MPs to debate liquor law changes

MPs are set to embark on a long and laboured debate to pass what critics have labelled the ''alcohol non-reform'' bill.

An overhaul of liquor laws is expected back in Parliament today for its committee stage - the most detailed debate of any bill.

Some have tipped the bill could carry on being debated at the committee stage for some weeks, with about 20 amendments to be thrashed out by MPs.

Justice Minister Judith Collins today said it could take up to 27 hours of Parliament voting time - roughly the equivalent of three weeks while the House is sitting.

MPs have already voted at the committee stage on one part of the bill, which ended in the alcohol purchase age remaining at 18. The debate due to start today will allow MPs to vote on each part of the 270 page bill and to introduce their own amendments.

The debate has been made more complex by the decision of Labour MPs to vote on each amendment on conscience, rather than as a party bloc. That decision was at least in part a ploy to put pressure on a handful of National MPs thought to be sympathetic to a tougher set of liquor reforms.

All National MPs will be required to vote as a bloc for the bill and against the amendments of opposition parties. They were only allowed a free vote on the alcohol purchase age.

Alcohol Action medical spokesman Doug Sellman said Labour MPs had some ''excellent'' amendments but their conscience vote approach left the party ''on the brink of being simply an observer of the process''.

Labour did not have a ''coherent reformative alcohol policy'' as a party, Sellman said.

Among the amendments proposed by Labour MPs is a ban on liquor sales from off-licences after 8pm and a minimum pricing regime.

According to Justice Ministry advice on another proposal for restrictions on alcohol advertising there is ''strong public support for a complete ban'', but officials believe there is ''little research regarding effectiveness''.

Former Labour leader Phil Goff has introduced an amendment that would limit the alcohol level of ready-to-drink (RTDs) products to no more than 5 per cent and 1.5 standard drinks per bottle.

He called for the change after Justice Minister Judith Collins decided on a voluntary code for the control of RTDs rather than the 5 per cent ban originally mooted by her predecessor Simon Power.

Labour's Phil Twyford yesterday announced he would push for a cut in the amount of time local councils had to wait before they could implement new ''Local Alcohol Policies'' being introduced under the bill.

"Communities want the tools to curb alcohol abuse. They want to be able to control the number and location of alcohol outlets, as well as opening hours. It is crazy that they might not be able to get started for 16 months after the bill becomes law,'' Twyford said.

But Collins said the best way for Labour to speed up the process would be to drop its conscience vote on every issue in the bill.

''This is simply going to delay the process,'' Collins said.

''I think Phil Twyford knows fully well that lots of the little councils around the country have said that they won't be ready in time if we bring the time up to what he wanted.''

It would be ''somewhat ridiculous'' to have some councils covered by one time-frame and others by another.

''If Labour were interested in speeding this bill [they could] stop the silly nonsense about voting and get on with it,'' Collins said.

Mana Party leader Hone Harawira is mooting a review of the alcohol purchase age, led by a special committee, within five years.

Green MP Kevin Hague is arguing for an across-the-board excise tax increase of 50 per cent on all liquor.

Sellman said the Greens had mostly ''excellent party policy on alcohol'' but were ''too small to make a parliamentary difference''.

''It is indisputable that governments can reduce alcohol harm by enacting a suite of bold regulations involving pricing, marketing, alcohol accessibility, drink-driving, and purchase age,'' Sellman said.

''It is also indisputable that alcohol education and just hoping that people will become more responsible in the absence of new regulations are not effective alcohol strategies supported by scientific evidence.''

The National-led government was ''fully aware'' of the extent of harm that alcohol was causing and what needed to be done to curb the damage, he said.

The Law Commission started a review of the liquor laws in 2009. The Alcohol Reform Bill was introduced in November 2010.