Home > Seanad Éireann debate. Commencement matters - Culture policy [Licensing laws].

[Oireachtas] Seanad Éireann debate. Commencement matters - Culture policy [Licensing laws]. (27 Jun 2023)

External website: https://www.oireachtas.ie/en/debates/debate/seanad...

An Cathaoirleach: I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy James Browne, to the House and call on Senator Warfield.

Senator Fintan Warfield: Nightlife and the night-time economy remain under severe threat in our towns and cities and, by the looks of it, the Government is dragging its feet on reform. Rising property costs, rip-off insurance, extortionate licensing fees and archaic licensing are crippling businesses and cultural activity. I call on the Government to reform licensing laws immediately and implement the raft of more than 30 recommendations made by the task force on the night-time economy as soon as possible. I particularly call on it to introduce its legislation to reform this area. We cannot fall into the same trap we have fallen into for the past 20 years of telling this industry to wait. There were 522 nightclubs in 2000; there are only 85 left now. By any measure, that is an alarming loss of cultural space, music venues and nightclubs. With them go jobs for musicians, sound engineers, lighting designers, bouncers, hospitality staff and bar workers. I see young and older people who work in the industry choosing to leave because their careers do not support their survival in Dublin.

They are going to Berlin and Glasgow and further afield.

I would like the Minister of State to tell me that the Department of Justice is prioritising this issue and is actively focused, day-to-day, on producing a final draft of this legislation. I ask this because it does not seem to me to be prioritised. The proposed sale of alcohol Bill 2022 is not new. A draft of this proposed Bill has existed for about 20 years. Many promises have been made to this industry and many political parties, particularly those in government, have benefited from announcements made in recent years. People come up to me and say it is great to see the reforms taking place in the industry. This proposed legislation, however, is nowhere near being over the line. People actually believe these changes have been made because of the number of announcements made by the Government.

This legislation needs to be enacted and I hope this will happen by the end of the year. No new venues have been opening. In this time, the cost of insurance has also been going up and venues have been holding on for dear life. The special exemption order, SEO, reforms in the context of the budgetary changes were much appreciated. I refer to the situation which existed after Covid-19 when those fees were waived and reduced. These changes were welcomed but we need them to be put on an official footing. The industry has been waiting and waiting and costs are as important as opening hours in ensuring the survival of these venues.

From a broad perspective, it does not look like much change has been made concerning insurance. Killing the costs is crucial in addition to extending the opening hours. I hope, therefore, the Minister of State will be able to tell me if the Department is actively working on this legislation day-to-day, when a Bill will come to the Dáil and the Seanad and when we will see this proposed legislation become law.

Minister of State at the Department of Justice (Deputy James Browne): I thank Senator Warfield for raising this important matter regarding an update on the proposed sale of alcohol Bill 2022 and when opening hours will be extended. I convey the apologies of my colleague, the Minister for Justice, Deputy Helen McEntee, who regrets she cannot be here for this Commencement matter debate due to another commitment.

I thank the Senator for raising this important matter and for giving me the opportunity to provide an update on the drafting of the sale of alcohol Bill 2022 on behalf of the Minister. Supporting our night-time culture and its economy is a central promise in the programme for Government and in the justice plans of the Minister. To do so, we need modern laws that are fit for purpose, while also recognising that the sale of alcohol must be regulated with public health and public order very much in mind. What we have now is a patchwork of more than 100 laws, some two-thirds of which predate the foundation of our State a century ago. All these laws need modernisation and reform. With the publication of the sale of alcohol Bill 2022, we will, instead, have one modern piece of legislation to regulate the sale of alcohol. Consultation with the relevant stakeholders is important to ensure the proposed provisions will be effective in achieving our goal of revitalising the night-time economy in a safe and sustainable manner.

To that end, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice conducted pre-legislative scrutiny in late January 2023 and the resulting report was published in March 2023. Officials in my Department are also in ongoing consultations with stakeholders, including An Garda Síochána, other Government Departments, stakeholder bodies, such as those representing publicans and restaurateurs, and public health groups, to progress associated matters. An implementation group, composed of officials from the Department of Justice, the Courts Service and the Revenue Commissioners, was established to assist with the smooth transition to the reformed licensing system. Several bilateral meetings are also taking place to address specific queries and the requirements of each group. Despite the considerable length and complexity of the general scheme of the Bill, the Minister intends to publish the legislation and introduce it into the Oireachtas later this year.

With direct reference to the issue of opening hours, I take this opportunity to outline our intentions. We will regularise opening hours for on-licence premises. Standard opening hours will be from 10.30 a.m. to 12.30 a.m. every day of the week. Additionally, we will introduce two new licences to allow for later opening hours for on-licence premises. A late bar permit will allow premises to open until 12.30 a.m. and a nightclub permit will allow premises to open until 6 a.m. It is intended that these permits will be granted on an annual basis as opposed to the one-off basis as is currently the case.

Senator Fintan Warfield: I thank the Minister of State and welcome the commitment to publish a Bill and introduce it to the Oireachtas this year. I plead with the Government to include this Bill on the autumn schedule so that it can be on the books before the end of the year because a pattern of behaviour of delay when dealing with this industry is all too common. I welcome the Minister of State's commitment and plead for this to be included on the autumn schedule to ensure it is on the books and in law with the reforms enacted before the end of the year.

Deputy James Browne: I again thank Senator Warfield for raising this important matter. I know it is important to the Senator and, of course, it is very important to our night-time economy. As I mentioned, our licensing laws are not fit for purpose in the context of supporting a vibrant and modern night-time economy. The Sale of Alcohol Bill will go a long way towards correcting that. However, we are not simply waiting for the Bill to be enacted to support our night-time and hospitality industries. As part of budget 2023, the Ministers, Deputies McEntee, Donohoe and McGrath, announced that the cost of a special exemption order would be halved to provide immediate support to businesses in the night-time economy. We have also recently extended the legislation facilitating outdoor dining until the end of November this year. Again, this was done to provide support to the hospitality industry through the summer and autumn while we work on the fundamental reform of alcohol licensing laws. I have touched on one aspect of this reform today, the overhaul of opening times. The Minister, Deputy McEntee, looks forward to publishing the Sale of Alcohol Bill later this year and, at that point, outlining in detail the wide-ranging reforms we intend to enact, which will revitalise our night-time culture and economy. I assure the Senator that this matter is a priority for the Government.

Vol. 295 No. 5

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