Licensed trade most critical of new measures

 

To date, most criticism of the Equal Status Act has come from representatives of the licensed trade, and their criticisms relate particularly to its inclusion of members of the travelling community.

The issue was brought to a head in the Glimmerman case, where a blind Traveller brought a case against the Glimmerman pub, claiming discrimination on three grounds, disability, membership of the travelling community and family status. After drinking for some time in the Glimmerman, the man was refused further service because his 13-year-old son was with him.

This led to the referral of the Equal Status Act to the Commission on Liquor Licensing by the then Minister for Justice, John O'Donoghue.

The referral was strongly criticised by the Equality Authority, who said the authority was not consulted about the referral, and claimed that this body was dominated by representatives of the licensed industry. This claim has been rejected by the chairman of the commission, Gordon Holmes, who said the licensed trade was in a minority on the commission.

Nonetheless, the authority and various groups representing those protected by the legislation have refused to participate in the discussion of the Act in this forum. The Federation of Licensed Vintners, the Licensed Vintners Association, the Irish Hotels Federation and other vintners' bodies have made submissions, and hearings are currently taking place.

These organisations told The Irish Times that their submissions would not be made public until they had been considered by the Commission. However, it is understood they are seeking the return of discretion to publicans to serve or bar customers, without explanation.

Referring to the discussion now going on in this commission, Frank Fell of the Licensed Vintners Association says that the provision of alcohol differs from the provision of other commodities in two important respects. Alcohol is a mood-altering drug, and a person consuming it can be on a premises for many hours. This makes it essential, for the maintenance of public order and the safety of both staff and customers, that a publican have power to refuse where his professional experience indicates this to be appropriate.

He says that since the introduction of the Equal Status Act, there has been a marked increase in the number of violent incidents involving members of the travelling community. This is frequently accompanied by Travellers asserting their "rights" under the Equal Status Act, he says. He adds that members of the association are prepared to go to the Commission to give details of their experiences.

Fell says that the Licensed Vintners Association also has problems with two other grounds in the Equal Status Act: age and family status. A number of pubs would like to target an older age-group, but the legislation gives 18-year-olds a "licence to drink", Fell comments. It is now illegal to put up signs seeking the custom of, for example, over-23-year-olds. On the family status ground, there are many good reasons why it is not desirable for children, especially very young children, to be in public houses for many hours at a stretch.

The Equality Authority has argued that many of these issues could be addressed in the Licensing Acts rather than by tampering with the Equal Status Act, which covers all service-provision, and not just the licensed trade. Fell does not disagree, but remains adamant that publicans should have the right to refuse without giving a reason. The new Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell, this week promised new licensing legislation.

Fell is also critical of the Office of the Director of Equality Investigations, alleging bias on the part of its equality officers. He would like to see its hearings held in public, with the right to cross-examine witnesses.

MELANIE Pine, the Director of Equality Investigations, insists that her office is rigorously impartial. "Impartiality is one of our core principles," she says, pointing to the figures of outcomes.

In the employment area they are approximately 50/50 for and against the complainant, while on the equal status side they are about 60/40 in favour of the complainant, with the number successfully fought by the defendant rising as more detailed evidence was presented to the equality officers.

The reasons for the hearings taking place in private is historical, as this office took over from the former Equal Employment Agency, dealing primarily with gender discrimination, and its hearings had been in private. This was to allow a more informal atmosphere, especially for people who were not legally represented. She adds that questions could be put, through the equality officers.