Dáil Éireann - Volume 600 - 20 April, 2005

Priority Questions. - Consumer Strategy Group.

  63. Mr. Hogan asked the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment when the report of the consumer strategy group will be published; if he will outline the report’s recommendations, if he intends to implement the report in full; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12264/05]

  Mr. Martin: The consumer strategy group presented its final report to me on 2 March 2005. The report contains more than 30 recommendations involving a variety of Departments and agencies. I am currently considering the report and its recommendations in conjunction with my colleagues in Government. I expect to publish the report and to announce my plans to progress the recommendations in the coming weeks.

  Mr. Hogan: Will the Minister elaborate on the contents of the report since he has had it since 2 March? Why has it taken the Minister so long to publish the report and to let us know the precise nature of these recommendations to ensure we have a consumer policy at Government level for the first time?

  Mr. Martin: When a report comes to Government it should be seriously considered and there are significant recommendations in the report that require a collective Government response. I want to be in a position when the report is published to indicate the Government’s position on a number of headline issues. There are around 30 recommendations, some of which can be progressed over time.

The report supports the view that there is a need for a strong institutional voice for the consumer in terms of policy formulation and makes the point that such a voice is absent at present. It has strong opinions on the Groceries Order and takes a position on it that is widely known — it will recommend that the order be lifted. In addition, it recommends how the proposed consumer voice could represent the consumer in submissions to regulators. I want to deal with such issues with my Cabinet colleagues.

[1574]   Mr. Hogan: The Minister knows that in this House, Fine Gael has proposed a method by which there can be a consumer voice — the consumer rights enforcer. The Government voted this down on the basis that it would bring forward its own proposals. That is taking a considerable length of time and in the meantime, consumers are very frustrated with the level of unwarranted cost increases that are little more than deliberate extortion in many sectors. To prevent any more frustration on the part of consumers, will the Minister adopt an ombudsman approach for them so they can have the opportunity to make complaints and seek redress where possible? The institutional consumer voice the Minister mentioned should not take long to set up because he has the full support of this side of the House for such a proposal.

Did the Minister present the consumer strategy group report to the Cabinet yesterday? Why has it not been published? Are there problems at Cabinet level on agreeing an overall consumer strategy in accordance with the report?

  Mr. Martin: It has been presented to Cabinet and is being deliberated on at Cabinet level. It is still on the Cabinet agenda. That is normal; we cannot expect Cabinet to endorse reports on the nod. People want to interrogate the proposals and will have perspectives on them. It is being seriously considered.

Only last week, the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Ahern, introduced the Investment Funds, Companies and Miscellaneous Provisions Bill in the Seanad. That Bill incorporates seven sections that raise the level of penalties in the core consumer legislation enforced by the Office of the Director of Consumer Affairs, such as the Sale of Goods and Supply of Services Act 1980, the Consumer Information Act 1978, the Package Holidays and Travel Trade Act 1995, the National Standards Authority of Ireland Act 1996, the Restrictive Practices Act 1972, the Prices Act 1958, the Consumer Credit Act 1995. The Director of Consumer Affairs who had raised the issue of the low level of penalties in consumer legislation in two consecutive annual reports recommended all of that.

Inflation is running at 2.1% as a result of a range of concerted Government actions. We have made significant progress on holding back the tide of inflation.

  Mr. Hogan: I am glad the Minister mentioned the legislation introduced in the Seanad last week. It is very unusual to insert miscellaneous sections into a Bill to deal with the many consumer interests listed.

Why has it taken so long for the Government to adjudicate on the Groceries Order when it has substantially increased the amount of money a person can be fined for a breach of the order in this new legislation? The fine now stands at up to €60,000, up from €1,000. Surely it is accepted Government practice that if the fines for the [1575] breach of an order are being increased, the order itself will be retained.

  Mr. Martin: Some public commentators tried to make that point recently but they were being disingenuous. This Bill covers a broad tranche of consumer legislation at the behest of the Director of Consumer Affairs. All of the Acts I listed are affected by the increase in penalties and fines. In no way, however, can that be interpreted as an indication of the Government’s position on retaining or abolishing the Groceries Order.

  Mr. Hogan: Why were the fines increased?

  Mr. Martin: We increased the fines across a raft of consumer legislation. That is standard practice for any existing legislation. It does not indicate anything. The Attorney General has advised that in the event of repealing the Groceries Order, primary legislation would be required. That option will be considered once the Government deals with the Groceries Order.

  Mr. Hogan: It is an unsatisfactory method of dealing with it — inserting a miscellaneous section into a Bill that has nothing to do with it.

  Mr. Martin: It is common practice.