The Department for Social Development (DSD) has launched a public consultation on a range of measures aimed at reforming and modernising liquor licensing legislation in Northern Ireland.

The consultation is one of a number of proposed changes to the licensing regime in Northern Ireland, prompted in part by public unease about the role and effect alcohol in modern society and increasing concerns for the manner in which it is priced, promoted and marketed. Among the steps taken to address these concerns was the introduction in May 2012 of the Responsible Retailing Code NI, aimed at tackling irresponsible alcohol promotions. This Code is outlined in greater detail below. In addition, DSD has indicated that, together with Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, it will shortly commission research to model the likely impact of minimum unit pricing in Northern Ireland.   

In the introduction to the DSD consultation, the Minister for Social Development, Nelson McCausland, highlights the various concerns and identifies a number of measures implemented to date which aim to strike a balance between facilitating the sale of alcohol on one hand, and public safety and the public interest on the other. He acknowledges the significant contribution made by the licensed trade to Northern Ireland’s tourist experience and notes that the consultation should ‘bring forward measures which aim to contribute towards a reduction in alcohol related harms and help make the licensed trade more sustainable and attractive to tourists’.

The followings proposals relating to supermarkets and off-licences are addressed in the Consultation:

  1. A restriction on mixed trading of alcoholic and non-alcoholic items in supermarkets and shops by further regulating the availability of alcohol in supermarkets.
  2. Increased structural separation between alcoholic and other goods in supermarkets and a prohibition on children under 18 years of age entering any area where alcohol is displayed.
  3. The introduction of alcohol-only checkouts – i.e. customers would be  required to queue twice where they wish to purchase alcohol as part of a larger shop.
  4. A restriction on the advertising of alcohol in supermarkets and off-sales premises, or within 200 metres of these premises. This would also include restriction on the display of branded non-alcoholic products which are not for sale.
  5. A prohibition on persons less than 18 years of age from receiving deliveries of alcohol and amending the legislation to prevent third parties from profiting from alcohol sales, e.g. taxi drivers.

In relation to pubs and other on-sales premises the following issues are discussed:

  1. The importance of public houses and bars to the NI economy, including tourism.
  2. The introduction of occasional late opening hours and whether they should be restricted to a limited number of occasions throughout the year and subject to certain conditions such as mandatory door supervisors, CCTV and the payment of a ‘late-night levy’.
  3. Easter opening hours.
  4. Extending the current ‘drinking up’ time from 30 minutes to 1 hour.
  5. In light of the fact that the current legislation is silent on matters concerning ‘Pour Your Own Pint’ tables and vending machines, the consultation seeks views on the regulations of both of these innovations.
  6. Review of Children’s Certificates.

Following on from changes in the Licensing and Registration of Clubs (Amendment) Act (NI) 2011, the further regulation of private members’ clubs is also discussed. Proposals include restrictions on the advertising of functions held in such premises and in certain limited circumstances permitting persons less than 18 years of age to be in a sporting club until 11pm.

The consultation period ends on 12 November 2012.

The Licensing and Registration of Clubs (Amendment) Act (NI) 2011 (the 2011 Act) became law in March 2011. It amends and replaces provisions of the Licensing (NI) Order 1996 (the Licensing Order) and the Registration of Clubs (NI) Order 1996 (the Clubs Order). A number of changes are already in force, including a penalty point system for licensed premises and registered clubs when found to be in breach of the law and a new proof-of-age scheme for pubs and clubs.

Since 1 May 2012, a court, following conviction, can endorse penalty points on a liquor license or a club’s certification of registration for breaches of the law including such offences as underage sales. On accumulation of 10 penalty points within any three year period a licence or certificate will be suspended for a minimum of one week and a maximum of three months. The 2011 Act also introduces a new proof-of-age scheme which specifies for the first time, acceptable proof-of-age documentation for licensed premises and registered clubs. Establishments are now required to display notices describing offences relating to the sale of alcohol to young people under the age of 18 and the purchase of alcohol by, or for, under 18s. Such notices must also refer to the acceptable documents for the purposes of proving age.

The 2011 Act is not entirely in force and among the outstanding provisions is the power under section 4 for the Department of Social Development to make regulations in relation to irresponsible drinks promotions held on or in connection with a licensed premises. It defines what is meant by a ‘drinks promotion’ and sets out the types of promotions considered ‘irresponsible’, including those which:

  1. relate specifically to intoxicating liquor which is likely to appeal to persons under 18 years of age;
  2. involve the supply of intoxicating liquor free of charge or at a reduced price on the purchase of one or more drinks (whether or not intoxicating liquor);
  3. involve the supply free of charge or at a reduced price of one or more extra measures of intoxicating liquor on the purchase of one or more measures of the liquor;
  4. involve the supply of unlimited amounts of intoxicating liquor for a fixed charge (including any charge for entry to the premises);
  5. encourage, or seek to encourage, a person to obtain or consume a larger measure of intoxicating liquor than the person had otherwise intended to obtain or consume:
  6. are based on the strength of any intoxicating liquor;
  7. reward or encourage, or seek to reward or encourage, consuming intoxicating liquor quickly; or
  8. offer intoxicating liquor as a reward or prize, unless the liquor is in a sealed container and consumed off the premises.

Although it has yet to be brought into force, section 5 of the 2011 Act provides the power to introduce regulations which restrict the varying of the price at which intoxicating liquor is sold during specified periods or hours. Such regulations may also restrict price discounts on multi-pack alcoholic products.

A consultation held between March and May 2012 sought the views of the public on draft regulations relating to the supply of unlimited amounts of intoxicating liquor for a fixed charge and restriction of the price at which the holder of a license may sell on licensed premises a package containing two or more intoxicating liquor products.

The statutory powers in relation to irresponsible drinks promotions are not yet in force and will only be enforceable once draft regulations have gained Assembly approval.

In the meantime, the Joint Industry Code for the Responsible Promotion and Retail of Alcohol in Northern Ireland (the Code) was launched in May 2012. The Code will come into full effect on 1 September, after an initial adjustment period to allow the industry to adapt to the new measures.

As the title suggests, the Code is concerned with encouraging best practice and preventing the irresponsible promotion or sale of alcohol. It was produced on a voluntary basis and applies to all suppliers and retailers of alcohol in Northern Ireland. The Code is a self-regulatory measure, outlining the basic standards expected of those involved in the production, promotion, retail and service of alcohol in Northern Ireland, and applies to both on and off-licence trades. The Code covers those complaints that do not fall within the Portman Group’s remit.

The Code outlines examples of irresponsible promotions, including ‘Buy One Get One Free’ offers; drinking games or speed incentives; pub crawls or those involving the supply of unlimited amounts of alcohol for a fixed charge.

In contrast, responsible promotions can offer a free mixer provided the offer is not limited to a certain part of the day. ‘Meal Deals’ are also acceptable, provided the deal also includes the offer of a non-alcoholic or low alcohol drink.

Members of the public who are concerned that an alcoholic drink promotion or sales practice might breach the Code are invited to write to the Independent Complaints Panel (the Panel) enclosing a flier or describing the promotion or activity in as much detail as possible. If the complaint can be dealt with by the Panel and where, following a review, the promotion is ultimately found to breach the Code, the Panel will issue a statement outlining the breach. The decision will also be notified to the company or person in breach, the complainant, media, PSNI and local council.

Although it lacks the criminal sanctions for irresponsible drinks promotions that will ultimately apply once the results of the DSD consultation are taken into account in drafting regulations to bring into force the outstanding sections of the 2011 Act, it appears the Code represents a genuine effort by the industry to tackle the issue of irresponsible alcohol promotions in Northern Ireland and to that extent it may be a step in the right direction.