PLANS to extend opening times for pubs and nightclubs in the North of Ireland will take another step towards becoming law later on Tuesday.
The Assembly will debate legislation to modernise current licensing laws, which are 25 years old.
It aims to allow pubs and nightclubs to serve alcohol for an extra hour, until 2 am almost every weekend.
The bill also proposes removing restrictions that exist around Easter drinking.
It is thought the legislation could pass its final stage in the Assembly by the end of the month, with most of the changes then becoming law from October.
The proposals have been a very long time in the making, with Stormont first putting forward changes eight years ago.
A previous bill to change the North’s licensing laws began its legislative passage in 2016, but the assembly collapsed in January 2017 amid a bitter row between the DUP and Sinn Féin.
ogether at Stormont.
MLAs will hold the consideration stage of the new bill in the afternoon, with more than 60 amendments due to be debated.
One amendment from independent unionist MLA Claire Sugden suggests extending the definition of a “place of public entertainment” to include cinemas, so they can sell alcohol on their premises.
It is understood Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey has expressed reservations about that proposal.
Her department has instead said it is preparing to carry out a 12-week public consultation on that specific matter over the summer.
However Ms Sugden questioned a delay to a proposal she believed was “inevitable”.
She said cinemas in other parts of the UK can already sell alcohol to customers and she hoped MLAs would support her amendment.
“Cinemas have had a really difficult year with the pandemic and anything we can do to support them can only be a good thing,” she added.
Other changes in the bill include the extension in “drinking-up time” from half an hour to an hour, meaning venues can operate until 3 am at weekends.
The law will also be tightened in some areas – supermarkets will face restrictions on where they can place in-store advertising for alcohol.
The current voluntary code of practice for drinks promotions will be replaced with legal requirements.
The SDLP’s Matthew O’Toole has put down an amendment that would require the Stornmont Executive to review the “surrender principle” in Northern Ireland licensing law.
It means no new licence can ever be granted unless another one is surrendered.
Licences for selling alcohol on and off premises are also convertible in court, which means that every supermarket or convenience store seeking to add an off sales needs to acquire a licence from somewhere else.
Mr O’Toole said that was likely to have contributed to the decline in the number of pubs and made it very difficult for new rural or small town pubs to be created as licences are scarce and expensive assets.
However he emphasised that any review would have to carefully consider all the impacts – including on existing licensees.
He said: “My amendment simply requires the department to appoint an independent person to review the licensing system, including the surrender principle.
“Critically the amendment makes clear that the reviewer has to have regard to the interests of existing licence holders, by ensuring they consider options for compensation in the event of reform.”
He is also proposing that the department should publish an annual report on the number of pubs and operational licenses by postcode.
He added: “These amendments are not about rushing into reform – they are about getting robust information to plan for reform.”
Speaking ahead of the debate, Ms Hargey said she was pleased to see “modernisation is within reach”.
She said the bill contained a balanced package of reforms and safeguards to ensure people are protected from alcohol-related harms.Tags: