Prior to Question Time I was dealing with specific matters in the Bill which give rise to concern. Now that the Minister of State has returned I would ask him when replying to Second Stage to reflect on these matters with particular reference to section 3 and the introduction into Irish law of an excess provision. This is unprecedented. It is a practice that insurance companies have been carrying out with some effect in recent times, particularly as regards premiums. One may pay a lower premium which appears at first sight to be attractive, but when a claim is made one finds the excess is on a sliding scale. It could be from £250 to £1,000. It is regrettable that we should see the introduction of such a practice into Irish law. It is even more regrettable and scandalous that it should be introduced in an area of consumer legislation, having regard to the comments I made earlier on the absence of a small claims tribunal or a consumer court. One can look to what directors of consumer affairs and fair trade commissioners have said about the irrelevance of the legal system, on which I spoke at some length earlier. People are simply not bringing claims to court because they have lost faith in the courts system. The people who have lost faith in the system are those who seek a remedy for a claim of a couple of hundred pounds.
The Minister will, I am sure, be aware that this Bill is geared towards the consumer. The defective products could be anything from a washing machine to a hoover or any consumer goods which generally have a life span of between five and ten years. These cases make up a significant number of the 20,000 complaints which the Director of Consumer Affairs and Fair Trade deals with on an annual basis. It is sad that these people are not covered by the legislation. Is it a coincidence that the price of such goods as hoovers, washing machines and portable televisions is under £350? While this reforming legislation is a welcome change for the consumers, large numbers of consumers are totally neglected by the legislation, and that is sad. I would ask the Minister to expand in some detail on why this is the case. Will he say the reason is to minimise the number of claims or to obviate some deluge of spurious and frivolous claims? There are procedures in existence that could adequately deal with those problems without introducing this excess provision.
I note that the excess is even more stark with the introduction of a power under section 3 (3) which enables the Minister for Industry and Commerce to amend or revoke an order made under this section — in other words, it will be entirely within the power and jurisdiction of the Minister for Industry and Commerce to increase the scale as he or she from time to time may wish. At a time when we should be making the law more accessible to consumers, when we should be broadening the whole area of consumer rights, quality guarantees and value for money, it is regrettable that our law should reflect this excess or absence of provision for small claims, particularly when there is no tribunal in existence to deal with these matters.
Section 7 deserves some consideration. Subsection (1) of that section states that an action for the recovery of damages shall not be brought after the expiration of three years from the date on which the cause of action accrued or the date on which the plantiff became aware, or should reasonably have become aware, of the damage, the defect and the identity of the producer. I congratulate the Minister on that addendum to the standard limitation of actions. It is very important that not only should the three year rule exist but that the limitation should be extended to the date upon which the plantiff became aware, or should reasonably have become aware, of the defect in the product. That is in line with other legislation that is going through the House at present, the Statute of Limitations (Amendment) Bill. I certainly welcome section 7 (1) of this Bill.
Deputy Bernard Durkan mentioned specifically in the course of his address the question of house building and house building materials. That is a matter that will have to be addressed in the House by way of legislation. The national house-builders' guarantee scheme merely grants to the holder of a certificate a six year guarantee but a difficulty arises where the defect does not come to light within that period. That gives rise to significant hardship throughout the country. It is not a matter that can be immediately addressed in this legislation but I hope the Minister will address it by way of regulation or alternatively incorporate it in the Statute of Limitations (Amendment) Bill that is going through the House. If a person is selling a house, perhaps 15 or 20 years after buying it, it may be only when it is being surveyed that a latent defect such as a burst pipe under the concrete is brought to the notice of that person. This immediately represents a serious impediment on the sale and can give rise to considerable hardship. Unfortunately, in such a case there is no remedy in law. I congratulate the Minister on section 7 (1) and hope that provision is incorporated in future legislation.
While I welcome the Bill it is regrettable that the Minister has not seen fit to make a statement on the concept of a small claims court. We are not requesting a tribunal which would pay compensation but which would right the wrong that has been done. There is provision in this legislation for a minimum claim of £350. If we take the example of a defective matter such as a dead insect in a piece of apple pie, which is quite a common claim, or a foreign body in a tin of beans — again something that is a feature of many claims — the level of compensation awarded by the courts in such cases is less than £350. It is a pity this legislation, if enacted in its present form, will not provide for such defects. As a result the old negligence principles will still have to be applied, giving rise to delays, archaic practices and, perhaps more importantly, expense. This will mean that consumers will not claim because they will not regard themselves as having an effective remedy and ultimately the company producing the defective goods or product will not be brought to answer. Hence the standards of that company may not be as high or as quality orientated as they might otherwise be.
On Committee Stage I hope the Minister will consider several amendments in the interests of the consumer and, perhaps more important, provide the House and the general public with a long-awaited commitment towards the setting up of a forum, a court, a tribunal or whatever one might wish to call it, the hallmarks of which would be efficiency, lack of expense and informality. The chairman of the body could be any respected member of the community, and hearings could be held regionally where, for a fee of less than £5, a member of the public could have his or her grievance adjudicated on, not with a view towards granting compensation but with a view towards granting an amount equivalent to what the person lost on a defective item such as a hoover or a washing machine. The Minister must accept it is high time that such a structure be set up for the benefit of the consumer. When one considers that the Liability for Defective Products Bill comes from the European Community, we see Ireland as being almost a Cinderella state in so far as a small claims forum is concerned. There is little point in updating our consumer legislation with this type of window dressing unless we are prepared to bring forward the entire package. I do not have any objections in principle to the Bill, which is welcome and perhaps overdue.