I congratulate the Minister on bringing forward a Bill to update the 1980 Act. Indeed, that Act was introduced by a former colleague from west Mayo, a former Minister of State at the then Department of Industry, Commerce and Tourism, Mr. Denis Gallagher.
The Explanatory Memorandum states that the primary purpose of the Bill is "to achieve greater decentralisation, efficiency and flexibility in the regulation of casual trading". When the then Minister was introducing the 1980 Act he said the purpose of that legislation was to provide for the control and regulation of casual trading. From my limited knowledge of this sector, that Act has been an abysmal failure. In teasing out the provisions of the 1980 Act local authorities have in the main found it an extremely costly exercise in fruitless litigation. The rate payers in Westport have borne the loss of £10,000 in legal expenses in trying to implement the provisions of that Act. Many cases have been taken to court and I am sure the Minister has included amendments to ensure a level playing pitch that meets the needs of the established trader and the casual trader in modern day trading.
Casual trading provides a very valuable service in our towns and cities. Families have been involved in casual trading for many years and have made their livelihood from it. Casual trading adds character and colour to towns and villages. Visitors look forward to visiting markets where traders erect a stand in the town or village square and try to sell their produce, or crafts, locally produced butter, cheeses and other food items.
I support casual trading but there has to be a level playing pitch. Most casual traders are responsible people. They come to town to trade on what is inevitably the busiest day of the week and they clean up when they have finished. They travel from town to town and have set pitches in each town. These people have a constitutional right to make a living and we must not do anything in legislation that would interfere with their rights. Otherwise we would involve the local authorities in court actions and I am sure the courts would vindicate their rights to make a living.
No business can operate without regulatory controls. Normal business is subject to such regulations. There are so many in some instances that it inhibits people going into business in the first instance. A person in business has to comply with the planning requirements, employment law, health and safety regulations, Revenue in all its dimensions and so on. People who set up a shop, whether they own it or lease it, have to comply with regulations but heretofore a great many of those engaged in casual trading escaped.
This Bill, together with previous legislation, is an attempt to level the playing field and for that reason I welcome it. Most casual traders are legitimate operators who buy their merchandise from wholesalers which in itself creates employment here. Unfortunately, a number of casual traders operating throughout Ireland obtain their goods in a dubious fashion and the origin of the goods would be difficult to determine. The clothing industry is a case in point; one hears of a Hiace van driving up to containers in South William Street or other wholesale areas, loading up and driving away. The abolition of VAT at the point of entry makes it attractive for people to purchase these goods.
Consumers who purchase televisions and other electrical equipment of doubtful origin from casual traders from the back of lorries or cars have no protection. While the Minister of State, Deputy O'Rourke, should be congratulated on updating the legislation in this area, consumers do not know who they are buying from because the requirement to exhibit the casual trading permit is ignored. I have yet to see a permit exhibited on any stall.
I welcome the proposed changes. Section 2 defines casual trading. It does not cover three categories of trading, namely, the sale of goods at auction, adjacent to one's house or business or for what might best be described as philanthropic purposes. It also enables the Minister and the local authorities to add to the exempted categories of trading not covered by the definition of casual trading. The Minister may alter or delete these classes.
Under the 1980 Act a longer list of classes of trading were exempted. These included the sale of agricultural and horticultural produce, including livestock, by the producer or his servants or agents acting on his behalf and the sale of fish by a crew member who caught them.
There was an ancilliary provision whereby a person who sold this produce, having purchased it from the producer, was obliged to obtain a casual trading licence at a much reduced fee of £5 whereas the normal licence fee was £100.
I ask the Minister to clarify that a local authority will be able to add the sale of agricultural and horticultural produce to the exempted classes and that only the Minister will have the power to delete or alter these classes. Local authorities would like to continue the custom of encouraging people who live in rural areas to sell their spring cabbage plants, apples and strawberries in towns. I am thinking in particular of the market that is held in my own town on a weekly basis at which calves are sold and turkeys and geese in the run up to Christmas. Country markets are well established at which housewives add to their income through the sale of home produced cakes and other items. These markets are based mainly in premises which will not be affected by the Bill but occasionally they take the opportunity to sell in the open. I foresee the local authority of which I am a member adding to the exempted class the sale of the locally produced produce. People will be concerned when the Bill is put into effect that an activity engaged in on a weekly basis or in the run up to Christmas will not be curtailed.
The Minister indicated that local authorities had asked him to control the sale of such produce. I have no doubt that representations were made. The Minister made the point that it was difficult to prove in court that produce was produced locally. I see no difficulty in inserting a provision similar to section 3 (4) under which there would be an onus on the defendant to prove that he was the producer. I do not support those who sell imported agricultural or horticultural produce. We have many fine fruit and vegetable shops which have to buy their produce in the markets in Dublin. Casual traders should not be placed in a position of advantage.
I welcome the proposed change in section 4 whereby a person will have to apply to a local authority rather than the Minister for a licence and will have to produce a tax clearance certificate. It is right and proper that powers should be devolved to local authorities, who know the people who sell in towns on a weekly basis, to make the decision as to whether a permit should be granted. It is also important that the local authorities should outline the fees to be charged for such a licence.
It is right and proper that tax clearance certificate provisions should apply to this activity. The Minister indicated that no one will be denied a tax clearance certificate on the first occasion. They will have 12 months to put their affairs in order when they will be required to produce a further tax clearance certificate. No one could object to this in principle. Similar provisions apply to publicans and bookmakers. I have yet to see anyone who makes an effort to pay his fair share of tax being closed down by the Revenue Commissioners. In my experience the Revenue Commissioners are sympathetic and helpful and give people time to put their affairs in order by allowing them to make payments in instalments.
The provision under which local authorities will be required to notify the Department of Social Welfare that a licence has been issued marks a new departure. Those who operate legitimate businesses in competition with the established shopkeepers have nothing to fear. Those who suggest that this provision is unfair or discriminatory must have something to hide. Servants or agents are entitled to protection under the social welfare and employment codes.
Under section 7 local authorities will be able to make by-laws. Heretofore they issued casual trading permits. I welcome this provision which is linked to section 8 and 9. Those are the two provisions that have been adjudicated on most often by our courts to date. I welcome the provision that a person aggrieved by any measures introduced by a local authority can, in the first instance, appeal them to the District Court.
I particularly welcome the provisions under the Occasional Trading Act, 1979. Small businesses, particularly those in towns away from the administrative centre of each county, are already under pressure because of the multinationals established in most of our major towns. The activities of traders who have successfully used the Occasional Trading Act has caused untold damage. Before the Minister announced that he intended to make it mandatory for these people to produce a tax clearance certificate, I had intended to ask him to consider doing that. These people hold hotel sales, invariably on a Saturday or Sunday when officials in the Department who have the authority to check on their veracity are not at work. They are, in the main, from England and they come here and hire a hotel or hall. One such sale in my area was, fortunately, cancelled, but other towns were badly stung when people from England came into this country selling furniture and taking deposits when they said they did not have sufficient quantity to supply the goods there and then. However, none of the goods ordered was delivered. The Minister for Justice took action in those cases. It is necessary to root such people out of society because they are doing no favours to the consumer or small shops who have such large overheads.
I congratulate the Minister and hope to say more on Committee Stage.