Wednesday, 17 November 2004
Dáil Eireann Debate
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill and commend Deputy Hogan for the work he has done on this issue. It is timely that we have a debate on the issue. Deputy Hogan will not be surprised to hear I will be supporting the Government’s position on his proposal but it is important that the Members of this House have an opportunity to discuss the concept of rip-off Ireland, as it has become known. My view is that it is not a reality. It is more a perception on the part of the media through which the term appears to have permeated down. Rip-off Ireland exists, but only in the minds of those who want it to exist. I am not saying we live in a price paradise in terms of all our goods and services. That is not the case, but I am emphatic that the, extent of price abuse, be it for goods or services, has been hugely exaggerated.
The reality is that we have much more money to spend. Consumers are paying more than people in most other European countries but there is a reason for that. I have particular experience of this in north County Dublin, which produces approximately 50% of the national output in the horticulture area and where horticultural products are regularly used as the pawns in the price wars of the major supermarkets. It is not uncommon for a head of lettuce to be used as a loss leader, so to speak, to bring the housewife into the supermarket.
We had an experience recently with a pumpkin grower in north County Dublin. Pumpkins are a seasonal product at this time of year. This grower was producing approximately 20,000 pumpkins specifically for the Hallowe’en market and was expecting a retail price of €3 per pumpkin. Her only concern was that she would have a repeat of last year when one of the major supermarkets dropped the price of pumpkins to €1 and shifted thousands of them in the process. That absorbed whatever profit she might have gained. In fact, she lost a significant amount of money. It would not have been worth her while this year if any of the supermarket chains, and specifically that supermarket chain, had taken the same action. Last year it was the whim of that supermarket to use the pumpkin as a loss leader. This year, the whim took them somewhere else. The pumpkins were safe. The young girl starting out in business, producing in a niche market, was safe. She had a good crop. She lost very few pumpkins and got a reasonable price for her product. The Irish market is so small it is subject to such whims and the only way those whims can be dealt with is by an additional margin for most retailers on most products. It is important that we take account of that. There is no doubt, however, that there are a number of areas where dramatic improvements can be made.
We should be concerned on behalf of the consumer but we have to put the position in context. The growth in the economy over the past decade has been phenomenal, unforeseen and is something which has changed our entire way of life. We are now the second richest country in the European Union, with only Luxembourg ahead of us. We have gone from a position where, less than 20 years ago, we were exporting our brightest and best to earn a living abroad. We now have immigrants working here and they are welcome in our workforce. Unemployment is down to
4%. That is as near to full employment as we will get, and 1.8 million people are at work, more than ever before. All of that has given rise to a culture where people have a good deal of money and they might not be as careful with it as in the past. The youth now have disposable income that most of us in this Chamber did not have access to when we were that age. There are major questions to be asked about where their money is being spent. That particular sector of the electorate does not appear to be too bothered about value for money. From what I see of the hospitality business, and the pub business in particular, not many of the younger generation either inquire about the price of a pint or check their change. All the issues have been raised in regard to shots and, more recently, sachets of alcohol. There is no doubt there are rip-offs in that area, not only financially but morally also. They are the issues we should be addressing.
Abuses are being carried out by the monopolies in the transport, communications and banking sectors on price and service. Those sectors have dominant positions in those areas. There are very few companies operating in them. To one degree or another they have all exploited those dominant positions at the expense of the consumer and, unfortunately in some instances, they continue to do so.
It is our duty to protect the consumer and ensure the consumer protection laws are adequately enforced. While I accept the bona fides behind this proposed legislation, I am strongly of the view that the work currently in hand by the Minister and his Department and the research being done, which I have no doubt will bear fruit in the next few weeks, is the way forward. We must deal with this issue on the basis of that research and the work being done in the Department. I oppose this legislation.
Mr. Fleming: I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Consumer Rights Enforcement Bill 2004. I am amazed the Bill is, being brought forward by Fine Gael. I do not believe the majority of the party’s Front Bench would support the legislation if it were to progress tonight because much of what its spokespersons say on different issues runs counter to what is proposed. As regards the discussion about Opposition parties coming together in advance of the next election, I do not believe there is any prospect of Fine Gael getting——
Mr. Fleming: Members of the Fianna Fáil Party are socialists. Other parties can speak for themselves. Effectively, the Bill proposes to establish another quango. One of the major disappointments of my few short years in the House has been our tendency to appoint a quango every other month. I had hoped we were beginning to move away from this approach but the Bill proposes the appointment of another regulator. Before long, legislation will be required to regulate the regulators because there are so many of them.
Mr. Fleming: The essence of the legislation is its vote of no confidence in the Director of Consumer Affairs as it proposes to remove her from office. The Office of the Director of Consumer Affairs needs to be properly resourced and beefed up.
The Fine Gael Party is inconsistent on this issue. In the past year or two, the new consumer director in the Irish Financial Services Regulatory Authority has made tremendous progress on all matters relating to consumer protection in financial services. This Bill would set back progress such as the response to the recent debacle in which AIB was found guilty of overcharging customers in foreign exchange. As a result of IFSRA’s role, including that of its consumer director, AIB was immediately compelled to lodge €50 million with the Central Bank until the various matters had been resolved and all customers reimbursed for being wrongfully overcharged. That is an example of new legislation that works, whereas this Bill would throw the baby out with the bath water.
Mr. Fleming: On the contrary, financial products, whether mortgages, car loans or services provided by banks or the insurance and financial industries, are one of the most important areas of consumer affairs. This legislation runs counter to the good work being done in this area.
Mr. Fleming: Let us take a further example of the inconsistency of Fine Gael. The Bill proposes to provide in legislation for the new consumer rights enforcer to assume an advocacy role in representing consumers in the national partnership arrangements. Fine Gael Members have consistently complained about national partnerships, which were pioneered by the Fianna Fáil Party. My party works well in government and is proud of the partnership approach.
Anyone who understands trade union and voluntary negotiation will know that national partnerships are not established by legislation. They are by definition voluntary agreements between the Government, trade unions, employers, the agricultural sector and various other sectors of society acting in a voluntary capacity. A branch of the Fine Gael Party is, through the Bill, proposing to place one aspect of the partnership process on a statutory footing. Will we have social partnership in the future? I suspect we will not if the Fine Gael Party is in government.
Fine Gael’s approach is inconsistent in many respects. Comments made in the House by party spokespersons on a regular basis run counter to what the Bill proposes. It consistently complains about new quangos, yet the Bill proposes to establish another quango. The thinking behind the Bill is an example of the desperation the party showed in advance of the previous election when it proposed to compensate taxi drivers and Eircom shareholders, and spoke other guff and nonsense of that nature.
Mr. Fleming: Deputy Hogan has made his point. I hope the Taoiseach fulfils his promise to serve the Government’s full term until the summer of 2007. We will have nothing to worry about if the public sees the machinations of the Fine Gael Party.
Ms Cooper-Flynn: Like my colleagues, I welcome an opportunity to speak to the Bill. There is no doubt that discussion of the rip-off culture, much of it fair, has attracted considerable media attention. I understand from Deputy Hogan’s comments that his objective is to remove the Director of Consumer Affairs. It is important to consider what the director has achieved, even in the current year. Of more than 35,000 queries examined by the office so far this year, 4,000 have been investigated. The office plays an important and increasingly busy role as a result of people’s belief that they no longer get value for money.
The Bill is motivated by considerable media interest in this issue. However, it has been introduced after the Tánaiste’s decision, in her previous position as Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, to set in motion a strategy group to examine this issue. Established in March, the purpose of the group is to consult the public and interested parties and listen to complaints to get the broadest possible spectrum of opinion on the issue. Its objectives are to provide consumers with knowledge, information and confidence to ensure they are well informed of their rights and have speedy means of address, a powerful voice and effective representation, that their views are heard and best practice and value for money are promoted. These also appear to be the objectives of the Bill——
Ms Cooper-Flynn: Given that it is November, why is the Fine Gael Party trying to rush a Bill through the House without first listening to what the public has to say in a proper consultative process. While I do not doubt the Deputy’s motivation, the timing of the Bill is suspect since it has been known since March that the strategy group is examining the areas about which he is concerned. I look forward to the publication of the strategy group’s report and hope the Government will take serious action to implement its findings.
As a representative of a rural constituency, I am conscious of the differences in prices between rural and urban areas. In every aspect of life, people believe they are not getting value for money. While it is good that a report will be published on this issue in December, we will have to revisit this legislation if it is left on the shelf.
A number of important points arise, particularly with regard to the EU regulation on consumer protection co-operation on which agreement was reached during the Irish Presidency. It is important that any Bill introduced in the House incorporate agreements we have made at EU level and I am disappointed the Fine Gael Party has not taken this on board.
Does the Fine Gael Party believe the role of the Office of the Director of Consumer Affairs is not truly independent? The Bill seeks to introduce a new means of appointing a consumer rights enforcer who would be recommended by the Dáil and eventually appointed by the President. Under the current mechanism, the Public Appointments Service advertises the position and operates an open competition. This role is truly independent and it is a serious accusation to say otherwise.
Ms Cooper-Flynn: If Deputy Hogan believes that the public is dissatisfied with this office’s level of investigation, why is he then ignoring the people who have been consulted by the strategy group? These are the people——
Ms Cooper-Flynn: ——and which was not just about getting publicity on a matter which is very much being discussed in the media. I would be only too happy to support a genuinely motivated Bill that involved consultation with the public.
I advise the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Batt O’Keeffe, that when the report comes out, there will be an expectation that the Government will act. I sincerely hope that I will not have to debate another Bill on this matter from the Opposition due to Government inactivity.
Mr. O’Donovan: I am opposing the Bill but I understand the thrust of Deputy Hogan’s argument. The consumer strategy group was established less than a year ago, comprising eminent people from trade unions and business and experts from various sectors. The group is to report at the end of the year. Without trying to second-guess the outcome of the report’s findings, it would be wise and prudent for Deputy Hogan to await them.
Mr. O’Donovan: The consumer strategy group is examining consumer attitude and perception surveys, planning and land use, transportation, promoting consumer interests and the fruit and vegetable industry. Deputy Glennon referred to the lady in north County Dublin growing pumpkins.
Mr. O’Donovan: The group will also examine the pharmaceutical industry. As a Member with legal training, I am concerned with the constitutionality of the Bill. The Bill proposes that the consumer rights enforcer would have the power to impose administrative fines. The Competition Authority has similar powers, the constitutional implications of which have been referred to the Attorney General for investigation.
Mr. O’Donovan: The Bill also proposes that the consumer rights enforcer should periodically review and make recommendations on the fiscal jurisdiction of the Small Claims Court. Is it appropriate that the enforcer should have this power as that court falls under the remit of the District Court?
The Bill does not recognise the work done by the Director of Consumer Affairs to date. I am perplexed that an able Member such as Deputy Hogan would suggest that the director is not independent. It comes as a startling revelation to me as I believe the director is independent. There is an effort to control various prices. In Cork South-West I recently frequented a little hostelry where I was able to purchase a pint of Murphy’s stout for €2.60.
Mr. O’Donovan: In certain areas people are complaining about the price of drink in public houses. A Member pointed out how young people throw money across the counter, not caring if they get change. However, this is hitting home for publicans. Some blame the smoking ban. I note the Scots and the English are following our lead in that regard. The downturn in numbers visiting hostelries is not due to the ban but because many of them are ripping off their customers.
Mr. O’Donovan: When the consumer strategy group produces its report in the next few months, we may well be acknowledging that Deputy Hogan’s points were appropriate. However, his timing is slightly out like the timing belt in a car not being perfect——
Mr. McGuinness: The Bill notes the emergence of a perceived rip-off. However, over the last several months, the Fine Gael Party has told people it is a real rip-off culture. As one who deals in business in the UK and Europe, the damage done by the Fine Gael Party to other Irish companies is incredible. The party took no stock of the impact of what it said on the business people must do on the Continent and in the UK. It is now perceived that Ireland has a rip-off culture and there is something untoward going on.
Mr. McGuinness: I am surprised at the Fine Gael Party taking this stand. It has not presented the debate in a balanced way and it has consistently harassed Government speakers to divert attention from this.
Mr. McGuinness: The Deputy is not politically big enough to stand back and say he was wrong, that he got it wrong and the economy continues to surge ahead. There are problems but they are being tackled.
Mr. McGuinness: The Government is making a genuine effort to ensure that the economy, including the social economy grows and that on the macroeconomic level it can feed the benefits with which it must deal. The debate must be balanced. In the light of the announcements made by the former Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and recently by her successor, the Opposition has not presented a balanced debate. This Bill is an example of political opportunism.
Mr. McHugh: I wish to share time with Deputies Finian McGrath, Connolly, Eamon Ryan and Ó Caoláin. I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. The Government, with the exception of the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, Deputy O’Donoghue, seems to accept that we are paying more for many goods and services than our counterparts in other European countries. I cannot understand the speed with which Ministers rush to attribute these higher prices to the success of the economy. The inference is that we must grin and bear it. The Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment must play a significant role in this. He has only recently taken office but I hope he comes to terms with the job post haste because even though his predecessor spoke often about the need to be competitive, there is little evidence that she did much to bring that about. I support the Bill proposed by Deputy Hogan on behalf of Fine Gael because it is apparent that the measures in place are deficient and the agencies charged with protecting the consumer are ineffective.
The Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy
Killeen, said that the Competition Authority has the resources and the autonomy to investigate the reasons for high prices which do not seem justifiable and to report publicly on its findings. The Minister of State may not be aware that Mr. Fingleton of the Competition Authority recently attended a meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Enterprise and Small Business which was investigating the high prices in the grocery and retail trade and their effect on consumers. Mr. Fingleton’s performance was disappointing, to put it mildly. He was expansive on generalities but short on specifics. He generated no confidence that his organisation was in a position to offer assistance to the committee in the matter under investigation. For example, he volunteered to the committee that the retail planning guidelines, which limit the size of retail outlets contribute to the high cost of grocery products when compared with those in other European countries. When asked for evidence he was unable to substantiate this claim.
Some of the major multiples and the discounters pointed to the fact that the limit on the size of retail outlets has no effect on prices. Lidl informed the committee that, based on the experience of other countries throughout Europe, there is no evidence that a restriction on the size of retail outlets has a direct impact on the price of groceries. That comes from a company, which opened its first store here in 2000 and now has a network of 48 stores throughout the country. Tesco also stated that it had no issue with the cap on the size of retail outlets and did not see it as an obstacle to being competitive. This is an example of the unsatisfactory situation whereby a body charged with ensuring our society is competitive feels it is adequate to give a top of the head view of this important issue without providing any evidence to support the claim.
The Government has responsibility for many of the factors that contribute to the high cost of goods and services. For example, transport costs are 30% higher here than in Northern Ireland owing to fuel costs, the high level of road tax and the inadequate road infrastructure. Although insurance costs are falling to some degree, they are 200% above Northern Irish levels. The high cost of insurance is one case where direct Government action could have resulted in much reduced premium levels and would have led to reduced prices for goods and services. However, the Government did not act until the situation deteriorated to a level where business was going to the wall and job losses were occurring. Not alone do we need a consumer rights enforcer, we need the Government to act to show that it is also on the side of the consumer.
Mr. F. McGrath: I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this Bill. This is important legislation for all sections of society but it is especially relevant to the weaker sections, those on low pay and those on welfare. Unfortunately, we live in a country in which certain elements are involved in a rip-off culture. We need a new framework to enhance consumers’ rights and to enable consumers to exercise those rights. That is why I disagree with Deputy McGuinness’ comments. The rich in our society have so much money they do not even notice. Working people, those on welfare and the low paid, are badly affected on an ongoing basis. People earning €100,000 or €200,000 per year do not bat an eyelid when they go out and spend €100 or €200 on dinner and a bottle of wine, but the minimum weekly adult social welfare rate is €134.80. Imagine trying to survive on that for seven days in 2004. There should be an increase of €20 on that in the budget, just as there should have been a flat rate increase of €20 for those on the minimum wage. All payments should be based on today’s reality, especially that of rip-off Ireland.
The consumer rights enforcer will name and shame the service providers it believes fail to provide consumers with an adequate standard of service. What is wrong with that? The consumer rights enforcer will have a seat at partnership level to ensure any national agreements do not impact disproportionately on consumers. The Bill will also allow for increases in fines and penalties to discourage breaches of legislation designed to protect consumers. When dealing with these price issues and the rip-off merchants, we must also address the growing number of low, income households in society. Rising average incomes have not benefited everyone to the same extent. One need only look at the scandal of the housing crisis. People, especially the young, are unable to buy homes in their own city. Meanwhile the wealthy have a field day, making significant money on their investments while some couples cannot buy and others must wait on housing lists.
What does our socialist Taoiseach think of all this in our so-called wealthy country? Approximately 22% of the population is being left behind in rip-off Ireland and, despite all the talk, nobody seems to care. At the same time, low paid families represent an increased share of poor households. One does not need to be a rocket scientist to know that employment policies must be supplemented by tax and welfare measures while boosting the incomes of those on welfare and in low paid work.
I welcome section 5 of the Bill, which confers a series of powers necessary to ensure the rights of the consumer are upheld, are necessary, or are in force. It is very relevant. It is important that we defend the interests of consumers. Citizens have rights, consumers are citizens, and it is up to every Member of the Oireachtas to look out for and protect the interests of the consumer.
Mr. Connolly: I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. We are all consumers in need of protection and consumer justice warrants that legislation be enacted for effective enforcement of the rights of the consumer. Prior to the establishment of the Office of the Director of Consumer Affairs, enforcing consumer rights required a do-it-yourself approach. The civil court judge occasionally served as the ultimate enforcer of consumer rights if the consumer and service provider did not arrive at an amicable settlement.
This Bill aims to enshrine consumer rights in legislation by the appointment of a consumer rights enforcer or supremo. I do not particularly like the word “enforcer” because it smacks of the Clint Eastwood “Dirty Harry” movie but the idea is right. The powers of the Office of the Director of Consumer Affairs were somewhat limited and the office mainly provided advice and information to consumers on legislation of interest to them. It does not get involved in individual issues or differences between consumers and service providers. There is a strong case to be made for the introduction here of “lemon laws” with strict enforceable penalties for consumers who may be sold lemons or, as we sometimes say in northern counties, may be sold a pup.
Lemons are so-called because of the sour taste they leave in the buyer’s mouth and they come in all shapes and sizes. Most lemons have wheels, for example, cars and bicycles, or they float, for example boats, or they can be houses. The days of caveat emptor or the hard luck story are over for consumers. Today’s consumers face a market place characterised by rapid change stemming from globalisation, deregulation of services and rapidly changing technologies affecting the kind of goods and services companies offer.
There has been an explosion in new products and services that require consumers to have considerable information to assess their value and implications. At the same time, traditional regulatory approaches have difficulty in keeping pace with protecting the consumer interest and providing the appropriate levels of redress. It is no wonder the number of consumer related issues have become flash-points, especially when people perceive that health services are at stake, such as in the case of the proposal to transfer a full surgical team from Monaghan General Hospital to Cavan General Hospital. For the people of Monaghan, health services are a major consumer issue and as recent experience has shown, they are truly a matter of life and death. We only have to ask the McCullough, Knox, Livingstone or Sheridan families about consumer issues in Monaghan.
Mr. Eamon Ryan: Deputy McGuinness claimed that this is a question of seeing whether the glass is half full or half empty. I suggest to the Deputy that the real question in this debate is what price is the glass. Deputy Hogan referred last night to a glass of sparkling water with a splash of lime costing around €5 in Dublin. Deputy Perry spoke of a low price €3 pint in the village of Ballymote, while Deputy O’Donovan lauded the €2.60 pint in what I can only imagine is some shebeen close to his home in west Cork. The truth behind those two prices reveals a broader truth about Ireland. We live in an Ireland that is divided in two. One part of Ireland is this globalised, international finance world, especially in Dublin but also in Cork and Galway and places where there is multi-national investment, high finance and high incomes that come with localisation of global capital. For those people and for that culture, €5 for a glass of spring water makes eminent sense. The fear, however, and the reason I support this Bill is that in allowing a two-tier Ireland and accepting the reality of Ireland being a globalised centre, half of the population is caught out badly and suffers from the rip-off Ireland that genuinely exists, in spite of what the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, Deputy O’Donoghue, might say on the matter.
In one of the most open and globalised economies, it is remarkable that Ireland has allowed a situation develop where we have not benefited from some of the open markets. We are paying a far higher price, especially for groceries and everyday items that one would think would be brought down in line with such an open and globalised economy. That is not occurring because we are increasingly seen in the globalised market as a mere adjunct to the market of the north of England. Many retailers here buy products from the rest of the world in sterling and sell them in euro. They are putting a greater margin on each occasion, which leads to this market being very expensive in comparison to the neighbouring market in Northern Ireland, which has the same characteristics. The office recommended by Deputy Hogan could easily address that issue, yet the Government seems blind to it.
There is a more civic issue on retail planning guidelines and that is whether we should remove the cap on the size of retail stores to try to address the rip-off culture. I argue strongly that such a solution would not provide respite or any real long-term improvement to Irish consumers. Earlier today, the National Roads Authority gave a presentation to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport and it effectively admitted that any new retail outlet, particularly one the size of the proposed IKEA on the M50, would add traffic to a road that, although it is to be widened, will be at full capacity as soon as it is opened. For that reason alone it is bad policy. Similar economic arguments were made abroad for larger retail spaces in out-of-town locations. The experience has been that it leads to a monopoly supply position, where smaller indigenous retail outlets close down, there is a loss of competition in the long run and a loss of consumer rights and consumer choice. I urge the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government as well as the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment not to proceed with this.
Deputy Hogan stated that there is a need for the partnership process to take into account wider consumer consideration. We have to think beyond that. We have to take into account environmental considerations and other social justice issues. These issues have not been addressed to date. It was interesting to hear the Taoiseach claim that his party was the worker’s party. To a certain extent, he may be right. His party is completely tied into the partnership process to represent what both IBEC and the ICTU want. That is what the Government parties take as gospel. It is an incredibly narrow definition of the rights and needs in this society. I found it hard to believe the claims of the intelligence unit of The Economist that we had the highest quality of life in the world. Maybe the glass is full, but for the people on €134 a week in social welfare trying to survive in this culture, there is a lousy quality of life. It is a difficult strain everyday just to survive. It is the same for those parents travelling long distances to bring their kids to school because they cannot afford housing. I welcome this Fine Gael Bill which allows us to debate this issue.
Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill and on the issue at its core, which is undoubtedly one of great concern to many people. Prices of goods cannot be looked at in isolation. They are connected with Government policy across a broad range of areas. The rip-off culture behind this legislation, which Fine Gael has brought before the House, is the result of greedy, rampant individualism and, dare I say it, a capitalistic society which has been promoted by the Government parties, the movers of the motion and all those who believe that society should serve the economy. On the other hand, we in Sinn Féin, like some other voices in this House, but too few, are committed to a situation where the economy serves society. That is a great difference.
The free market economy has long been lauded in this State. Competition has been cited as the panacea for all ills, which clearly it is not. A free market economy is one where scarcities are resolved through changes in relative prices rather than through regulation. If a commodity is in short supply relative to the number of people who want to buy it, its price will rise and producers and sellers will make higher profits. The rip-off culture characterised by profiteers creaming off huge profits is, therefore, a resultant ill of a market-driven economy. Citizens need to be protected from the excesses of the market economy and that is why we need consumer protection legislation with legislation to protect workers’ rights and the environment.
I am glad Fine Gael accepts the necessity to regulate the market. I was happily surprised to hear Fine Gael say that there is not enough intensity of control over what is happening in the marketplace. I wondered if some of their Deputies had also caught the socialism bug, and there would be welcome for that.
I would like to address a particular point on the terminology used not only by the movers of the Bill but frequently elsewhere. Fine Gael talks an awful lot about consumers, but very rarely about citizens or workers. That says a great deal about that party and others who take the same position that they seek to define people by their relationship with the ownership of goods.
The Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats Government and IBEC often talk about competition only in terms of the public sector, breaking up State companies and so-called monopolies, while they fail to address competition in terms of price-fixing, cartels, self-regulation by the professions, the banking sector, the insurance industry and so on. Sinn Féin favours competition which is driven by a criteria of protecting the public good. Competition is clearly not the panacea, as I said. It has not been proven to bring down costs in many sectors. Competition does not protect people against profiteering and needs to be regulated.
I welcome many of the provisions of this Bill, especially those which relate to increasing fines and penalties. For example, I welcome the proposal to increase the penalty provisions in the Prices Act 1958 in respect of those who fail to display a price list, as required by law. I thank my comrades in Fine Gael for their work in preparing this Bill and I look forward to voting with them on it.
Mr. Neville: I welcome this opportunity to speak on the Bill. I congratulate my colleague, Deputy Hogan, on introducing it to the House. He has been working on this matter for a considerable period and in many ways, for example, by investigating and researching this area. He has facilitated consumers by allowing them to have a say on a Fine Gael website, www.ripoff.ie, which has been of considerable benefit to members of the party. The website has informed Fine Gael of the concerns of the electorate.
Regardless of the extent of the evidence presented to them, successive Government speakers have demonstrated that they are in denial about the existence of the rip-off Ireland problem. I am sure they are logging onto Fine Gael’s website on a regular basis. The Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism has argued that www.ripoff.ie propagates a myth. Figures published last week by the Central Statistics Office, however, reveal that the number of people visiting Ireland in the month of September decreased this year for the first time in three years. It is obvious to those who examine such matters — many people do not do so because they take them for granted — that costs in Ireland are much greater than in competing countries in the tourism market.
The Tánaiste said in 2000 that the Government was determined to tackle inflation by exposing previously sheltered sectors to competition, but nothing has been done since then to implement that agenda. No effort has been made to honour the Tánaiste’s commitment. Senator Leyden, Fianna Fáil’s enterprise spokesman in the Seanad, recently accused Fine Gael of trying to jeopardise employment and tourism and discouraging people from visiting Ireland by warning tourists about growing costs. When the Senator embarked on a personal “name and shame” consumer price-busting campaign in May of this year, however, he said he wanted to empower consumers to take action to reduce prices and encourage competition. The Senator decided to criticise Fine Gael for raising this issue, even though he had launched a campaign of his own. Such campaigns must be all right if they come from the Fianna Fáil backbenches.
The realities of life in Ireland are there for all to see. Ireland is the most expensive country in which to live in the EU. It is the third most expensive EU country for goods and services. Dublin is the fourth most expensive capital city in the EU. Ireland has fallen from fourth to 30th in the global competition league table. The current regulatory framework is hopelessly under-equipped to deal with the problems I have mentioned because the relevant laws stem from the 1970s and the 1980s. The Office of the Director of Consumer Affairs has lost many of its powers. The legal regime to protect consumers, which is divided between five sectoral regulators, is dated.
This Bill is the first step in tackling the vested interests which have allowed a rip-off culture to flourish in Ireland. The Bill proposes that the Office of the Director of Consumer Affairs be replaced with an office of consumer rights enforcer, which would have extra powers and would be charged with developing a code of conduct for service providers. The proposed office would engage in “name and shame” campaigns à la Senator Leyden. It would have a seat at the partnership talks and would impose fines and penalties.
The level of Government failure in this regard is monumental, deep-rooted and obvious. The Opposition has had to come up with answers as the coalition has slid further and further into a state of denial. The success of a survey on the price of sparkling water and lime, undertaken by Deputy Hogan last year, offers proof that Fine Gael’s policies can work. If a Deputy who does not have many resources can highlight these issues, one can imagine the power of an independent State-funded advocate for consumers.
Mr. Ring: When I heard on the radio that a report has been published which claims that Ireland has the best quality of life in the world, my first thought was that those who wrote it must have stayed in the Shelbourne Hotel and spent three weeks drinking. They must have been drunk when they compiled the report because they certainly were not living in the real world. They do not know what is going on in Ireland.
As I listened to my local radio station when I was travelling to Dublin yesterday, I heard an interesting discussion on the motion to be debated in the Dáil this week. I did not hear much of the programme because I had an appointment, but I heard two women who contributed to the discussion. The first woman outlined her experience when she stayed in a lovely hotel in Galway. She paid a reasonable price, €85, for bed and breakfast in the hotel. She was pleased with the hotel at first because she and her husband did not encounter any difficulties. In the morning, they had a choice of a continental breakfast or a full Irish breakfast. They decided to take a small box of cornflakes — one can buy six or ten such boxes in a packet. They were told by an assistant in the hotel that they would have to pay extra for the cornflakes. When they paid the bill, they were surprised to be charged €5.50 for the little box of cornflakes. I am open to correction, but I believe one can buy a packet of ten or 12 small boxes of cornflakes for €2.80.
Later in the radio programme, another woman spoke of her experience in a town in the west, which I will not name because I do not want to embarrass its residents. She said she went for lunch in the town with her friend and a child, for whom she ordered two sausages. I am sure certain Deputies would not admit to eating sausages because they are too grand, but I assure the House that I have eaten plenty of sausages in my time. I know how much one pays for sausages and I know what a sausage is. The woman was charged €5.60 for her child’s sausages. She was told that the establishment’s practice was to charge people more money for anything extra they get. In this instance, she was charged an additional €5.60. If that is not a rip-off, I do not know what is.
I was talking to a friend of mine who owns a small supermarket in the west. He said that he is hardly able to survive, although he has never sold his goods as cheaply, because he has to compete with Dunnes Stores, Tesco and many other companies, which have come to this country.
I hope Deputy Hogan succeeds in passing this Bill and continues his work thereafter. Opposition Members are great at telling the Government what to do, but we are not half as good at doing what we should when we are in Government.
Many women have told me over the years that when they get home after buying goods in a supermarket, they find there have been problems with the bar code system. For example, they discover that they have been charged €9.99 or even €19.99 for a product that should have cost 90 cent. If a woman put a tin of beans in her pocket without paying for it, however, she would be sent to jail for shoplifting under the great justice system in this country. The justice system does not seem to acknowledge that rich business people steal, rip people off or do anything wrong. It seems to be all right for them to put their hands into people’s pockets to rob their money. It is fine for the people who discover such discrepancies, but what about those who do not discover the mistakes made by the bar code system? I want the House to pass legislation that ensures that supermarkets, which overcharge customers because their bar code system is not working properly are prosecuted. We cannot have one law for the poor and another for the rich. I want such legislation to be passed quickly.
Many Deputies spoke about a rip-off culture. We should not forget that every politician since the foundation of the State has spoken about pubs and the price of drink. The price of non-alcoholic drinks, such as water and minerals, is the greatest scandal in this country at present, especially for those who do not drink alcohol when they go to pubs. We have discussed this matter for the past 50 years but we have done nothing about it. The price of minerals, mineral water and tonics is a scandal and a rip-off. It is immoral and wrong and something should be done about it.
I compliment Deputy Hogan on the action he has taken in respect of the rip-off culture on behalf of Fine Gael over the past 12 months. The one thing that resonated with people was the rip-off culture they see every day of the week. The greatest rip-off of all is the Government itself, the county councils and the State agencies. We installed a regulator and were told we would have cheaper electricity, but the price has gone up four times in the past year. Social welfare provision did not go up that many times. People on €134 plus €15.40 for a child did not have their payments increased four times. The local authorities take in stealth taxes every day. A man came to my constituency office yesterday after his garage burned down. He had paid rates and other taxes to the State all his life, but when he had a fire on his premises, Mayo County Council sent him a bill for €10,000 to cover the cost of the fire service. He had paid his rates, which are supposed to cover charges for that. The same thing happened to a local man whose premises caught fire a few weeks ago. The fire brigade arrived, and he received a €2,000 bill yesterday. He was not covered for it and had to pay for it even though he had paid rates all his life.
That is rip-off Ireland at its best, and something must be done. It is not right that we crucify the consumer constantly. It is no wonder the rich are getting richer while the poor get poorer and the middle class is squeezed. We are letting the rich away with it, and we have seen that in this country’s taxation system in the past two weeks. The super-rich have not paid taxes to this State while the poor person on €140 is crucified every time he or she goes to the local supermarket, such is the rip-off society we have now. Tonight I say that enough is enough. Let the Government accept this legislation. If it wishes to table amendments, let it do so. Let this be the start. We must install the enforcer and allow the person to do the job. If one makes a complaint under existing legislation, there is no one to listen.
Dr. Twomey: The total disregard for the consumer has been well highlighted by Deputy Hogan and Fine Gael’s rip-off Ireland campaign. Unfortunately, judging from what we have heard here tonight from the Government benches, it is obvious the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, Deputy O’Donoghue, is not the only person who supported zero tolerance when in opposition but seems to have become a mythical figure now that he is in the Government.
Rip-off Ireland is not a myth; it is happening, and many people have been greatly affected by it. Fianna Fáil believe the consumer would never link the contemporary rip-off culture with the Government, which has been very careful to court vested-interest groups, even to the detriment of the general public. We have seen that happen everywhere, including in the health services, education and business. Even the Tánaiste, when Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, made great hay out of the fact that she was going to be the Minister for competition and that everything would change under her tenure. After seven years in that post, what has she got to show for it? She has the Personal Injuries Assessment Board and nothing else.
We awaited reports to show how anti-competitive solicitors, barristers, doctors, architects and pharmacists were. Every profession was to be exposed, yet nothing has been published. I heard Deputy Cooper-Flynn talk here tonight about the report due in December. Naturally enough, she does not say which year, because we do not know. It has been in the pipeline for so long that it is turning into a joke. Saying that Fine Gael is doing the economy harm by highlighting the rip-off culture is along the same lines as saying that patients getting sick is bad for the health service or that people getting old are doing it an injustice. I can see the Minister mouthing the word “silly”. Thank you for listening to us.
Deputy Martin has now taken over at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, but what does he have to show? He set up three new health boards, which he abolished before he left, and established at least 25 new health organisations that his own Department’s report made by Prospectus, recommended should be abolished. He published at least 130 reports that he could not be bothered implementing. The only thing to his credit in four years as Minister for Health and Children was the smoking ban, which could itself go up in smoke in the course of a cold winter, but we will wait and see.
If Deputy Harney did very little at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, can we expect much from Deputy Martin, apart from the usual from this Government? The chameleon Taoiseach and his Government jokers are trying to put an extra spin on matters tonight. They are trying to talk over our heads and those of the Irish people, somehow deluding them into thinking that this is not a Government problem. The Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Michael Ahern, has finally realised that, after almost a decade in Government, the people expected a little more from him. He has not delivered, and that is the challenge to this Government. There is no point in knocking the Opposition for raising such issues. The coalition should have been dealing with them in its seven years in power.
The Government has made an enormous contribution to the increasing lack of competition. The tourism industry is taking a hammering because of the high cost of doing business. Foreign consumers can look up the Internet and very quickly compare what it costs to eat out, stay in a hotel, hire a car or buy a train ticket. One can buy a three-day rambler ticket in Prague with free tram access for €7. One would not even get a single bus fare from Wexford to Gorey for that. That is what foreign tourists compare when they enter this country. The bluff from Deputy McGuinness about doing business in Europe and what a big fellow he is over there does not impress anyone on this side of the House. Business people know exactly where the problems are. They have given up on this country and are gradually moving out of it. Fine Gael is trying to correct that problem for the sake of the people.
Mr. Deenihan: In 1997, the rate of inflation in Ireland was 1.2%. In Europe it was 1.9%. In 2000, the Irish increase in prices was 2.1%. By 2003, the rate of inflation as measured by the consumer price index was 3.5% in Ireland, while in Europe it was 2%. Over the past seven years — and this year too — the previous pattern has been reversed. In the mid 1970s, prices here were increasing at a very low rate, whereas in Europe the rate was higher.
As spokesman on tourism, I refer to the industry. There are some very bad examples in tourism of how people have been ripped off, mostly tourists coming here who would obviously identify being overcharged. Generally speaking, I find that most people involved in tourism are under a great deal of pressure these days. More discount pricing is going on at present than ever before. People are trying to maintain cash flow.
A typical enterprise in any Irish tourist resort has to pay very high electricity charges, which have increased by approximately 40% since 2001, very high refuse charges to the local authority, and very high rates and water charges. Labour costs have increased, and all that time they have been making less than they did four or five years ago. That is unsustainable, and there will be many casualties. A Member from my county, the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, Deputy O’Donoghue, remarked that Fine Gael should abandon this campaign. A few months ago in this House, the same Minister lectured the tourism industry that it would have to examine its prices. In September 2002, following the ITEC report, the Minister again highlighted overcharging and high costs in the industry and the fact that we were not competitive. It is rather ironic that he is now saying that we are not a rip-off country. The Minister knows full well that there are instances of that happening and that the current international perception — and reality, when people check up the Internet — is that we are more expensive. The Government has an opportunity in the Finance Bill to do something about it. We have a major difficulty. The National Competitiveness Council’s report in September 2004 highlighted that Ireland was the most expensive country in Europe in which to purchase food, the second most expensive in which to purchase alcoholic beverages and the most expensive in which to purchase tobacco. Tourists consume all these products when they visit Ireland and it is no wonder the impression is created that people are being ripped off. When all of us holiday in Spain and Portugal, we notice how cheap they are in comparison with Ireland.
The budget submission of the Irish Hotels Federation points out that the VAT regime for hotels and restaurants is a major barrier to the development of tourism. At 13.5%, Ireland has the second highest VAT rate in the eurozone for hotel charges, second only to Germany. That is not sustainable.
Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science (Miss de Valera): I thank Deputy Hogan for bringing the Bill forward and providing us with the opportunity to debate the important issue of consumer protection law. However, the debate has only served to underline many public misconceptions and misunderstandings that exist in regard to consumer rights and the means available to consumers for seeking redress when those rights are denied.
Last March, the Tánaiste established the consumer strategy group to advise on the development of a new consumer policy. The group is expected to report to the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Martin, within weeks. In the meantime, it is instructive to examine the group’s terms of reference in the context of the debate. As the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Killeen, said last night, they are sufficiently broad to enable the group to examine and make recommendations on all aspects of the consumer agenda.
The group has been asked to examine means to provide consumers with the knowledge, information and confidence to be demanding of quality, service and value and to ensure consumers are well informed of their rights and have effective and speedy means of redress where those rights are denied. Much of the difficulty faced by consumers is understandable and is due to the way in which consumer law has evolved over recent decades. Consumer laws such as the original Sale of Goods Act 1893 date back more than 100 years. That Act has been updated but, in the meantime, numerous Bills dealing with various aspects of consumer law have been enacted. Many directives and regulations emanating from Brussels have also been transposed into Irish law. The result is that the Director of Consumer Affairs enforces more than 70 Acts.
Perhaps I should not be surprised that Deputy Lynch called for a law requiring the price of all goods on retail sale to be displayed so that the consumer would know the price of his or her intended purchase before he or she reached the checkout. Such a law has existed for many years and it was updated comprehensively in 2003. The Minister of State, Deputy Killeen, referred to it in his contribution last evening and I will, therefore, not repeat the detailed description of the law given to the House by him. However, Deputy Lynch’s contribution underlines the critical nature of the work of the consumer strategy group. Too many consumers are not aware of their rights. They do not know when they should complain nor, very often, do they know to whom they should complain. They do not have the confidence to demand quality, service and value for money and, unfortunately, unscrupulous traders thrive on and exploit this.
As legislators, it is our responsibility to put matters right. The law must be easier to understand and consumer rights must be set out in a simple, effective and coherent manner. Consumers must be provided with an easy mechanism by which they can make their complaints and proper enforcement of the law and adequate sanctions against those who break it must be ensured.
I was surprised at Deputy Ring’s contribution because he demonstrated that he does not understand consumer law. Legislation exists to ensure prices are displayed properly and retailers are open to prosecution if the price charged is different to that displayed. Consumer protection is not only about making sure that consumers can easily understand the law. Businesses must also be aware of their obligations and they must be encouraged to live up to them or pay a price. Deputy Hogan’s Bill is not the answer. It is not radical or comprehensive enough.
I take issue with comments made by Deputies Hogan and Perry last night. Deputy Hogan described the Office of the Director of Consumer Affairs as “structurally compromised” by being answerable to the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, which I reject. The director is required to report annually to the Department but she is completely independent in the exercise of her powers and functions. I have never heard a party question her independence and it is unfair to do so.
The director was also criticised for taking only 13 prosecutions in 2003. The number of prosecutions has more than doubled this year but, apart from that, the number of prosecutions does not reflect the work undertaken by the director and her team of inspectors in ensuring compliance with the law. Deputy Perry also suggested the director had been given no new statutory powers since the 1980s, which is untrue. More than 40 Acts have come into force since 1990 and they are enforced by the director. Six have been in force for less than two years.
The regulatory system must be reviewed and modernised, where necessary, to protect consumers and to ensure they are offered a fair deal. This aspect of the consumer agenda is being addressed both by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the consumer strategy group. It is another area where the Deputy’s Bill fails the test. The Government is committed to the development of a modern national consumer policy, which is responsive to the needs and demands of one of the fastest growing economies in the world and befits a country that enjoys the highest quality of life in the world. We will do so in an informed manner on the basis of expert research. That is the least the consumer deserves.
Mr. P. Breen: I welcome an opportunity to contribute to the debate and I commend my colleague, Deputy Hogan, for the important work he has carried out in this area in highlighting the rip-off culture that has taken over Ireland in recent years. Recently, my party leader, Deputy Kenny, appointed me to assist Deputy Hogan in his role as party spokesperson on enterprise, trade and employment and I have been given special responsibility for small and medium-sized enterprises.
Small and medium enterprises are the back-bone of our economy and employment. They comprise 50% of enterprises. With modest global recovery forecast, SMEs are finding it increasingly difficult to compete. Last year, turnover and revenue from domestic and export sales remained stagnant or declined for a large number of businesses, which is worrying. The Government must act immediately to support SMEs. Recently, Tesco made a presentation on the cost of doing business in Ireland and the UK at the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Enterprise and Small Business. The company’s representatives highlighted the high cost of transport — 30% higher — wage costs and insurance among many other issues, which affected the cost of items in Ireland compared to the UK.
Last week, RTE’s “Prime Time” highlighted the significant difference in the price of a shopping basket across the Border compared with the Republic. Many retailers might not like the Fine Gael website, www.ripoff.ie, because it exposes the rip-off culture but it has focused the consumer on price awareness and that counts in the end.
Does the Government have a policy to protect the consumer? Despite Government assurances, the majority of small businesses believe the Government’s insurance reform programme will have little impact on insurance costs this year or in the future. The cost of car insurance reduced in 2004 but insurance continues to be the most rapidly increasing cost for businesses. Last night the Minister of State, Deputy Killeen, referred to the 2002 general election campaign and stated a petrol attendant who wanted a reduction in car insurance was promised by a candidate that he would reduce the cost of insurance, if elected. I was not the candidate and I hope it was not the Minister of State, Deputy de Valera. If Fine Gael had not hammered home the high cost of insurance to the Government whether in the House or its committees, we would not have experienced the modest reduction in car insurance this year and, for this reason, Deputy Hogan and I will continue to highlight high insurance costs for SMEs which, if they are not tackled by the Minister, will result in many businesses winding up in the coming years.
I refer to local government funding and the effects local authority charges are having on enterprises because the Government has failed to adequately fund local authorities. The Minister can well say that he increased funding. For example, in my local authority in Clare, funding increased to €13.1 million in 2004, an increase of 15.2%. Why is it, therefore, that local authorities have increased commercial rates, water services, waste collection and development charges, and planning and development fees, to name but a few charges that have an adverse effect on small and medium enterprises and their ability to survive?
If the Government wants to help the consumer, it must be prepared to look at the burden that local authority charges have on businesses, where total costs have risen from €500 million to €5 billion over the past five years. Businesses in the North do not have the same local authority charges as we do. As a result, businesses in the South have additional difficulty with competition from their counterparts in the North who operate from a lower cost base.
I wish to speak briefly on the price of petrol and diesel. Yesterday, I had to take a detour on my way to the Dáil to attend a funeral in north Tipperary. I was astonished to see the varying price of fuel throughout the country. How can an outlet in the mid-west region sell diesel at €1.012 a litre while another in Kilkenny sells the same product at 91.8 cent? I know Deputy Hogan is good at his job, but I am sure he does not have that effect on the prices in his county.
Mr. P. Breen: Who is ripping off whom? I spoke to a haulage contractor yesterday in Ennis and he told me that his diesel now costs him €60 a day more per truck than this time last year. In the end, it is the consumer who pays those extra costs. I hope that when the Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen presents his budget next month, he will take these considerations on board. However, tonight I urge the Government Deputies to support this timely Bill. They know the problems that exist. Deputy Hogan said last night that if they had problems or queries, they could raise them on Committee Stage.
Mr. Hogan: I thank all those who contributed to the debate and those Deputies who support this modest legislation which seeks to overhaul the Office of the Director of Consumer Affairs and replace it with a consumer rights enforcer.
The consumer rights enforcer will be an independent statutory authority with similar powers and status to an ombudsman. I reject the Government Deputies and those not as well informed, as they should be on this matter who have indicated that this proposed legislation is about casting a cold eye and cold water on the current Director of Consumer Affairs. The current director has limited powers. She is attached to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and does not in any way hold an independent statutory office, as would the consumer rights enforcer who would advocate and champion the cause of consumers as effectively as we would like. The legislation has nothing to do with the individual in the office but everything to do with the necessary powers of the office.
Fianna Fáil Deputies, in particular Deputies Fleming and McGuinness, want it every way, not for the first time. Everybody acknowledges that Ireland is an expensive location, but Fianna Fáil does not wish to do anything about it or to bring forward any new ideas about what to do about overcharging. Every business is entitled to a margin of profitability. However, what this legislation seeks to do is deal with cases where excessive charges have been made and people have been overcharged. This is where colleagues on this side of the House and those on the Government benches differ.
We as consumers know of examples where people feel they were overcharged or had to pay too much for a product. Ireland is just coming to terms with being a consumer society. Despite the level of economic activity and growth over the past ten to 15 years, we have not come to the terms we should have with the level of consumerism, especially in terms of doing what the Tánaiste advocated some time ago as a solution, namely, to shop around. Two or three weeks after making that comment she proceeded to set up a consumer advisory strategy group.
We always seem to be one report, one group or one consultant away from taking action. We Deputies are around long enough and the Government has enough expertise at its disposal that we should be able to come up with a modest proposal that will help give additional powers to the Office of the Director of Consumer Affairs, if that is the direction the Government wishes to take. If not, it should give the necessary statutory independent powers to a new authority that would do the business. I do not mind which road it takes, but at least let us have a consumer policy. Any policy is better than being without one to deal with the issues that are so familiar to the people.
The level of contempt for consumers at State level is evident from the fact that the Consumers’ Association of Ireland must operate on a shoestring budget. It gets a few euro on an annual basis for various project work. Most of the people working in the association are volunteers and they operate from a small office in Merrion Square. They try to reflect through publications and information campaigns the prices of products and the various opportunities available to consumers to exploit, understand and inform themselves of their rights. This goes nowhere towards addressing the real information campaigns required to give consumers some latitude towards making informed decisions on their rights. Government Deputies have said that consumers need more information on their rights. If this is so, the Government should provide more money to the Consumers’ Association of Ireland as a first step in helping it to inform the people about what it has been doing, largely voluntarily, since 1967.
I wish to inform my Sinn Féin colleague, Deputy Ó Caoláin, that workers and citizens, whom he thinks Fine Gael ignores, are also consumers. I remind him that we represent them, lest he thinks we are forgetting them.
The staged payments Bill, which was brought forward in the Seanad by Fine Gael, was also voted down by the Government, despite that consumers seeking houses, in particular young couples seeking their first house, pay interest to their financial institution although their house may be only half built. This is another rip-off. It is another example of how Government inaction contributes to the consumer rip-off, especially in the search for a first home. Fianna Fáil believes in supporting the status quo in case it might upset providers. Consumers, therefore, must lose out. Ordinary people always seem to take second place to big business.
I agree with the comment of the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science, Deputy de Valera, that regulatory reform is important. However, these regulators were set up by the current Government without the necessary proper scrutiny, criteria and accountability to this House. That is the reason I resent the energy regulator seeking an excuse to bring more people into the energy market. To provide greater competition for the ESB he had to raise prices by 29% over the past two or three years. That is ridiculous. Regulators were brought in to introduce more competition and reduce prices. However, they are not working that way. What they are doing is contributing to higher costs and charges. As a result, the chairman of the National Competitiveness Council, Mr. William Burgess, said that the greatest challenge to the economy is high prices and costs. The Government has no strategy to deal with that.
The Government must realise that it is the godfather of rip-off Ireland. Since the previous general election, 27 new stealth taxes and charges have been introduced. Since 2002, VAT has risen by 8%, motor tax by 12%, hospital charges by 26%, the drugs refund scheme threshold by 31%, banking card charges by 108%, bin charges by 29%, parking fees by 25% and television licences by 40%. In 2003, VHI charges rose by 8.5%, the third level student registration fee rose by €80 up to €750 and the leaving certificate examination fee rose by €10 to €86. Development levies of between €6,000 and €30,000, with which local authorities are coming to grips, have been outlined to consumers for the first time this year.
The Government has proved this week that when it comes to consumer policy, the cupboard is bare. The comments of the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, Deputy O’Donoghue, to Fine Gael on its consumer affairs website are confirmation that he is out of touch, arrogant and does not know what ordinary people are suffering under high taxes and charges under this Government. If he was in touch and displayed less arrogance, he would know that the tourism industry, the hospitality trade and ordinary people need more competition and more concerted efforts and marketing support from him to bring greater competition and more competitive prices to the economy.
The Government has proved during the debate that it wants to hide behind the pathetic excuse of waiting for another couple of weeks or months until we get another report. I will not hold my breath for the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Martin, to publish a report and do something about it. As Minister for Health and Children, he spent €30 million on consultancies and reports but did nothing. When he publishes the consumer strategy report I do not expect he will do anything about it either.
The Government has failed in regard to competition. The Competition Authority has presided over two years of gestation for the studies on professions, yet nothing has been done about it. It is significant that no member of the Progressive Democrats contributed to the debate in the House last night or tonight. The champions of competition have failed to turn up to support their socialist colleagues in government who unfortunately feel at odds with them.
|Boyle, Dan.||Breen, Pat.|
|Broughan, Thomas P.||Burton, Joan.|
|Connaughton, Paul.||Costello, Joe.|
|Crowe, Seán.||Cuffe, Ciarán.|
|Deenihan, Jimmy.||Durkan, Bernard J.|
|English, Damien.||Ferris, Martin.|
|Gilmore, Eamon.||Gormley, John.|
|Gregory, Tony.||Hayes, Tom.|
|Healy, Seamus.||Higgins, Joe.|
|Higgins, Michael D.||Hogan, Phil.|
|Howlin, Brendan.||Kehoe, Paul.|
|Lynch, Kathleen.||McCormack, Padraic.|
|McGrath, Finian.||McGrath, Paul.|
|McManus, Liz.||Mitchell, Olivia.|
|Moynihan-Cronin, Breeda.||Murphy, Gerard.|
|Naughten, Denis.||Neville, Dan.|
|Noonan, Michael.||Ó Caoláin, Caoimhghín.|
|Ó Snodaigh, Aengus.||O’Keeffe, Jim.|
|O’Shea, Brian.||O’Sullivan, Jan.|
|Pattison, Seamus.||Penrose, Willie.|
|Perry, John.||Rabbitte, Pat.|
|Ring, Michael.||Ryan, Eamon.|
|Ryan, Seán.||Sargent, Trevor.|
|Sherlock, Joe.||Shortall, Róisín.|
|Stagg, Emmet.||Stanton, David.|
|Timmins, Billy.||Twomey, Liam.|
|Upton, Mary.||Wall, Jack.|
|Ahern, Noel.||Ardagh, Seán.|
|Brady, Martin.||Brennan, Seamus.|
|Browne, John.||Callanan, Joe.|
|Callely, Ivor.||Carey, Pat.|
|Cooper-Flynn, Beverley.||Coughlan, Mary.|
|Cowen, Brian.||Cullen, Martin.|
|Curran, John.||de Valera, Síle.|
|Dempsey, Tony.||Dennehy, John.|
|Devins, Jimmy.||Ellis, John.|
|Fitzpatrick, Dermot.||Fleming, Seán.|
|Gallagher, Pat The Cope.||Glennon, Jim.|
|Grealish, Noel.||Hanafin, Mary.|
|Harney, Mary.||Haughey, Seán.|
|Hoctor, Máire.||Jacob, Joe.|
|Keaveney, Cecilia.||Kelleher, Billy.|
|Kelly, Peter.||Killeen, Tony.|
|Kirk, Seamus.||Kitt, Tom.|
|Lenihan, Brian.||Lenihan, Conor.|
|McDowell, Michael.||McEllistrim, Thomas.|
|McGuinness, John.||Moloney, John.|
|Moynihan, Donal.||Moynihan, Michael.|
|Mulcahy, Michael.||Nolan, M. J.|
|Ó Fearghail, Seán.||O’Connor, Charlie.|
|O’Dea, Willie.||O’Donnell, Liz.|
|O’Donovan, Denis.||O’Flynn, Noel.|
|O’Keeffe, Batt.||O’Malley, Tim.|
|Power, Peter.||Power, Seán.|
|Roche, Dick.||Sexton, Mae.|
|Smith, Brendan.||Smith, Michael.|
|Treacy, Noel.||Wallace, Dan.|
|Wallace, Mary.||Walsh, Joe.|
|Wilkinson, Ollie.||Woods, Michael.|
|Wright, G .V.|
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