Tuesday, 22 June 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Ós rud é nach bhfuil mórán ama againn, caithfimid bheith sciobtha. Tháinig sé aniar aduaidh orm nuair a chuala mé scéal ar an Déardaoin go raibh fadhb i nGaillimh maidir le bheith ag freastal alcóil taobh amuigh de na pubanna agus na bialanna. Labhair mé leis an Aire an oíche sin agus - ceart go leor - d'eisigh sí ráiteas a thagair don tuiscint a bhí ag an Roinn. It is interesting to read the Garda statement, which specifies:
Licences to sell alcohol are issued by the District Court. The application for a licence to sell alcohol is accompanied by the lodgment of inter alia a site plan highlighting the specific area to which the licence will apply. The licensee is licensed to sell intoxicating liquor to a person to consume the alcohol within that highlighted area only, any other sales are on a takeaway basis only.
In other words, if something is not provided for on the licence, it is illegal.
We cannot go ahead without absolute clarity in the law. My question to the Minister of State is whether we are going to get either primary legislation or a new statutory instrument, whichever is needed and would suffice, to get rid of any doubt in the law. It is not fair to ask An Garda Síochána to show discretion that is contrary to the law.
What is happening at the moment is very much amateur hour stuff from the Government. The Garda issued a statement and then we had the Minister for Justice tweeting about it. The information she gave was not accurate and needs to be corrected. The message was very clear from the Government that we will have an outdoor summer. Restaurateurs and pub owners knew what that meant. We all thought we knew what it meant. To be clear about it, I asked An Tánaiste on 13 May, nearly six weeks ago, whether a plan would be put in place that would ensure everyone is on board, knows the rules and knows what he or she is supposed to be doing. He agreed that a plan would be necessary but nothing was done. The situation is absolutely shambolic. It is as though the Government does not realise that hundreds of thousands of jobs depend on its getting this right.
I welcome the opportunity, however short, to raise this matter with the Minister of State. I have a slightly different view on it from my colleagues. First, I think the Garda has done us a favour in highlighting the difficulties its members are facing in being asked to use their discretion. That is extremely difficult to do. In fact, we know from history and various tribunals that it is just not possible.
This problem has arisen as a consequence of the message given by the Government that we are to have an outdoor summer. Unfortunately, that simply means more consumption of alcohol and the situation is not helped by a broader interpretation of what an outdoor summer means. In Galway, we have clear by-laws that say it is not permitted to drink on the streets. Those by-laws were not put in place overnight. They happened as a result of continuous pressure from various people because public drinking was out of control. Rather than recognising that position and having a balanced approach to the reopening of pubs, which I fully agree with, the Government focused on an outdoor drinking situation, which is totally wrong. We should have opened all pubs, albeit with restricted capacity, to reduce the pressure. I am asking not just for clarity in this matter but for a healthier message from the Government as to what an outdoor summer means, while still facilitating businesses in Galway and elsewhere.
I thank Deputies Ó Cuív, O'Reilly and Connolly for raising this important issue and giving me an opportunity to address it on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Humphreys. Following public health guidance, Government policy is to have a gradual reopening of the hospitality sector, beginning with outdoor hospitality, before a decision is taken on resuming indoor service in a few weeks. Many of our bars and restaurants have now reopened with outdoor service, which is giving people a welcome opportunity to meet safely with friends and family again.
As An Garda Síochána has made clear, the overwhelming majority of licensed premises have behaved responsibly. Those that continue to behave responsibly in controlling their premises should have nothing to worry about. Gardaí all across the country use their discretion every day to police as the circumstances require, as they have done throughout the pandemic, and they work closely with restaurants and pubs to ensure the safety of the public. An Garda Síochána will continue to adopt a graduated approach to the public health guidelines. Members of the force will engage with the public and encourage and educate in respect of the public health guidelines, as they have done throughout the pandemic. This often requires a delicate balance and there are different legal situations in different parts of the country, depending on whether there are local authority by-laws in place.
A small minority of pubs have been serving alcohol to customers seated outside agreed areas. Clearly, that will be the focus of any Garda action in the first instance. The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, has discussed this matter with Garda Commissioner Harris a number of times and did so again yesterday morning. The Commissioner has since issued a communication to regional assistant commissioners indicating that gardaí should use discretion while continuing to respond to public complaints about public order issues, parking, noise etc. The Commissioner has reassured the Minister that discretion will continue to be applied by gardaí in their engagement with licensed premises.
Both the Commissioner and the Minister are satisfied that the Irish people can be facilitated to enjoy a safe outdoor summer while gardaí continue their difficult work of keeping people safe. The Attorney General and the Minister have also spoken on this matter and their officials will work closely, together with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, to examine the matter in full. This is a complex area of law, as the Deputies will appreciate, but the Minister has committed to taking legislative action, if necessary.
In regard to specific points raised by Deputy O'Reilly, I do not agree with the contention that the Government's approach is shambolic.
The Government has managed and put in place a level of adequate supports to help facilitate a safe and socially distanced outdoor summer. The messaging, from a whole-of-government approach, is getting out.
Deputy Connolly raised a significant and important point about spreading the impact across towns and cities. It is certainly to be considered. However, the Government has made good strides in working with all partners, including local authorities, local communities, vintners, hoteliers and the services sector, to put in place a good set of proposals and supports to ensure that we can have a safe and enjoyable summer in 2021.
While I thank the Minister of State for his response, the matter gets more confusing every time somebody speaks on it. He stated, "This is often a delicate balance and there are different legal situations in different parts of the country depending on whether there are local authority by-laws in place." That is true, but is it the problem in this case? If it is, the local authority in Galway should be told to sort out the problem. However, towards the end of his response, the Minister of State made it clear that this may not be the case, and it might be a matter of primary law.
When gardaí visited a licensed premises in Galway, they must have known under what law they were doing so. It cannot be a great complex problem, because gardaí cannot approach anybody without having authority based in law. Will the Government introduce amending legislation to rectify the issue or is it saying unequivocally, without doubt, that it is a matter for the local authorities and their by-laws?
When I said the position was a shambles, this is what I was talking about. The Minister of State indicated that the Minister of Justice had "committed to taking legislative action, if necessary". In the past hour and a half, the Irish Independenthas reported that "Justice Minister Heather Humphreys will bring legislative changes on pubs and restaurants selling alcohol in their outdoor seating areas" in the coming days. That is the message that people who are fighting really hard to save their businesses and workers who want their jobs to survive this, are getting. They are getting mixed messages. They deserve some clarity, as do members of An Garda Síochána who are being asked to police this. They are not being given sufficient guidance by the Government on the issue.
As I stated, I raised this issue with the Tánaiste six weeks ago. The Government has had a long time to plan for it. We should not be having the conversation at this late stage. In the intervening time, will the Government issue guidance and provide some sort of clarity for those people who are going to be expected to deal with the mess the Government has created?
I think the Minister of State is failing to grasp the significance of what is happening here. We are sending out a message that businesses can take over public spaces and serve alcohol, which breaches by-laws that prevent the consumption of alcohol in such spaces. That is one message that is being sent out. The Government is placing the Garda in an impossible position.
Galway City Council passed the Barcelona Declaration almost 20 years ago, guaranteeing universal access to all of the city's residents to the streets of Galway for services, regardless of ability and age. In addition to giving consideration to the needs of businesses, a balancing of rights is required here, and that has not been considered. We are focusing on law. To me, the law is quite clear. You get a licence to serve drink on a premises and the drink can be taken and consumed outside, unless there are by-laws in place. Such by-laws are in place in Galway.
The Government message to the public to enjoy an outdoor summer must be healthier and cannot just be about the consumption of alcohol and taking over public spaces. It must be much fairer, broader and more inclusive than that. That is the problem.
As I said, An Garda Síochána has made clear that the overwhelming majority of owners of licensed premises have behaved responsibly and those who continue to behave responsibly in controlling their premises should have nothing to worry about. A tiny minority of pubs have been serving alcohol to those seated outside agreed areas, and clearly that will be the focus of any Garda action in the first instance.
Many cities have by-laws in place. Local authorities have facilitated pubs with permissions for outdoor seating and grants have been made available to many businesses. We want this to work but gardaí need to be able to control matters as needed and prevent them from getting out of hand. Gardaí across the country use their discretion every day to police as the circumstances require, as they have done throughout the pandemic, and work closely with restaurants and pubs to ensure the safety of the public. I trust that Garda members will act in accordance with the Garda Commissioner's instruction and will continue to adopt a graduated approach to the public health guidelines, in the interests of public safety and order. However, the Government is clear that if we need to take further action, we will do so. The Minister for Justice, Deputy Humphreys, is discussing what further measures may be needed with the Attorney General and Government colleagues.
In response to Deputy Connolly's point about the messaging on the outdoor summer, it is broad and it is about the enjoyment of outdoor spaces and nature. We are asking for people to enjoy the outdoor summer responsibly. Those messages have begun to be sent out in media campaigns this week. The messaging is much broader and is about much more than just the consumption of alcohol in our towns and cities. It is about enjoying what the country has to offer on a broader scale. We are cognisant of that messaging and we have begun to get that message out this week.