Not long ago, writing in the Evening Herald, the Minister for Justice Alan Shatter stated, “I intend, in the coming months, to put in place new regulations to prohibit the below-cost selling of alcohol and also alcohol promotions that encourage excessive drinking”.
Earlier, in answer to a parliamentary question from Labour TD Eric Byrne in mid-June, the Minister stated, “I expect to be in a position to seek Government approval for my proposals in relation to future arrangements for the display and sale of alcohol products in mixed trading outlets in the coming weeks”.
Taken together, these statements would indicate that there’s something stirring behind closed doors at the Department of Justice.
More significantly, the Minister referred to “draft regulations to restrict certain alcohol promotions [which have] been drawn up but have not been made to date pending agreement on a joint North/South approach to restricting such promotions. During discussions earlier this year with the Minister for Social Development in Northern Ireland, Nelson McCausland MLA, we reached agreement on the need to develop a joint North/South approach to restricting such promotions and on the desirability of having the necessary arrangements in place by the end of this year.”
If that’s the case then recent developments in liquor licensing legislation in NI could herald the way for what’s to be introduced here in RoI before 2013 opens for business in the licensed trade – or even sooner.
In moves to restrict what it views as irresponsible alcohol sales, the NI Government recently published the Licensing and Registration of Clubs (Amendment) Act which introduced new powers to allow for the closure for up to 24 hours of licensed premises or registered clubs by the courts where there is actual or likely disorder or by the police where there is actual disorder. A system of penalty points can also now be levied by the courts on licensed premises or clubs convicted of certain offences.
Proof of age
For the first time, a proof of age scheme specifying acceptable proof-of-age documentation for licensed premises and clubs has been introduced. This means that licensed premises in NI can only accept a current passport, driving licence, electoral ID card (unique to NI) or Pass Hologram such as a citizen’s card as proof of age. Here, the only acceptable proof of age is the Garda ID Card.
The new legislation also increased the number of occasions each year on which registered clubs may apply to the police to keep their bars open to 1am rather than the earlier closing time of 11pm and new provisions permit a young person under 18 to be in the bar area of a sporting club premises to 10pm in the evening rather than the earlier time of 9pm.
Provisions clarifying how the Licensing Order applies to limited liability partnerships have also been introduced along with more appropriate accounting requirements for registered clubs.
Regulations prohibiting or restricting the varying of the price at which intoxicating liquor is sold for limited periods in licensed premises or registered clubs have yet to be commenced.
Banning irresponsible promotions
Some of the legislative developments in this area obviously follow concerns surrounding the availability of cheap alcohol and powers have been included in the NI Act allowing the Department for Social Development to make regulations to ban certain price and volume-based promotions.
But the NI Minister has acknowledged that while “not all promotions or price discounting are a problem, action is needed to address irresponsible discounting and promotions which serve to encourage harmful/excessive drinking and discredit responsible members of the licensed trade”.
So the Department is not drawing down legislation on every aspect of this. Instead, it has agreed to rely on the Joint Industry Code for the Responsible Promotion and Retail of Alcohol in Northern Ireland 2012 to police some promotions.
Joint Industry Code
The Minister is allowing a two-year trial of this new Code and if this doesn’t work, he’s said he’ll draw down the promotions legislation.
But some degree of regulation prohibiting or restricting the more irresponsible promotions is required as an immediate response to tackling excessive consumption of alcohol. The Minister therefore intends introducing a number of provisions that will, for example, allow the Department to make regulations to prohibit or restrict certain drinks promotions in licensed premises and registered clubs.
In the regulatory pipeline
Regulations are therefore being brought forward to tackle “the supply of unlimited amounts of intoxicating liquor for a fixed charge (including any charge for entry to the premises)” and “restricting the price at which the holder of a licence or the licence-holder’s servant or agent may sell a package containing two or more intoxicating liquor products”.
The first piece of legislation refers to the ‘all you can drink for £20’-type promotions or those along the lines: ‘pay on entry and drink for free until 10pm’.
The NI Minister has just finished consultations on this and intends making such promotions illegal.
The second refers to promotions such as ‘three for the price of two’ offers so that ‘if a bottle of wine costs £4, a retailer would not be able to sell a packaging of two bottles for less than £8’.
Similarly a case of 24 cans of beer may not be sold at a price that is less than the cost of 24 individual cans, provided they are for sale individually on the premises.
The Minister hopes to make these promotions illegal too and both are currently undergoing parliamentary process in the Assembly to this effect.
To what extent this legislation will be introduced here remains to be seen.
“There are aspects of the NI legislation already in place here like the provisions at Sections 5 and 11 which effectively address the issue of happy hours,” commented VFI Chief Executive Padraig Cribben, “We would welcome a movement here on the proof-of-age issue to mirror the new arrangements in NI and we have urged successive Governments to move in this direction.
“We support the outlawing of irresponsible promotions in licensed premises but this does not in any way address the most irresponsible promotions of all – cut-price alcohol in supermarkets. Codes that do not address the price/volume issue are worthless and not worth the paper they’re written on.
“There would appear to be a liberalisation of the law in respect of Registered Clubs. Our experience is that the laws here in this respect are inadequately applied as outlined in your recent edition,” he concluded.
All await Minister Shatter’s next move.