Dáil Éireann - Volume 609 - 02 November, 2005

Priority Questions. - Departmental Bodies.

  103. Mr. Hogan asked the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment the reason for the delay in bringing forward legislation to [8] establish the national consumer agency; the timescale for the appointment of a new chairman of the Competition Authority; the timescale for the appointment of a new Director of Consumer Affairs; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31862/05]

  Mr. Martin: Given the importance of the national consumer agency, NCA, to the development of future consumer protection policy, it is vital that the legislation is framed to ensure the NCA has sufficient powers and functions to enable it to carry out its role as a forceful advocate on behalf of the consumer, as envisaged by the consumer strategy group. In addition to setting up the NCA, I will take the opportunity in the legislation to update the existing code of consumer protection law, some of which is more than 100 years old, as also recommended by the consumer strategy group. Furthermore, the legislation will seek to transpose the recently promulgated European directive on unfair business to consumer commercial practices, one of the most significant directives in the area of consumer protection, into national law.

Given the scope of the legislation, its preparation will take time. It is my expectation, however, that the legislation will be published in the latter half of next year and that the national consumer agency will be up and running early in 2007. In the meantime, I have appointed a board to the agency to act in an interim capacity. Since its appointment, it has been active in putting the consumer’s case on issues such as the debate on the future of the groceries order. I am confident the interim board will continue to be a forceful advocate for consumers in ensuring their voices are heard.

With regard to the timescale for the appointment of a new chairperson of the Competition Authority, the Competition Act requires that the recruitment process be undertaken by the public appointments service. However, the vacancy has been advertised both nationally and internationally, and consultants, PricewaterhouseCoopers, have been engaged to carry out an executive search for suitable candidates. The Public Appointments Service is arranging for a high level board to conduct competitive interviews. However, in view of the high profile of this post and the worldwide scope of the executive search for suitably qualified candidates, it is unlikely an appointment will be made until 2006.

The Office of the Director of Consumer Affairs continues in existence until such time as it is incorporated into the new agency. The Director of Consumer Affairs continues to perform her enforcement functions to guarantee the protection of consumer rights. I understand she has been approached in regard to a possible appointment to another position. No decision has been [9] made in this matter, however, and the question of appointing a successor does not therefore arise at this time. The Government is determined that policy in the areas of competition and consumer protection is robust and is fully developed to meet the needs of the modern marketplace and the modern consumer.

  Mr. Hogan: Does the Minister accept that the Government voted down a Fine Gael proposal in November 2003 which aimed to establish a consumer rights enforcer, similar to the agency advocated by the consumer strategy group? On its announcement, the Minister stated the national consumer agency was important and urgently required. A year and a half later, however, the relevant legislation has not been produced. There is no evidence of urgency in terms of the importance of ensuring some mechanism of redress for consumers. It is unacceptable to delay until the latter half of 2006 the establishment of an agency that is long overdue. Consumers effectively have no right of redress or of complaint at present.

Does the Minister accept that he appears to have decided to merge the Office of Director of Consumer Affairs with this national agency? Would it not be better to state that explicitly now and not allow this inept body, the Office of Director of Consumer Affairs, to continue in existence without knowing its future?

  Mr. Martin: I reject the Deputy’s assertions. We said on the publication of the consumer strategy group’s report in May that it would take time to produce the legislative template for the new national consumer agency. That is why, almost immediately, we took steps to establish an interim board of the agency. It has already been forceful in articulating and advocating on behalf of the consumer, for example, with regard to the debate on the groceries order.

  Mr. Hogan: It has not.

  Mr. Martin: It has.

  Mr. Hogan: It has not. That was in the consumer strategy group’s report.

  Mr. Martin: It has made submissions and so forth.

  Mr. Hogan: The group made its views known before being appointed to the interim board. The Minister should get it right.

  Mr. Martin: No, the consumer agency advocated in a vigorous fashion on behalf of the consumer in the groceries order debate. It has also been in discussions with the Department with regard to its plans for the coming months. The [10] Estimates assessment will reflect that in due course.

It is correct, therefore, with regard to the legislation to be put in place, that we do not simply deal with the establishment of the consumer agency but we also transpose that important directive into law. It is an important consumer protection measure. We must also update consumer law. In the meantime, the Office of the Director of Consumer Affairs is not an inept body. It has clear statutory functions to discharge and legislation has been passed to increase the fines the office can levy in penalties. This, too, was recommended by the consumer strategy group.

There is a unit in the Department dealing with this issue. Resources have been allocated for people to work on the legislation and it will be a substantial measure. Obviously it is reasonable that it should take that length of time.

  Mr. Hogan: After nine years in office it is clear today that there is no consumer policy. The Minister announced last May that he would establish a new agency and that the required legislation would be presented to the House a year and a half later. The Minister has stated that he will bring forward legislation in the latter half of 2006, which will be October or November in 2006 unless the House sits during the summer recess next year or there is some other interruption to the Minister’s schedule.

The national consumer agency is an important development for consumer protection. The Minister should take a more urgent approach to putting in place an agency to advocate on behalf of consumers and, similar to the Ombudsman, to offer consumers the opportunity to seek redress. The Minister should use his good offices in Government to fast-track this process. It is most important because people are not getting the benefit of good consumer protection at present.

The appointment of the chairman of the Competition Authority is most important in the context of policing consumer issues and with regard to mergers and takeovers. There is a vacuum in the chair of the authority at present and most of the members of the authority are not involved in business or consumer activities. Does the Minister have any plans to reform the Competition Authority or to strengthen competition law in the context of the appointment of a new chairman? This would make it easier for consumers to secure a better deal in the marketplace.

  Mr. Martin: The Competition Authority has been an effective body. The chairperson has moved on to a new position——

  Mr. Hogan: There have been no prosecutions or fines.

[11]   Mr. Martin: He was an exceptional performer.

  Mr. Hogan: He talked a lot.

  Mr. Martin: He retired from the post on 5 October. It is reasonable——

  Mr. Hogan: Did the Minister know he was leaving?

  Mr. Martin: One cannot do anything until the person actually leaves the position.

  Mr. Hogan: He could have told the Minister in advance.

  Mr. Martin: The search is under way for a replacement. Any analysis would indicate that the authority has been an effective and powerful body in terms of advocacy for competition in the economy generally.

  Mr. Hogan: The Minister should look at the replies he gave to my questions last week.

  An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: As Deputy Eamon Ryan has arrived in the House and it is still within the time allocated for Priority Questions, I call his Question No. 102.