Restrictive Practices (Amendment) Bill 1987 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed).

Thursday, 5 November 1987

Dáil Eireann Debate
Vol. 374 No. 11

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[2668] Question again proposed: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”

Mr. Lawlor: Information on Liam Lawlor  Zoom on Liam Lawlor  Before moving the Adjournment I said that in the areas of banking, communications and transport this legislation will have a major impact. It will allow the Director of Consumer Affairs and Fair Trade the opportunity to analyse in some detail some of the concerns the public have to ensure that value for money and quality service is available. I referred earlier to the whole question of energy and it is worthy of further comment. There are major implications in this area for job creation, which is something that affects every household in the country. None of us can feel satisfied that the monopoly situation that exists in the energy field is acceptable. In the transport area Aer Lingus made great efforts to ensure that there would be no competition, but since competition was introduced it has benefited not only the consumer but the organisation that so resisted its introduction, namely, Aer Lingus. The same could be said of the ESB. The Director of Consumer Affairs will have to look into this in detail to see if the monopoly of the ESB could be broken and the provision of the service dissipated in some way to the private sector or some other body interested in providing the service. Deputy Yates raised the question, particularly applicable to his constituency, of exorbitant charges being quoted and demanded by the ESB for the provision of a power supply. This is because of the ESB's monopoly; there is no alternative competitor so one must pay the price demanded or go without the service. That, today, is totally unacceptable.

This legislation will have a tremendous impact and give a tremendous benefit if it is properly and vigorously pursued. I compliment the Minister on bringing the legislation to the House.

Mr. J. Mitchell: Information on Jim Mitchell  Zoom on Jim Mitchell  I have been anxiously [2669] awaiting the introduction of this Bill because in my own constituency certain areas have been adversely affected by the lack of power to deal with local monopolies. The effect of that has been to seriously and adversely affect the choice, range and quality available to shoppers. I speak in particular about the Ballyfermot area. It is seldom that I come into this House to speak on such a localised matter. But Ballyfermot is just one example.

People will say that in many parts of the city and the country people do not have any choice, that there is just one supermarket. That may well be but in those cases what the Minister or the State can do is quite restricted. But in an area as big as Ballyfermot with between 40,000 and 50,000 people, only a couple of years ago there were three main groups, three different supermarkets and, by osmosis, as Lyndon Johnson might say, with the development and passage of time and take-overs and so on the only supermarkets now in the Ballyfermot area are owned by one group, Quinnsworth. There is a widespread view in Ballyfermot that since all competition was removed there has been a very marked narrowing of (1) the range of goods available in those supermarkets, (2) the quality of those goods, (3) the price of those goods and (4) the courtesy and efficiency of service. Quinnsworth deny this but it is the strong view of the overwhelming majority of shoppers in the Ballyfermot area. I did a survey in the area and the view is held by as many as 93 per cent that there has been a serious deterioration under all four headings.

I tried to do something about it last year as I was a Minister at the time and I found that as the law then stood there was very little that could be done about it. However, I was very glad to hear that my esteemed colleague now sitting beside me here, Deputy Bruton, then Minister for Industry and Commerce, had plans afoot to introduce the legislation which is before us today. I know this is not the be all and end all of restrictive practices legislation, that is not the last word [2670] because other things will have to be considered but my purpose in coming in here today — and I know Minister Reynolds will take on board what I am saying — is to point to the need to address the question of local monopoly.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on James C. Tunney  Zoom on James C. Tunney  That is putting him in his place.

Mr. J. Mitchell: Information on Jim Mitchell  Zoom on Jim Mitchell  I did not mean to interrupt because I know the Minister's civil servants will keep him very well informed of all the points raised but I would ask the Minister if he would consider, during the passage of this Bill, making such amendments as are necessary to give sufficient powers to control local monopoly, or to increase such powers. Perhaps he would tell me what powers he has now to control local monopoly.

I know there are problems. Quinnsworth could in fact close down two of the three supermarkets in Ballyfermot. In fact, they have already closed down one of them and are now building shopping units which they are going to sublet so the supermarket numbers are down from three to two already. In response to any powers the Minister might exercise they might in fact close the second supermarket and leave only one and then where does competition lie? It is true that one cannot force other groups to go into Ballyfermot or any other area to open supermarkets in competition and I do not think this is the time for the Minister to introduce State supermarkets just to provide competition.

Mr. J. Bruton: Information on John Bruton  Zoom on John Bruton  Provided they are only selling pet food.

Mr. J. Mitchell: Information on Jim Mitchell  Zoom on Jim Mitchell  I do not want my levity in any way to detract from the seriousness of the point I am making. This point is especially valid in some of the large working class suburbs of Dublin with which you, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle will be particularly familiar. These are areas where there is not enormous disposable [2671] income per household, although the shortage of disposable income per household could be somewhat balanced by the density of households in these areas like Ballyfermot, Finglas, Cabra and Drimnagh. I plead with the Minister to look at these areas which are the areas of most deprivation, of greatest poverty, of greatest need, where they really do need to have available to them the cheapest possible goods and where very often the reverse is the case. Because the supermarkets do not see these areas as particularly “attractive” there tends to be less competition, range and quality of service. The people who most of all need consideration and cheapest prices have least chance of getting them.

I cannot pretend to have solutions to this problem. Certainly, we could take steps to prevent local monopolies developing where there is already a number of supermarkets in a particular locality. There are, it is true, difficulties in defining what is a locality. Is Ballyfermot a locality? Is Dublin west? Is County Dublin? How do you define localities around the country? Is Ballinasloe a locality, or would competition between Ballinasloe and Athlone be sufficient? I can see difficulties in a Minister trying to force supermarkets to open up in specified localities just to provide competition. They are not going to do that if in their commercial judgment it is unwise. In a democracy that is not possible. At least, the Minister should see to it that he has sufficient powers from here on to prevent the take-over of supermarkets in what he considers to be reasonably adjacent areas by people who already have a preponderant interest in those areas.

I hope that the Minister will forgive me for dwelling for so long on the Ballyfermot area, but there is a particular problem there. There is no doubt about that. It has been very badly served on the shopping scene by developers in the past two years. I ask the Minister to look especially at the situation that has developed there, to see if there is anything that he can do to improve matters. [2672] If he cannot turn back the clock, can he hold out any hope for the people of Ballyfermot that they will have restored to them the same level of service, efficiency, courtesy, quality and price to which they were accustomed when there was competition? Better still, is there anything that he can do about introducing competition into that area? This is really an extremely vexed question. It is of vital importance to the 6,000 households in Ballyfermot. I very much hope that what happened there in the past few years will not be allowed to happen in other areas.

This Bill should be of particular interest to almost every household because while it is very nice to have all sorts of very cheap goods available due to intense competition, how long can that last? How long will the competition last? Will other areas end up, as Ballyfermot has, with a monopoly and a perceived dramatic worsening in service, quality, price, etc.? That we cannot allow to happen. It is what is happening, for example, in the American aviation industry where a very great number of airlines have gone to the wall and been taken over and there is now a very small number of mega-carriers. The result is that many areas have lost their aviation services or had them reduced dramatically and in those areas prices have gone up, not down. Certainly on the big lucrative routes air fares have gone down because they are the “cream” routes and there is intense competition. That will last as long as there is competition, but if we allow prices to be charged which in the end destroy competition that is very shortsighted indeed — short-term advantage for long-term loss. That was precisely the experience of Ballyfermot.

I am especially pleading with the Minister to look specifically at the question of what happened there. There are other areas such as Ballymun which is not in my constituency and where there is a fluctuating population but in Ballyfermot there is a very settled population who have seen their choice dramatically reduced. I would be very grateful if the Minister launched a local inquiry, or took powers to enable such an inquiry to be [2673] launched, to look into what happened in Ballyfermot. Then, having looked at the situation, I ask him to take powers to correct the deficiencies in choice, price, quality and efficiency of service in order to protect the most vulnerable and least well off in society.

Mr. Desmond: Information on Barry Desmond  Zoom on Barry Desmond  Let me briefly comment on the Bill because I am sure the Minister wishes to complete Second Stage today. I wish to make only three points, the first being to welcome the Bill. It is an essential piece of regulatory legislation which is very much in the public interest. Many of the more recent happenings in the retail and wholesale trades and many other aspects of pricing mechanisms underline the necessity to have this legislation in force as soon as possible.

Secondly, it exposes much of the mythology which abounds on these islands about the free market competitive system. As the House well knows, there is no such thing and it is vital that the State should, as a matter of democratic regulation, exercise a degree of responsible control, not just democratic control, over the developments in the system. The legislation is necessary and in a climate where there has been so much emphasis on deregulation in what is perceived to be the wish to develop a more competitive system, there has been an interesting pull-back in public interest in the bringing forward of this legislation. To that extent there is a change of approach which is entirely welcome.

Finally, if we are to have a legislative mechanism working with benefit to the community at large, we must have some degree of effective monitoring of the overall system. My greatest criticism of what has happened to date in that regard is that it is an intermittent fire brigade action and I regret that those involved in the more recent closures treated the Minister and his Department officials with a degree of contempt in giving the proposals to the Department at the last minute. That should not be permitted to happen. I appreciate the anger of the Minister in that regard. In order to prevent [2674] it happening, we must have sufficient staff in the Department with sufficient competence and flexibility to get in early, to anticipate, monitor and review and, so to speak, investigate the likely trends. It is essential that there be sufficient staff to undertake the vital work including, I would suggest, an overall degree of price monitoring which, if it is to be authentic and effective, must be done with thoroughness and expertise rather than a response to the various crises as they occur. I urge the Minister, in impressing upon his colleagues in Government the need for this legislation, to hammer them over the heads now and again about the need to provide sufficient staff to undertake this work. The Minister will find the members of the Labour Party and the other political parties in this House more than anxious to facilitate him in that respect. On behalf of the Labour Party I welcome the Bill. It has had a protracted period of gestation and I hope it will be enshrined without much delay. It will make a considerable contribution towards regulating the economic areas which have to be dealt with in a more equitable and democratic way.

Mr. Browne: Information on John Browne  Zoom on John Browne  I welcome this Bill and compliment the Minister for introducing it. It is quite appropriate that it is this Minister who has introduced it because in the very short period he has been in office he has done more to try to break the cartels and the monopolies which are operating in this country than any previous Minister. I have many concerns in regard to the monopolies which are operating and I ask the Minister to treat them seriously.

I would like to refer to bank charges. The customers of the banks are concerned that the banks have been able to rip them off, particularly in recent years, through the introduction of charges for cheque books, money orders, lodgements and so on. From the information which I have been given it appears that one of the biggest problems at present is that big businesses do not have to pay these charges while smaller businesses do. Of course the banks will not admit [2675] that big businesses do not have to pay these charges but it is an absolute disgrace that small businesses have to pay these charges. The banks are making massive profits and should not introduce these charges at a time when many businesses are finding it difficult to survive. The Minister should seriously consider allowing building societies and post offices to offer these services in order to break the monopoly which exists at present.

Another monopoly exists in the distribution of newspapers. New shops which open up are not always given the right to sell newspapers due to the pressure which the newsagent associations can exert on the newspapers. The circulation managers in The Irish Press, Irish Independent and The Irish Times will tell a prospective customer that they are not accepting new accounts but the real reason why they are not accepting new accounts is that the newsagent associations exert pressure on them not to open up such accounts. Any shop which wants to sell newspapers should be allowed to do so as selling newspapers increases the profitability of these shops, particularly those which open early and close late.

Following the collapse of the H. Williams chain, there are now only four major supermarket chains operating in this country. A monopoly exists in this area and it needs looking at. Because of the monopoly which exists many small businesses have been forced to close down. Some wholesalers can be prevented from selling to small shops and to new businesses which open up. I have seen in my own constituency, and I am sure it happens in all other areas also, cases where a wholesaler has supplied a retailer for many years; when a new retailer opened up near the existing retailer the wholesaler has usually been threatened and told that if he supplies the new retailer the existing retailer will stop purchasing from him. The Minister should ensure that each retailer will have the right to purchase from the wholesaler of their choice and that they are given a fair deal.

Where does the consumer fit into this [2676] Bill? The consumer is the one person who is affected most by the existence of monopolies. The prime motive of those who hold a monopoly is to make massive profits. There is nothing wrong with making a profit and I would not like the Minister to think that I am against people making a profit but the consumers have no one to protect them from the monopolies. Both the retailers and the wholesalers have associations to look after their interests but the only people who speak up on behalf of the consumers are the politicians who try to ensure that they get a fair deal from the companies they deal with.

Mr. J. Bruton: Information on John Bruton  Zoom on John Bruton  Hear, hear.

Mr. Browne: Information on John Browne  Zoom on John Browne  We should continue to play that role and ensure that the consumer will be able to buy goods at a fair price while at the same time protecting jobs. The Minister should ensure that the consumer at all times is protected. As I have said earlier, they have no one to speak up for them except themselves and I ask the Minister to ensure that as a result of the restrictions which will be placed on the monopolies the consumer will benefit. Again, I compliment the Minister for introducing this Bill and I hope that as a result of its enactment the consumer will be protected at all times.

Minister for Industry and Commerce (Mr. Reynolds): Information on Albert Reynolds  Zoom on Albert Reynolds  First of all, I would like to take the opportunity of thanking all the Deputies who contributed to the debate which was both useful and informative. There appears to be some misunderstandings in the minds of some Deputies as to what this Bill does and does not cover and I would like to clear the air. The banks, insurance companies, transport, post and telecommunications are all covered under this Bill. Reference was made to both Visa and Access cards. I have already introduced a regulation in the Seanad, which I hope to introduce in this House in the near future, in relation to the investigation of the rates of interest charged, how they are advertised and so on.

[2677] Information was sought as to why the Government are pursuing actively the question of consumer protection. In relation to the Estimate for the director's office I want to compare the position as it was with what it is now and allay some of the fears expressed in the House. The outturn for 1986 was £192,00. The Estimate for 1988 is £387,000. I can understand that people might have doubts as to what might have happened. We might be bringing in legislation and making no arrangements for its implementation.

Mr. J. Bruton: Information on John Bruton  Zoom on John Bruton  Is the Minister comparing like with like?

Mr. Reynolds: Information on Albert Reynolds  Zoom on Albert Reynolds  I am. This is streamlining the operations in the protection area. There is no division of opinion in relation to it. Deputy Bruton as Minister for Industry and Commerce in the previous Government had this Bill. He asked here today whether the whole basis should be changed. That is fair enough for future debate but, having gone through the Bill in his time in Government and since then, he should know that the prohibition system he talks about is not a new idea. It was the subject of a report in 1977 by the Restrictive Practices Commission. He stated in the House that he had discussions recently with the commissioner. This has its pros and cons as everything else has, and probably we will go into this in more detail on Committee Stage, but I hope that this House will not hold up the present legislation while we get down to examining the prohibition system as against the control of abuse system. This Bill is important and necessary in order to try to attack many of the areas about which serious concern has been expressed by various Deputies.

Questions were raised regarding various professions, accountancy, the legal profession and so on. Lest Deputies have any doubts about that, let me say that all those professions now come under this legislation. They are being considered at the moment. They have not been examined for years. Do not look at me when somebody asks why they have not been looked at. Why did the legal profession [2678] get away for so long? Why did accountancy or any profession escape, if they did? I have heard remarks being thrown around this House about rip-offs. I am not saying there have been rip-offs but this matter could have been looked at and nobody seemed to look at it. I will consider every aspect of every profession in an effort to achieve what I set out to do, that is, to get a better deal for the consumer. As Deputy John Browne has just said, various areas of business and professions have their own lobbies. Consumers have one lobby which should be the most effective of all, that is, their representatives in this House. It is up to us all to ensure we give them the best deal possible. Therefore, I hope there will be no misunderstanding about what is in and what is out.

There may be some confusion about the banks. The banks will be fully covered by the Restrictive Practices Act but they will not be subject to the Mergers and Monopolies Act, 1978. That may be where the confusion arises. It was never intended that the banks should be covered by that. The Bill as published by the previous Government did not include them within the Mergers and Monopolies Act and none of the amendments made to the Bill in the Seanad had any effect, good, bad or indifferent, on this. The Central Bank is responsible for the supervision of the financial institutions in this State. The Central Bank monitors mergers and takeovers by banks in the context of their overall functions. To bring banks within the Mergers and Monopolies Act would result in an undesirable duplication.

The purpose of the amendment that was brought in was to bring the new definition of service in the Second Schedule to the Bill into the body of the Bill. I have not read the report of the Seanad debate. Because something was described in a double negative fashion there may have been some difficulty about understanding it. All we are doing is taking it from the Second Schedule to the Bill and putting it into the body of the Bill in order to make sure that the removal of exclusions was made clear to [2679] those reading the Bill. It appears to have the opposite effect for some people but I hope it is clear now.

Deputy Bruton and others asked why local authorities are excluded from the legislation and why this amendment was introduced in the Seanad. The amendments introduced in the Seanad had no effect on the services excluded from the scope of the legislation. Local authorities have always been excluded from the restrictive practices and mergers legislation on the basis that they do not engage in commercial activity. Perhaps some Deputies misunderstood the purpose of the amendment. Now I hope they will be clear in their minds about this.

Deputy Bruton asked why there were so few prosecutions. I do not know how long he was in the Department but he was there longer than I have been up to now and maybe he could have answered the question for himself. There were not many prosecutions. The Examiner of Restrictive Practices is the man who acts on the complaints in relation to the operation of restrictive practices orders and where a prima facie case is established it is the policy of the Minister — and, I am sure, previous Minister — to pursue or prosecute. The low number of prosecutions reflects the small number of complaints received by the examiner. It is not just one-way traffic with piles of complaints coming in and no action taken.

The question of cumbersome investigative procedures was raised by Deputy Bruton. The purpose of the Act is to streamline the operations and to include those who were excluded. The commission now are being given power to undertake inquiries on their own initiative rather than in the cumbersome way it was done previously. I am sure the Deputy understands that. He was quite clear about it when he was Minister. If he does not understand any other part we will have plenty of time on Committee Stage to clarify it.

Mr. J. Bruton: Information on John Bruton  Zoom on John Bruton  That was a reference to [2680] the desirability of the prohibition approach. It has been dealt with.

Mr. Reynolds: Information on Albert Reynolds  Zoom on Albert Reynolds  Deputy Keating said BTE and An Post should be covered. They are covered; they are in. What may be confusing some people is that they have existing monopolies. They are not excluded from the scope of this Bill. They have been excluded up to now but they are brought fully into the scope of this Bill. The monopoly position of those bodies does not change and their business will be scrutinised where they are in competion with anybody in the private sector.

Deputy Keating said the penalties should be increased. The penalties are being increased from a £200 fine and £10 per day for a continuing offence to £500 and £50 per day and on indictment from a £5,000 fine and £500 per day for a continuing offence to £10,000 and £1,000 per day. I do not think anybody could object to that but, if so, we will hear from them on Committee Stage. Deputy Keating must not have spotted where they have been increased.

Deputy Keating said that enforcement of consumer protection legislation is not effective and others made the same point. As I have explained, one of the primary purposes of this Bill is by the rationalisation of the procedures to streamline them and give them a better opportunity of being enforced. The staff of the director's office have not been decreased but have been increased in the past year or so. I have given the allocation, comparing 1986 with 1987, so this is not a cosmetic exercise.

Deputy Flood raised the importance of labelling and other Deputies referred to this, too. That is covered by the Consumer Information Act, 1978. Food labelling regulations of 1982 are being enforced by the Department. Similarly, there are textile labelling regulations under the Bill and the director will enforce all this legislation. Let me draw Deputy Flood's attention to the fact that new regulations in June this year require the E numbers to be given in the case of additives in food products. I provided in regulations in June 1987 that the letter [2681]“E” as a clear indication that additives are in the product be displayed for everybody's benefit.

Deputy Yates said that we have never pioneered our own legislation and that we have slavishly follwed EC Directives for five to ten years. It is much the same point that Deputy Bruton raised in relation to the control of abuse system as against the prohibition system. I will deal with that in more detail later. The allegation by Deputy Yates does not stand up, certainly not to the extent he was trying to infer. Our two major pieces of legislation, the Consumer Information Act and the Sale of Goods and Supply of Services Act, date from 1978 and 1980 respectively. The main thrust of the Consumer Information Act is to deal with misleading advertising. A directive in misleading advertising was adopted by the EC only in 1984, six years after we passed our Act. Instead of lagging behind the EC we are ahead in consumer legislation. Neither do we lag behind any other member states in relation to other directives. We are up to date and are ahead in many areas.

Legislation is currently in preparation in a whole range of areas as a result of which further protection will be afforded to the consumer. Legislation is in preparation on product liability, consumer credit, the practice known as doorstep selling and product safety. I am requiring that the annual percentage rate of charge in interest be shown in advertisements which make reference to the cost of credit. This is the regulation which has gone through the Seanad and will be coming before this House. Since the regulation was brought before the Seanad it has been represented to me that perhaps the limits should have been increased somewhat. I do not have a closed mind on this matter and I am concerned that regulations should be made to meet present-day circumstances.

Deputy Yates gave an example of an advertisement offering a refrigerator for sale, the price having been reduced from £100 to £80. I suppose we could almost offer him a job in the Abbey Theatre on [2682] the basis of his presentation. He alleges that misleading advertising of this type is not dealt with, but I take issue with him on that point. Whatever example is given, the Consumer Information Act prohibits any indication that a product has been reduced from, say, £100 to £80 unless that product had been sold at the higher price for at least 28 days beforehand. Deputy Yates made wild allegations that we do not have legislation to deal with that situation but it is well and truly covered in the Consumer Information Act.

Deputy Yates also talked about the possibility of a small claims court. This is currently under examination in my Department. The Deputy will be aware that there are major problems involved in setting up such a tribunal for dealing with consumer complaints which would operate outside the existing courts system. Apart from the question of cost which must be significant, there are issues such as the procedures to be followed by such a tribunal, the legal representation of parties appearing before it and the enforcement of decision once reached. All these questions require to be teased out and when examination of the matter is fully concluded we will have consultation to see if it is feasible. Deputy Yates was portraying the procedure as similar to a nice cosy chat involving two or three people, whereby agreement would be reached. What if the agreement is not carried through? It is a nice idea but when one thinks it through one realises that there is another side to the coin. However, it is being examined.

Mr. J. Bruton: Information on John Bruton  Zoom on John Bruton  Is it not one of the procedures that has been recommended by the Minister as a means of reducing insurance claims?

Mr. Reynolds: Information on Albert Reynolds  Zoom on Albert Reynolds  Not as it was represented here by Deputy Yates. I do not think he had thought it through.

Mr. J. Bruton: Information on John Bruton  Zoom on John Bruton  But the Minister is moving in a similar direction in regard to insurance.

[2683]Mr. Reynolds: Information on Albert Reynolds  Zoom on Albert Reynolds  Not as loosely as represented here today. I am not throwing away the concept but I cannot accept that it is simple and straightforward. Regarding door-to-door selling, Deputy Yates said we should not wait for an EC directive but should go ahead and introduce our own measures. The legal measures suggested by the Deputy are already covered by EC directives which have been adopted here and we hope to make regulations under these directives in the very near future. This will provide the protection sought by the Deputy.

Deputy Yates also spoke about Visa and Access cards and the rates of interest being charged. In June this year an order was approved by the Seanad which is currently awaiting approval by this House. It will require that any advertisement which makes reference to the cost of credit shall indicate the actual cost of the credit by means of the annual percentage rate of charge. This will enable the consumer to make up his or her mind in relation to the credit which is about to be availed of and to find what may be regarded as the best offer available. There will be transparency in the rate being advertised by various finance houses, Access, Visa, etc.

Deputy Yates asked why we abolished the National Consumer Advisory Council. He has long been a member of the party opposite with Deputy Bruton and he should remember that the council was abolished late in 1985 by the previous Government. I do not think he should be asking me why it was abolished.

Mr. J. Bruton: Information on John Bruton  Zoom on John Bruton  I will tell him why.

Mr. Reynolds: Information on Albert Reynolds  Zoom on Albert Reynolds  Maybe Deputy Bruton had good reasons.

Mr. J. Bruton: Information on John Bruton  Zoom on John Bruton  I did indeed. It was an unnecessary duplication of effort.

Mr. Reynolds: Information on Albert Reynolds  Zoom on Albert Reynolds  I will not doubt the Deputy. The message did not get through to Deputy Yates, apparently. Many of us can have a lapse of memory.

I think I have dealt with all the points raised. Any Deputy who wants further [2684] clarification will have an opportunity on Committee Stage. It is no harm to tease out a little further the prohibition system as against the control of abuse system.

Mr. J. Bruton: Information on John Bruton  Zoom on John Bruton  I have a question, if the Minister has the time, I do not expect an answer but the Minister might consider this point between now and Committee Stage. A problem arose when I was Minister in regard to recommendations concerning conveyancing by solicitors. We thought we could deal with the matter by means of an order under this legislation but the Attorney General in due course advised that this could not be done because there would have to be an amendment to the Solicitors' Act. Once the matter was passed to another Department which was not directly concerned with competition, one got into inordinate delays. The same problem is likely to crop up again and again in this area, particularly in view of the fact that we have extended the scope of the legislation.

What I would ask the Minister to consider between now and Committee Stage is the possibility of introducing an amendment which would ensure that existing legislation can be amended with the agreement of the Cabinet under this legislation without the necessity of introducing a separate Bill.

Since March and May respectively the Minister has on his table reports from the Commission on Restrictive Practices on the accountancy profession and the engineering profession. When can we expect these reports to be published and acted upon?

Mr. Reynolds: Information on Albert Reynolds  Zoom on Albert Reynolds  In relation to the Deputies first question, we will have a look at it and respond on Committee Stage. As regards the Deputy's second question, the report dealing with the engineering profession is not back yet but the report on the accountancy profession has gone for publication and should be out next week. Deputy Yates asked why we were not looking at the engineering and accountancy professions and other professions as well and perhaps Deputy [2685] Bruton would advise him when he meets him that work has gone ahead.

Mr. J. Bruton: Information on John Bruton  Zoom on John Bruton  All professions are being examined under a general request which I made to the commission.

Mr. Reynolds: Information on Albert Reynolds  Zoom on Albert Reynolds  This man thinks I did nothing about this since I came into office. Two of these reports will be published within the next few weeks.

Mr. J. Bruton: Information on John Bruton  Zoom on John Bruton  The Minister claims the credit but I did it.

Mr. Reynolds: Information on Albert Reynolds  Zoom on Albert Reynolds  I am not taking the credit. I am asking the Deputy to advise his colleagues about what the Coalition Government were doing because he does not seem to have been informed.

Mr. J. Bruton: Information on John Bruton  Zoom on John Bruton  We are doing great work here but nobody knows it except the two of us and Deputy Connaughton.

Mr. Reynolds: Information on Albert Reynolds  Zoom on Albert Reynolds  What amuses me is that Deputies who have been in Government for four and a half years come in here asking me about legislation which, to a large extent, their Government drafted. I am not saying these Bills were drafted by anybody else. Still, people who were involved in drafting this legislation are asking questions as if they had no responsibility for what was in the Bill. That amazes me. I admit we do not all have great memories but we could not forget the most important part of legislation we drafted. I cannot understand why all these questions are being raised. Anything the Coalition did we will give them credit for, but for heaven sake they should not run away from responsibility for things they did but did not like because they cannot have their loaf and eat it.

Mr. J. Bruton: Information on John Bruton  Zoom on John Bruton  I am not trying to do that.

Mr. Reynolds: Information on Albert Reynolds  Zoom on Albert Reynolds  Many Deputies who raised questions are not here this evening.

[2686]Mr. J. Bruton: Information on John Bruton  Zoom on John Bruton  It is a pity they are not here listening to the Minister.

Mr. Reynolds: Information on Albert Reynolds  Zoom on Albert Reynolds  It is because I have their questions in front of me and they are not here for my replies. One would think they were new Deputies. Deputy Flood, a new TD, made a decent contribution and pointed out the problems as the consumers saw them. Listening to his contribution one would think he had been in this House for the past ten years but listening to experienced Deputies who spoke on this Bill — they were part of a Government which was in power for four and a half years — one would think everything was brand new to them.

Deputy Flood raised the question of the ridiculous prices being charged by the ESB. He said they did not seem to be responsible to this House or to anybody else, but these charges will be investigated. Telecommunications too will be investigated as well as postal charges and other areas which up to now were excluded. They will get the same treatment as everybody else. I hold the view that for far too long some monopolies have been providing services to the community and were allowed to decide their own charges. At the end of the day those charges were passed to the private sector who had to sell their goods on competitive markets abroad. There was no way those people could retrieve the cost of these services although for their competitors energy costs, telecommunications charges and postal charges were much lower. Is it any wonder Irish industry is so uncompetitive? Hopefully this Bill will be able to make these companies justify their charges. This applies also to banking charges, Visa cards and other new developments. We will take this opportunity to have these areas investigated because the purpose of the exercise is to ensure that the Irish consumer gets a better deal. We are trying to keep costs down and this is part of an ongoing operation.

I want to say a very quick word about a fundamental change in our approach to competition legislation about which [2687] Deputy Bruton was talking to Commissioner Sutherland in Brussels recently. This idea is not new. A study was carried out in 1977. Without having gone into this in detail, I will give a quick, off the top of my head reaction to it. The theory is nice but the cost of applying this practice to a small country like Ireland would be fairly hefty. Even when the study was carried out in 1977, and when one takes into account the inflexibility built into the EC bureaucracy, I am not sure, on balance, if our approach, where we can home in on a specific problem with an order, is not better than the very expensive procedure suggested by the Deputy. All I can say is that it is worth looking at the Deputy's suggestion that we consider the Articles in the Treaty of Rome but I would not be prepared to hold up this legislation for such a basic change.

Mr. J. Bruton: Information on John Bruton  Zoom on John Bruton  I will be putting down amendments on Committee Stage so that this might be debated but in the meantime would the Minister look at how it has worked in Greece, a country which would not have unlimited resources. If they have been able to do it relatively inexpensively, it might be worth looking at.

Mr. Reynolds: Information on Albert Reynolds  Zoom on Albert Reynolds  I would not mind a trip to Greece to analyse what happens there, especially if I go at a good time of the year, but I would not have the time to go to Greece to study this practice in detail before the Committee Stage of this Bill.

Mr. J. Bruton: Information on John Bruton  Zoom on John Bruton  The Minister could commission one of his colleagues to go in his place.

Mr. Reynolds: Information on Albert Reynolds  Zoom on Albert Reynolds  I thank Deputies for their contributions and look forward to a good debate on Committee and subsequent Stages.

Question put and agreed to.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on James C. Tunney  Zoom on James C. Tunney  When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

[2688]Mr. Reynolds: Information on Albert Reynolds  Zoom on Albert Reynolds  Next Tuesday, subject to agreement between the Whips.

Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 10 November 1987.


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