drink alcohol. One cannot play, train and perform at the necessary level for professional sports and participate in drink. Some do, but they do not achieve the top level and few of them drink any longer. That message is never put out there. The only message that gets out is of the famous sports person supporting drink or one of the outlets for the provision of drink, and nobody knows whether he or she drinks. I know of some sports people who receive significant funds to promote these products although they do not drink at all, and certainly would not drink some of the products they promote.
Tougher measures must be demonstrated to publicans who offend and it must be shown that they will not be allowed to get away with it. There must be zero tolerance and after a period of time or a number of convictions the message will get through that the harsher penalties will cause a significant problem for anybody who is prepared to ignore the legislation.
Nightclub opening hours are of concern to this side of the House. Gardaí have expressed serious concern over the years about the level of public order offences committed in the time immediately following the closure of nightclubs. Deputy Joe Carey and I still frequent nightclubs on occasion, although not as often as we used to, and it is very obvious to us that when the nightclubs all close at one particular time everybody ends up on the streets looking for a taxi and a burger at more or less the same time. It is a problem that needs to be dealt with and sequential closing is a method of doing this.
The Planning and Development Act needs to be revisited with regard to the closing of fast food outlets. It is crazy that some fast food outlets which have revamped their premises have a condition of planning that they must close at a particular time while older ones which have not revamped or remodelled do not have conditions of planning. Some are obliged to close and others are not, which is unfair and must be dealt with.
In the next session, I would like to see a cohesive strategy coming from Government. This Bill is a step in the right direction and I will not be critical of it. However, we must consider all positive matters so that young adults can go out, have a good time and have a few drinks without getting drunk out of their minds.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. The vast majority of people in this country are affected by this issue, some more directly than others. My constituency of Dublin Central, which includes the central north side of the city, probably has the highest concentration of off-licences and licensed premises in the country. I welcome the introduction of new legislation to contribute to reducing and eliminating the misuse of alcohol and the anti-social behaviour which results from this misuse. Communities throughout the country, not just in cities, have at some stage experienced the results of the misuse of alcohol.
Having worked for many years with local communities in my constituency, I am extremely aware of the problems associated with the misuse of alcohol, particularly where it involves the young. I am also aware of how this can impact on the lives, careers, families and communities of those affected. As the Minister stated yesterday at the launch of the Bill, this is a response to a deepening problem of alcohol misuse and it will also reduce public disorder and crime associated with alcohol misuse. It is not a killjoy measure or one conjured up by a nanny state. This is to assist in tackling problems which are consistently being raised by communities and groups throughout the country. It is a very balanced approach to what is an issue for many.
The Alcohol Related Harm in Ireland report, published by the HSE in April, shows how alcohol misuse is exacerbating our crime problem. Some 46% of those who committed murder or manslaughter were intoxicated at the time of their crimes, drunkenness was a factor in more than one third of all fatal crashes and public order offences committed by adults increased by 247% between 1996 and 2002. These are stark realities which emerged in this report and they require immediate intervention. To be fair to the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the present and the previous Minister, that immediate response is included in this Bill.
I am concerned following recent reports that our young people are now among the biggest binge drinkers in Europe. The statistics are horrific. Not all young people abuse alcohol or are adversely affected by the use of alcohol but for those that are, the initial binge drinking can be a first step to a life of crime. I have seen this at first hand in communities in my own area where young children, for whatever reason but mostly from boredom, become involved in the taking of alcohol with the result that they enter a spiral from which they cannot escape. Despite the many supports and programmes that are in place throughout the city, these young children find themselves in a position where they are helpless to help themselves. In the small minority of cases where they actually become addicted, it can have a devastating affect on a community or a family. Anybody working in this field will tell us that the age of young people who are becoming addicted, not just to alcohol but also to drugs, is falling.
The Bill attempts to tackle alcohol abuse and address the public order and licensing aspects of what is a national problem. When we hear reports of vulnerable communities, particularly elderly people who have their lives disrupted, often on a daily basis, by adults and children who abuse alcohol, we must take action. Studies have been undertaken on the effect of these issues. The Bill will go a long way towards addressing many of the problems these people and communities are experiencing.
I was concerned with two particular aspects of the Bill which the Minister addressed yesterday. In particular, the measures could have impacted on the livelihood of people who are trying to run respectable businesses to the highest possible standards. Primarily due to the concerns raised by Dr. Holmes in regard to the increased availability and visibility of alcohol, particularly off sales, the Bill in general makes provision for the following. Off-sales of alcohol will be permitted only between the hours of 10.30 a.m. and 10.00 p.m., or 12.30 p.m. to 10.00 p.m. on Sundays. A point which surprised many is that shops, supermarkets and garages can currently sell alcohol from 7.30 a.m. Another section deals with wine off-licences, which are currently available directly from the Revenue Commissioners but which will in future require a District Court certificate. Also, the grounds on which an objection may be made to the granting of a District Court certificate for an off-licence will be extended to include consideration of the needs of the neighbourhood. I will address this point later as it is crucial.
The Bill also states that alcohol products must in future be displayed and sold in supermarkets, convenience stores and so on in a specified area which is structurally separated from the rest of the premises. As I said, my area has a high concentration of small convenience stores which service large apartment complexes or estates further out in the suburbs. The majority of retail outlets agree that the concept of having a separate area for merchandising alcohol is a good way to go, including the use of turnstiles, as used in the North of Ireland. However, in many cases, this is not practical or possible due to the size of the store and also due to the requirement to employ a separate staff member and have a separate till to process the sale of alcohol.
We had detailed discussions with the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern in recent days. I was delighted to hear it has been decided, in consultation with the retail organisations and individual business people, that there will a code of practice which they will voluntarily implement — in many cases the codes and requirements are being enforced voluntarily. As a result, the Minister is willing to consider deferring the implementation of any structural changes that may be required in retail premises, specifically with regard to the sale of alcohol.
Having spoken to many business people in my own area, many of whom are very responsible, I know that if we had gone down the road of enforcing the segregation and separation of alcohol, because of the nature of retail sales and the competition which exists in that market, some of these retail outlets could have turned into off-licence premises solely, which would defeat the whole purpose of the Bill in reducing access to alcohol. Due to the size of the outlets, the nature of the business and the areas in which the convenience stores are located, it would not have been practical for them to take on refurbishments and additional staff. I was very much heartened by the Minister's decision to re-examine the issue and to defer any implementation pending consultation with the business people and their representative associations.
Members might not be aware that some retailers may need up to a dozen different licences before they can open their doors. Obviously one needs a licence to sell alcohol but one also requires a licence to sell lottery tickets, fresh food, fruit, stamps, fish and hot food, to name but a few.
The offer of a voluntary code of practice governing issues such as signage, access, availability and staff training is welcome. Staff in shops must be properly trained in customer service and in handling alcohol and cash. Outlets must invest in voluntary training programmes to ensure that only persons over the age of 18 are sold alcohol. We have heard anecdotal evidence of some retail outlets employing people under the age of 18 and allowing them to sell alcohol. We have heard other reports of persons selling alcohol who have very limited English, which can cause difficulties. It is important that high standards are enforced by the retailers themselves. Many of the retailers to whom I refer are small family businesses whose name is over the door and who have a certain standing and credibility to maintain in their communities. The onus is on them to ensure that proper training and information is provided to staff in upholding the law.
There has been much discussion about the early morning houses, a large number of which are located in my constituency. I have met many proprietors of such premises in recent days. Most early houses are run by families who have been in the business for generations. They were originally provided with a six-day licence to sell alcohol from 7 a.m. to facilitate those who worked on the docks and in the markets which are situated in central Dublin. Years ago, Dublin only came to life at 8 a.m. and most people went into work in the centre of the city. The city then effectively closed down at night, with most pubs, restaurants and shops shut by midnight. Today, we have a changed city which is cosmopolitan, busy and which caters for more than 1 million people. It is effectively a city that never sleeps and the number of people working at night or doing shift work has increased enormously in the past decade. I saw a petition from one particular early house which was signed by taxi drivers, nurses, doctors, gardaí, retail and service staff, postal staff and other community workers. All of those people are doing shifts or working throughout the night and are as entitled to go to a pub for some relaxation at the end of their working day as those who work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Many proprietors of early houses have pointed out that the problem of the negative consequences of the misuse of alcohol and the anti-social behaviour resulting from that does not occur between the hours of 7 a.m. and 10 a.m. The vast majority of the problems occur between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. While a small number of the early houses open at 7 a.m., many do not open until 10.30 a.m. because that is the nature of the business. Very few of them engage in off-sales. The Minister has tackled that issue in this legislation, by precluding early houses from selling off-sale alcohol before 10.30 a.m. A lot of the early houses have a very regular clientele which has been built up over many years.
These are my two main issues of concern and I am glad to see that the Minister is aware of them and has pledged to deal with them. On the wider issue, alcohol abuse by some young people can be tackled by parental control, educational programmes and a restriction in the availability of low-cost alcohol, particularly in multinational supermarkets. We must ensure that the existing laws are implemented. In that context, alcohol promotions are a significant issue. I remember a discussion some years ago regarding alcohol promotions in colleges and universities. Alcohol companies were providing so much alcohol to clubs and societies that, in effect, the students were drinking for nothing. The companies were sponsoring their drinking and it was worth their while to do so. Promotions permit access to large volumes of alcohol and must be tackled. I welcome the fact that the issue is dealt with in this Bill.
The sale of large quantities of alcohol through "two for the price of one" promotions, whereby one can buy a dozen cans of a particular brand of alcohol and get another dozen free, is widespread among large multinational retailers. They use such promotions as loss leaders to attract customers into their stores, who then buy other goods. It has led to an enormous increase in the availability of alcohol, in terms of portability and accessibility. These issues are being tackled in the legislation, which will lead to a reduction in the negative consequences of the misuse of alcohol.
I welcome the introduction of increased powers for the Garda Síochána, which will contribute significantly to combating public disorder. The Bill provides for gardaí to seize alcohol from individuals if they suspect them of breaching public order. The power to seize was always a problematic issue. The gardaí currently have the power to seize, but only under certain conditions. This Bill strengthens the ability of the gardaí to seize alcohol from individuals they suspect of causing a problem.
The Bill also includes reforms to existing licensing laws that will allow the District Court to grant special exemption orders to nightclubs, late bars and other venues, with the aim of improving safety. The use of CCTV cameras is crucial in this area and it will be a statutory requirement for late-opening bars and nightclubs to install such equipment. CCTV systems have proven very useful in situations where people have been hurt and indeed, were used in the course of the investigation of a murder outside a nightclub. The use of CCTV in off-licences and retail outlets is crucial. It can help to tackle the issue of under age drinking. I know that some young people can appear to be older than they actually are, but retailers must ask for identification and CCTV cameras can police this.
The Stardust nightclub fire is still a source of comment for many people. Adequate fire safety in late night venues is crucial. We have seen incidents around the world where inadequate fire safety measures in late night venues has led to many deaths.
The sale of alcohol under a theatre licence will only be permitted during normal licensing hours in future. This is part of the licensing system that was being abused by a small number of proprietors but it is being nailed down in this legislation. An anomaly existed whereby some premises could remain open beyond normal hours without having to obtain special exemption orders. There were approximately 91,000 applications in one year for such orders. Again, this is all about addressing the misuse of alcohol and the consequences of misuse. The Bill is very strong on that. However, the Government can only go so far. This Bill is a start in terms of combating the problems associated with alcohol misuse.
There is a considerable amount of legislation in place. While we must ensure that the legislation is adequate and effective, personal responsibility must be part of the solution. Parents have a pivotal role in keeping younger children away from the dangers of alcohol and society has a collective role in addressing this problem. The Minister recognised that in his few words last night. This legislation uses a commonsense approach. This approach, matched by individual and collective responsibility by society, will address some of the problems and make a difference to the quality of life of our citizens in our communities.
With the agreement of the House, I wish to share my time with Deputy Deenihan.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. In principle, I welcome it. The thrust and background to it are extremely positive. The major issue is the direct link between the availability of alcohol and public order issues. This Government has allowed the number of alcohol outlets to literally mushroom in recent years. As a result, we saw a 57% rise in public order offences between 2003 and 2007.
I welcome the proposals to limit the opening times of off-licences and the new powers given to the Garda Síochána to seize alcohol in public places. One key point that consistently comes up in the report of the alcohol advisory group, which is the basis for this legislation, is the fact that the current legislation is consistently ignored by the relevant authorities. We cannot allow the latest set of proposals enacted by this House to be forgotten by the Government in respect of resourcing the authorities to ensure that what we enact is enforced. I have yet to see any commitment in respect of providing the resources to local authorities and the Garda Síochána to ensure that the legislation we bring forward here in this House is enacted and then enforced.
I welcome the fact that the previous Minister, Deputy Brian Lenihan, addressed a loophole I had flagged in the legislation in respect of supermarket loyalty cards. This is a positive development. I am disappointed that this issue ignores the fundamental problem we have at the moment in respect of the availability of alcohol, namely, below-cost selling. Nothing is being done in respect of this.
What is hugely frustrating is that I was criticised by the current Government Chief Whip in respect of the concerns I raised regarding the abolition of the ban on below-cost selling. I made the point that we should not throw the baby out with the bath water. I was ignored at the time and it was suggested that I would stop the introduction of cheap groceries. The exact opposite has happened. We now have cheap alcohol and grocery prices are going through the roof. Alcohol has been used as a loss leader in respect of getting people into supermarkets. This legislation does not address the issue of below-cost selling. It deals with marketing and promotion but ignores below-cost selling. That problem is the sole responsibility of this Government and the previous Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment who introduced the legislation to remove the ban on below-cost selling without looking at the huge implications it has.
Going through the legislation, it is very interesting to see some of the issues in it. I know we will get the opportunity to deal with them in more detail on Committee Stage but I will flag a logistical problem. A wine retailer must now get their off-licence directly from the District Court. We all know about the backlog in the courts at the moment. I understand that there are between 5,000 and 6,000 of these licences so it will take a significant amount of court time to deal with them. I accept the principle of what the Minister is trying to do but surely an alternative mechanism can be found rather than tying up the courts dealing with this issue. There are far more important things for the courts to do than deal with a wine retailer's off-licence. Wine and its availability is not the problem with which we must deal. It is not what is causing anti-social behaviour and under age drinking. Surely we can have a sensible approach to that.
I welcome the provision relating to CCTV systems at venues like nightclubs and late bars, which is a positive development. Many clubs and late bars already have CCTV in place but that additional protection will not only protect the public, it will protect the individual operator who is running a good business.
All Members received a considerable level of representations relating not so much to theatre licences as proposed in section 10, but to closing times and the need to have that differential between the closing times of public houses and nightclubs in place. All of us are aware of people who, because of their profession, cannot go out on Thursday, Friday or Saturday night. For many of them, their only social outlet is on Sunday night. They include people who work in the pub or nightclub trade, nurses, doctors, members of the Garda Síochána and so forth. We need to look at ensuring that the flexibility is maintained within the licensing laws in respect of this issue and that the differential remains. I have concerns about the abolition of that and believe people who want to go out and socialise on Sunday night should be allowed to do so. I do not see where there is any major difficulty with that in principle and I hope the Minister will look again at that issue before Committee Stage. International practice has shown that sequential closing is important in respect of public order. The objective behind this legislation is to improve public order.
I also welcome the provision relating to test purchasing. This is a positive development welcomed by most retailers and people. There are implications for the young people involved which I want to see addressed on Committee Stage. In respect of under age drinking and purchasing, I wish to focus on the issue of a national ID card. We can talk all we like here about under age drinking but unless we are prepared to address the issue of a national ID card, we are only talking in circles. Driver's licences have been used as national ID cards by many young people. They can easily be forged. When Deputy Séamus Brennan was Minister for Transport, we were promised a secure driver's licence system with credit card-type driver's licences in this jurisdiction within two years but that is still on the long finger. The Garda ID system is also prone to being forged. A number of nightclub owners have told me that they have come across forged copies of Garda ID cards.
We have seen the situation relating to passports. A significant number of passports go missing annually. Many of those stolen passports are ones that are being used by young people to prove their age. We should introduce a national ID card system. It is somewhat hypocritical for the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to introduce a national ID card for non-Irish citizens, but for him not to be prepared to put one in place for Irish citizens. This proposal is in the proposed new legislation on immigration.
Why do we not have a system whereby anybody using false identification will be prosecuted and fined? Currently, publicans or licence holders are prosecuted for providing alcohol to those under the legal age, but those who purport to be over the legal age are not. The responsibility is on the licensee to prove the person has a forged ID, but the presenter of the forged ID gets away with it. We should have a system of fines in place so that those using false ID face some penalty. This should not just apply to under age drinking, because there is significant abuse of identification here, for example with regard to PPS numbers. ID abuse seems to be brushed under the carpet, but I hope that on Committee Stage the Minister will bring forward some provision in this regard that will provide once and for all for a watertight national ID card system here.
In the context of this Bill, I refer briefly to a report published in April that received very little attention or space in the national media. The report in question, Alcohol Related Harm in Ireland, was produced by Dr. Ann Hope of the HSE and is a report that should be sent to every school, publican and GP. It confirms what I said on numerous occasions here when addressing the issue of alcohol abuse.
Alcohol is the third highest factor in the case of premature death and ill health in the European Union. Alcohol consumption is linked to more than 60 diseases and conditions, affecting nearly every organ in the human body. Some diseases are wholly caused by alcohol, such as alcoholic liver disease, alcohol dependency or alcohol poisoning. A dose response relationship is evident between alcohol consumption and risk of harm. In other words, the risk of harm increases with the amount of alcohol consumed. For many conditions and diseases, the relative risk increases with the increase in the volume of alcohol consumed. For example, there is a 13-fold increased risk of liver cirrhosis for women who drink 40 mg or more or for men who drink 60 mg or more per day. In the case of ischaemic stroke, something the Minister of State would be aware of, low level alcohol consumption offers some protection for men and women, but high level consumption increases the risk. There is also an increased risk of haemorrhage stroke in men, even at a low consumption level. I recommend that this excellent report by Dr. Ann Hope be circulated widely. It should also be discussed in Committee or in the House and it certainly can contribute much to our debate.
This legislation is based on the report of the Government alcohol advisory group which was set up in January. When the group was set up, the Minister at the time said he would implement its recommendations as soon as possible. I recognise the action of the Minister in this regard and that this action is now being continued by the current Minister. This is how legislation should be brought forward. This is how it is done in America and legislation does not need to go through years of consideration before a Bill is produced. As an aside, the heads for the Curragh of Kildare Bill were ready in 2004. I asked a parliamentary question about that Bill today, but the response was that it will not be ready for several years yet. There is action on the legislation before us now, which is untypical of the slow and cumbersome way we normally produce legislation here.
I know Dr. Gordon Holmes well and compliment him on his approach to the Bill. He has been involved in previous reports and has a depth of experience in the areas of legislation and alcohol abuse. Unfortunately, however, a number of the recommendations made in his report will not be included in the Bill. Some will and others will be changed and, perhaps, improved. Dr. Holmes's report highlights several important statistics for people interested in this area and for decision makers. It shows that Ireland has one of the highest levels of alcohol consumption in the European Union. In 2006, alcohol consumption levels here were approximately 30% higher than the EU average. This demonstrates the scale of the problem.
In addition to high consumption levels, Ireland also has a particular problem with binge drinking. It may be useful to consider binge drinking as a cultural attitude to alcohol consumption. Going out to get drunk is considered one of the hallmarks of binge drinking, as is preloading — a term used to refer to the consumption of alcohol before going out. Going out to get drunk is very much part of the philosophy of many of our young people, and even some older people. Preloading has become prevalent. Proprietors of bars and clubs would say that people come from their homes and parties already intoxicated. Therefore, we cannot blame it all on bar owners or proprietors of other centres where people go to drink. This Bill is designed to combat the easy availability of alcohol and I welcome that.
I noticed a comment made by the chairman of the advisory group, Dr. Gordon Holmes, on the publication of the legislation. He said he was pleased his recommendations were accepted, but was disappointed there was still no overall Government policy across all Departments. I have called for a cross-departmental approach to this problem on several occasions. In 1991 I produced a Private Members' Bill, the Youth Services Bill, which suggested an integrated approach to issues such as alcohol abuse. Unfortunately, few Private Members' Bills are accepted by this House. That was a good Bill and the approach recommended in it is now being proposed. Then, because it was an Opposition Bill, it was not accepted.
With regard to the provisions in the Bill, I welcome the additional powers given to the Garda. I was in New York recently where I visited a policeman friend who took me into the NYPD headquarters. He showed me around and I went out on a few working trips with him and saw for myself how the police handle situations in New York. One cannot be seen with a bottle of alcohol on the street in New York, even if it is in a bag. It is confiscated. It is not tolerated. As a result, one does not see these things anymore on the streets of Manhattan or New York. I hope this provision will have the desired effect. It is fine to take alcohol from somebody once but can we continue to do so? If we do, is there an extra penalty for repeat offenders?
I refer to issues not addressed by the Bill, such as alcohol retail price promotions. We see offers for a full slab of beer free when one buys a slab. For young people it is a badge of honour to have a slab over their shoulders. That must stop and I hope it can be addressed by another Department.
I see no reason the Garda national identification card, into which the Garda Síochána put much time and money devising, cannot be universal. The Minister should make it mandatory.
There should be mandatory training for alcohol retailers. This has been successful in the food industry. The standard of food hygiene was raised considerably because of that initiative and there is no reason there should not be mandatory training for alcohol retailers.
I am pleased the Minister dropped the measures on early opening, for which there was no justification. I am pleased he has introduced a voluntary code for separation. Separation could be counterproductive for some people and put them out of business, especially those in rural areas, but those who could afford it would put larger units in their shops, and would make sure it would pay. As a member of the committee, I will have the opportunity to address these issues again on Committee Stage. I welcome the important debate and hope it will address the mayhem on our streets and the damage done to young people. This is not the ultimate solution but is a step in the right direction.
I propose to share time with Deputies Lowry and Finian McGrath. I welcome the proposals before the House from the Ministers, Deputies Brian Lenihan and Dermot Ahern. I particularly welcome the willingness of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Ahern, to engage with the various interest groups on whose shoulders it will fall to implement this legislation.
The changes announced last night regarding retail provisions are especially welcome. The segregation of alcohol sounds great in theory and for some retailers it would not be a problem. However, for the majority, particularly the smaller, owner-managed retailers it presents a major problem and major expense that could not be recouped in the market conditions in which they operate. The issue of staffing and the practical matter of not having space are also concerns.
The decision to introduce the voluntary code is welcome but places the onus on the shoulders of the retailers. I hope they will respect it, engage with it and that this House does not have take further action on it. Having met many in recent weeks, I do not doubt that owner-managed operators would have no difficulty operating this voluntary code. The pride in the name over the door still stands for many of them. However, I have concerns about how the large supermarkets and multiples will engage with this voluntary code. They have shown little regard to date for many of the issues this Bill seeks to address. Particular vigilance is needed for that sector.
I do not know if the nightclub issue is being addressed in these reforms. Sequential opening times must be examined. It has already been mentioned in the House as assisting public order. It makes no sense to have every night establishment closing at the same time and everyone spilling on to the streets, often with nowhere to go, with transport not available and takeaways closed. This will lead to public order issues. If we can bring people out on a phased basis, particularly in large towns and cities, the prospect of public disorder is lessened.
The matter of drinking-up time and the ability to play music during that time seems a small issue but is one that causes much hassle for nightclub owners. It is a small concession to make in this context.
I have been watching the debate on the monitor as well as in the House and agree with all speakers on the loyalty cards and the below cost selling of alcohol in retail outlets. That must stop. Whether this is an issue for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment or the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, heads must be knocked together without delay. Supermarkets have been using alcohol as a loss leader to get people in the door. It is normal to see the weekly shop include crates of beer and spirits, with food following behind as a minor purchase. That is the single greatest issue in terms of the sale of alcohol.
On a walk through any park in any town where under age and illegal drinking takes place, one will come across packaging with the brand names of various supermarkets thrown there. It is evident that the alcohol was easy to purchase and, in this day of technology, we should be able to track where these bottles and cans were purchased through a bar code system. Tracing them to the point of purchase could provide for a further sanction against this behaviour. We cannot stop talking about it and we must address it.
Below-cost selling has become a greater issue in recent years. We will not blame anyone for this but it must be tackled. It is strange that we are reluctant to have national identification cards in this State, particularly for under age people. We do not have difficulty with identification cards in the US or Australia. As younger people on J1 visas in the US, we did not have difficulty with an under age limit of 21 years but when we talk about it in Ireland the issues of civil liberties and everything else comes into play. We have not been able to progress the matter of national identification cards. On this issue, the sale of alcohol particularly to under age people a national ID card is the only solution. It could be managed by some agency and should be a card that cannot be copied or used or sold on the black market. It is only fair to the proprietors of retail outlets, pubs and nightclubs or any undertaking involved in the sale of alcohol that we give them this protection in the battle against under age consumption of alcohol.
I listened to Deputy Deenihan's comments. The difficulty with binge drinking in Ireland is that none of us knows we are doing it. It is considered something somebody else does. The scientific interpretation of binge drinking shows that we all do it every weekend but we do not know we are doing it. There must be an aggressive discussion on the fact that the normal weekend out qualifies as binge drinking. Then, people might examine their own behaviour.
I commend the Bill and welcome the engagement between the Minister and the interest groups. There will be further discussion on Committee Stage on other matters. This should be seen as the first step on a full scale assault on the sale of alcohol, the misuse of alcohol and the others issues concerning alcohol that are doing so much damage to our country.
I welcome the strong political support for this Bill to curb intoxicating liquor consumption. I note strong support from civil society, including the alcohol industry itself, which recognises that such legislation is long overdue. I hope the time spent debating the Bill will be used wisely to iron out any deficiencies and to ensure that the Bill results in maximum effectiveness in combating alcohol abuse in Ireland.
It is now generally accepted that there is a compelling case in the context of public health and public safety to limit the widespread availability of alcohol. The onus is on Government to protect the common good of the citizens by legislating in a responsible way. This Bill is a step in the right direction. It is vital that we as legislators ensure this Bill is successful in addressing the problems and does not create unnecessary and inconvenient burdens on business and society without having real results.
The Government established the alcohol advisory group in January. The group was able to draw on a considerable level of knowledge and expertise in the course of its work. The group speedily came up with a thorough and useful report but I must note the distinct lack of inclusion of stakeholders in society, from industry and ordinary people, who might have also had something to contribute to the report.
As a nation, we have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol and the statistics stemming from this relationship are stark and undeniable. Of those involved in murder or manslaughter, 46% were intoxicated at the time of their crimes. Drunkenness was a factor in more than one third of all fatal crashes. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Dermot Ahern, recently outlined CSO figures for the past four years showing a 57% rise in public order offences; a 26% rise in assaults; and a 30% rise in four categories of assault. We must question the role of alcohol in this shocking increase in public order adult offences in recent years.
A survey by IBEC reported that alcohol and alcohol-related illnesses were cited by 12% of companies as a cause of short-term absences from work for males and by 4% for women. Excessive alcohol consumption was present in a quarter of severe domestic abuse cases.
From my perspective of serving the people of North Tipperary, it is clear that alcohol use and abuse among young people needs to be strongly challenged and confronted. In this context I welcome the initiatives in the Bill whereby a garda may seek an explanation from young persons under 18 years of age in possession of alcohol and if not satisfied with the reply the garda may seize the alcohol.
Only 96 prosecutions were taken in five years against off-licences, shops, pubs and restaurants for illegally supplying alcohol to those under 18 years of age. It is hoped the introduction of frequent test purchasing of alcohol products applying to both on-licences and off-licences will weed out and severely punish offenders.
I am happy with reasonable restrictions on the advertising and marketing of alcohol to young people. The alcohol industry has been very good at associating its brands with successful and sought after lifestyles that have proven to be attractive to young people. It is also frightening to read that the 2006 national study of health behaviour in school-aged children found that half of those aged between 15 and 17 years reported being drinkers and more than one third reported having been "really drunk" in the previous 30 days. It begs that question, "What about parental responsibility?". This is one area not addressed in the Bill.
Aspects of the Bill designed to deal with persons of any age involved in nuisance and who are in possession of alcohol in a place other than a place used as a private dwelling are also welcome. I hope this is used successfully in conjunction with existing public order legislation to provide substantial powers to any garda attempting to curtail a person with alcohol causing a nuisance or annoyance to others, or where there is likely to be a danger to persons or property or a breach of the peace. The real benefit of the new powers is that they will permit early intervention by the Garda and will help to prevent offences taking place. I hope these new powers are wielded responsibly and for the public good by the hard-working members of our Garda force.
From my perspective in North Tipperary, it is remarkable and regrettable that the traditional public house as we know it, which for generations has provided a controlled and safe environment for people to have a social drink, has gone into serious decline. The pub sector has been decimated with approximately 1,000 public houses closed in the past three years. This is worrying when statistics show that alcohol consumption is increasing and the role of the controlled environment of the public house is diminishing. The balance is shifting towards the unregulated area of private drinking and for me this is a concern from both social and health perspectives.
Regarding retailers, I welcome the recent consultation by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Dermot Ahern, with stakeholders in the area and his announcement last night that he is now well disposed to deferring implementation of section 8. It is common sense that if independent verification of compliance were to show that the code is being implemented effectively throughout the country and achieving its objectives through structural separation, it will not be necessary to commence the enforcement of section 8.
If one manages a convenience store, there is nothing convenient about being required to queue for a second time to purchase a bottle of wine. It is a significant and costly imposition to require a small trader to reconfigure his mixed trading premises so that alcohol sales are not only separated from other sales but that a barrier is erected, thus requiring dedicated staff. I cannot see the purpose of this part of the legislation and I welcome the Minister's recent common sense comments on the issue.
I am also pleased to note that the Bill includes a new statutory requirement to have a CCTV system in place in premises such as nightclubs and late bars. It is hoped this will curtail offences and identify any perpetrators of offences at these venues.
I thank the Acting Chairman for the opportunity to speak on the Intoxicating Liquor Bill 2008. This is an important debate and it is right and proper that we examine alcohol and the sale of alcohol in a calm and measured way. Any State reaction is not the way forward. I am not in the blame game and we need to focus on how we can resolve the issue. Blaming shopkeepers and retailers is not the way forward.
I spent recent weeks meeting and listening to people and staff involved in the trade, which I found worthwhile. I met Gus O'Hara from Vernon Avenue in Clontarf, Lil Courtney from Fairview and Derek Moran, all of whom are involved in the trade. They put forward sensible solutions and constructive ideas. I lobbied the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and I am delighted he listened to the common-sense ideas and the proposals included in the legislation. I commend him for this. He took the bull by the horns and listened. He has taken these ideas on board in the legislation. This is a common sense way to deal with the Bill.
When one examines the detail of the legislation one sees the key points regarding alcohol abuse. Community based retailers, for example Centra and Spar, strongly support many of the measures in the Bill. They fully understand the role we must play in the responsible sale of alcohol.
It is important that we reinforce the good points in the legislation. The positive aspects of the Bill are the curtailment of opening hours, the strengthening of temporary closure orders, an increase in fines, the introduction of test purchasing by the Garda Síochána and the introduction of CCTV. It is important that we realise many members of staff already implement these measures.
The areas of concern in the legislation and the wider debate include the proposal that in small stores where separation is not possible, alcohol products can be displayed and sold only from behind a counter. This will be extremely difficult to implement due to space and staff constraints. It will be costly and time-consuming for many small shopkeepers. Staffing the alcohol till will incur additional ongoing staffing costs. These issues have been raised with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and it is important to recognise that he took these views on board and is dealing with the matter in the Bill.
These issues should be seriously examined which is why I welcome the positive aspects of the Minister's response. Let us examine good practice in other countries. Why do they not have binge drinking in France? This is an area we could examine closely. I have been in France many times and have met many teenagers on social occasions. Not one incident have I witnessed of binge drinking or alcohol abuse. We can learn from other countries and ask ourselves questions.
It is important to introduce health and education angles to the debate on alcohol. This is a public health issue. I welcome the fact that Dublin North Central counselling services have received €144,250 in extra funding during the past three or four days. I particularly welcome the funding for the Northside Counselling Service of €102,000, for Doras Buí of €38,000 and the other grants provided to Dublin North Central. These will enable groups to work with children and families through difficult and traumatic times.
I welcome the debate, as there are many positive aspects to the Bill.