The Government is considering watering down a key recommendation in an expert report aimed at addressing the availability of cheap alcohol.
The national substance misuse strategy report called for a 2008 law compelling retailers to separate alcohol from other products to be enacted, replacing a voluntary code of practice.
It has emerged the Department of Justice is considering ignoring that call and may instead back a weaker option, involving statutory support for a code of practice.
Under this code any failure to separate alcohol would not be subject to criminal or civil sanction — as it would be under the 2008 law — but would merely form a basis for an objection to renewal of licence.
Critics said it would be a “nightmare” operating an enforcement system to police the new code.
Justice Minister Alan Shatter told the Dáil that many small grocery outlets “would not have the financial capacity” to make the physical alternations required under section nine of the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2008.
He said the voluntary code was not working and that, following a review, he was considering two options: Section nine of the 2008 Act and section 17 of the Civil Law Provisions Act 2011.
This little-known law was referred to in the steering group report published last February, but the group clearly called for section nine to be enacted.
The report said members of the group were actually in favour of restricting alcohol sales to specialist off-licences only, but accepted the enactment of section nine “in the short term as going some way towards addressing the easy availability of alcohol”.
Mr Shatter said smaller grocery stores “would inevitably encounter practical difficulties and higher adaptation costs” by implementing structural separation.
He said they were operating in a “difficult business environment” and that “many of those stores would not have the financial capacity to restructure”.
The National Off-Licence Association expressed concern at the development and said the cost excuse was a “red herring”. Chairwoman Evelyn Jones said the statutory-backed code would still be drafted by the industry.
“Who would determine that there was a breach of the statutory code?” she said. “The enforcement aspect would be a nightmare. Meanwhile, this legislation, written specifically to deal with the problem in 2008, is there.” She said the possibility of ignoring the law again and backing another industry code was like “Groundhog Day”.
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