Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. - National Prices Commission.

14.

asked the Minister for Industry and Commerce if he will extend the terms of reference of the National Prices Commission to enable them when formulating recommendations for price increases to invite and take full account of consumers' interests as represented by housewives', tenants', residents', and kindred community associations.

As the National Prices Commission's membership is already broadly based, taking directly into account the interests of consumers, I do not consider that consultation on price increase proposals with persons or organisations outside of the National Prices Commission is necessary. In any case, adoption of the Deputy's suggestion would require the disclosure of confidential information in relation to persons and firms applying for price increases. Such disclosure would be contrary to the provision of section 25 of the Prices Act, 1958, which precludes the disclosure of any information obtained by virtue of the powers conferred by the Prices Acts.

Did not the Parliamentary Secretary or his Minister announce about two years ago that it was intended to set up district or regional price monitoring units composed of the kind of organisations mentioned by Deputy Timmons in his question?

The Deputy may be confusing this with two other initiatives, one of which was the setting up of price line offices at which people could make complaints about overcharging. That initiative was adopted and put into operation. There was a suggestion also, not by the Minister but by the commission, that local price committees be established. An attempt was made to do this in one provincial town but as it was not successful I gather it has not been pursued.

15.

asked the Minister for Industry and Commerce why price increases sanctioned following recommendations by the National Prices Commission are announced only on RTE; and if he will henceforth cause appropriate advertisements for the information of the public to be inserted in the national and provincial Press.

Copies of all Press statements or price increases are issued to the national and provincial newspapers and normally receive wide coverage. I do not, accordingly, accept the Deputy's suggestion that price increases are announced only on RTE. It is of course, a matter for the media to decide what emphasis they wish to give to Press statements relating to price increases.

In their January, 1975 report, the National Prices Commission recommended that the practice of advertising, in the national newspapers on the date of publication of each NPC monthly report, the list of authorised price increases referred to in that report should be discontinued. The reasons for this recommendation are set out in detail in the report mentioned. Copies of the report are available in the Oireachtas Library and were circulated to each Deputy at the time of publication. The main reasons for the recommendation were as follows:

(i) Since price increases by firms, which had been wholly or partially exempted from price control, were not included in the list of price increases published in the advertisement, the list was no longer comprehensive.

(ii) Almost all of the price increases would have already been implemented before the date on which the relevant monthly report and the Press advertisement were published. Thus the list of price increases that appeared in the Press advertisement was more likely to confuse than inform the consumers.

I accepted the commission's recommendation. Since the circumstances under which the commission made their recommendation have not changed, I do not consider that the publication, by way of advertisements, of price increases authorised would be of any more benefit to the consumer at the present time.

Full details of all price increases recommended by the National Prices Commission continue to be published in their monthly reports. Copies of each report and a Press statement in relation to the report, are sent to all newspapers, national and provincial, and to RTE. The Press statement indicates whether I have accepted all of the commission's recommendations for price increases. An advertisement relating to the publication of the report is also inserted in the national newspapers.

When price increases are authorised for goods subject to maximum retail price orders, a separate Press statement is issued to the media and an advertisement giving details of the new maximum retail prices is inserted in the national newspapers. Similarly, in the case of other important commodities, a separate Press statement may be issued at the time of the increase in prices.

I disagree totally with the Parliamentary Secretary. He is aware that, for instance, when there are increases in social welfare benefits the news is trumpetted in the newspapers by way of large-scale advertisements but now there is a decision not to publish price increases. This is an attempt to cover up for the Government.

We are having a statement.

That is the reality.

But this is Question Time.

Will the Parliamentary Secretary not consider continuing the practice of publishing price increases? I understood that one of the main reasons for the discontinuance of this practice was the application of psychology by the commission in regard to inflation. Can the Parliamentary Secretary tell us what is meant by that and can he give some undertaking that price increases will continue to be published as before?

I do not think these advertisements were of any real value to the consumer. Much better use of the resources in regard to prices is now being made. In 1975 the commission reported that the cost of these advertisements was in the order of £30,000. As they recommended, this money can be put to much better use in other ways and one of the ways in which it is being used is in respect of the price line service whereby people who consider that they are overcharged in respect of any item can telephone their complaints in this regard and, in that way, effect redress. The publication of a long list of commodities of which only a small number might be of interest to an individual is not a useful exercise.

It is not nice.

This is a way out for the Government.

I might add that in respect of commodities which are the subject of National Price Commission orders and which subsequently may be the subject of complaint in regard to prices, the practice is to publish the new prices by way of advertisement.

This is one of the most dishonest statements we have ever had from the Parliamentary Secretary. Can he tell us how much the advertisements in respect of the increases in social welfare payments cost?

That is a separate question.

Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary would get in touch with the price line service in this regard.

The Deputy can get in touch with them himself.

16.

asked the Minister for Industry and Commerce if he will review the organisation and powers of the National Prices Commission with a view to permitting the commission to be more effective in helping to curb the spiral of price increases.

I do not accept the implication in the Deputy's question that the National Prices Commission as at present constituted are not effective in helping to curb the rate of price increases.

The commission are an advisory body and are widely representative of various interests including consumer interests. Their function is to keep under review the prices of commodities and the charges for rendering services and for carrying out work or processes and to advise me in relation to such prices and charges. All applications for price increases are referred by me to the commission for recommendation as to the appropriate level of increase which might be allowed.

In dealing with applications for price increases the commission are fully aware of the need to restrict increases to the absolute minimum. As their monthly reports show, not all increases considered by the commission are allowed. In some instances the increases sought are only partially allowed. In others the increases are disallowed.

I am satisfied with the way in which the commission are undertaking their work and I do not consider that a review of their organisation and powers is necessary.

Perhaps my question was wrongly phrased and should have suggested that the Government might re-organise themselves to stop price rises. In fairness to the National Prices Commission, they are doing all they can. When the commission were established we lived in a normal society but that is so no longer and the Government are using the National Prices Commission as an excuse for their own failure.

I must insist on questions. These are statements from the Deputy.

In view of this would the Minister not review their working in fairness to them and to the public who perhaps could be saved from disastrous price rises which the Government are doing nothing about at present?

It is objectively true to say that the present Government have done considerably more about controlling prices than their predecessors did.

Scéalaíocht.

In the three and a half year period up to November, 1976, during the period of office of this Government, prices were kept at slightly below the rate of increase which obtained in a very comparable economy, that of Britain. However, in the last similar period during which our predecessors were in office prices here rose by 6 per cent faster than they rose in Britain. Our performance in relation to that of a comparable economy in the period of office of this Government has been significantly better than both of the other economy and of our predecessors. This is the result of measures adopted by the Government, extending price control from the three commodities to which it applied at retail level when Fianna Fáil were in office to 24 commodities at present, instituting prosecutions for over-charging——

Tell that to the housewives.

——in over 3,000 instances during the period of office of this Government against ten prosecutions for over-charging when the previous Government were in office.

In view of the reply of the Parliamentary Secretary and his long speech and his support of the system——

You will hear more.

——by which increases are granted, could the Parliamentary Secretary tell me how the Minister or the Department can justify an increase of 25 per cent granted in the price of cement when a few weeks afterwards the company in their annual report published the fact that they had made 34 per cent more profit than in the previous year?

And with a reduced output.

We are having separate questions.

If the Deputy wishes to pose a question in relation to a particular price increase such as cement he may put down a separate question but every price increase is carefully scrutinised by the National Prices Commission and it is worth noting the procedures which must be gone through before a price increase is granted. The application must give details to the Prices Division and to the Prices Commission who are an independent body, fully documented in relation to increases in overheads and materials and material costs. These must be specifically documented. Their wage cost increases, if these are being used to claim increased prices must also be within the terms of the national pay agreement. It is only after these have been carefully scrutinised and passed as correct by the National Prices Commission and a recommendation made that a decision is made by the Minister to grant an increase.

Is the Parliamentary Secretary aware that it pays people from foreign countries to come here to purchase, to hire an aeroplane and fly in from France, for instance, to buy goods because they are so cheap here?

I saw a hotel room last week chock-full with a French party that had come here specially for the purpose mentioned by the Deputy.

You will see more of them.

Is the Parliamentary Secretary aware that the price increase granted for cement was published and sanctioned by his Minister——

The Deputy has already adverted to that matter. That is not a question on today's Order Paper.

Is he aware that the 34 per cent profit which they published was in their annual report? The Parliamentary Secretary said careful scrutiny is given to all applications, but how can he justify saying this application was properly scrutinised in view of the published facts?

On the grounds mentioned to me already when I said that each of the claimed costs on which the increase was based were carefully scrutinised by the National Prices Commission and further, it is not necessarily the case that profits made by a particular company, for instance in the case of Cement Limited, in respect of the operation of the total group reflect those made in respect of the production of cement.

They got the profits.

The Parliamentary Secretary referred to the prosecution of people who unnecessarily or unjustifiably increased prices. In that context would he not agree that the Minister for Finance should be in jail?

(Interruptions.)
17.

asked the Minister for Industry and Commerce the names and addresses of the members of the National Prices Commission; and the various organisations which they represent on the commission or by whom they were nominated.

The following are the names of the members of the National Prices Commission, their nominating bodies and the addresses of those bodies: Mrs. Mairead Allen, nominated by Irish Housewives Association, 8 Dawson Street, Dublin, 2; Mr. John F. Carroll, nominated by Irish Congress of Trade Unions, 19 Raglan Road, Dublin, 4; Mr. Liam Connellan, nominated by Confederation of Irish Industry, Confederation House, Kildare Street, Dublin, 2; Mr. Peter E. O'Brien, nominated by Federation of Trade Associations, 5 Upr. Pembroke Street, Dublin, 2; Mr. Harold O'Sullivan, nominated by Irish Congress of Trade Unions, 19 Raglan Road, Dublin, 4. The independent chairman of the commission is Mr. J.J. Walsh who is appointed by the Minister.

May we take it that there is some purpose in the failure of the Parliamentary Secretary to give the addresses of the members, as asked in the question?

I do not think any real purpose would be served by giving their home addresses. They are acting in a public capacity as nominated by public bodies and the appropriate place to which any complaints about their public activities should be addressed is their public address.

I merely wanted to have the Parliamentary Secretary's observation on that point on the record because he glossed over it——

I do not believe it would be appropriate or even useful to give the private addresses.

I am simply asking that the Parliamentary Secretary answer the question put to him or give the reason why he does not. He has now given it.

18.

asked the Minister for Industry and Commerce if his attention has been drawn to the statement from the National Prices Commission that a high percentage of lower income elderly people in Dublin city have a nutritionally inadequate diet; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

I am aware of the report in question. Perhaps the most important thing to emerge from that report is that because of unwise shopping choices many people over 65 are spending more on diets which are nutritionally inadequate than on alternative diets which would be nutritionally adequate. However, we cannot compel people to depart from their personal preferences in this regard.

I find it hard to accept that as a responsible answer. He blames these people who are almost starving for the fact that they do not shop properly. The position is that they cannot afford to do so. This is the message coming from the National Prices Commission and I am asking what are the Government doing about it. Does somebody have to die to bring home to the Government their responsibility in the matter?

Bring in more French people.

I do not think Deputy Moore has fully understood or perhaps even read the report in question. It indicates that for people in the category over 65 both male and female, an adequate diet as determined by nutrition experts would cost less than the typical diet which they are buying. For instance, the cost of a day's food for a woman over 65 years of age, as an adequate diet as nutritionally approved, would be 62p as against a range of amounts between 77p and 66p paid for an inadequate diet. Similar relativities, only slightly narrower, apply in the case of males over the age of 65 years.

I agree this is a cause for concern. I agree, obviously, that increases in prices hit hard people in this category particularly. Apart from the other measures which have been adopted, it would be useful if the Health Education Bureau and the National Social Service Council were to see what measures they could adopt to promulgate the findings of this report, and see what can be done to improve the situation of the people in question. To that end, I have asked that the findings of this report be specifically drawn to the attention of those two bodies.

Would the Parliamentary Secretary go to his Minister and ask him to try to arrange the finances of the country to ensure that these pensioners, whose recent increases have been eroded by the spiralling cost of living, are brought to a realistic standard? The heading of the article is "The elderly poor are starving". They are not my words. They appear in the newspaper.

I agree this is a matter of concern. Quite apart from the increases in the various social welfare payments which have been made, the Government have sought, by their policy of subsidisation of particular prices and, in some cases, at the cost of extra prices for other less essential commodities, to bring down the price of essentials such as food which figure relatively larger in the weekly expenditure of old age pensioners than they do in the weekly expenditure of more prosperous sections of the community. In effect, as a result of this policy of subsidisation and the removal of value-added tax from certain commodities, there has been a shift of the burden of inflation away from people such as old age pensioners and those covered in this report.

Mr. R. Burke

Like Marie Antoinette, give them cake.

Order. It is past the time for questions. The remaining questions will appear on tomorrow's Order Paper. Next business. Deputy Briscoe is in possession.

We lost ten minutes of Question Time because we started so late.

Mr. R. Burke

The Government could not provide a Quorum.

That is hardly the fault of the Chair.

We should be given some injury time.

Question Time exists for the benefit of the Opposition and they should carry some of the burden of providing a quorum.

We were here.

(Interruptions.)

We will not kill ourselves to provide a quorum.

Mr. R. Burke

The Government are not killing themselves. They have been doing nothing for four years.