One finds oneself thinking that many of the pronouncements of Fianna Fail Justice Spokesman Niall Collins on the state of the drinks industry could be responded to with a single phrase left on repeat: “… That’s easy for you to say now…”.
Take, for instance, FF’s new-found belief that below-cost selling should be banned. It formed part of FF’s Budget 2012 submission aimed at levelling the playing field in the drinks industry and encouraging responsible drinking.
Of course while he admits that it might not be easy to do, it should be done.
“We should find the mechanism to do it,” he enthuses, not accepting that the barriers being cited to below-cost-selling are insurmountable.
“It’s no more than is being done in the discussions around the Anglo-Irish Promissory Note. EU technocrats are trying to find a technical solution. What does that mean? It’s recognised as a problem and they’re trying to find a solution around it.”
Or take his rejection of increasing excise on alcohol.
“That’s not the solution here” he says, “We have to recognise that the on-trade is a controlled environment and bringing in any measure that curbs their ability to do business is not the way forward. Any proposed tax increase should see some kind of scaling between the lower and higher turnover outlets – the multiples can obviously carry it.
His argument runs thus: any tax increases should be focused on large-scale high turnover off-licenced supermarkets. Alcohol is ‘licensed’ in order that it’s sold in a controlled manner by responsible licence holders.
“Some larger off-sales outlets are behaving in an irresponsible manner by selling alcohol below-cost as a loss-leader. This is fuelling alcohol abuse”.
So any price-related initiatives should (now) differentiate between the on- and off-trade and this must be narrowed “either by differentiating the duty or the VAT rate or by the imposition of an off-sales levy (ie a ‘closed cap’ levy).”
Licence fees & multiple ideas
He’s also (now) an advocate of basing licence fees on size of premises and turnover to encourage on-licence consumption.
“Look at multiples who enjoy big turnover by virtue of the fact that they can promote special offers through below-cost-selling and bulk discounts. I think we should have a progressive licensing system with fees based on square footage and turnover volume. The upper limit is too low however. The sliding scale should be increased. Similarly the stamp duty for Special Exemption Orders should also be set on a turnover based on a sliding scale rather than flat rate currently”.
There’s more…. “We will explore the placing of limits on the bulk purchasing of alcohol, a practice illegal in the on-trade. In Tesco I can buy as much as I want but if I try to buy two bottles of Calpol I’m only allowed one. The quantity isn’t controlled in off-licences and multiples but the on-trade’s a more controlled environment.”
A firm believer in implementing Section 9 of the 2008 Act physically segregating alcohol from other products in mixed trading outlets, his party (now) believes that the current self-regulatory Code is insufficient.
Fianna Fail also (now) believes that Section 16 of the 2009 Act should be commenced, banning price-related advertising.
“The days of multiples calling the shots has to change,” he states, “You have young families out shopping, looking on as young people load up with alcohol and go through the checkouts. The whole visibility of that is something that needs addressing.”
Late-night social disorder needs to be tackled more firmly too, he says adding that tackling below-cost-selling will also discourage the cheap binge-drinking that fuels violence on the streets.
“We need more Gardai on the streets. The Government needs to end the moratorium on recruitment and training and replace the exodus of Gardai currently taking place.”
But how would this be funded in the present hair-shirt economy?
“It’s a matter of Government deciding on priorities,” he responds, “For example the Government undertook a recruitment campaign for the defence forces. Why are they taking up to 600 into the defence forces but have a moratorium on recruiting the Garda Siochána? People say to me that they’d rather see Gardai recruited.”
In like vein, just a few weeks ago Fianna Fail published the Assaults on Emergency Workers Bill 2012 providing for mandatory sentencing for attacks on A&E workers, most of which are drink-fuelled and happen late at night – rejected by Government.
“We also have to recognise the issue of pre-loading, to change that culture of getting drunk before you go out to drinking in a moderate manner in a controlled environment.”
“We have to move to a proper ID system,” he agrees, “a single smartcard system, a State ID”, Niall Collins not being one to subscribe to the libertine view that having to carry ID violates civil liberties.
And while we’re at it, neither is he a fan of alcohol sponsoring sports. He’d like to see this phased out.
So, as Minister for Justice, would he (now) ensure that minors are also prosecuted for attempting to obtain alcohol underage in recognition of the impossible position in which retailers currently find themselves?
“We should explore the US system of fining underage drinkers rather than simply confiscating the alcohol,” he says, “This recognises the difficulties that retailers are under and places greater responsibility on minors. We also need to look at adults purchasing alcohol for minors and possibly have a prosecution regime in place for these people.
As a TD, how does he see the local community centred around the pub being rejuvenated? These communities have lost their post office, Gardai station, supermarket, grocery store, small school and now their pub. At best, those rural pubs remaining are not opening during the day or during the entire week in some cases. Is it the end or does he see a way out for rural publicans and their communities?
His cousin owns Collins Bar in Dooradoyle and his uncle used own the Railway Hotel in Limerick, now run by another cousin Michelle, so he’s no stranger to the publican’s problems and really believes that levelling the playing field between the pub and retail outlet through a fairer system of liquor taxes will encourage people to return to their local. Holds some of his clinics in rural pubs across his Co Limerick constituency eg Flannigan’s Bar, Main St, Kilmallock, Jack Clancy’s Bar in Bruff and Pat Ryan’s Bar in Pallas Green. Wife’s uncle John Hayes has a bar and restaurant in Cappamore.
“In addition, the local authorities will also have to work with all retailers including pubs on issues like commercial rates. They’re not recognising that commercial rates are not linked to a business’s profitability or turnover range; the ability to pay has to be introduced into commercial rates.”
Despite the upbeat comments, one still gets the feeling that all those measures that weren’t introduced when FF was in power seem so easy to call up (now) in opposition, but he reminds me that FF’s mantra is to look forward, not back. Some would describe that as ‘convenient’…