Consumer Protection Bill 2007 [Seanad]: Second Stage.

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

The development of national policy in the area of consumer protection has been identified by the Government as a priority for legislative reform. Our aim is to ensure such policy reflects the trading methods and practices of a modern economy and the law is updated and strengthened accordingly. In fulfilment of these aims the Consumer Protection Bill provides for the establishment on a statutory basis of the National Consumer Agency, the transposition into national law of the unfair commercial practices directive and the rationalisation and updating of the existing body of consumer law. It also updates and significantly strengthens the law on pyramid selling.

The Consumer Strategy Group was strongly of the view that a new agency should be established with a robust and expanded mandate to protect consumer welfare and represent the interests of consumers. The group recommended that the new agency should have specific statutory functions in areas of consumer advocacy, research, information, enforcement and education and awareness. All these functions are provided for in the Bill.

Following publication of the group's final report in May 2005, I established the agency on an interim basis in June 2005 and appointed a board and interim executive chairperson to immediately begin putting in place the infrastructure of the new organisation. Owing to this immediate response, the agency will be in a position to hit the ground running when the Bill is enacted following its passage through the Oireachtas.

The Bill includes provisions allowing the new agency to be a forceful advocate of the consumer's case in public debate. These provisions are designed to ensure the new agency will represent consumer interests within the policy making arena, thereby ensuring that the promotion of consumer welfare is brought to the forefront of the national agenda.

The agency shall also conduct, commission and publish research on consumer issues. This reflects the strong view of the Consumer Strategy Group that well-founded research is an essential prerequisite to enable the agency to act as a vigorous advocate for consumers. By being well informed, the agency will be in a position to debate issues from a position of strength. It will also promote public awareness, conduct public information campaigns and promote educational activities and initiatives. The aim and intention behind this shift in consumer policy is to empower consumers, make them better informed as to their rights and allow them to be more assertive in exercising those rights.

The Bill incorporates important statutory protections for consumers by outlawing a wide range of unfair, misleading and aggressive commercial practices. In this respect, the Bill transposes the European Union's unfair commercial practices directive and updates and modernises our existing national consumer protection code. A total of nine consumer statutes are repealed and replaced, the oldest of which dates back to 1887.

This new body of law will ensure consumers can have confidence that they will be treated fairly in their commercial dealings with traders and the relationship between consumers and traders will be based on fairness and respect. To enforce these statutory provisions the agency will inherit the enforcement functions of the Director of Consumer Affairs but will also be armed with a number of additional and novel enforcement options. In addition, the Bill provides for significant penalties for traders found guilty of offences under the Bill. I will deal with these enforcement provisions in detail in a few moments.

Specifically, the Bill will ensure the National Consumer Agency has all necessary powers to actively enforce the statutory protections afforded consumers and aggressively pursue those traders who do not comply with their obligations. The Bill further provides specific protections for persons who report offences to the National Consumer Agency.

Before summarising the main provisions of the Consumer Protection Bill, I pay tribute to the work of the Office of the Director of Consumer Affairs over a period of almost 30 years. It has had an almost exclusively enforcement based function and consumers have much cause to be thankful for the protection afforded by the office over those years. The experience and expertise built up over that time will not be lost but will transfer to the National Consumer Agency and become part of the much expanded remit of the new organisation.

In regard to the text of the legislation I would be pleased to expand further on any particular aspect of the Bill in replying to this debate and I welcome the contribution of all Members of the House in that regard. Part 2 provides for the establishment of the new National Consumer Agency. Many of the provisions of this Part impose standard corporate governance type powers, duties and obligations on the agency and its staff. Within this Part, section 8, which sets out the agency's functions, is key. The agency will have a general function of promoting consumer welfare and will be responsible for investigating, enforcing and encouraging compliance with consumer law.

The agency is given specific functions in advising and making recommendations to the Government and Ministers on any policy or legislative proposal impacting upon consumers. It is empowered to recommend new legislative proposals to Ministers and will be entitled to submit recommendations to any other public body regarding any matter impacting on the welfare of consumers. A statutory power of this sort is important in ensuring that the views of the agency are afforded the status they deserve in the policy making process.

The National Consumer Agency will promote the development of alternative dispute resolution procedures as a means of resolving disputes arising out of consumer transactions. Increasingly, such arrangements are seen internationally as an alternative to expensive court proceedings. The section also makes the agency responsible for carrying out the functions previously exercised by the Director of Consumer Affairs and transferred to the agency by section 37.

Section 9 allows the Minister to consult the agency on proposals for legislation aimed specifically at consumers. This section obliges the agency to keep existing consumer protection legislation under review and to submit to the Minister and other Ministers appropriate proposals in regard to such legislation.

Sections 10 to 13, inclusive, relate to the appointment of the members and chairperson of the agency and set out the procedures in regard to meetings of the agency and the manner in which it shall carry out its business. Sections 14 to 17, inclusive, provide for the appointment and certain terms and conditions of employment of the chief executive officer of the agency. For example, the section prohibits a former chief executive, for a period of 12 months after he or she ceases to be chief executive, from acting as a consultant or taking employment where he or she is likely to use or disclose information acquired in the performance of his or her functions as chief executive. The chief executive will be obliged to give evidence before Oireachtas committees.

Section 20 obliges the agency periodically to prepare and submit to the Minister strategy statements and annual work programmes. It is critical the State and the taxpayer attain maximum value for money from the resources employed in protecting consumer interests. Thus, section 21 provides that the agency shall enter into co-operation agreements with other public bodies to be prescribed by the Minister. The purpose of such agreements is to facilitate co-operation and avoid duplication of activities while at the same time permitting consultation and joint studies and analysis involving the agency and those other bodies that are parties to such agreements.

The inclusion of these provisions will also enable the agency to provide a strong consumer voice to complement the work of the various sectoral regulators and to question their decisions if they are seen to act against the interests of consumers. Copies of co-operation agreements must be made available to the public. I intend to consult other Ministers before prescribing any other bodies in accordance with these arrangements, but I envisage that existing sectoral regulators will be among the bodies so prescribed.

Section 22 requires the agency to provide the Minister with a copy of its annual report and that such reports be laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas. Section 23 obliges the agency to keep proper accounts and to submit its accounts for audit to the Comptroller and Auditor General. Copies of the accounts and of the Comptroller and Auditor General's report shall be presented to the Minister, who shall lay copies of them before the Houses of the Oireachtas.

Sections 25 to 29, inclusive, provide important administrative powers and obligations in regard to the staffing of the agency and the conduct by it of its business. This includes, for instance, provisions in regard to the disclosure by board members of beneficial interests, and the power of the agency to recruit consultants, have a seal of office and borrow money.

Section 30 provides that the agency may appoint authorised officers for enforcement purposes. Authorised officers employed by the Office of the Director of Consumer Affairs who were appointed under the Consumer Information Act 1978 will be transferred to the new agency. The section sets out the powers of authorised officers to enter, inspect and search premises in investigating alleged breaches of the Bill. Officers may be accompanied by members of the Garda Síochána when engaged in such enforcement activities.

Sections 31 and 32 relate to the circumstances in which confidential information, including information relating to the commission of offences, may or may not be disclosed by the agency. The agency is, for example, permitted to disclose such information to, and receive such information from, certain prescribed bodies, including other enforcement agencies.

Section 35 allows for the transfer to the agency of existing staff of the Office of the Director of Consumer Affairs. These staff are currently civil servants employed by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. At any time within 24 months after the establishment of the agency, they may opt to return to the Department and preserve their Civil Service status. There will be no change to their terms or conditions of employment.

Sections 37 to 39 provide for the effective transfer of functions, property and agreements vested in the Director of Consumer Affairs to the agency on establishment day. This will allow for the smooth transition from one public body to another without any interruption in the public services provided.

Part 3 of the Bill focuses on prohibiting a wide range of unfair, misleading or aggressive trading practices. This part also transposes the EU’s unfair commercial practices directive. The aim of the directive is to harmonise the laws of EU member states and provide a high level of consumer protection. Consumers will enjoy similar levels of protection for purchases made throughout the European Union, while business will benefit from having a common framework of rules instead of a host of disparate national regulations. Studies undertaken by the European Commission show that Irish consumers make higher levels of cross-border purchases and that Irish business has higher levels of cross-border sales than the European Union average. The harmonisation effected by the directive will, therefore, benefit both consumers and business in Ireland.

This part introduces several new elements to Irish consumer law. Ireland, for example, is one of the few EU member states that does not have a general legislative clause dealing with fair and unfair trading towards consumers. Section 41, which gives effect to the general prohibition of unfair commercial practices contained in the directive, fills this gap in our consumer protection code. It provides that a commercial practice is unfair where it is contrary to the general principle of good faith in the trader's field of activity or the standard of skill and care that a trader could reasonably be expected to exercise towards consumers. The main advantage of a general clause of this type is that it can be used to combat novel commercial practices that are not covered by specific provisions in consumer legislation as well as practices that are consciously designed by unscrupulous traders to fall outside the scope of such legislation.

Sections 42 to 45, inclusive, prohibit misleading commercial practices. These provisions have some elements in common with the provisions of the Merchandise Marks and Consumer Information Acts on false and misleading trade descriptions and advertising but are broader in scope. The sale of a house or other property, for instance, is outside the scope of existing domestic consumer law but is included in this Bill.

Section 46 provides that the omission of material information to consumers is a misleading practice. This is not expressly provided for in our current legislation and is a useful addition. Section 48 allows the Minister to make consumer information regulations to specify certain information that should be provided to consumers in specified transactions. The section is broadly similar to the provisions of the Consumer Information Act on marking and advertising orders.

Sections 50 to 52, inclusive, relate to aggressive commercial practices and bring a further new element in our consumer protection law. Aggressive commercial practices are defined as practices involving harassment, coercion or undue influence that impair consumers' freedom of choice and affect their purchasing decisions. They include pressure sales tactics that seek to intimidate or coerce consumers, and practices that seek to take advantage of consumers who are vulnerable by virtue of misfortune or circumstance.

The practices described in the foregoing sections are prohibited only in circumstances where they would be likely to cause the average consumer to make a transactional decision that he or she would not otherwise make. The intention behind this test is that a practice should not be regarded as unfair, misleading or aggressive unless it impinges on consumer decisions.

Section 53 contains an extensive list of commercial practices that are prohibited in all circumstances. These are not subject to the same transactional decision test on the basis that they are deemed of their nature to impair consumer decision making in all cases. These practices include prize promotions where there is either no prize or consumers must make a payment in order to claim a prize, false claims that products can cure illnesses, false claims that a product or trader has an endorsement or authorisation or that a trader is about to cease trading or move premises, and persistent unwanted cold calling. While some of these practices might well have been covered by the provisions in our existing legislation, others possibly were not. It is helpful to have them dealt with by means of clear and specific prohibitions.

Sections 55 to 58, inclusive, relate to price display regulations, the provision of weighing facilities in grocery retail outlets and the prevention of persons from reading prices. These provisions are based on provisions in existing domestic consumer legislation which still have a useful role to play.

Before discussing sections 59 and 60, which deal with the fixing of maximum prices during a state of emergency affecting the supply of a product, I will refer to the extensive range of other price-fixing powers being repealed by this Bill. The Prices Acts 1958-72 confer seven separate powers on the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment to fix maximum prices. The only one of these that is being retained is that dealing with emergency situations. The Consumer Strategy Group recommended the repeal of the price control provisions of the Prices Acts, and this view is supported by the Competition Authority, the Office of the Director of Consumer Affairs, and the National Consumer Agency.

Our experience with price controls, particularly in the period from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s when extensive recourse was had to them, strongly supports the view that they are an entirely ineffective way of restraining prices. Emergency situations can arise, nevertheless, in which normal competitive forces do not apply. It is prudent to make provision for such circumstances. Factors such as the volatility of oil supplies, the increased likelihood of extreme weather events and the lengthening of supply chains for many products underline the need for such a provision.

Section 60 amends the provision at section 16 of the Prices Act 1958 by providing that orders fixing maximum prices during such a state of emergency should be made by the Government and not by the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment. I include this provision to emphasise the exceptional nature of these powers.

Part 4 deals with pyramid schemes. It replaces the Pyramid Selling Act 1980, which has proved ineffective in dealing with modern manifestations of pyramid selling. It also expands considerably on the relatively brief provision on pyramid schemes in the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive. It prohibits participation in pyramid schemes as well as the establishment, operation or promotion of such schemes. It also seeks to close off the loopholes in the existing law that the promoters of these schemes have exploited by, among other things, seeking to depict payments to the schemes as "gifts".

The penalties for offences relating to pyramid schemes are also being increased to a fine of up to €150,000 and a prison term of up to five years. Pyramid schemes are insidious and exploitative and I am determined that the law should take a tough approach to those who promote and participate in them.

Part 5 deals with civil and criminal enforcement. Under existing law, the Director of Consumer Affairs has effectively just two ways of getting businesses to comply with their legal obligations. The director could use his or her influence to seek voluntary compliance from traders or could take legal proceedings against them. Although the Act gave the director power to seek an injunction against misleading practices, such injunctions could only be obtained in the High Court, a factor which made them a difficult option in the great majority of cases.

The efforts of successive directors and their staff to secure voluntary compliance with consumer legislation have achieved a great deal over the years and will continue to be an important part of the work of the NCA. Modern regulatory thinking, however, emphasises the need to provide enforcement bodies with a wide and flexible range of powers and sanctions to secure compliance with the law and, where necessary, to ensure that those who flout it are dealt with firmly and effectively. Thus the Bill makes provision for a number of intermediate steps, which may be used before taking legal proceedings against an errant trader.

Section 71 provides that where the agency considers that there is a case for seeking an injunction or prohibition order against a trader in respect of a prohibited act or practice, it will have the option of accepting a written undertaking from that trader containing whatever terms and conditions the agency considers appropriate in the circumstances. If the trader subsequently fails to comply with the terms of the undertaking, the agency may then apply for a prohibition order.

Section 73 similarly provides that when the agency considers that a trader has engaged in prohibited activity, it will have the option of serving a compliance notice on the trader concerned directing him or her to remedy the prohibited act or practice. If the trader does not appeal the notice, it takes effect within a specified period. Failure by a trader to comply with the terms of a compliance notice is an offence and may lead to the taking of criminal proceedings against him or her.

These provisions have clear advantages for the agency, which will have new options for dealing with traders where costly and time-consuming recourse to the courts may not be necessary. It has advantages for traders who are given the opportunity and incentive to correct their behaviour and comply with their obligations without having to face court proceedings. However, businesses that enter into undertakings with the agency, or accept compliance notices served by it, and then proceed to ignore the terms of those undertakings or notices will face legal proceedings and whatever sanctions may result from those proceedings.

Section 83 will permit the agency to impose on-the-spot fines on traders for offences relating to price display. This is in line with a recommendation of the consumer strategy group and again reflects the view that, where it is practicable to secure effective enforcement of consumer law by means other than going to court, this should be done.

Many businesses spend a great deal of money building a reputation for themselves and their products. Bringing to public attention the names of traders who breach consumer legislation can, therefore, be a powerful sanction and a compelling incentive to compliance. This is particularly so for large businesses for which fines may represent a negligible sanction. Thus, section 80 permits a court, on the application of the agency, to require a trader convicted of a number of specified offences to publish, at his or her expense, a corrective statement in respect of the facts relating to the offence.

Section 84 requires the agency to maintain a list of traders convicted of criminal offences, subject to court orders, giving an undertaking, served with a compliance notice, or subject to a fixed payment notice and to publish this list at any time and in any form it considers appropriate.

A further element of this part of the Bill to which I draw attention is the enhanced provision made for redress for consumers. Section 72 gives consumers aggrieved by a prohibited act or practice a right of action for relief by way of damages against the trader who has committed the act or practice in question. In some cases, it is sufficient that a practice detrimental to consumers is halted whether as a result of civil or criminal proceedings. In cases, however, where consumers have suffered loss or damage as a result of such an act or practice, it is right that they should have an opportunity to seek redress for that loss or damage.

Section 80, to which I have already referred, further permits a court to require a trader convicted of an offence under the Act to pay appropriate compensation to a consumer who has suffered loss or damage as a result of the offence. Such a compensation order may be instead of, or in addition to, any fine or penalty the court may impose on the trader.

Part 5 provides for tougher penalties, particularly for repeat offenders. Section 77 maintains the maximum fine of €3,000 for summary convictions and €60,000 for convictions on indictment. However, the section also provides for a maximum fine of €5,000 for a subsequent summary conviction for the same offence and of €100,000 for a subsequent conviction on indictment.

The section also provides for additional penalties for continuing contraventions by persons convicted of offences. It is right to penalise more heavily those traders who repeatedly breach the law. A substantial part of the overall detriment suffered by consumers, results from the activities of a small number of hard-core transgressors and these should be a particular target of enforcement action.

Part 6 introduces a number of miscellaneous provisions. Section 85 provides protection to people who report breaches to the agency and is, in effect, a whistleblower clause. Sections 86 and 87 give recognition to codes of practice drawn up by traders or groups of traders, allow the agency to approve such codes and for the provisions of a code to be admissible in court proceedings. Section 88 allows the agency to issue guidelines to traders and consumers alike in regard to the practicality of transacting business.

There is one non-consumer provision in the Bill. Section 94 amends the Industrial Development Act 1993 to give retrospective effect to an assignment of powers made by Forfás to IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland on 26 May 2006. The assignment of powers is being made retrospective to 25 July 2003, the date the Industrial Development (Science Foundation Ireland) Act 2003 came into effect.

This provision is necessary because the 2003 Act consolidated provisions dealing with employment grants that had been included in the 1986, 1991 and 1993 Acts. As a consequence, a new assignment of powers to the agencies to make employment grants under section 25 of the 2003 Act was necessary. However, this assignment was not made until 26 May 2006, with the result that the agencies were acting ultra vires in approving employment grants in the period between 25 July 2003 when the 2003 Act was commenced and 26 May 2006. The Attorney General has advised that primary legislation is necessary to make the assignment of powers retrospective to 25 July 2003. While any potential financial liability arising for the State on foot of the delay in assigning the powers is judged to be minimal, any potential risk should be closed off by introducing the necessary validating legislation at the earliest opportunity.

Section 95 amends the Casual Trading Act 1995 to allow the Minister to introduce statutory guidelines for local authorities in regard to the issuing of casual trading licences. The consumer strategy group was strongly of the view that a lack of consistency on the part of local authorities in this regard significantly inhibited the growth of casual trading thereby effectively restricting consumer choice. The group specifically recommended in its report that the Minister should be empowered to issue statutory guidelines obliging local authorities to apply a consistent approach when granting casual trading licences.

The Department issued non-statutory guidelines on this matter to local authorities in July 2005 and again in July 2006 with a view to their being implemented on a voluntary basis. Should it be that the voluntary guidelines do not bring about a more consistent approach by local authorities, I will use the powers proposed in this amendment to make the necessary regulations to introduce statutory guidelines in this area.

Section 96 amends the Hallmarking Act of 1981 to take account of the repeal of the Merchandise Marks Act 1887. Sections 97 and 98 provide important additional powers to the agency in the enforcement of product safety regulations. They will allow it to request the customs authorities to detain products until their conformity with product safety rules can be determined. The changes will also facilitate admissibility of laboratory tests carried out in other jurisdictions.

I will introduce a number of amendments on Committee Stage. These will be mainly of a technical nature, although others will serve to strengthen the protections afforded to consumers under the Bill. Principal among these will be a group of amendments to provide a role for the Financial Regulator in enforcing the provisions of the Bill in the financial services sector. The provisions of this Bill apply to all sectors of the economy and offer protection to consumers whether they are buying a loaf of bread or taking out a mortgage with their local bank.

Deputies will be aware of the role of the Financial Regulator in protecting the interests of consumers in their dealings with the financial services industry. As the regulator has particular expertise in the sector, it is not reasonable to expect it should be replicated within the National Consumer Agency. Traders in the financial services sector are subject to an administrative sanctions regime that includes the role of the Financial Services Ombudsman. The ombudsman is an independent statutory complaints officer with power to award compensation to consumers who suffer damage as a result of their dealing with regulated financial services providers. It is prudent to ensure that the prohibitions contained in the Consumer Protection Bill are brought within that regime in so far as the financial services sector is concerned.

Bearing in mind what I have said, I have decided in consultation with the Minister for Finance that it would be prudent to provide that the Financial Regulator should have parallel powers to the agency when it comes to enforcing, in the financial services sector, the prohibitions on unfair commercial practices as set out in the Bill. The co-operation agreement between the agency and the regulator will ensure proper consultation and transparency in the exercise by the two regulators of their respective powers in that regard.

I will also introduce provisions to prohibit discrimination against consumers on grounds of method of payment and to allow the National Consumer Agency to promote quality assurance schemes among traders. These provisions arose from proposals by Senators Cox and Coghlan in the Seanad and I will table amendments on Committee Stage in this House. I will also further strengthen the powers of the agency in the area of product safety.

The Bill represents a fundamental realignment of national consumer policy by establishing a new agency with much expanded and enhanced powers and in effect creating a forceful new consumer advocate, which has been lacking in public debate and policy making in recent years. Furthermore, the Bill replaces nine existing pieces of primary legislation with this single statute. This represents a significant gain in the accessibility and transparency of our consumer protection code and one that I am determined to extend to the remaining areas of that code. I commend the Bill to the House.

Fine Gael will support this Bill on Second Stage, although we will seek to amend it on Committee Stage. The Bill is long overdue and it is surprising that it has come so late in the five-year term of the Government. Its powers are much weaker than they should be. It is weak because the National Consumer Agency has nothing like the powers it needs to have a reliable role to protect consumers. It is late because my party introduced a Bill two years ago and we were promised we would have an immediate Bill from the Government. Two years later, we finally get the fruits of the Government's labour. On that occasion, Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats voted down the Bill on the basis that their own Bill was coming. Perhaps they felt the powers we were granting the consumer agency were too great, which seems to be borne out by the contents of this Bill.

For the past eight years Fianna Fail and the Progressive Democrats have played a cruel, laissez-faire game in the area of consumer protection. They sat back as the economic boom let rip and every scam artist and rip-off merchant in the country made a mint. Irish consumers were treated to the highest inflation in Europe, the highest prices in Europe and the worst value for money. Last week, inflation hit a disgracefully high level of 5.2%. Inflation during the 1994 to 1997 Government was 1.5%. Government and regulator-controlled prices are rising almost three times faster than private sector prices — a stunning 55% between 2001 and Oct 2006 compared to 18.3% in the private sector. Wherever the Government has control over prices, it is three times out of kilter with the private sector.

After years of this hardship, the Government has now proposed the establishment of the National Consumer Agency. I welcome the principle of the agency and we will attempt to amend its proposed powers on Committee Stage. During the debate on the Fine Gael Private Members' Bill in the Dáil in 2005 to create a consumer rights enforcer, the Minister of State, Deputy Killeen, referred to "comprehensive measures and policies already in place and envisaged, both domestically and internationally, to protect and represent consumer interests". He then instructed Fianna Fáil and Progressive Democrats Deputies to vote down our reasonable proposals.

This was followed by the "Rip off? What rip off?" approach of the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, Deputy O'Donoghue, who condemned Fine Gael for even raising the issue. I am glad that he has been shouted down at Cabinet and the Government is now starting to acknowledge the problem. For the record, let it be clear that this Government is the father of rip off Ireland. No fewer than 50 stealth taxes and charges have been introduced by the Government since the last general election — many of them introduced shortly after the general election. On everything from ESB bills to passport fees, the only way has been up. In the 12 months to January 2007, consumers saw increases in college fees, exam fees, electricity prices by 12.6%, average monthly gas bills by €15.50, Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann fares, Iarnród Éireann and Luas fares, M50 and M4 tolls by 10c and the television licence fee. The list is endless.

Ireland has become a graveyard for consumers with annual inflation at its highest level for four years and further electricity price rises yet to take effect. The price increases in the 12 months to December 2006 were the highest for four years. Prices have increased by 5.2% and the electricity price increase is yet to bite. A comparison with prices across Europe shows that Irish prices have risen in the past 12 months at a rate 26% faster than in the rest of the euro area. Irish price increases in Government-regulated sectors are more than twice those in the rest of Europe. Price increases in Irish sheltered service sectors have been close to twice the rate of the rest of Europe. Yet price increases in Irish goods markets have been far slower than in the rest of Europe. These trends are continuing a pattern which has prevailed for many years, during which Ireland has become one of the dearest countries in Europe. Ireland has become a graveyard for consumers as a result of poor public policy promoted by the Government.

When we look further, we begin to see what has been the main driver of inflation over the past five years. Goods in our shops have not increased in price over that entire period. The prices of services delivered by companies exposed to international competition have actually reduced. Yet prices in sheltered service sectors have increased by 24%. Does the Minister have any plans to deal with this matter?

The Bill puts the National Consumer Agency on a statutory basis. In principle, the agency is needed and the Bill is long overdue. The interim measures introduced in 2005 gave a clear indication of intent that he would put the agency on a statutory basis sooner rather than later. Why has it taken so long?

The process of drafting the Bill has not had any impact on the Minister. He must have skipped over the sections in the Bill dealing with incorrect descriptions, causing consumer confusion and providing false, misleading or deceptive information to consumers. If he had paid heed to the spirit of these provisions in the Bill he would not have tried to pass the Bill off as the most fundamental reform of consumer law. To present the Bill in those terms does no service to consumers or himself. The Bill is not the fundamental reform consumers are entitled to expect from a Government, which along with its predecessor, has been in office for ten years. It is a disappointing piece of work that has all the hallmarks of having been rushed through before the election. I know the Minister would not agree with me on that matter either.

The Deputy cannot have it both ways. It is either late or it is rushed.

The Minister has been in Government for ten years and has had plenty of opportunity. It is a hotchpotch of proposals, some of which have been foisted on the Minister by EU regulations or closing off loopholes, which could easily have been implemented long before now. To claim the Bill is the most fundamental reform of consumer law in years is nonsense. It transfers some powers that already existed in the Office of the Director of Consumer Affairs to this new agency, which I welcome — I do not believe in duplication.

I wish to speak about the Government's approach to consumer and competition policy. Seldom has public administration witnessed such a disjointed, incoherent and half-hearted attempt to address specific policy considerations in such a key area. The real problem is that the Government does not have the conviction or determination to tackle vested interests and therefore consumers get poor value, poor service and an inadequate means of address. Section 72, which the Minister mentioned, deals with the issue of redress and on Committee Stage I will be interested to tease out how it will operate. There is a strong sense that perhaps by his lack of speed in dealing with these matters during the past five years he may have become slightly detached from the realities and hardships facing people in their daily lives and the frustrations being experienced by consumers who had nowhere to go with legitimate complaints.

There is one area where there is no absence of commitment on the part of the Government, that is, the establishment of regulators. Instead of taking hard decisions in the areas of energy, transport, competition and telecommunications the Government appears content to get involved directly in its own job creation, namely, the establishment of a plethora of regulatory agencies and regulators who can operate to insulate Ministers from the heat of answering questions on the reason prices are higher. However, they do not provide the type of competition, service or choice people expect or demand. The output of most of the regulatory agencies is not impressive and seems to display distinct signs of regulatory capture rather than a serious commitment to the welfare of consumers. The best example is the Commission for Energy Regulation. These people have rolled over and have had their tummy tickled by Bord Gáis and the ESB over recent price increases only to have some rescinded later.

When I made representations in writing to the Commission on Energy Regulation on this matter last September I was accused of trying to advocate below cost selling. I have not heard how one can put forward an argument about below cost selling in relation to a monopoly. That is the type of argument we have come to expect from the Commission on Energy Regulation. It must be reviewed. I also question the competence and benefit of the CER in circumstances where it has presided over major price increases in energy costs to consumers and businesses with minimal new market entrants to compete with the incumbents. The Minister is aware and is being told regularly of the difficulties businesses experience in regard to energy costs and, therefore, how it is contributing to the high cost base.

The Competition Authority has shown itself to be involved in the enforcement of competition law but it tends to arrive at decisions after the event. It sets up studies and issues reports but we do not hear much afterwards. The new chairman, Mr. Prasifka, and his team have good intentions but we do not hear anything about the tough decisions being taken that will bring dominant players in the marketplace on to an even keel to provide better choice and more competition across the various sectors.

The Competition Authority has shown a propensity to engage in long inconclusive studies which tend to produce results long after either regulations or a market have changed. I met members of the authority in the past and while all were perfectly civil individuals I was left with the distinct impression that a quasi academic and rarefied atmosphere prevails in Parnell Square, which is detached from most households in Ireland. The Competition Authority did not do itself any favour when its former chairman, Dr. Fingleton, predicted savings of €577 million to Irish consumers in respect of the grocery trade. To his credit, the new chairman does not engage in that type of activity and he has not gone out of his way to defend the type of statement made by his predecessor.

Nor does the Minister.

The Minister was glad to accept the report.

The Deputy should acknowledge that.

I can understand the reason the Minister accepts a report where there will be a saving of €481 million in domestic household bills. I can understand that as it is good news for him.

I accepted no report.

Unfortunately it did not happen that way. All the matters which have been brought to the Minister's attention by the various economists and academics have blown up in smoke and regrettably the consumer has not got the benefit. The current chairman, Mr. Prasifka, is a more humble and modest person than his predecessor. He does not predict such savings off the wall but does his research first. Needless to say the outcome in all of these matters has been no reduction in food prices overall but much higher profits for the multiples. The same applies in the insurance market. We have very few players despite all the commitments made by the Minister's predecessor, Deputy Harney, and himself, about new players in the general insurance market. We have witnessed a levelling off of the insurance regime across employers' liability and public liability and some reduction in motor insurance but higher profits for insurance companies. The Fianna Fáil and Progressive Democrats policy has been to appoint more regulators and create the perception that something is happening. Unfortunately what has happened is that there are higher profits for multiples and insurance companies and little change for consumers and less choice. That is not good for any consumer.

The Government's policy and vision on the rights of consumers has produced a regulatory structure that is disjointed, fragmented and ultimately not very successful. We have a plethora of agencies, commissions and authorities, all operating to their own agendas and each seemingly distant from the end users of the services they are regulating.

What is needed is a rationalisation of these agencies and greater co-ordination between the Competition Authority and those agencies to enforce consumer rights and which embraces the existing regulatory authorities. There is no need for duplication of functions which can all be brought under a single or rationalised structure that has as its core focus the protection and service of consumers. A strong consumer mandate should be the focus of these agencies but unfortunately they lack direction. In Government I hope this is one area where Fine Gael can introduce radical reform that will benefit consumers in a real and meaningful way.

I welcome the decision to subsume the Office of the Director of Consumer Affairs into the National Consumer Agency. It is long overdue. Ms Carmel Foley who was very involved with the Office of the Director of Consumer Affairs has moved on to an important position in the public service. She did enormous work in trying to get information out to consumers. Regrettably, she did not have the necessary power, staff or resources to deal effectively with complaints in a modern economy. I recall after a rugby international match in the city she and her inspectors could enter a particular establishment but unfortunately they could do nothing about enforcing the penalties. No sooner had the inspector left than there was a lack of price displays. This was a grey area in the legislation that did not allow her to tackle the issue head on. I acknowledge that the Minister has increased the fine but at the time it was €127. It would not make much difference if the pub in Dublin city was full after a rugby international as it would not take long for €127 to be clocked up in the tills.

I am concerned about some aspects of the Bill. In the explanatory memorandum to the Bill, it is noted that "the detailed financial implications of establishing the new agency cannot be quantified at this stage." I find that strange. I expect the Minister to have an explanation in regard to the costs of the agency on Committee Stage. I am concerned also about the operational role of the National Consumer Agency on the basis as set out and I am not critical of the executive chairperson of the agency who has been handed a difficult job by the Minister.

The State has a central and critical role to play in respecting consumer rights. Unfortunately the State often deals consumers a poor hand, whether in failing to reform economic sectors in which it is dominant or in introducing changes to procedures or entitlements that negatively impact on the public as consumers of State services. A great deal more can be done in terms of charters and the various services, or proper codes of practice or opening up areas to much more competition in many areas of the economy.

All our clinics are not full of people complaining about the deal they have got from private sector companies. Their focus is usually on State agencies, local authorities, the HSE or development agencies. This is what the real world is about and where consumers feel hard done by. We could play a useful role in ensuring the National Consumer Agency is armed with the necessary powers to deal with those issues effectively on behalf of clients. If as Members of the Oireachtas we fail to get answers, how much more difficult it is for ordinary individuals and consumers? It is imperative that the public, as the consumer of these services, receives strong advice from a consumer advocate who commands authority, has the power and is well resourced. The private sector must be focussed on equally and the State must subject itself to review and criticism and must give redress for providing poor services to the public, as consumers, of often essential services.

In addition to the ombudsman there must be an agency that can comment publicly and sometimes critically on State policies as they adversely impact on consumers. I see the role of the National Consumer Agency expanded to ensure that policy perspectives are brought forward. Sometimes we see this through the National Competitiveness Council, even though in veiled language, it might understate the type of problems we have in certain areas. I would like to see the National Consumer Agency expressing to the Minister and Government of the day the policy changes that need to be made in respect of these matters.

I am also concerned by the fact the structure proposed under this Bill makes the National Consumer Agency so subservient to the Department and the Minister of the day. This is wrong. The agency should be more independent and have its own staff, resources and sources of funding. The Minister should be able to give a block grant to the agency and let it get on with its work. I fundamentally believe this is so important to consumers that the independence of the office will be critical to its proper function and success.

I also believe the Minister is giving too much power to the Department to dictate aspects of the business of the National Consumer Agency and that this will set and shape the agenda. If the agency is going to be an effective and independent advocate for consumers, the Minister should not think that it should be anything other than independent.

Instead of creating a watchdog, the Minister is giving consumers a neutered poodle which will be permanently tied to the railings of the Department in Kildare Street.

Deputy Hogan has a new scriptwriter.

I am worried about what the Minister would tie the agency to. What is even more worrying is that the Bill proposes to limit the nature of the interaction the National Consumer Agency will have with the Oireachtas. This is an important point. The Minister is defining the way in which the agency will interact with the Oireachtas. Section 17(1) of the Bill states that the chief executive of the National Consumer Agency "shall, at the request in writing of an Oireachtas Committee, attend before it to give account for the general administration of the Agency as may be required by the Committee". So by law, the chief executive of the agency will be restricted by the terms set out in the Bill to engaging with members of the Oireachtas on bland issues of general administration. He or she will have nothing to do with policy issues as they affect consumers, legislative measures required to address inconsistencies in law or criticisms of Ministers for not doing enough to help consumers. The Minister will forgive me if I say the agency is fine in theory but that it is not the type of watchdog we would expect it to be.

One major concern I have about the Bill is that it openly discriminates against some of the smaller businesses that operate in the State and which form the bedrock of our enterprising economy. There are many small businesses in the State that operate on the basis of one person or a husband and wife team. They are small businesses which do not have big resources and often operate from the family home. They are equally entitled to good service, fair play, not being ripped off and access to a prosecuting authority. However, under this Bill, they are excluded. The Bill only applies to consumers who are defined as a natural person acting for purposes unrelated to the person's trade or business. I can think of no policy justification for excluding this section of consumers from the scope of the legislation and regard the proposal in the Bill to do so as unfair, discriminatory and anti-small business. There is no reason inconsistent levels of consumer protection should be afforded to different segments of the population.

I am also concerned the Bill, as presented, will introduce another layer of bureaucracy and regulation, which we must avoid. Once this Bill is enacted, we will have a number of sectors of the economy which will potentially face double regulation on consumer issues by both their sectoral regulatory authority and the National Consumer Agency. In the Minister's contribution this evening, he referred to one such authority, the Financial Regulator. I am certainly glad he took note of this particular problem in his contribution and I look forward to hearing the changes he will make on Committee Stage. The last thing we want is duplication and overregulation because we already have enough. Both the Minister and I, and I am sure other Members of the House, get a considerable number of complaints about them. We want to see a system established that ensures we have a light rather than a heavy touch. The financial services sector is well regulated with necessary bodies such as the Financial Services Ombudsman, the Competition Authority and the Financial Regulator. I am interested in seeing what direction the Minister will head in respect of this issue on Committee Stage.

The telecommunications sector will face regulatory review from the National Consumer Agency, the Competition Authority and ComReg. Before we extend the regulatory creep even further into Irish business, we need to be sure there is justification for doing so. The Bill talks about co-operation agreements between agencies, which is fine, but in reality, the problem lies with duplicating functions without any necessity to do so. The co-operation agreement between the Competition Authority and ComReg has proved so successful that the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources is giving concurrent competition enforcement powers to ComReg in the Communications Regulation Bill, against the advice of the Competition Authority. This is an example of more bureaucracy, more disconnected thinking and more red tape in respect of ComReg. The way we deal with consumers and telecommunications services is difficult. I am getting many complaints about maintenance, repair, broadband roll-out and the overloaded exchanges in various parts of the country. People are not getting the service they expect to receive from what is basically a monopoly provider of fixed lines, but ComReg has not got to grips with the rolling out of a basic service charter one would expect from a regulator at this stage in respect of telecommunications. A total of €4.6 billion was garnered by the State from the sale of Eircom. Eircom has been sold twice since then and we are still no better off in terms of competition, service provision or the roll-out of broadband. We are slowly getting there, but it is too slow for an awful lot of people.

At a time when the rest of Europe is contracting its regulatory overlay of the national economies, we in Ireland are proposing to introduce yet another layer of bureaucracy and duplication. This does no favours to our economy or the international perception of Ireland as a place to do business. Most importantly, it does no favours to consumers who find themselves betwixt and between regulatory agencies with seemingly common functions and all funded by the higher costs for services caused by an increased regulatory burden. The Minister needs to go back to the drawing board on this on Committee Stage.

For the past two years, Fine Gael has called for a consumer rights enforcer. In principle, this Bill goes towards meeting this objective. What we need to see is an agency with real power which will root out blockages to competition and ensure consumers get the fair deal they deserve. Under our proposals, the new body would have the same status as an ombudsman and would cut the umbilical cord with Departments that are largely pulled around the place in respect of vested interests. It will be a proactive champion, watchdog, defender and advocate of consumers' rights and interests. A key feature of the office will be its independence. To be really effective, it needs to be a stand-alone office with its own stall and a secure budget. It should be a proactive champion and a meaningful watchdog for consumers. In addition, the National Consumer Agency should be in a position to conduct regular price surveys that highlight good value and name and shame those charging excessive prices and to regularly create a price league website with tables on all major products to give the best possible information to consumers. This has been done in respect of the financial services sector and I compliment Mary O'Dea, the consumer director in the Irish Financial Service Regulatory Authority, which carries out regular surveys on financial products. This needs to be extended into a wider range of products that affect consumers and their purchasing power. We must develop codes of conduct for service providers and retailers on issues like passing on exchange rate movements, devise and promote a good practice provider quality mark for suppliers of goods and services that agree to be bound by relevant codes of practice and work with local authorities through the directors of community and enterprise sections to drive a pro-consumer agenda at local level.

If we drill down to local authority level and make more use of this organisation, we could provide much more information to consumers at a more local level. We often believe that when we say something at national level or put an advertisement in the national newspapers, it is enough. I am sure the National Consumer Agency will have a budget for advertising, marketing and information campaigns, but we must drill down to an agency at local level. Perhaps, the local authority is a vehicle for doing this.

Consumers should be represented in national partnership agreements and be part of any national agreement. It is clear that, in many instances, recent agreements have been dominated by the producers, not consumers. We need an agency that will not tolerate cartels, monopolies or anti-competitive practices that hurt consumers but will fundamentally give them choice, reduce prices and, in competitive terms, bring more people into the marketplace. That is why Fine Gael is committed to introducing defined time limits for different stages of Competition Authority investigations, in order to address concerns about the length of time investigations take. It is important complainants would be kept regularly informed of the progress of an investigation. We should instruct the Competition Authority to issue an annual report on the implications of State action on competition. Such a report would be able to identify how the State has inhibited or prevented competition and be able to make suggestions about the changes required.

Our system of regulators is creaking and ineffective. We should merge existing regulators so as to have fewer of them and provide a more important role for the Competition Authority to work with them. They should be charged with controlling costs and opening sheltered parts of the economy.

In principle, the Bill is much to be commended but the powers vested in the agency by the Minister to ensure consumers can have confidence in it are inadequate. The Consumer Protection Agency should be independent like an ombudsman. I intend to table the necessary amendments on Committee Stage to give effect to these principles and the proposals outlined in my contribution.

I am delighted to have an opportunity to speak on the Bill which the Labour Party does not oppose. However, while we welcome a number of elements in it, there is much scope for amendment on Committee Stage.

Consumer protection has never been more important than is currently the case. This week in the UK, for instance, banks have conceded defeat in the face of an organised campaign by hundreds of thousands of consumers claiming refunds of banking fees which exceeded the legal maximum allowed under UK consumer law. One estimate reckons UK bank customers are due refunds equivalent to €14 billion, which is a substantial amount of money to be repaid because somebody was not doing his or her job properly or because he or she was ignoring consumer rights. Our banks have a less than perfect record in attending to the rights of consumers.

UK consumers, however, are not the only ones who are being deceived. One of my favourite topics in this regard relates to food labelling and safety issues. Time and again in this House I have raised the issue of food which is produced outside Ireland that can be quite legally labelled as being "Irish" even though, for instance, only breadcrumbs may have been added to the original product after it was imported. This is called substantial transformation and it is entirely legal. The point at issue is that the meat content, for example chicken fillets, may have come from Thailand, South America or elsewhere. When such products are imported to Ireland, the addition of seasoning or spices can lead to it being labelled as "Irish". As far as consumers are concerned, the only information they have on the packet is that the product is Irish. That is definitely misleading. I accept this is the case across the European Union but I would like to see it changed. I welcome the Bill because it should take account of this kind of issue. Consumer protection in regard to food safety and nutrition is extremely important.

I note most of the Bill is an almost verbatim copy of EU Directive 2005/29/EC, which it is intended to transpose. Part 2 of the Bill aims to establish a National Consumer Agency. I am saddened by today's news that the Director of Corporate Enforcement has been unsuccessfully seeking sufficient staff to do its job for two years. It is not enough for Government merely to establish agencies like the National Consumer Agency; it must also resource them properly. I take heart, however, from the fact that should the Bill pass, it may well be implemented by another Government. If that is the case, we would ensure adequate resourcing was provided for the agency. It is pointless to set up agencies and not provide adequate funding for facilities etc. to allow them to deliver on their mandate.

Section 8 of the Bill gives the National Consumer Agency a number of functions. I note in particular the agency may "make recommendations to the relation to any proposals for legislative change". I note also it shall promote alternative dispute resolution, commission research, promote educational initiatives in the area of consumer education, prepare and publish guidelines for traders, in addition to any number of other powers. I welcome all of these proposals but one can well ask whether the Government is committed to resourcing the agency properly so it can carry out these functions. I am not sure that will be the case because of the history of the lack of resources for many other agencies, for example, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland. The catering trade is expected to indicate to us the country of origin of beef. When one asks how many inspections have been carried out, the reply is "very few", and when one asks how many have complied with those inspections, the answer is also "very few". The bottom line is the authority is not adequately resourced.

Part 3 deals with unfair and misleading commercial practices. Its scope is wide enough to include a number of situations in which consumers are being misled by unfair or misleading commercial practices. I commend the European Parliament for being responsible, as I understand it, for initiating the EU directive which this part of the Bill transposes.

I wish to concentrate on section 43 which states, "A commercial practice is misleading if it includes the provision of false information" in regard to a number of factors including the geographical origin of a product. It further states, a commercial practice would be misleading under the terms of the Bill if this false information "would be likely to cause the average make a transactional decision that the average consumer would not otherwise make".

Section 43(7) states: "In determining the geographical origin of goods . . . consideration shall be given to where the goods underwent their last substantial and economically justified processing . . . resulting in the manufacture of new goods or representing an important stage of the manufacture or production". This brings me back to my point about substantial transformation. In many cases when one buys a product in a supermarket that to all intents and purposes is pretending to be Irish, when one investigates, if one is able to do so — for the most part one is not — one discovers the raw material was imported but the processed element of it is Irish which led to its being labelled an Irish product. This is a significantly misleading approach to labelling.

Other issues of concern arise in regard to the labelling of food. One often comes across what I consider to be sleight of hand labelling. For example, in regard to salmon one comes across "Irish smoked salmon" and "Smoked Irish salmon". One is not sure whether the salmon or the smoke is Irish or where the salmon came from to create this product. While this is technically acceptable and legal, it is definitely misleading because one would take it from the word "Irish" that the product was produced and processed in Ireland.

The labelling of poultry arises frequently in discussions of this nature. This issue affects consumers and commercial producers because, much of the time, they are competing on an unfair playing field with imported products. However, I welcome the introduction of sanctions under section 43 of the Bill for producers who label their product with false information. The categories of practice set out as misleading include, "its benefits or fitness for purpose", "the results to be expected from it", "the risks it presents to consumers", or due to "the results of tests or checks carried out on it".

Another issue I have raised previously in the House about food labelling is the question of guideline daily allowances, GDA, versus the traffic light labelling of food products. Under the GDA method of labelling products, which most major supermarket groups favour, a consumer is told on the label what percentage of certain categories of ingredients the product contributes to one's recommended daily intake of each ingredient. In effect, one is being told this is the appropriate percentage for one's daily intake. For example, according to the GDA system, a chocolate bar might say on its label that eating this chocolate bar would contribute 100% of one's daily recommended allowance of fat. On the other hand, the traffic-light food labelling system favoured by Deputy Naughten and I, advises the use of a simple red, orange or green colour coded labels. It tells whether a product should be taken with care or, if the label is green, it can be eaten with abandon. It is a simple and straightforward system, but the Minister for Agriculture and Food is not in favour.

Of 17,000 UK consumers recently surveyed, 80% preferred traffic light food labelling to GDA labels. The British National Heart Forum finds the GDA system complicated and misleading and the British Medical Association is in favour of the traffic light system of labelling. The argument is made by these substantial bodies. The UK Food Standards Agency states that the evidence so far is that consumers are not running scared of red markers, as feared by critics of the traffic light scheme. They are using the information to balance their shop. They are not interpreting red as a sign not to buy the product. They interpret it as "high in fat, salt or sugar" and know that they should not eat too much of the product.

Research has found that one of the major problems with the GDA system is that many people do not have the mathematical ability to use the percentages constructively. One mother stated that her priority at the supermarket is making sure she does not lose her child, not choosing a good cereal. A person on a low salt diet might see a product with a low percentage of salt, which is a good thing. Another product might express this as sodium or sodium chloride, which is not the same. There is a need for consumer information, consumer education and consistency of labelling to ensure that the correct information can be easily interpreted by the consumer.

Another problem with the GDA is the sample size of products. This is not standardised. One carton of yoghurt may state that 100g will provide 20% of GDA of fat. The carton beside it may refer to 30g providing 15% of GDA of fat. If the priority is minding the child in the supermarket one will probably choose the second product even though the former is healthier. One has to work out the mathematics but these matters should be kept simple. The traffic light food labelling system might show both yoghurts as amber or the latter on red and the former on green. This is uncomplicated. The average hard-pressed consumer would not be misled by the traffic light labels but would be misled by the GDA system. Many people find the current indication of nutritional content misleading, yet it is legal. The Bill should encompass issues such as misleading food labels. It is a major issue, given our concerns about healthy eating, obesity and so on.

The Minister for Agriculture and Food is reported to be opposed to the traffic light labelling system, apparently because she feels it would be bad for producers of high fat cheese. I have asked her to conduct research into Irish consumers' perceptions of traffic light labelling but she has refused. If she did, she would discover that Irish consumers would not be dissuaded from buying a high fat cheese with a red label but would buy lesser quantities or choose another with a lower fat content. There is no threat to the consumption of the product or the industry. We can provide the consumer with appropriate information. If a product is high in fat one should monitor the amount one consumes. Just because it is a dairy product we should not shy away from labelling it as a high fat product. We must be straightforward about these issues.

If the Government refuses to legislate to allow for traffic light food labelling it should introduce regulations, using the powers in section 48(3), which set out the conditions under which the GDA labels would not be deemed misleading. A statutory instrument could be introduced to oblige all manufacturers to use the same sample product size in the GDA label. This would stop the use of misleading GDA labels. Nothing short of a traffic light labelling system, such as Fine Gael and the Labour Party will introduce in Government, will prevent consumers from being misled.

I refer to dangerous and misleading information about diets and slimming aids. One sees wonderful advice in diet books and products that promise weight loss. It is not only misleading but dangerous. This must be addressed to stop the gullible from believing that they will lose a major amount of weight. If that worked, we would be skinny, healthy and fit without any effort. One finds the same information in fitness clubs where one is promised weight loss after a 14-day programme. This is also misleading and potentially dangerous.

Section 53 relates to prohibited commercial practices and I welcome section 53(3) (e) which prohibits advertisements which directly exhort children to “(i) purchase a product, or (ii) persuade a parent or adult to purchase the product for them;” That might be difficult to enforce. The Government should be congratulated but it should be noted that the provision is taken from an EU directive of 2005. I commend the European Parliament for initiating that section of the Bill.

I have previously raised the matter of pyramid schemes. People are ripped off and lose vast amounts of money and there are various knock-on effects. The Labour Party published a Bill on this practice some years ago and there has been a rash of pyramid schemes since. Many people suffer financial and personal losses from the rows that arise from the scheme. The moral is that if something looks too good to be true, it most likely is. This is another case of clever people exploiting vulnerable people.

I welcome the section that deals with aggressive selling. We all know elderly people living alone who have been browbeaten into buying a service or product they do not want. They are intimidated and are sometimes brought to the bank to get cash to hand over. This area must be addressed.

I also raised the matter of ringtones with the Minister and the difficulty of getting out of it once one buys into it. This practice targets people who do not know what they are buying. It is not clear that one cannot get rid of the ringtone once one pays for it and downloads it. I devoted much time to attempting to reverse this but it was very difficult because it operates from outside Ireland. Children, and teenagers in particular, are taken by the latest ringtone and must have it. Once they buy into it there is a cost every time it is downloaded and one cannot get rid of it.

Although I do not know how it could be addressed in this Bill, the matter of so-called psychics should also be considered. They advertise and rip people off. Mr. Derren Browne is a magician and explains in his books how psychics work. Apart from the financial aspect of the rip off, they target people who are vulnerable and this specific matter should be examined. Much of the Bill is to be welcomed. It is not right for the Government to take the credit for helping the consumer not only because the Bill's contents are identical to the aforementioned EU directive which is as it should be but also because this is the least consumer-friendly Government. For instance, it allowed the energy regulator to impose a 23% hike in gas prices, notwithstanding the reduction in world fuel prices. Deputy Hogan has already addressed this point. It has driven price increases that have let inflation break the 5% barrier. Annual inflation is now at a six year high of 5.2%. When we were last in Government inflation was at 1.5%. The removal of the groceries order has led to a downward spiral in the cost of alcohol. Consumers plagued by anti-social behaviour associated with people consuming cheap alcohol will not be overly impressed with this decline. That is not a consumer friendly move. Since the abolition of the groceries order food prices have gone up.

They have gone down by 1.9%.

The supermarkets have benefited.

The groceries order prices have gone down.

Irish banks get away with murder. The average cost of a credit card is €105 whereas the average across Europe is €65, indicating a significant mark up here. The cost of taking out a loan here is almost twice the EU average while Irish consumers pay €100 for current accounts. These costs are often not obvious to the consumer as he or she buys into various financial packages. The Government has done very little to contain or control this activity.

I would like the Bill to take account of management companies. They have been a major issue for many who have bought houses and paid large sums to management companies for very poor delivery or none. The Labour Party put forward some sensible proposals recently that we would like the Minister to take on board. The lack of control of management companies and the failure to implement any relevant legislation has caused much grief for victims of bad management companies. Some management companies deliver the service and work well on behalf of their clients but unfortunately we have received many complaints about bad management, no delivery of service and no concern for the householder. This is a serious problem that must be addressed in legislation.

The key to the implementation and effectiveness of this Bill is how well the consumer benefits from it. In order for the consumer to benefit we must fill the information and education gap. This could be achieved through the resources of citizen information centres. Many consumers are unaware of their rights. The legislation will help but unless the consumer knows about his or her rights and is able to ask the right question it will be of no use.

There seems to be a plethora of agencies with various responsibilities and there is a danger of creating one more that will overlap with, duplicate and dilute the resources we so badly need. The proof of how consumer friendly this legislation is will lie in how well it is resourced and enforced. I noted the example highlighted today of the Director of Corporate Enforcement pleading for funds to enable him to perform his statutory duty. I would not like to see this experience repeated but would like to think that this new agency will be adequately resourced, the personnel will be provided, the support services will be in place and that it can be effective and deliver. I hope the introduction of this Bill will be effective but to judge by the past performance of the Government on consumer concerns there may be no delivery on it.

I wish to share time with my colleague Deputy Eamon Ryan. I generally welcome this Bill but despite its introduction and the proposal to set up this agency, consumer protection stands lower in Government priorities than it should do. While it is the responsibility of the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment it does not feature in the title of his Department. It occupies a debatable place in the Department's objectives.

The Green Party's national convention was addressed by Renate Künast, a former Minister for Consumer Protection, Food and Agriculture in the Green-SPD government in Germany. The greatest consumer interest is in food, followed by other types of goods and access to services. Other European democracies deal with that by having government briefs that properly reflect that interest. We should perhaps debate not the establishment of a more focused and stronger National Consumer Agency but how consumer protection and relations are viewed as a priority of Government. I hope that when we go to the hustings in a few weeks this will become an important issue and remain so for whoever forms part of the next Government and that there will be a Department for consumer protection.

The Green Party will not argue against the concept of a stronger and more focused consumer agency. The problem is to what extent does this form an effective rationalisation of consumer agencies, or will there remain several overlapping and conflicting agencies to help consumers seek effective redress under legislation that does not yet exist? How good a consumer advocate will this new agency be? The Minister must address the conflict in his brief of Enterprise, Trade and Employment if we are to have a Department that is more focused on consumer protection. It is rather like an episode of "Yes Minister" because the Minister should represent the interests of his Department at Cabinet but there is a conflict in those interests between representing producers and consumers. No one could play that role effectively. That is why we must address the role of consumer protection in Government rather than establish this type of agency.

I noted Deputy Upton's interest in labelling. There are many issues to be tackled in respect of how food products are labelled. There has been some progress on this in recent years, for example, the listing of ingredients and whether that is done in a user-friendly format. Health implications, however, need to be more clearly labelled on many food products. Consumers are growing more aware of how and where a product is produced but environmental concepts are not addressed on labelling. The new agency could consider a labelling requirement for food miles in particular.

Debate adjourned.