Harris accedes to some Fine Gael alcohol legislation objections

Minister prepared to ‘tweak’ contentious Public Health Alcohol Bill being debated by Senators

 Simon Harris is understood to be willing to make  minor adjustments  to the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill.  Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill.

Simon Harris is understood to be willing to make minor adjustments to the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill.

 

Minister for Health Simon Harris has said he is willing to make two key changes to new alcohol legislation to assuage concerns expressed by Fine Gael Senators about its impact on small shops and retailers.

Mr Harris met Fine Gael Senators on Wednesday morning ahead of the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill being debated in the Upper House.

At issue were their objections to revised proposals to separate alcohol products from other products in grocery stores.

Following the meeting, as well as a series of discussions between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil on the matter, it was agreed that the Bill would be allowed pass this stage of the process, without amendments.

In return, Mr Harris gave an undertaking he would introduce amendments at report stage that would allow retailers a period of up to two years to make the necessary alterations.

In addition, there will be an amendment that alcohol products will be separated by a turnstile rather than a physical wall or screen.

Previous suggestions for a physical barrier or curtain to separate the alcohol sections led to the Bill being stalled in the Seanad late last year.

It came amid opposition from Mr Harris’ party colleagues who claimed the costs involved in constructing the barriers would drive shopkeepers out of business.

Mr Harris proposed this week to have alcohol products confined to two special units standing side-by-side. But that was also criticised by party Senators as “unworkable”.

There were concerns within Fine Gael that some Senators might support Fianna Fáil amendments that would essentially require a less imposing division between alcohol and non-alcohol products.

The Bill, published in 2015, seeks to introduce new measures that will lead to a reduction in alcohol consumption in Irish society.

Among its major proposals are minimum unit pricing; strict codes for advertising, branding and sponsorship; as well as measures that will prevent young children from being exposed to alcohol products and marketing.

The legislation has been subject to a prolonged and intense lobbying campaign from retailers and the alcohol industry on the one hand, and organisations campaigning against alcohol abuse, on the other.

During the course of the meeting with his Senator colleagues, Mr Harris also agreed that, before report stage, his officials will meet with representatives of all the interested parties including smaller brewing companies and distilleries.

Senator Michelle Mulherin said at the meeting that smaller breweries and distilleries would be put at a disadvantage by what was proposed, as they would not be in a position to compete for very limited shelf space with larger alcohol companies.

Her Mayo colleague, Senator Paddy Burke, also told Mr Harris that sales from smaller retailers amounted to only 8 per cent of all alcohol sales, and said many of those businesses would find the cost of implementing the changes prohibitive.