Thursday, 4 October 2018
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
It is totally unfair that the Minister is not here and that he sent the Minister of State to answer on something he said to me in the Dáil last week for which there was no basis. I have sympathy for Deputy Byrne in her predicament as a Minister of State. I am shocked that the Minister did not, as was arranged by the reform committee at the beginning of this Dáil, come in here and put the Dáil before whatever other commitment he has this evening.
I raised the issue, as did my colleague, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, of bilingual signage or labels on alcohol products. There was a proposed amendment to achieve this. In reply, the Minister said:
Nonetheless, in addition to the practical concern I am conscious that we must in a public health Bill ensure that information on the label is clear and effective. It must be the paramount objective. A study was commissioned from Amárach Research in August 2015 to provide recommendations on how to best communicate critical information through labelling on the risk relating to alcohol consumption. There must be an evidence base to this and we must ensure this is an effective way of communicating. The research indicates that the inclusion of the information in another language on labels served to confuse the message being relayed.
In reply to a further point he made, he went on to say "it would still be less effective. I am in the business of evidence-based policies and evidence-based politics." It might surprise some people to know that my primary degree was in physics, chemistry and mathematics, fairly rigorous disciplines, and evidence is evidence. It is not hearsay and not throwaway remarks. I have the Amárach research, all 206 pages of it. I do not know whether the Minister read it. There are three references to focus groups on attitudes of individuals towards Irish labelling on tobacco. There are only three throwaway remarks. That is not evidence but people's view of a thing. There were people many centuries ago who believed the Earth was flat, and if one had a focus group at that time, one might have found that 80% believed the Earth was flat. The evidence that has come forward since is that they were wrong and their view was incorrect and that the Earth is more round than flat. A few people in a focus group expressing a throwaway remark is not evidence.
When one goes through this 206 page report, one will find that they never tried a bilingual label in the research they did. They never said to look at one then the other and got the reactions. At no stage did they actually analyse this question. When one looks at all the chapters and details, this issue was not one on which they did evidence-based research. Their conclusions are largely to the contrary. They cite the Canadian example as being one of best practice. As the Minister of State knows, everything federal in Canada has to be bilingual. The report tells us that bilingual is best and I am shocked that the Minister did not come in here to say sorry and that he made a flippant remark. What he said was serious. He was putting through a Bill and trying to persuade this side of the House that it would be dangerous to public health to have bilingual labels. He claimed to have evidence of this. It is clear now that he did not.
I apologise for the Minister not being able to attend. I understand the frustration of Deputies that we do not have the Minister here to answer some of these questions. I will read the remarks that have been given to me and maybe come back on one or two of the issues that Deputy Ó Cuív has raised. In his remarks to the Dáil last week, the Minister for Health stated that the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill will ensure that the information on the label is clear and effective. It must be a paramount objective. He made it clear that he could not accept the amendment on including the Irish language on labels for "practical reasons arising from the EU's standstill period".
The advice from the Department of Health is that a requirement to have the Irish language on labels would have to be notified at EU level and it would have delayed the Bill. The Minister acknowledged the importance of the Irish language in his remarks to the Dáil and agreed to include the warnings in the Irish language on notices in licensed premises and on websites that sell alcohol. The same space restrictions that apply to labels on alcohol products do not apply to notices or websites. Providing for the Irish language on notices in licensed premises and on websites that sell alcohol will ensure that consumers are provided with the relevant health information in Irish at the place of purchase. Both the Minister and I recognise the importance of our native language and, therefore, want to ensure that it is given due recognition within the public health alcohol framework. On that basis, the Department has already been in contact with the HSE and it has confirmed that the website referred to on labels, namely, www.askaboutalcohol.ie, will include all the relevant health information in the Irish language.
In 2015, the Department of Health commissioned Amárach Research to do primary research to further inform health labelling of alcohol products to ensure the clarity and efficacy of message. The purpose of the research was to identify people's perceptions as to the most effective information to be included on the labels so as to ensure that the Department would be provided with the most reliable data and that the most suitable health warnings would be chosen. The findings of the research were, and will be, taken into account to ensure the most effective messaging. The research examined existing labelling systems on products including food, medicine, tobacco and alcohol employing a mixed mode approach which included focus groups and a nationally representative face-to-face group. Deputy Ó Cuív said only three people were involved.
I am sorry. The research states: "As a further note of caution, the inclusion of messaging in the Irish language served to confuse the message." With this legislation, we are moving from a situation where there is currently no health information required on the product to requiring six pieces of information to be included on the label. This is a new approach that will bring with it administrative burdens and costs on business. If the additional requirement is added that the information must be in two languages, that would require a larger area of the label to be used. I will respond to the Deputy's other points in due course.
As I said, there are three references, one was that the information on the back of cigarette packages was hampered in such a small space due to the length of the sentence in the bilingual approach. That was a view expressed. It is not scientific analysis of the effect because bilingual labels were never tried. Others viewed the inclusion of the messages in the Irish language as irrelevant. That is their opinion, not evidence. Some respondents suggested jovially that the information on cigarette packages was only really useful as an education tool promoting the Irish language. A person referred to as "May, Limerick" said: "I just look at them and think, oh, that is how you might say that in Irish..." That is a quote from the report.
The third one relates to tobacco being a very different product from alcohol. Although no scientific study was carried out, or there was no evidence-based study, as the Minister said, it was said as a further notion of caution the inclusion of messages in the Irish language served to confuse the message. That was the opinion, not evidence, of whoever wrote the report. The Minister never asked for the company to examine the issue of effectiveness. It is not in the report and no scientific analysis of it has been done. It is a clear case of a claim being made, which happens frequently in the House, but where there is no basis to it.
One would think in a bilingual State that people would have rights to services in the two languages. Another point is that on a previous occasion, the Minister accused me of being condescending. I stand over what I said, which is that it is hard for those who do not speak the Irish language on a daily basis, people who have not raised their children with Irish as the home language, and those who do not have grandchildren who have Irish as a home language to understand the influence of the visibility of the language in terms of encouraging people to use it. One sentence in the report is key. It states that Canada is best in the class, and Canada is bilingual, so the report undermines the Minister's argument totally and fully supports my argument. That is evidence if one wants evidence.
I understand Deputy Ó Cuív's passion for the Irish language. He is an Irish speaker but, unfortunately, I am not. I understand from the Minister, Deputy Harris, that he did not accept the amendment on including the Irish language on the label for practical reasons arising from the EU standards.
Anybody who spoke in the Chamber during the course of the debate on the Bill, and on Committee Stage, made it very clear that we need the Bill to be passed in order to deal with the problems we have with alcohol in this country. To continue delaying the Bill would be regrettable for most people who, unfortunately, find themselves addicted to alcohol and those who die from it on a daily basis.
It has already taken more than 1,000 days for the Bill to get to where it is now. The groundbreaking legislation which we will see involves health warning and information before the purchase of alcohol in shops and at other points of sale such as airports.
I am taken aback by what Deputy Ó Cuív said about three references made in the Amárach report. I will raise them with the Minister. I have made a note of the points the Deputy made.