That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to protect consumers by limiting expiry dates on gift vouchers and banning certain fees and charges.
Obviously we are heading into another festive season. This coming Friday is "Black Friday", a US initiative which kicks off the peak month of shopping for both shoppers and retailers. It is obviously the height of the gift giving season. Almost all of us have faced the question of what to buy for particular people. We do not want to buy gifts which have to be exchanged and we want the recipients to be able to decide on a date and time to use them and so forth and very often the last resort is the gift voucher. This is a €300 million industry and it goes right across the spectrum covering toys, DIY, travel, restaurants and everything in between. Often when people receive gift vouchers they partially use them or they put them away to use at a later date. The advantage is very much on the side of the retailer as opposed to the consumer.
Sometimes gift vouchers are treated as if they are not money but they are very much so. It is not as if they are coupons cut out of newspapers. They are bought with peoples' hard earned cash and very often it is the recipient who discovers the terms and conditions attached to gift vouchers. We can all imagine situations where people forget about gift vouchers and discover that there is a problem when it is too late. The financial loss of forgotten vouchers to consumers must run into millions. In the US, this loss was estimated to be close to $1 billion. In 2009, an initiative was introduced in the US which removed annual limits on gift vouchers. A five year limit was put on gift vouchers or cards and evidence shows that the number of unused gift vouchers declined very dramatically as a result.
This Bill is concerned with strengthening consumers' rights when it comes to gift vouchers. Currently, everything is stacked in the retailers' favour. Retailers can charge for issuing gift vouchers and can cancel the card or voucher after a short period. They can also apply charges for the non-use of a card, thus rendering it worthless and can apply charges for refunding the balance. Many retailers adopt a "use it or lose it" policy, effectively. The imposition of strict and unreasonable expiry dates comes at the expense of customers.
The Bill addresses these issues and seeks to do four things. It seeks to give certainty in relation to expiry dates with the provision of a five year limit. It seeks to ban charges for issuing gift vouchers. It seeks to ban charges related to inactive gift vouchers and to ban companies from taking money off the balance if a card is not used by certain dates, which is happening routinely at the moment. The Bill also seeks to ensure the repayment of any credit balance on a gift voucher.
It is a simple way of strengthening consumer rights.
As I said, similar legislation was introduced in the United States. The last Government promised action on this but it never happened and the present Government has promised action but has yet to introduce legislation to the House. It is time we moved to strengthen consumer rights in this respect. While the EU has announced a revised proposal on digital vouchers, given the very cumbersome way these things are dealt with at European level, we cannot wait for these consumer protections to be introduced by the EU. We all recognise there is an issue in regard to consumer rights. This should be proceeded with without any further delay.