Rushing through of Intoxicating Liquor Bill undermining integrity of the Seanad
The Seanad discussed the Intoxicating Liquor Bill 2008 this afternoon. This piece of legislation is somewhat unusual as the bill only passed the Dail last night and the government is seeking to have it passed in the Seanad by tomorrow evening.
At Order of Business this morning, a number of senators raised concerns regarding the rushing of this Bill. I stated that it was undermining the independence and integrity of the house.
What concerns me also, is the fact that I have received letters and emails by the dozen in the past 48 hours from people concerned about what effect the legislation will have on them – not only members of the nightclub industry but youth groups and organisations. I have not yet had an opportunity to consider fully what each one states.
Below is my contribution to the second stage of the bill in the Seanad:
No one can doubt the background against which we are having this debate. We discussed it on a number of occasions in this House and it was discussed elsewhere. I refer to the abuse of alcohol, the problem of binge drinking, and the knock-on effect right across a range of social and personal problems such as mental health problems. All of these issues and their impact have been documented and elucidated in this House many times over.
No one questions the commitment of all of us, Senators on both sides of the House, to address this fundamental problem with which Dr. Gordon Holmes, in his insightful report, assisted us so much. The fact that all on this side of the House are complaining that this is, as Senator Quinn stated, “rushed legislation of the worst kind”, are criticising the legislation and the manner in which it has been introduced, and the speed with which it is being forced through both Houses, can not be taken for one minute as indicating any less of a concern on the part of those of us on this side of the House who would make that point with addressing this issue.
The question really is; does it address the issue? Dr. Holmes, in his report, wrote of the need for a comprehensive approach to this problem right across society but that is not what is in this Bill. The Bill contains a number of welcome provisions, but this is not the comprehensive attack on a serious social problem that we all know is needed. It is not consistent with debate, analysis, careful scrutiny of the problem and then the bringing forward of solutions to have legislation in this House, for the first time in my relatively short period here, where the deadline for amendments on Committee Stage came before the Second Stage, although there was some flexibility indicated for later today. It is ludicrous for us who are expected, as I stated on the Order of Business, to carry out the important constitutional function, to scrutinise legislation and to decide whether it is appropriate that it should be passed, to be faced with such a situation.
I heard one of my colleagues state that he was lobbied by one of the associated bodies, I think it was the nightclub association. I have not had time to be lobbied by them. There is not enough time to meet the people who have expressed an interest and an involvement. Certainly, people who are involved in it are just as entitled as anybody else to raise their concerns with legislators. What we do about that is another matter, but we should have an opportunity to listen to them and to think and consider carefully what they have to say.
While I have not had an opportunity to meet anybody, I have a file of e-mails that I have received from people, not just from the nightclub industry but from youth organisations and organisations right across the board, but I have had no real opportunity to undertake proper consideration of what they state.
A long debate into the late hours tomorrow night, or on Friday or next week, does not address the problem I raise. The Leader has constantly stated that the Government would not impose a guillotine and we can debate all night long. That does not address the issue. The issue is having a sufficiency of time between the different Stages of legislation so that a real public debate can occur. We are not having that. We, not just us Senators but the people who the Members are supposed to serve, are being deprived of that.
It has been stated that the Bill is founded largely on a need to address the public order side of matters. To some extend, I acknowledge fairly that it does touch on a number of the issues about which one would have concern and on which one would want to see amendments introduced in legislation to address.
It includes new powers afforded to the Garda related to a right of seizure, a right of entry and so on. I have not examined the legislation in great detail, but I question whether those new powers are required. If they are required, they should be given to the Garda. However, we have repeatedly introduced legislation to deal with social problems such as anti-social behaviour, crime and other such concerns. Our job is to legislate, but the notion that simply introducing another Bill or affording new powers to the Garda will, of itself, address these issues is bogus.
We have seen measures introduced in the past such as anti-social behaviour orders. My colleague, Deputy Jan O’Sullivan, pointed out recently the many powers in the Childrens Act 2001 dealing with parents, parental involvement and trying to ensure parents take action in respect of their recalcitrant children. Although these powers are enshrined in legislation, many have never been acted on. I question whether the proposed Garda powers of seizure and entry will be any use in practice. Will the Garda have the resources and the time to use these powers? As a public representative, I am frequently lobbied by residents’ associations, local residents and other people concerned about anti-social behaviour such as people drinking close to off-licences and so on. The concerned people cannot get the Garda to deal with these problems. This is not a meant as a criticism of individual members of the Garda, superintendents, or Garda stations, but the force simply does not have the resources. I doubt the proposed Garda powers of seizure allowing the force to take bottles off kids and so on will have a significant effect.
Nobody doubts the concerns we have about this issue but this does not mean we should take a steamroller approach, or use a piece of legislation in an attempt to address a wider social problem. The proposal to close nightclubs earlier or the earlier proposal, now withdrawn, to discontinue licences to early morning houses are examples of this approach. There are other proposals in the Bill which are, ultimately, directed towards the end that we have set ourselves, but which appear to be excessive.
I have heard it said there is an abuse of theatre licences and no doubt there are many venues using a theatre licence and operating under a flag of convenience by so doing. This points to the necessity of introducing a proper licensing system for nightclubs and this is perhaps what Senator Boyle meant when he referred to the matter. Why should nightclubs depend on the fiction of a theatre licence? In this country we are not very good at facing up to problems when there is a need, but let us address it. Nightclubs are nightclubs. In any city in the world where there are nightclubs, there is an expectation that they will stay open later than other licensed premises. It does not make sense that people are disgorged onto the streets of Dublin, Cork or wherever at the same time because of pubs and nightclubs closing simultaneously.
We should not assume people go to nightclubs for the sole purpose of drinking. Some others, including Senator Boyle, have said they occasionally frequent night clubs, as have I. I do not believe this is necessarily declaring a conflict of interest, but I have no difficulty with a properly regulated system of nightclubs in any modern city. People do not go to these places to simply tank up further, they go for many reasons. The music industry is an important element of the nightclub scene and people go to nightclubs to dance and enjoy themselves. There is responsible adult consumption of alcohol. This steamroller notion that we roll over the nightclubs, early morning houses, provide extra powers to the Garda is excessive. The legislation seems to try to serve as a panacea and demonstrate to the public that we are addressing what is a much wider and more serious social problem. Some aspects of the legislation are okay. However it purports to be a more comprehensive measure than it is in reality. I disagree with my colleague, Senator Denis O’Donovan, in that I see no reason why this measure cannot be postponed until the Autumn.
This would give the public an opportunity to debate it and give all the interested parties an opportunity to contribute. Let us then have a level-headed debate in the autumn. Senator O’Donovan is incorrect in that nothing will happen during the summer that this Bill would otherwise prevent. Let us leave it and debate the matter more carefully in the Autumn.