Minister McEntee to Reform Ireland’s Antiquated Licensing Laws
Minister for Justice Helen McEntee has received Cabinet approval for her draft Bill to reform Ireland’s antiquated licensing laws.
The present system is based on a patchwork of 100 laws – some of which are over 200 years old and two thirds of which pre-date the foundation of the State 100 years ago.
Minister McEntee believes the laws are in significant need of reform, and published the General Scheme of the Sale of Alcohol Bill to outline how she intends to implement these reforms.
Speaking at the event, an Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Leo Varadkar, said, “I believe the reforms that Minister McEntee is proposing will be good for hospitality businesses, boost the wider experience economy, and generate employment. It will also give people and performers more autonomy about how, when and where they socialise. Ireland’s licensing laws are out of date.”
“Our nightlife does not compare favourably with that of other European countries when it should be as good as anywhere in Europe. Rural pubs are closing, as have many nightclubs in urban areas, while the number of off-licences is increasing. It is not all about alcohol and should not be, but is part of the picture. It’s about cutting red tape and streamlining regulation. These reforms should be seen in the wider context of the government’s efforts to improve the cultural and entertainment offering in our town, cities and rural areas.”
Minister McEntee said it is vitally important that we retain restrictions on the sale of alcohol and on who is permitted to sell it, and to whom. These proposals will ensure that the sale of alcohol will remain closely regulated.
Ireland will maintain a restrictive licensing system in general, with licenses only granted by the courts – with objections allowed from fire authorities, the HSE, An Garda Síochána and local communities.
In addition, a representative of a local authority and local people with a genuine interest may object to the granting or renewal of a licence.
Minister McEntee said, “this will lead to one modern piece of legislation to regulate the sale of alcohol. It will aim to support the development of night time culture and the night time economy. It will also aim to support the industry, protect and back our pubs. And it will help people to open a pub where some may have shut, start a venue, a club night or an exhibition space, creating jobs and enriching our culture as they do so.”
“And it will emphasise that the sale of alcohol cannot be treated like the sale of any other good. It is vitally important that the interests of public health, public order, the local community and the safety of those present on a licensed premises are prioritised. It should not be easy to obtain and keep a licence. In comparison to many other countries, we have a restrictive licensing system. Under my proposals, that will remain the case.”
To provide a greater opportunity for community voices to be heard, as well as to streamline the current system, responsibility for licensing will move from the Circuit Court to the District Court.
The system will be streamlined by significantly reducing the number of licenses available and online renewal will be possible where there are no objections.
Overall, this will help to reduce the costs involved whilst maintaining an accessible and transparent system in which the HSE, communities, local authorities and Gardaí can raise any necessary concerns around public safety and public health.
The grounds on which an objection can be made will, amongst others, include:
- The number of similar premises in the same area.
- The unsuitability of the proposed premises for those living in the neighbourhood.
- For licence renewals, a new category of objection that the premises were not operated in a manner which protects staff, patrons and performers from harassment, including sexual harassment – this is in line with Minister McEntee’s Zero Tolerance plan to tackle domestic, sexual and gender based violence.
The Minister said the pub has a central role in Irish cultural life and the reforms will support pubs and the hospitality industry.
Minister McEntee said, “the local pub is an institution where we so often come together – to chat over a drink or food, to host community events, to celebrate and to mourn. I believe it is an institution worth protecting, and that we should support our publicans – so many of whom have built up local businesses over decades, through generations of the same family.”
“In moving the licensing process to the District Court, we are reducing the cost of making applications and fees for publicans. As part of the process of streamlining the licensing system generally, opening hours for licensed premises will be standardised across the week to serve the needs of a modern night time economy. Regular trading hours will change to 10.30am to 12.30am seven days a week and we are also making permanent the changes introduced during the pandemic to facilitate outdoor service. And the seven day on licence will remain the foundation of the trade generally.”
To support the development of the night time economy and ensure our licensing system meets the needs of modern society and economy, Minister McEntee, among other reforms, is proposing:
- The creation of new annual permits for late bars and nightclubs, to replace the current system where a Special Exemption Order is required every time such a venue wants to open after normal hours.
- This builds on previous measures introduced by the government to support the late night sector, such as the decision to halve the cost of SEOs in Budget 2023.
- Opening hours for late bars should remain at 2.30am and, to bring Ireland in line with other European countries, nightclubs will have the option to remain open until 6am – with the requirement that alcohol cannot be served after 5am, with dancing able to continue until closing time.
- It is envisaged that this will largely be availed of by bigger nightclubs and venues, mainly in cities, and will not be availed of by many nightclubs.
- Nightclubs and late night bars must adhere to strict requirements for these permits – they will require court approval for such permits, with objections allowed from fire authorities, the HSE, An Garda Síochána and local communities.
- They will be required to have CCTV on the premises and have security staff properly accredited with the Private Security Authority.
- Nightclubs must also have 20 per cent of their floor allocated for dancing, and a live band or DJ must be playing.
- All venues must protect staff, patrons and performers from harassment, including sexual harassment in line with the new Night Time Economy Charter and the government’s Zero Tolerance Plan to tackle Domestic, Sexual and Gender Based violence.
Minister McEntee said, “our late night venues and nightclubs are at the heart of night time culture. Nightclubs are an integral part of the life of a city. We do not just experience music on the dancefloor. Clubbing is culture which drives creativity and shapes attitudes.”
“Unfortunately, we have seen the numbers of nightclubs in Ireland reduce significantly in recent years. Some estimates have suggested that we only have 80 nightclubs, down from over 500 twenty years ago, to 300 in 2009 and only 80 today. To support Irish nightclubs – and ensure that our night-time culture is equal to that in cities across modern European cities – I am proposing that nightclubs would have the option of staying open until 6am, with the requirement that alcohol cannot be served after 5am.”
The proposed legislation also strikes a balance between maintaining strict controls and safeguards while supporting our night time culture and economy.
New enforcement measures in the General Scheme of the Bill include:
- Strengthening conditions around the online sale of alcohol – online sales must be paid for in advance and the person delivering the alcohol must check that the person receiving the delivery is 18 or older. Failing to do so will be an offence.
- Allowing An Garda Siochána apply to the District Court for a temporary closure order where a licensed premises has failed to comply with an direction to preserve order on their premises.
- Allow An Garda Siochána issue fixed charge notices for offences such as being ‘found on’ licensed premises during prohibited hours, consuming alcohol on such premises during prohibited hours and falsely representing oneself as being resident in licensed premises for the purposes of obtaining alcohol.
Off licence opening hours will be standardised across the week – and off licences will have the option of opening from 10.30am to 10pm seven days a week. This is a change from the current position where these hours apply six hours a week, with Sunday sales only permitted from 12.30pm on Sunday.
The General Scheme also proposes an amendment to the so-called ‘extinguishment’ provision, whereby anyone seeking to open a new premises or an off licence must first purchase a licence from an existing licence holder in order to do so.
This can be an impediment to opening a new pub in towns and villages where some premises have shut, particularly in rural areas.
Often, these licences are sold in a closed transactions to a large supermarket chain to be used for the purposes of an in store off licence in an urban area. And the cost of a licence can be prohibitive for someone seeking to open a new pub in a rural town which may need it.
After a transition period of three years following the enactment of the Bill, Minister McEntee proposes to remove the extinguishment requirement to obtain a seven day on licence.
The ‘extinguishment’ requirement will remain in place for off licences however, and will only be applicable to licences already in existence on the enactment of this Bill. No new licences granted under this Bill could be sold for extinguishment purposes.
Minister McEntee said, “I do not believe we need a dramatic increase in the number of new pubs. But, in circumstances where a town has lost its pub, we should acknowledge that the community has lost one of its focal points. The current system makes it difficult for anyone who wants to open a new pub in towns and villages where a pub has closed its doors. To help develop a vibrant night time economy and culture, support our pub sector and especially help our rural towns and villages, the ‘extinguishment’ requirement for pubs should be wound down.”
“However, I believe there is a strong public health rationale for maintaining it for off licenses. Publicans and those who operate venues are required to run an orderly business – and alcohol is served in a controlled environment. Alcohol is consumed at home in an uncontrolled environment, and removing the extinguishment requirement for off licenses would not support the development of night time culture and the economy. But reforms to provisions such as these, over a century old, require a period to allow people readjust. That’s why I am proposing a three year transition period following the enactment of this Bill – during this period, the extinguishment provision will still apply.”
To further support night time culture, Minister McEntee proposes to create a new “cultural amenity licence” for galleries, theatres, museums and other cultural venues.
- This would apply to small cultural venues in towns and villages, and not just larger national venues in our cities.
- This will strictly be available for venues where the sale of alcohol is not the main activity on the premises, and is only for the convenience of people attending the venue for another reason – such as an exhibition.
- And it will only be allowed for a set period of time – between one hour before and one hour after a performance takes place.
- These licences will also require court approval and will have to meet the same requirements as a fully licensed premises – to ensure a level playing field.
Minster McEntee said, “supporting night time culture is not just about national cultural institutions in our major cities – vibrant night time culture can reinvigorate our towns and villages too. I want to ensure that smaller cultural institutions and galleries can help breath life back into our towns and that is why my proposals allow smaller venues apply for what will be called a cultural amenity licence.”
“This will be strictly for venues where the sale of alcohol is not the main activity on the premises. It is only for the convenience of people who attending a venue for another reason, such as an exhibition. And it will only be for a set period of time around that event – from an hour before the performance to an hour after the performance.”
It is the Minister’s intention to consult further following the publication of the General Scheme of the Bill, including pre-legislative scrutiny at the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice.
It is also the Minister’s intention to bring a final Bill before the Oireachtas and enact the legislation in 2023.
Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Catherine Martin, said, “the reforms set out in the General Scheme on the Sale of Alcohol Bill propose efficiency, transparency and clarity and a streamlining of our antiquated licensing legislation, bringing it into the 21st century.”
“This will allow us to take back our nights and is a crucial milestone for all of those working in the Night-Time Economy and for all of those who have long campaigned for a modernisation of our licensing laws. This proposed licensing reform was a key recommendation of the Night-Time Economy Taskforce which I established to drive a more vibrant, diverse and sustainable Night-Time Economy. I would like to thank Minister McEntee and her department for their commitment to this reform process.”
Welcoming the proposed reforms, Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Charlie McConalogue, said, “this Bill will bring transformational change to the sector and it is a change that will be seen in every city, town, village and parish in the country. The stepping forward of this crucial legislation will, I believe, also help breathe new life into our rural economy. Reinvigorating our towns and villages is a key priority of this government and I believe this Bill will give a much-needed boost to our rural pubs, clubs and economies as a whole.”