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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 9 Feb 2022

Vol. 1017 No. 6

Competition (Amendment) Bill 2022: Second Stage

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

It is accepted by most representatives in the House that the transformation of this country's economy from an inward-looking, State-dominated economic model to one of export-oriented growth, dynamic competition and increased choice for our citizens has resulted in unimaginable societal and economic progress for the State and its people over the past 30 years or so. Much of this progress arose from policy decisions made and voted on by the Oireachtas, driven by the desire of previous Members of this House to end the relentless emigration of our people and pursue the idea that this nation's living standards could be as good, if not better, than those of our European neighbours.

As a country, we have surpassed even those goals, not by accident, but by the decisive and deliberate efforts of Governments to ensure that Ireland continues to have a competitive economy, not for its own purpose, but to fund a fair and inclusive society with high levels of educational attainment, good-quality employment and social supports for our citizens. The advance of our integration into the EU's Internal Market has not only created record levels of employment, but has also benefited our citizens in the choice of goods and services that they can access in Ireland for competitive prices.

We are all aware, however, that there are sections of our economy that are less competitive than others and, in some instances, have conspired to keep it that way. We are all far too aware of sectors that still have high costs associated with the services they provide, resulting in high profits but underwhelming services. We know practices that drive out competition, drive up costs for ordinary citizens and undermine the dynamic nature of our economy. This is why I am particularly determined to introduce this Bill to the House for Members' consideration. I hope that this legislation will go a long way in deliberately disrupting firms and companies that do not play fair, try to drive out competition and seek to rig the system to increase profits in an unfair manner.

The purpose of the Bill is to introduce measures that will strengthen the powers of our national competition authorities and give them greater tools to tackle anti-competitive practices. For too long, this State has been seen as soft on rogue businesses and those seeking to game the system. This view, regardless of whether it is justified, does significant damage to Ireland's credibility as a place to do business and undermines our people's confidence in government and Government agencies. We see continued frustration with the high cost of insurance, which is driving many small enterprises and community groups out of business. When that occurs, the impact on local employment and creativity can be profound. I share that frustration. Despite some of the most significant reforms to the law pertaining to competition, consumer rights and personal injuries in recent years, premiums have not dropped sufficiently and uniformly despite assurances made by the insurance sector. It is fair to say that the outcome of the recent investigation by the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, CCPC, into the motor insurance market leaves questions unanswered. It also shows the need for legislation, which I am introducing today.

Let me be clear that this Government wants to see severe consequences for companies that engage in price fixing, bid rigging or any other form of anti-competitive practice that does damage to our economy and our people.

We believe unlawful actions by companies should have strict and severe consequences. Penalties are needed for unlawful actions. This is the reason for the introduction of this Bill. We are seeking to give teeth to our agencies charged with protecting consumers and our economy. We need to resource these agencies properly and give them the powers required through legislation to carry out their tasks effectively and efficiently.

As Members of the House will know, Ireland has two national administrative competition authorities: the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, CCPC, and the Commission for Communications Regulation, ComReg. This Bill will transpose the ECN+ directive, which means that for the first time in Ireland, competition law can be enforced through administrative actions taken by competition authorities. ECN stands for the European Competition Network, which is composed of the Commission along with national competition authorities from each member state. It became apparent to the network that there are several areas in which existing EU law is insufficient to meet the objective of a fair internal market for everyone. These include, but are not limited to, giving national competition authorities the means to impose effective fines and implement leniency programmes. The ECN+ directive intends to fill some gaps in the current system.

The new powers given by the ECN+ directive will apply only where there is an interstate trade element. In deciding to implement this directive through primary legislation, the Irish Government felt it was important that the same sanctions should apply to breaches of national competition law. This will avoid having two parallel systems with differing sanctions.

The stated aims of the ECN+ directive are to ensure all national competition authorities have effective investigation and decision-making tools, to ensure all national competition authorities have the ability to impose effective deterrent fines, to ensure all national competition authorities have a well-designed leniency programme in place that facilitates applying for leniency in multiple jurisdictions, and to ensure all national competition authorities have sufficient resources and can enforce EU competition laws independently.

The date given by the Commission for the transposition of this directive was 4 February 2021. Unfortunately, Ireland, along with several other member states, did not manage to transpose it by the deadline. I do not need to tell Members how incredibly difficult the past two years have been and about the significant legislative burden the pandemic placed on both Houses of the Oireachtas. This is a difficulty we share with our European counterparts. Particular to the Irish context, however, was our unique constitutional position. Transposing the ECN+ directive raised significant constitutional considerations given the particular role of the courts in the Irish Constitution. The constitutional concerns included the introduction of the concept of administrative sanctions, periodic penalty payments, interim measures and leniency provisions. Ireland has robust defences against the administration of justice by any body save for the Judiciary. To transpose the directive in a way that was compatible with Irish law, it was necessary to consult several legal experts to ensure the legislation would be workable.

Additionally, in April 2021 the Supreme Court issued a majority judgment in the case of Zalewski v. the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, and others that had a significant impact on the drafting of the Bill, which was quite advanced at that stage. A previous decision of the High Court had concluded that the WRC was not administering justice within the meaning of Article 34 of the Constitution. The judgment in the Zalewski case overturned this decision. The Supreme Court agreed that the adjudication service of the WRC does constitute the administration of justice, which has traditionally been regarded as the exclusive preserve of the courts. However, the majority decision also concluded that the adjudication service of the WRC is not repugnant to the Constitution because it found that the administration of justice is limited. Limited administration of justice is permissible under Article 37 of the Constitution. While the Zalewski judgment was supremely helpful in clarifying how the administration of justice can be achieved within the parameters of the Constitution, it required in the case of the Bill a fundamental redesign of how the provisions relating to administrative sanctions would work, at quite a late stage in the initial drafting.

The main changes introduced on foot of the Zalewski judgment concern ensuring the adjudication officers are independent in their functions, the processes of adjudication and investigation are separate and distinct, and the procedures surrounding the imposition of administrative financial sanctions are clear and transparent. The Bill also provides for court confirmation of the decisions of adjudication officers and the ability to appeal those decisions. The delay in bringing this Bill to the House is regretted, but it is imperative to transpose the directive in a way that is constitutionally solid and provides our competition authorities with the tools they need to challenge anti-competitive conduct effectively.

It has long been a commitment of the Government to crack down on white-collar crime. As part of making good on this commitment, a cross-government agency review group, chaired by Mr. James Hamilton, was put together. The group comprised representatives of Departments and the key State agencies charged with the prevention, investigation and prosecution of economic crime and corruption. One of the recommendations made by the Hamilton review group was to amend Irish competition law to create a specific offence of bid-rigging. This proposal has significance concerning public procurement fraud. Express provision for bid-rigging is included in this Bill and meets this recommendation.

The Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment had hearings on the general scheme of the proposed legislation in February 2021. Its report contained 17 recommendations for consideration in the drafting of the Bill we are considering. In drafting the Bill, we addressed all of these recommendations, including by ensuring there would be no difference between the roles of CCPC and ComReg as competition authorities, as the powers required for the transposition of the directive are given to both as "competent authorities" throughout the Bill.

I have mentioned that there has been careful consideration of the legal issues, including in respect of how this legislation would interact with the Irish Constitution and the implications of the Zalewski ruling on the measures in the Bill. In the main, the enforcement powers in the Bill relating to both administrative and financial sanctions, in addition to other sanctions, such as structural or behavioural remedies, are identical in regard to both EU and domestic law as they are subject to court confirmation. However, we have separate provisions for periodic penalty payments in order to fulfil the specific requirement of Article 16 of the directive, on the one hand, and the constitutional requirements for domestic law, on the other, which is the only instance where differentiation between national administrative competent authorities and national judicial competent authorities is relevant within the Bill. The proposed maximum penalties for infringements of competition law are also the same regardless of whether EU or domestic law has been infringed. Rights to appeal have been dealt with in Part 2H of the Bill.

The inclusion of bid-rigging as a specific offence means the competition authorities can pursue cartels specifically involved in this activity in the future. The Minister for Justice has established an action plan to ensure cross-government implementation of the recommendations of the Hamilton report, including in respect of the recommendation of screen e-tenders data, with my Department and the CCPC both actively engaging in that process. My Department worked with the Department of Justice on the proposals on surveillance and interception to ensure alignment with existing legislation and procedures. As a result of the ongoing review of the interception legislation by the Department of Justice, it has been decided to include the CCPC within the remit of that project instead rather than through this Bill.

Both my Department and the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications are committed to ensuring sufficient resources for the CCPC and ComReg to implement this legislation, which includes some additional resources for the CCPC having already been put in place, but both Departments will keep their needs under review as the legislation is concluded and implemented.

I turn now to the main provisions of the Bill. Part 1 of the Bill contains a number of standard provisions concerning the Short Title, commencement, transitional provisions. In addition, section 2 defines a range of terms used in the Bill. Part 2 deals with a number of amendments to the Competition Act 2002, which is referred to throughout the Bill as the Principal Act. Section 5 amends the Principal Act to insert a definition for bid-rigging, as mentioned earlier in the context of the Hamilton Review Group. Sections 6 and 7 amend the Principal Act, setting out that in order for an act to be an offence, it must intentionally or recklessly prevent, restrict or distort competition. They are no longer offences of strict liability. Section 9 provides for an increase in the maximum fines that can be imposed for concerted practice and cartel offences. Section 12 is an extensive section that inserts a number of new parts into the Principal Act, parts 2C to 2H, which will insert 51 new sections. Part 2C relates to how certain investigations are conducted. Part 2D relates to adjudication officers and matters related to, inter alia, their appointment, independence and functions. This part also sets out the powers of adjudication officers to impose administrative financial sanctions. Part 2E sets out the leniency programme for the administrative sanctions regime under this Bill. Leniency includes immunity in this instance. Part 2F relates to mutual co-operation and how competition authorities across the member states will work together regarding the enforcement of competition law. Part 2H relates to the procedural provisions around the gathering and use of information and evidence. Part 3 deals primarily with refining the provisions in the Principal Act surrounding mergers and acquisitions, and strengthening the powers of competition authorities to deal with those that may have an adverse effect on competition. Section 13 allows undertakings to voluntarily inform the CCPC of a below threshold merger and empowers the CCPC to take interim measures where appropriate. Section 15 allows for the voiding of any merger or acquisition that requires a decision of the CCPC but is put into effect prior to that decision being made, or where requirements instigated by the CCPC were not complied with. It also sets out penalties to be imposed for this. Part 4 deals with amendments to the Competition and Consumer Protection Act 2014. Section 25 relates to the independence of adjudication officers. Section 28 deals with the chairperson or member of the CCPC appearing before an Oireachtas Committee. Section 29 expands the provisions of legal privilege to proceedings involving adjudication officers. Section 31 sets out greater powers to enter premises and seize, retain and examine records by an authorised officer of a competition authority during an investigation. Part 5 is composed of one section, section 33, which amends the Criminal Justice (Surveillance) Act 2009 to allow the CCPC to exercise surveillance functions. Part 6 relates to amendments to the Communications Regulation Act 2002 and expands the powers of ComReg to enable it to deal more effectively with breaches of competition law. Section 35 sets out greater powers to enter premises and seize, retain and examine records by an authorised officer of a competition authority during an investigation, in the same way as the powers of the CCPC are expanded in section 31. Part 7 is composed of one section which allows for the insertion of a number of references to various statutory instruments and regulations into Schedule 9 of the Consumer Protection Act 2007.

I would like to take this opportunity to flag that it is my intention to bring a small number of amendment to this Bill on Committee or Report Stage to clarify the intentions of certain aspects of the procedures to be adopted under this Bill, and also to ensure that the powers of both the CCPC and ComReg are sufficient for the additional functions which they will have as a result of this Bill. On Committee Stage, I also propose to introduce an amendment to section 12 of the National Standards Authority of Ireland Act 1996. The proposed amendment will be purely technical in nature and will not make any changes in substance to the National Standards Authority of Ireland Act 1996. The purpose of the proposed amendment will be to modernise and provide more transparency in the wording of section 12, which governs the power of the National Standards Authority of Ireland, NSAI, to charge fees for carrying out its services, activities and functions and selling its products. The NSAI is a State agency under the aegis of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. Its functions are set out in sections 7 and 8 of the 1996 Act, and relate primarily to standardisation, certification and metrology. Government will be asked to agree to the various amendments.

In conclusion, this Bill is weighty legislation which required much consideration and redrafting to get right, particularly in light of the Zalewski judgment. However, I am confident that the Bill before the House is robust and will allow Ireland to deal effectively with anti-competitive behaviour on both a national and European level in a way that is wholly in accordance with our Constitution. Anti-competitive practices affect everyone, making it more difficult for honest businesses to prosper and having adverse effects on consumers. By strengthening the powers of our competition authorities, we take an important step to ensure that our economy is open, fair and transparent. I commend the Bill to the House.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to speak on this legislation. This is comprehensive and complex legislation which transposes an EU directive, while also making additional changes to benefit the national competition authorities, namely, the CCPC and ComReg. The CCPC is the primary enforcement body for competition law in this State. It has the power to play an enormous role in tackling white-collar crime if it is given the correct powers and is resourced properly. The CCPC investigates suspected anti-competitive practices and tries to bring these damaging practices to an end. As stated, the CCPC can only fulfil this remit if it has the necessary powers. Unfortunately, developments in enforcement mechanisms have left the State out of step with the rest of Europe. In short, the CCPC does not have the necessary powers it needs to tackle adequately a range of anti-competitive practices and white-collar crime. Anyone who followed this legislation during pre-legislative scrutiny stage in the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Enterprise, Trade, and Employment will know that it has arisen due the European Union's ECN+ directive, which aims to ensure that national competition authorities have guarantees of independence, sufficient resources and appropriate powers of enforcement, including the ability to issue fines.

The inability of Irish national competition authorities, such as the CCPC, to impose administrative fines was identified by the European Commission as a concern and part of the divergence in national powers that led to uneven enforcement of EU competition rules. As a result, the State has been compelled by the European ECN+ directive to implement legislative changes to ensure the CCPC has the appropriate tools and resources to enforce EU competition law in a consistent manner with other EU member states. The implications for customers of the inability of the CCPC to issue fines was writ large today with the news that six car insurers and a brokers' trade body will not be fined or face any legal action, despite findings from the CCPC of alleged behaviour that negatively impacted consumers. The CCPC alleged the firms engaged in anti-competitive price signalling over a 21-month period, from 2015 to 2016, leading to premiums rising for consumers. The alleged anti-competitive co-operation consisted of public announcements of future private motor insurance premium rises, as well as other contacts between competitors. In its report that was published earlier this week, the CCPC stated that it did not have the power to issue fines to the companies. Elements of this Bill will thankfully rectify that. It is unfortunate that the European Union has had to compel the State to act in the interests of Irish consumers. The directive introduces minimum standards in relation to the enforcement of competition law at a national level and harmonises the resources, powers and tools available to national competition authorities. Of particular note in this regard, are the introduction of civil sanctions for breaches of competition law and a leniency programme for businesses that come forward with evidence of a breach of competition law.

The provisions for substantial fines and improved investigative powers as well as improved institutional co-operation are also very important. The Bill provides a significant opportunity for change and will enable the CCPC to be more effective for the benefit of consumers, businesses and the economy as a whole. It includes provisions for maximum fines of up to €10 million or 10% of total worldwide turnover for breaches of competition law. The Bill will allow the CCPC for the first time to fine companies for breaches of competition law such as cartels, bid-rigging and abusive market practices. It will also encourage whistleblowing on secret cartels by offering reductions in fines to companies that provide evidence against other cartel members. Such powers have already proved to be a significant deterrent against breaches of competition law in other EU states. Currently, Ireland is one of a very small number of European countries that allow a company to be fined only if a court finds there has been a breach proven to a criminal standard. Through the transposition of the EU directive in the Bill, fines will now be allowed to be imposed for breaches of Irish and EU competition law on an administrative basis.

The legislation also pertains to ComReg, which likewise can only deliver on its remit if it is empowered and funded to so do. The area of communications regulation has increased in importance through the years. If the ECN+ directive is not implemented as intended, then ComReg, just like the CCPC, will continue to have its hands tied. There are areas of legislation that need to be strengthened to achieve this and Sinn Féin intends to propose amendments to achieve that.

The ability for the CCPC to act is grounded in its statutory powers and, therefore, it is essential that those laws provide the CCPC with the right enforcement tools to effectively deter, detect and address white-collar crime relating to competition law. Along with legislative changes, there is a need for additional financing, resources and powers in order to help the CCPC and ComReg in investigating and tackling white-collar crime. The lack of legislation to tackle corporate and economic crime, as well as the underfunding and under-resourcing of the agencies investigating white-collar crime, has been de facto Government policy for decades. More than a decade and three successive Governments later, the appetite to legislate, regulate and properly tackle corporate and economic crime is far weaker than it ought to be. Would the House even be legislating for this if it was not being forced on us by the European Union? It is more than three years since the Central Bank called for a senior executive accountability regime codified in legislation. However, there has been no urgency by two successive Governments to bring that forward. It is for this reason that the casino capitalism that caused the banking crash still exists in the protected and gilded world of high finance.

The ever-unfolding events and allegations of malpractice in respect of high finance, insurance, public procurement and building development to name but a few serve as a reinforcement that this Government does not see white-collar crime in the same way that it sees blue-collar and other crime. At pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill, the CCPC stated that international estimates from the OECD suggest the rate of overcharge in public procurement is between 20% and 30%. The chairperson of the CCPC stated:

Considering annual State spending of approximately €16 billion on goods and services, if even 1% of it was subject to price fixing or bid rigging, a surcharge of 20% or 30% would be a substantial sum of money.

What is even more infuriating is that in 2007 the accounting firm RSM Robson Rhodes estimated Ireland was losing €2.5 billion a year from economic crime. If that figure is applied to the past 15 years, that is a potential loss of more than €37 billion to the Irish economy.

The economic and social costs of corruption and white-collar crime far outweigh other forms of crime. Despite corporate and economic crime bringing the State to its knees just a decade ago, the area consistently receives far less funding, resources and political attention from successive governments. The same goes for media coverage of white-collar crime, where it is painted as almost not a crime at all. This legislation is a good start, along with the Companies (Corporate Enforcement Authority) Act 2021 which established a stand-alone Corporate Enforcement Authority, but resources and funding must follow.

I welcome the fact the Bill has been brought before the House. It is not before time. Ireland is renowned for its failures to adequately tackle white-collar and corporate crime. We have seen in this House and in the public discourse how that plays out. A financial scandal is followed by some form of inquiry, usually a very lengthy one, but nobody ever seems to be held to account and then it falls down on that pin as to whether laws or regulations were technically broken. Bizarrely, often the most substantive outcome is that the Irish taxpayer foots a bill simply for seeking answers about impropriety. That is why it is positive to see legislation before us today that seeks not only to empower the CCPC to fully and properly investigate cartels and practices in breach of competition, but also, crucially, to levy penalties upon those operating such illegal ventures and to ensure that those involved in corporate activity are aware of those powers.

A report dating back to 2005 placed the cost at that time to businesses in the State from corporate crime at €2.5 billion every year. While welcoming the Bill against such a backdrop, it is a fair question for people to ask why the Government is only acting now. It is more than three years since the Central Bank called for a senior executive accountability regime codified in legislation. There has been no urgency to do that, as Deputy O'Reilly stated, by two successive governments. In the past 12 months alone, two Oireachtas committees have published reports into the practice of bogus self-employment which defrauds the Exchequer of potentially hundreds of millions of euro, yet it seems that the Government, the Revenue Commissioners and the Department of Social Protection are reticent to even acknowledge a problem may exist.

The reason for this legislation is simple - the Government is being forced to do it by the European Union, via the ECN+ directive. Although the Bill, like the Companies (Corporate Enforcement Authority) Act 2021, is welcome, as are the additional powers granted to the CCPC to investigate competition breaches and levy fines, if this is not just to play out as it has before, there are a number of outstanding ancillary issues that are critical. Crucially, the agencies tasked with tackling corporate crime must be adequately resourced if we are to see the full benefit of good legislation. If funds are not forthcoming, it will be entirely apparent that the legislation only arose from an EU diktat, rather than any domestic will to tackle competition breaches. This is an area in which the Government has form.

An area of particular concern to me relates to actions within the agrifood sector. At EU level, the unfair trading practices directive did not go anywhere near far enough, yet the approach taken by the Government was to wait until the very last minute to transpose that directive via statutory instrument and then to do so in the most meagre and minimum form possible. According to a European Commission report published in October, Ireland was one of only five countries to transpose the directive without amending it from the EU regulation. In other words, there were no additional powers to tackle the cartel-like behaviour in the meat industry in particular. Between May and October of last year, the full-time-equivalent head count in the unit that is to act on that legislation actually decreased from three to just two. In that time, it has not heard a single case, which is not surprising given that very few people know the unit exists. Of the much-lauded funding it received, it has not spent a cent on informing farmers and the public of its existence. The only funds that have been spent in the context of unfair trading practices have been the salaries of people who are working within the unit, but we have no idea what precisely that unit is doing.

Legislation to establish an enforcement authority such as a food ombudsman or a meat regulator has been marked as a priority within the legislative agendas last summer, last autumn and again this spring, but we have seen absolutely no progress being made. In the intervening period, we have this legislation that is prescribing additional powers of investigation and providing for the levying of substantial penalties. In our submission on an independent meat regulator, Sinn Féin called for it to be ascribed powers of that exact nature. The question has to be asked why the Government is not prioritising the establishment of an independent meat regulator.

Questions need to be asked regarding the role of the CCPC in dealing with queries and concerns that have been raised by farmers. It has not been acting satisfactorily but the commission will require additional funding and we require an independent meat regulator. My apologies; I thought I had more time.

There are six minutes left in the slot left and I was conscious of leaving the Deputy's colleague, Deputy O Murchú, enough time and giving the Deputy an opportunity to wind down his contribution. The Deputy is well within his time-----

That is okay. I have made my five-minute speech anyway.

------but this is just to ensure that the three speakers have time in the slot. I call Deputy Ó Murchú.

Fadhb ar bith. I would have been only too delighted to listen to Deputy Carthy continuing on far more eloquently than I would myself.

The CCPC is the primary enforcement body for competition law. My colleagues have spoken about the fact that we are late to the game in this. It is our absolute failing on white-collar crime. In the past many of us have spoken in this Chamber regarding transposing European law in respect of white-collar crime. Those who engage in that level of criminality, whether from an organised criminal point of view or from an organised industrial or corporate point of view, have certain advantages and it is a case of us having to play catch-up. As has been said previously, at the end of the day we need to adequately resource and investigate the areas where this needs to occur. It is all about accountability, transparency and delivering for the consumer. It is about dealing with the issues where people perceive or know them to be, when we are talking about cartels and the impacts that these have, whether it is insurance costs, the issues in the beef industry, or whatever else. There is no stopping and starting in respect of the difficulties we have and Deputy O’Reilly referred to the abject cost there is to us of this, as a State and as individual citizens.

ComReg has been mentioned. Once again we are a laggard in the transposition of European law. That European law is to provide ComReg with the ability to do the business that it needs to do in ensuring consumer protection. A request was made to the Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment, of which I am a member, to forego pre-legislative scrutiny, PLS, but we decided against that to ensure that what we are going to do will give ComReg sufficient powers. We were definite in our decision but we also realised that even if we had waived PLS, the fact is we were still going to miss the deadline that the European Commission wanted. Again we have too many of these failings and we very much need to look at them.

Let us consider the issues that are being debated in this House over the past number of days. The cost-of-living crisis involves everything from the primary sins of multiple Governments on the rental and housing crisis, the cost of childcare, but also the energy crisis, where the Government has failed to do what it can in mitigating the pain that people are suffering. The fact is they are suffering because so much of this is a case of pain heaped upon pain. It is not so much about the carbon tax but it is the fact that the carbon tax is on top of all of the other taxes. We really need to set out a direction for them in getting through this crisis.

Beyond that, what we are doing, and should be ensuring that we are doing here, is putting a system in place that deals with white-collar crime on a similar level to the way we deal with other forms of crime, to the crime of the poor person out there who does not have the resources, lobby power or access to the people in this Chamber. We need to ensure that we do that and that we show everybody out there that what we are going to operate is a fair system that delivers for everybody.

I get it, where at times people say that we have to be very careful as we need to ensure that we keep business in the State and protect jobs. We all accept that but if we do not do our due diligence on white-collar crime and do not find out when wrongdoing is occurring and cartels are operating, we hurt the consumer, the citizen and the regular Joe and Josephine out there. It is just not good enough. I welcome this Bill, and nearly all the legislation I mentioned earlier to provide the State with the tools that are required, even if it is to deal on an international basis with criminality, corporate malfeasance and those actions that detrimentally impact our ability to operate a society that delivers for people. It is a very significant cost and the moneys we lose are the moneys that we then do not have to put into the healthcare system, deliver on climate change and deal with the cost-of-living crisis. This is not a victimless crime but these are pieces of work that we have to do.

We all know that if we are going to talk about the wider corporate landscape, we also have a failing still in dealing with collective bargaining. I have mentioned the case of National Pen and its non-unionised workforce a number of times over the past number of weeks. It is an international company that is failing miserably to give people the information they need on what their future holds and it has not yet put on the table a redundancy package. All we hear from Government and others is that this is going to be a generous package but the fact is that we do not have the legislation and the protections in place for people and these sort of problems will continue to happen until we do what needs to be done.

I thank the Minister of State for his contribution. The Labour Party broadly welcomes this Bill.

I am going to illustrate the impact of white-collar crime with a story. I used to teach in an area of acute disadvantage in the north inner city of Dublin. Whenever I told anybody where I used to teach, they used to always make quips, comments or jokes about crime, despite the fact that I was teaching children. There would always be a joke, snide remark or comment about crime somewhere in the conversation when I mentioned where I used to teach. I recall once that I was trying to arrange a primary school football match against another school and I rang the school as we were trying to organise the game. The guy on the other end said, in a joking way, that he was quite sure that my school’s girls would be good at football because they spend half of their time running away from burning and stolen cars. I kept this to myself, did not challenge him on it, and I was quite happy the next week when we did actually beat the lard out of his side.

The point was that there always seemed to be a sense that our children needed to be fixed and that there was an air of criminality about the area in which they lived. The adjoining area to where we used to work was the International Financial Services Centre, IFSC, and it was a case of if only our children could be a bit more like them, like those functional members of society who were working hard in these financial institutions. If only our children could aspire to, be more like, speak like and dress like that, that would be better. This was at the height of the Celtic tiger where there were movers and shakers and big moneyed people. That was the kind of sense we used to get in that there was one type of criminality that people used to joke about and refer to but the IFSC was somewhere to which we should really aspire to have our children end up working or be part of.

Lo and behold, a number of years later the malpractice, lies, shoddy deals and the criminality that took place in the IFSC almost brought down the entire State. That is the story of my little school and of what society thinks of those children and what the air and atmosphere of the country was in which they grew up.

We do not really think that white-collar criminality is the same. If one walks into any courtroom in the country one will find people generally from a particular socioeconomic background. They are disproportionately affected by addiction issues, housing issues and other issues of social concern. One does not see the type of people who have been so close to events and decisions that almost brought down the State in the dock as often as they should be. I am not saying that people should automatically make snide or derogatory comments about people in different professions like they did about the children I used to teach, but it is important to speak in this Chamber about the effect this type of inequality has on young lives and how young people feel. We are encouraging young people throughout the country to believe in the system and in this Republic, to engage in the political process and to believe the State will have their backs at the end of the day and that people are not out to get them and they respect them but, fundamentally, if we do not have as tough a regime for white-collar crime as for any other type of crime, people will not believe it. They will believe, inevitably, that they should perhaps engage in a parallel economy because they are not going to get respect anyway.

We are broadly in favour of this Bill but, as ever, we have to be vigilant to ensure that companies do not dodge the legislation and also to ensure that investigating bodies do not get too cosy with their industries as they use these powers to pursue them actively. The powers include the ability to fine companies a maximum of €10 million or 10% of total worldwide turnover for breaches of competition law. This comes on foot of the failure to prosecute any insurers after a five-year investigation into price fixing, which ended in just commitments from insurers. A spokesperson for the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission said the commission is in no way giving the insurance industry a clean bill of health. It has written to the Central Bank to outline broader cultural concerns in the industry which have come to light during the course of the investigation.

The Commission for Communications Regulation, ComReg, has welcomed the Bill. There are a number of suggestions from McCann FitzGerald. The law firm said that violations will be easier to prove and fines will be higher, but enforcement will remain challenging. It stated:

A new and untested enforcement process, termed “administrative proceedings” in the Bill, is a significant departure for Irish law.  So-called adjudication officers, nominated by the CCPC and approved by the Minister, and paid “per diem, per piece or periodically”, will effectively determine liability for breaches, may issue “prohibition notices” (effectively cease and desist orders), and may order divestment or other structural remedies.

Another issue it cites is that the merger control reforms will increase uncertainty, stating:

New gun-jumping prohibitions, mandatory information requests for third parties, and CCPC powers to intervene and review below-threshold deals are proposed.  Notably, the CCPC will be able to require parties to notify any deal, no matter its size, if the CCPC believes it “may ... have an effect on competition”. The CCPC will also have powers to require businesses to unwind certain completed mergers, if the CCPC believes the deal may harm competition.

The Bill proposes to transpose EU Directive 2019/1 of the European Parliament and of the Council, also known as the ECN+ directive. The purpose of the directive is to empower the competition authorities of the member states to be more effective enforcers and to ensure the proper functioning of the Internal Market. This transposition includes granting further powers to the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission and the Commission for Communications Regulation. The powers include the ability to levy administrative financial sanctions for breaches of competition law obligations, which will be set at a maximum of €10 million or 10% of total worldwide turnover. As the Minister of State said, the Bill proposes to make some amendments to Irish competition law, which include a specific offence of bid-rigging with regard to certain anti-competitive practices in bidding and tendering processes, the prosecution of gun-jumping offences and the unwinding of certain mergers after they have been implemented, and to provide for targeted surveillance powers in investigations for certain criminal offences.

Broadly, we support the Bill. We will do our best to assist the Minister of State and the Government to strengthen it in any way we can. The Minister of State mentioned that he will be proposing amendments on Committee and Report Stages and we will be as constructive as possible. However, it would give the children I spoke about earlier more confidence in the State and the governance of the State if initiatives or legislation such as this did not arise because of an EU directive but from the deep sense of injustice that the Government should feel when it comes to tackling white-collar crime. I told the story not in any way to diminish the area in which I taught but because it is important for people to understand the profound effects that a stench of inequality has on a person, the person's family and the person's community. When one tries to say to anybody that he or she needs to be more like other people, one is giving the other people a free rein that they do not deserve. They must have the same responsibilities under the law and the same consequences for criminal behaviour.

I welcome this Bill and the power it will give regulators to deal with anti-competitive practices by businesses. The Tánaiste has done a lot of work on this Bill and he has acknowledged that while the vast majority of businesses do not engage in anti-competitive practices, some businesses unfortunately do, be it offences such as bid-rigging, gun-jumping or unwinding certain mergers after they have already been implemented. They happen in business. They happen at the expense of consumers and other businesses, particularly newer and smaller businesses that are more vulnerable to the impact of anti-competitive practices.

Anti-competitive practices drive up costs. They freeze out start-ups and smaller businesses and they can lead to bad quality products and poor services. The last two years have been a very challenging time to be in business, with restrictions, staffing issues, closures, supply chain struggles and financial pressures. Business owners have had a huge amount to deal with. I tip my hat to all the businesses that have survived and those that have thrived in these challenging circumstances. However, when one takes account of the pandemic-related challenges, which many businesses will need some time to recover from, and then adds to that these anti-competitive practices, it creates a difficult environment for business to thrive, especially start-ups and smaller businesses. Therefore, I strongly welcome the steps this Bill is taking to combat those practices.

Giving regulators the powers to administer sanctions has long been sought. It was often said and thought that it could not be done or that it would never happen. However, it is happening now and is being done. For the first time in Irish law, breaches of competition law can be enforced through administrative actions taken by competition authorities, with maximum fines of up to €10 million or 10% of total worldwide turnover, whichever is the greater. This Bill will give agencies the power to enforce competition law much more effectively. It will give them the teeth they need to protect consumers and to crack down on anti-competitive practices. It will also mean that consortia or monopolies will be broken up and organisations abusing their dominant position will be suitably punished. Most importantly, they will be deterred from doing that in the first instance. That is a very positive development for consumers.

On foot of this Bill, there will also be greater European co-operation among EU regulators, with competition authorities across the EU coming together to fight these white-collar crimes on a cross-border basis. This Bill is an important further step in the Government’s efforts to tackle white-collar crime and the troubling impact it can have on its victims and on wider society. It signals a different approach in competition enforcement for Ireland and will complement work that is ongoing to ensure a balanced marketplace with healthy competition. It will ensure our competition authorities have access to the tools they need to protect the interests of customers and businesses.

As we know, this legislation arose from an EU directive which aims to ensure that national competition authorities are guaranteed independence, necessary resources and powers of enforcement.

They would have the power to issue fines for breaches. There should be enhanced investigation and information gathering powers where companies do not co-operate properly with investigations.

I welcome the powers that this will give regulators such as the CCPC, ComReg, and the DPP, as well as the courts. ComReg has welcomed this Bill and deemed it essential for the effective enforcement of competition law. It correctly notes that similar powers have proved to be a significant deterrent against breaches of competition law in other countries, so I welcome that we are following suit. This Bill will be good for businesses, consumers and customers. I welcome the proactive steps it is taking to crack down and discourage anticompetitive practices and white collar crime. I commend both the Tánaiste and the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, on all their continued work in this area.

This legislation is a good start and it is vital we treat white-collar crime with the same seriousness as any other form of crime. It has an enormous impact and its victims are all of us in many respects but at times particular groups or individuals are affected. It is vital for people to be prosecuted and fined in the correct way, and there should be sufficient resources. That is a question we must return to in properly resourcing the ODCE. That must be done and I am not convinced there are adequate resources there currently.

The legislation provides for maximum fines of up to €10 million or 10% of total worldwide turnover, which I welcome. It reflects the kind of penalties we have long needed. The point has been well made that perhaps this would not be happening if there had not been a European directive on this, and that is very likely true. There is the related question of insurance and if there had not been investigations into anticompetitive practices at a European level, I wonder if we would see much movement at all from the Government. To be frank, we are not seeing enough movement but would we see any movement at all otherwise in tackling the outrageous practices of the motor insurance industry?

On the matter of competition, we should realise that competition has limits despite being able to play a role. Competition is not going to fix a housing system that is completely broken or resolve issues where public services and goods are at the centre. This is where the State must play a crucial role. The Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Sean Fleming, has correctly apologised for his remarks because shopping around is no answer when there are not enough houses or childcare is an extortionate cost everywhere because the State does not subsidise it. Shopping around is no answer to people being beggared from GP fees, inpatient fees and all the costs associated with childcare. Shopping around is no answer when parents feel the burden of costs from voluntary contributions, buying schoolbooks and everything that comes around each summer.

All these matters come down to public services not being properly funded. It is a major issue. There are other concerns, including inflation and energy costs. One of the biggest issues in the cost-of-living crisis in the State is that we have not properly funded our public services and the State constantly has to come back to parents and families, having to charge too much. That may be inpatient fees, GP services or other healthcare that we believe should be free at the point of access. It may be additional costs for primary or secondary schools or the fact it is often like a second mortgage or more to pay for childcare. That is not to mind the crazy rents we are seeing of €1,500 or €1,600 in Cork. People are absolutely crucified. The Bill is welcome and I hope it deals with the issues but competition and shopping around will not solve everything.

I am standing in for my colleague, Deputy Catherine Murphy.

Competition is a vital element in our economic system. When operating at its best, competition results in better outcomes for consumers and society in general. A variety of options in the market leads to better pricing, better quality and innovation. When it comes to competition policy, the fundamental concept is about applying rules to make sure business and companies compete fairly with each other, resulting in the best outcomes for the consumer.

The changes this Bill will bring to the area of competition law in Ireland are, by and large, welcome because the policy we currently have in place is shamefully insufficient. As it stands, we have no way to meaningfully enforce against anticompetitive practices. This was pointed out by the Hamilton review group, which identified a number of weaknesses in resourcing the bodies charged with preventing illegal practices and enforcing the law.

Reports this week on anticompetitive price signalling in the motor insurance industry really drove home how inadequate is the current policy. The CCPC found that over a 21-month period in 2015 and 2016, AA Ireland, AIG, Allianz, Axa, Aviva, FBD and Brokers Ireland all may have engaged in anticompetitive behaviour that resulted in premiums rising for consumers across the country. We cannot say these firms acted illegally and the CCPC was not able to bring the case to court because the cost of doing so would have been prohibitive. We also cannot say these firms were fined for their actions because the commission does not have the power to issue fines. Instead, we can only say that six of the firms signed a legal commitment promising to comply with competition law, and one would think that would be a given. Brokers Ireland refused to sign any such commitment.

This example illustrates exactly why it is so important that our competition enforcement bodies have teeth and the resources to use them. The CCPC states: "The most the CCPC can achieve at present, in a significant number of competition cases, is to seek commitments that the business will cease the practice or behaviour and not do it again." It really is just a slap on the wrist. There is absolutely no accountability for anticompetitive practices currently and no real repercussions at all for illegal actions that cost the consumer.

For so long, we have under-resourced our enforcement bodies in this country and we have been consistent in that poor practice across all areas of policy from anti-corruption bodies to wildlife crime units. This week I received indication that only one person has been allocated to the wildlife crime unit within the National Parks and Wildlife Service. That is laughable when we consider all the discussions and chat about having a zero-tolerance approach to wildlife crime. One person will never be able for that task.

This Bill is going to completely reshape the role of the CCPC and ComReg but it seems to be silent on the details of the extra resources these bodies are going to receive alongside all their new responsibilities. Will the Minister of State outline what extra resources will be made available to them upon enactment of this Bill?

We have such a dependence on large multinational corporations in Ireland. It has been the policy of successive Governments to attract more foreign direct investment and encourage more corporations to establish their European bases of operations in Ireland. If we want to be a base for this kind of massive economic activity, we need to have the infrastructure in place to combat economic crime. The impact of anticompetitive practices or corruption in this sector is international and it can deal with a colossal amount of profits and some very expensive lawyers.

The maximum fines in place for breaches of competition law under this Act can run to 10% of global turnover. It is very welcome to see a sanction of this size and it really could make some businesses sit back and think about their behaviour. The Bill also provides enforcement bodies with powers to conduct unannounced inspections subject to warrants and compel businesses to hand over passwords and documentation. There is also the introduction of a specific offence for hindering an investigation.

All of these investigative and surveillance powers are needed to detect white-collar crime, especially when the nature of the crime becomes harder to detect, with cartels becoming more sophisticated in their efforts to hide their practices from enforcement agencies. Of course, these powers must be balanced with the rights of the individual, and I acknowledge the issues raised by the enterprise committee relating to the surveillance powers proposed in this Bill. Will the Minister of State outline in wrapping up or in a follow-up with Deputy Catherine Murphy how exactly the surveillance powers will operate and what kind of oversight mechanisms will be in place?

There are very welcome measures being put forward in this Bill but fundamentally we need a commitment that the enforcement bodies that will be in charge of implementing those fines will be adequately resourced. Price-fixing, market rigging and all the various kinds of anticompetitive practices are part of a much wider issue of corruption in the private sector, and it is a problem we are just not equipped to handle in this country. We have no effective means of preventing, investigating and prosecuting corruption.

There is no overarching or consolidated approach to combating corruption in the private sector or the public sector. A look at the State's anti-corruption website gives us a clear picture of the fragmented approach, with 16 bodies listed as responsible for tackling corruption. Ireland's anti-corruption response is incredibly fragmented by international standards. A 2020 survey conducted by the French Anti-Corruption Agency found that 84 of 114 countries surveyed had a single agency approach. This is an approach the Social Democrats has been championing since it was founded and one which, unfortunately, the Government is opposed to.

It is difficult and rare to see successful prosecutions of corrupt practices in business life in Ireland. Even after costly and lengthy tribunals of inquiry, there have been few consequences for those against whom negative findings have been made. There is a strong public perception of a golden circle in Irish society, the members of which are accountable to no one and who regard themselves as untouchable. The EU Commission's 2017 Eurobarometer on corruption found that 68% of Irish people believed corruption was widespread across society, with a particular lack of confidence in the banking and financial sector. We must examine the possibility of having a single, independent anti-corruption agency as opposed to having many fragmented agencies that do bits and pieces rather than the totality of the work that is required.

Apart from the lack of confidence Irish people have in particular business sectors and in our ability to deal with corruption, fundamental to all of this is the undermining of democracy. It has a fundamental impact on how people engage with our institutions and how people trust them. It undermines our ability for cohesiveness and the ability to work as a community and as a society. It is not just about addressing corruption in those businesses. It is also about providing a more trusting society for everybody.

I see the Competition (Amendment) Bill 2022 very much as positive legislation. It gives more powers to the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, and to the Commission for Communications Regulation, ComReg. Those two bodies will have more power - I suppose more firepower - so they can challenge anti-competitive practices by businesses and, in doing so, protect customers.

There were two aspects in particular over the past two years that were very eye-opening for me. One was during the early onset of the Covid pandemic when Ryanair in particular, and Aer Lingus to a lesser extent, flew out planes with virtually no passengers on board and refused to give refunds. If the plane was in the sky, then the service was considered to be operational, and therefore it was up to the consumer to go. I believe we saw some shoddy practice during that time. Most of this has been rectified now. There is also role there for the Commission for Aviation Regulation. I believe that, from a consumer point of view, we saw some sharp practice at the early onset of the Covid pandemic in how air passengers were treated around booking, trying to re-book, trying to get refunds, and the length of time it took for refunds to come through.

I wish to address another point with the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, that I have raised several times in the Chamber, which is the fascination in Dáil Éireann and the Houses of the Oireachtas with the issue of motor insurance and the huge costs of this to young people in particular, especially young males. It seems that across the board there is now a loading on everyone. Premiums seem to have gone up and up. When people get their renewal notices, for most people €100 or €200 has gone onto it already without any road traffic accident claims or any new penalty points on licences. There is certainly an issue there. Indeed, our colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Fleming, has been very good in taking action on that.

The one form of insurance that simply has not had enough debate is home insurance and flood cover for properties. I live in a part of County Clare not too far from the River Shannon. In 2009, part of the River Shannon burst its banks. In an area of between 5,000 or 6,000 homes, one or two homes took in water. Because of that low incidence of flooding, all homes in that catchment area are now being denied flood cover. It does not, however, work as simply as that. It also affects whether a person stays with his or her existing insurer. I happen to be with a particular insurance company, which I will not name, but I remain with this company because I cannot leave it. My neighbours cannot leave their insurance companies because the minute they leave their insurer and try to shop around, they are denied flood cover and they are exposed to far higher premiums.

Time and again I must write letters for people who are trying to sell their property and for people who are trying to buy properties, because when they go to lending institutions, they are told the sale cannot be approved because the properties do not come with flood cover insurance. The lenders will not lend on the properties or give mortgages on them. It is farcical because, bizarrely, a two paragraph letter from the local Deputy who lives in that local area and who had the same problem is accepted by the bank and accepted by the insurer. They insure, life goes on, and sales of properties continue. I write ten to a dozen of these letters per week. It is absolutely crazy.

This is about the principle of risk equalisation, a principle we became most familiar with in the context of health insurance. Theoretically, a younger person should be in better health and better physical shape than someone older or someone with an underlying illness. In health insurance, the principle of risk equalisation means everyone pays more or less the same to more or less the same extent. Insurance companies, however, have been applying risk equalisation for the past 11 years to homes in County Clare and homes further up along the River Shannon area, and to homes along other rivers such as the River Lee in Cork where homes have also flooded. They apply risk equalisation where one home floods and they pass the burden and the principle of risk equalisation onto thousands of homes in the catchment area. This does not take into account topography. It also does not take into account that one part of a housing estate could be 10 m higher than another part if they were developed at different levels, with different levels of landfill and different systems of drainage. It does not take into account the fact of underground topography, and the person suffering is the consumer and the homeowner. This debate has not happened enough in Dáil Éireann. The principle of risk equalisation is not just being applied, it is being abused. This needs to be the next consumer protection issue for Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann to look at.

This legislation is welcome. All of us have come across situations of price fixing and anti-competitive practices in the State. The insurance industry is probably the most obvious one people are aware of. There are many examples of it across all kinds of situations.

One example that certainly comes straight to my mind was during the early 2000s when grant schemes were in place for farmers to build slatted sheds. I remember two brothers who lived not far from me. Around the year 2001, one of them built a large industrial shed, which was probably as big as this Chamber or bigger, and it had an insulated roof. Two years later, his brother, a farmer, was building a slatted shed with a grant. The shed part of it was probably one third of the size of the other shed, yet it was twice the price. The excuse at the time, when all of these guys were putting up sheds, was that the world price of steel had gone through the roof. Then, a few years later when the grants ended and were finished, all of a sudden the world price of steel fell again and the price of sheds went down again. I am sure the Minister of State would also have been aware of that. Even in his own constituency there was plenty of that happening.

It is a huge problem all over the State. I often think of this when, in fairness, all of us in here are looking to get houses built and looking to get various programmes in place to encourage development and to encourage work to happen. Very often when that occurs, the particular industries involved use it as an opportunity to push up prices to the detriment of the customer. We are all very aware that when the State has a role in such a process, when the State is paying for it, or when the State is providing a grant for it, this is a kind of green light to drive the arm in as far as you can. We need to have firm regulation to ensure this does not happen and we can stop it from happening so that the public in general and the taxpayer get a fair deal. Very often in these cases it is the taxpayer who ends up being wronged and being robbed by these unscrupulous people who engage in that type of behaviour.

This legislation goes a good distance to try to resolve that. We hope it has moved us all in the right direction. Of course, it is coming very late in the day. For years those of us on the Opposition side of the House, and indeed the Minister of State and his party when they were on this side of the House, were calling for similar legislation and for things to move faster in this regard. It has taken so long that one wonders if it is because the EU directive came into play forcing this to happen that we are now in this position. This is one of the key questions many people have. There has been such hesitancy on the part of the State and by official Ireland to take a real hard look at how corporate Ireland operates and how so many people in so many positions throughout the State can seem to ride roughshod over people's rights, especially their economic rights, when it comes to such situations.

The Bill is welcome. It is a move in the right direction. Whatever bodies or commission are put in place and whatever way we do this, we need assurance it has the correct amount of funding and resources in place, not just to be a regulator but also to be an enforcer of the regulations.

I, along with the Deputy Kenny and other speakers, welcome the Bill and express my support for its provisions. I wish to make a couple of points. First, I will start where Deputy Kenny finished. We need to ensure the additional powers and responsibilities being conveyed upon the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, CCPC, are followed by sufficient funding and resources to ensure they are implemented. I welcome the changes being made to allow officers extra powers of investigation and, in certain circumstances, surveillance. It is important resources are provided to those officers to ensure they can carry out their work.

Several people have spoken about white-collar crime. I share their views. This Bill is a significant step in the right direction in that regard. I welcome in particular section 6, which outlines the additional investigation procedures in respect of the Commission for Communications Regulation, ComReg. I suspect every Member of the House often receives queries from members of the public regarding the provision of phone and broadband services, in particular. The ability of ComReg to operate in a more active sense can only be a positive in terms of ensuring a proper service is delivered in every corner of the country, in particular telecommunications of different sorts.

I want to focus my attention on two specific areas. Deputy Crowe mentioned the lack of competition in the insurance sector and issues surrounding that. It is fair to say that, over the past 12 months or more, we have seen a significant decrease in the amounts awarded by the courts in respect of accidents, public liability and the category of insurance claim that falls into the trip and fall category. Some insurers have passed on those savings to their customers. However, that has not happened in all cases. This issue was brought home to me recently by people who are involved in operating play centres for children at community level. Those who ensure the provision of public active recreational spaces, whether commercial or community groups, find the cost of insurance crippling. I am not convinced enough is being done by the CCPC and others to ensure we have a properly functioning insurance market.

Deputy Crowe mentioned flood cover, and his comments apply everywhere in a somewhat haphazard set of circumstances. Some people can, despite their premises being flooded every couple of years, still retain insurance. Perhaps they have historic cover they are keeping in place. A broker recently managed to get insurance for a building I did not think would get it from an underwriter outside of the State. The Government and its arms, like the CCPC, have to do more to ensure businesses and family homes that are open to the prospect of flooding can be insured. Like everyone else in the House, I am aware of the extensive funding invested by the Office of Public Works, OPW, and local authorities throughout the country in flood relief schemes. We could all names parts of our constituencies that have significant difficulties.

My final point is, in many respects, the main point. It is broader in scope than the terms of the Bill, but I will raise it while the Minister of State is here. I refer to banking and financial services. I am fortunate enough to have been a Member of the Oireachtas for 20 years, but the changes I have seen in the past two or three years in my county, Kilkenny, are quite remarkable. Kilkenny city still has branches of the major financial institutions, but outside of the city, ten bank branches have closed. The two that have remained open are cashless. To be perfectly honest, people of a certain age, including those who want human contact when they are dealing with financial matters, find that cashless services do not provide them with that opportunity.

I welcome the fact the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, is trying to work with the Department of Social Protection to ensure the post office network remains intact and strong throughout the country. However, I deeply regret that our financial institutions, many of which were supported by the taxpayer when they were in difficulty, have completely withdrawn from provincial Ireland across the board. A market town with a population of 3,000 or 4,000 traditionally had banks buildings that were permanent physical entities. When they are lost, it creates issues not just in terms of access to financial services but also leaves a glaring hole in the physical make-up of towns or large villages.

A broader issue in which the CCPC may have a role is the withdrawal of commercial banking operations from the State as a whole. We saw that happen recently with KBC and Ulster Bank. The lack of competition in financial services leaves us open to the potential for anti-competitive practices in the future. The CCPC, in conjunction with the Department and Government, needs to do more to ensure we have strong competition and new entrants into the banking sector in the State.

This debate is moving quickly. If Members are listening, we are in the middle of Second Stage of the Competition (Amendment) Bill 2022. We have a long list of speakers. With the co-operation of the Minister of State, I will give a minute or two because I know Members might be caught in committees. There are speakers due for all of the groups, including Sinn Féin, the Regional Group, the Government and the Rural Independent Group.

I welcome that the Bill is being brought forward. It is important for our country to make sure that, whatever we are doing in life, we do it in a fair-minded way and ensure as best we can people get value for money. There are many facets of life and business where I feel competition may not be what it should be.

In terms of insurance costs, there is a suspicion we may not have a lot of competition in the market and, therefore, premiums can be dictated very easily. Flood insurance is one such example. When I was a Minister of State in the OPW, I saw first hand the attitude insurance companies had regarding insurance, in particular for homes that had been flooded.

More importantly they used flood maps as a pretext for refusing to give insurance for flood damage. These properties may never have flooded in the last 40, 50 or 60 years. However, because they were in proximity to where there was a slight risk of flood, they were being denied flood insurance.

We need to question the pricing by Internet service providers and the advertising of their products especially regarding the technologies that are available and what they can do. They offer a certain speed of broadband but when it is installed users only get a fraction of that. However, because of the terminology used it is very unfair on the service user and they pay a price for that.

I highlight a dangerous area - that of quarries and what is going on at the moment. Last week Deputy Fitzmaurice spoke about it and I echo those sentiments. An investigation into what is going on in the quarry business is warranted. When we are looking to build roads and other things in the national development plan, we may find that it is not so much that the price is being fixed but that there is an effort by a few to try to exclude new entrants into the quarry business. Many objections to quarries are being submitted from the same sources and that needs to be examined in detail.

When I worked in the construction industry at times I felt a fair price for materials etc. was not being offered. Those practices back in the 1980s were stamped out by good legislation. We now have a more sophisticated and indirect way of trying to control prices. This is important where big companies take control of the market and dictate. Sometimes they put fear into other suppliers who do not want to fall foul of the big players in the game. The Bill is important from that point of view.

While the Bill is important, enforcement of it is what really matters. We need to provide the resources so that we see the results of good law. We need to see a reduction in insurance premiums across the board - for home insurance, car insurance and business insurance. The utility providers need to provide what they promise in their adverts.

Our banking sector has fallen into a very dangerous position with very little competition. We have an opportunity to create a third force or a fourth force in banking by giving more powers to the credit union movement and to the post office network so that they become competitors in the retail banking market. Throughout the country bank branches are closing. Ulster Bank has exited the market and is gone as a competitor. Retail and business banking is in a very precarious position. It is important to open up and ensure that our reputation as an open flexible economy is borne out in our competition legislation.

At the end of the day, we want to ensure that every business has an opportunity to make a profit, but we do not want businesses profiteering at the expense of consumers. If there is no competition, it will add to the inflation we have been talking about in recent weeks. People will act upon an opportunity to increase their prices.

Hotels across the board have increased their prices substantially in recent months. I warn the hotel industry that it received a significant level of support from this Government and previous governments. Hotels need to ensure they do not try to capitalise on that by increasing their prices just because they are back in business now. It is important for them to play fair with their customers.

Overall, I commend the Minister of State's efforts and those of his officials in ensuring we have proper competition in our market. Ireland has a good reputation, but we want to make sure that it is welcoming for new business entrants and for new indigenous business people starting up. If they have the wherewithal to get into business, they must not be stymied by established global competitors that would fear them if they got into the market. We need to watch out for that and be careful about it. We need to ensure we have fair business and fair prices, and that we end up with a reputation that we can remain proud of into the future.

The preamble to the Bill suggests it will give effect to the implementation of Directive (EU) 2019/1 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 11 December 2018 to empower the competition authorities of the member states to be more effective enforcers and to ensure the proper functioning of the Internal Market, ECN Plus, the European Competitions Network. Essentially it is aligning our competition law with the EU legislation.

The Minister of State also suggested that the enactment of this legislation, further to some additional amendments he wishes to propose, will strengthen the powers of the State in tackling white-collar crime, economic crime and corruption. Others in the House have discussed specific areas of concern, such as public sector procurement, the construction industry, insurance services and possibly even legal and financial services.

If the question were asked in the House today how, where and on whom sanctions were placed as a result of the banking crisis, what would the answer be? How might this legislation address that? Do we seriously think that significant effort was made to pursue criminal prosecutions for those who colluded in the positioning of interest rates, the over-reporting of assets and the under-declaring of positions with respect to currency hedging and contracts for difference? How would this proposed legislation treat that situation again?

I think we know that we largely failed in our obligations to hold to account those who were colluding criminally during the banking crisis. If this legislation is enacted, will we be protected from such a scenario repeating? Does this legislation deliver the required deterrent by way of criminal sanctions?

The Minister of State has placed significant emphasis on the ability of this legislation, framed within the context of European competition network law, as being positioned to combat national and international cartels. However, how would we know if such cartels are in operation considering the difficulty up to now in surveilling and getting access to financial statements and records? The Bill outlines that the powers of ComReg and the CCPC are to be strengthened and somewhat merged in order to meet this challenge and that future surveillance powers and powers of entry will assist in this battle.

That is welcome, but will it be enough? I imagine that companies that engage in international price collusion and deliberately set out to rig bids and to compete for some tenders while strategically withdrawing from others are not waiting around, their filing cabinets full of incriminating evidence, for the CCPC or ComReg to come knocking on their doors.

In the case of public procurement, analysis of tender bids would surely point to possible price fixing. Given, however, that many of our large-scale public procurement tenders are refined down to a shortlist of three to five, it is difficult to see where and how significant price collusion might be occurring. Quantity surveillance and measurement software would probably indicate where significant or even extraordinary price gouging is taking place if only we had the ability to properly implement it. I have raised in this House a number of times the prices of general building materials in this country and how they are so similarly aligned, yet it is possible to buy similar quantities of those materials on the European mainland at significant price reductions not explainable by transport costs, warehousing or other logistics. In the context of a free European market with open borders and transparent pricing, how does this situation persist? As for building specifications, has the Minister of State's Department any intention of looking at material specifications and what manufacturers are specified within public procurement tender contracts? How is it that we can arrive at specifications and dimensions for timber and insulation materials, for example, that are not specified in other European country tenders, thereby offering much wider choice and better cost options?

The Minister of State has highlighted our dysfunctional car insurance industry and the deliberate concealing of insurance fees and claims data for years, which would have allowed further international motor insurance underwriting if potential competitor companies were able to assess the market intelligence and dynamics that were taking place. They were precluded from doing so, however, which resulted in no new appetite to enter the market for many years. I know that this situation has been largely resolved in respect of the motor insurance sector and that we now have up to 40 companies bidding for motor insurance in this country. However, what were the sanctions prescribed by the CCPC for those companies that were, in effect, breaking European consumer law? Despite progress in the motor insurance market, does the Minister of State believe there might be anti-competitive practices still ongoing in respect of personal indemnity insurance, employer's liability insurance and occupier's liability insurance? Could instances of fraudulent personal injury claims, supported in some instances by legal professionals, not be considered anti-competitive as well as downright criminal? Will the legislation the Minister of State proposes tackle white-collar crime and provide civil and criminal sanctions for those found guilty of same, and will they be pursued? I fully understand the need for this legislation to comply with European legislation and for our courts to integrate accordingly, but we have a history in this country of not pursuing white-collar crime. Even when we do, derisory financial punishments are usually the order of the day. If there are teeth to this legislation, the public will need to see those teeth in order to have any confidence that this proposal from the Minister of State is a game changer, which I hope it is.

This is very welcome legislation. We need to strike a balance between very powerful enterprises now emerging in the world of big data, artificial intelligence and ICT and the consumer because that balance has shifted dramatically. Markets have changed. The way individuals interface with them has changed dramatically. The capacity to have a personal interaction with those who provide services is dramatically changed. I think it is becoming a subject of increasing concern among people. The Minister of State will have read during recent weeks about the spat between Neil Young and Joni Mitchell and Spotify, one of the huge influences in delivering music and entertainment through online transmission. Clearly, it is an extraordinarily powerful platform but, at the same time, legitimate questions are being raised about the extent to which it promotes innovation and makes it very difficult for talent to emerge. That is a real concern. The same could be true more locally of the impact we see from the growth of media platforms on local media and national media, which are so important to the health of democracies such as ours.

As I said this morning when speaking to the Topical Issue matter I raised, on which I am sure the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, got a report, very vulnerable consumers are being made mugs of by very powerful companies that use friction as a policy tool to prevent people from getting the best value. They are effectively profiteering at the cost of many of the most vulnerable consumers, whether older consumers or consumers who are not tech-savvy. Right across the spectrum of entertainment, mobile phones, TV and broadband, utilities and financial services, a dramatic change is occurring in the sort of model on which a lot of the theory surrounding good markets was built.

It is therefore welcome that we see today a change such that the CCPC can take administrative sanctions against companies. We were told for years and years that it was not possible in the Irish legal system to have administrative sanctions where a potential criminal offence was involved. It is really welcome that that has been overcome because the reality was that for a small Irish regulator or a competition authority to seek to prove beyond reasonable doubt that a criminal offence had been committed by a very large company with deep pockets, it was a David-and-Goliath battle. It was very difficult for those regulators to take on those very large companies. It meant they had to be highly selective in the cases they took on because of the sheer cost and difficulty of getting a prosecution. That daunting standard for a regulator meant they had to pull back. Like the Minister of State, I hope this will be a very significant change.

I have read through the Bill and there is no doubt but that there are hoops to be gone through. There is due process, and that is exactly as it should be, but the legislation means we will now be able, without going down the criminal route, to get to proceedings and sanctions that bring in remedies, whether the breaking up of companies, structural changes, behavioural changes, unbundling of products, the ending of rebates or the stopping of data sharing. These are significant new powers, but I would like to hear from the Minister on a question I have. My reading of the Bill is that competent authorities can investigate only through the very narrow prism of competition law. Therefore, even though ComReg or any of the other regulators can initiate administrative sanctions, it seems to be only on the two traditional issues of competition law - collusive behaviour and abusive dominance - that it can do so. Those are not easy routes to travel, and we need to see a point reached at which other codes of practice that represent reasonable and fair treatment can be pursued through administrative sanctions where they are not properly observed by large companies. This is not just a matter of collusive behaviour or abusive dominance. Traditionally, in the literature, it has been extremely difficult even to define abusive dominance, let alone to prove an offence has occurred. We therefore need to see a wider range of areas where the use of administrative sanctions can bring fairness into this. What is the reasonable use of personal data, for example, in the marketplace? That is something for which codes of reasonable practice should be established, and it should be possible for regulators to seek administrative sanctions where they are not being honoured. Similarly, as I said this morning, friction that deliberately obstructs consumers from getting value should be pursuable by administrative sanctions.

I would like clarification from the Minister of State that what the legislation provides for goes beyond my narrow reading of it, or for him to consider a broader base for these legislative powers, allowing them to be given to the many regulators who could oversee codes of good practice that would transform the approach of enterprise. In the long term, it is in enterprise's interest that we establish these high standards because, ultimately, enterprise depends on the trust of its consumers. If that is lost, those enterprises cannot thrive. I hope this is a vehicle whereby we can build a much stronger basis of trust. It is always said that sunlight is the best disinfectant. I hope this Bill will bring a little bit more sunlight to some of those darker practices that ought to be stamped out.

I welcome this Bill because it will enable the CCPC to operate more effectively. Indeed, it should provide the long-awaited powers necessary to tackle a wide range of white-collar crimes. As somebody who sat on the finance committee and who was involved in the scrutiny of insurance prices, what was happening in that market, the protection of raw data and how things were used against the consumer, who was fleeced with insurance costs, I really welcome this. The Bill is a good beginning and will go at least some way towards tackling those issues. Every one of us who buys insurance will welcome this.

The aggregate economic and social cost of the anticompetitive practices in this State has cost us very dearly. The victims of breaches of competition law such as the operation of cartels, bid rigging and the abuse of market practices have all paid the price. As a State, we have also paid the price economically. Back in 2007, it was estimated by RSM Robson Rhodes that it was costing the State €2.5 billion. It could be much more than that now. That is €2.5 billion that could be spent on different things in the State while we squabble over pennies.

What really annoys me is who we go after in this State. We go after the dead pensioner who has forgotten to tick a box and who has somehow been overpaid a small pension or something like that. We follow them beyond the grave and yet we ignore so much white-collar crime. Discussing this Bill brings that to the fore. Our national competition authority must have appropriate powers of enforcement and adequate resources to tackle these economic crimes. For far too long, we have been an outlier in the EU in comparison with other member states. Reaching a criminal verdict in a court of law can take too long. It also puts justice out of reach for too many victims of white-collar crime. This Bill will go some way towards addressing that. We also see issues with prices in the agriculture sector. Really legitimate concerns and queries have been raised for a long time with regard to price fixing in the agricultural sector. I hope this Bill will serve to address some of that. The only pity is that it was not brought in years ago and is only now coming to the floor of the House. However, I welcome the Bill and I look forward to it becoming law as quickly as possible.

The purpose of the directive is to empower the competition authorities of member states to be more effective enforcers and to ensure the proper functioning of the internal market. I have heard of a few problems from my constituents. One is a very serious problem that affects all industrial import and export businesses. As of July last year, all goods entering the EU from Britain and all British goods entering the EU are subject to VAT at the point of entry. This is totally pointless and just causes delays. All exporting companies have an economic operators registration and identification, EORI, number and immediately claim the VAT back. This layer is not productive as both the EU and Britain have to employ more people to administer it. All that happens is that goods are delayed and, when goods are delayed, it has a knock-on effect for businesses, especially small businesses in rural communities. We need to figure out a way to get rid of this double layered system, which is hampering competition.

Since Brexit, customs have been a nightmare. An Post is asking for very small amounts of VAT on goods imported from the UK. In many cases, Irish VAT has already been paid. One constituent of mine purchased a spare part from an Irish website, paid in euros and was charged VAT at 23% on the whole transaction. A few days later, he received an email from An Post asking for €1.46 plus an administration charge of €3.50. These are very small amounts of money. The administration costs must be much higher than the amount of money An Post is trying to collect, which cannot be good for the country and just results in long delays and makes us less attractive to the competition out there.

I will go back to an issue I raised on Leaders' Questions last week, that is, the cost of fertiliser. Where is the competition now? We need this sleeping Government to come on board and help the farmers. In all fairness, we need to keep the food chain running. I would appreciate it if the Minister of State would listen to what I have asked him. I have asked him and his Government colleagues to come up with a plan to help these farmers because no business anywhere can take a triple layer of costs on top of their existing expenditure.

Quite a lot of speakers have asked where the competition is in the meat industry. I remember standing with the farmers outside meat factories, particularly in Bandon in west Cork, some time back. They have been crippled by the situation they find themselves in. There is no competition in the meat industry. There is a monopoly. That must be ended. It cannot continue. People are struggling to get the best price they can in a terribly difficult situation. The fact that competition is not being allowed there and that one person is basically running the show in this country makes it almost impossible for anyone to get a fair price. Competition is the lifeblood of trade. I hope this Bill will help with that.

Competition issues can be considered at a national and international level but the local level must also be considered. There is a massive divide between urban and rural and that divide is getting bigger and bigger. The competition is also getting bigger and bigger. People in rural Ireland are finding it more difficult to survive. There is mass development in urban towns. I would not begrudge anyone that but, back down in Dursey Island in west Cork, a development has recently been brought to the Judiciary by those seeking to prevent it. This development aims to open up and rebuild a rural community. People in rural Ireland are finding they are not understood. They want fairness and to be allowed to compete. They want to be treated alike. There is now a possibility that An Taisce or BirdWatch Ireland could ruin a project worth millions of euros that would have given that community a chance to compete for employment and tourism in their locality, which is very important for them.

Many people cannot insure playgrounds or facilities in the community and voluntary sector because competition has never been weaker between insurance companies. We should be encouraging competition in this area. This has been allowed to go on for years and years, leaving some organisations and individuals to go out of business because they cannot afford insurance as a result of this lack of competition. I hope that this Bill will tackle that.

I know of one situation in west Cork. The West Cork Connect bus company is trying to survive. It is in competition with Bus Éireann, which has a monopoly and State funding. The owner is trying to provide a private service on the hour, every hour, from west Cork to Cork city but, instead of being encouraged, every barrier is being put before him to prevent him from succeeding. He is not looking for any State intervention. He just wants a licence to continue. Competition is an international and national problem, but it is certainly a local issue too.

When we have situations where the owner of a good company is willing to dip into his own pocket and to take people from Skibbereen, Clonakilty, Bandon, Bantry, Dunmanway and Drimoleague all the way to Cork city, every hour on the hour, that is a fabulous service. For some reason, though, a State company will get preference above that individual and his company, and that is something that must be examined as well.

The purpose of the CPCC is to make markets work better for consumers and businesses. I understand this legislation is to strengthen and to ensure the proper functioning of international markets. Two international markets are not working. Our pig industry is on its knees, and it will be lucky to survive in its present form. Surely the CPCC can step in to ensure the industry will survive. In France, across all food sectors, the origin of meat is visible to consumers. Why not in Ireland? People look for Irish products all over the world, but we do have not have such visibility at home. Irish pig farmers engage continually with Bord Bia to produce the best product on the market, yet they cannot compete with the below-cost-selling of products produced by people in other countries. Dog meat is more expensive now than our top-quality foods. Pig farmers are losing an amount that translates to €37.84 per pig, according to Teagasc. Feedstuffs, fuel and energy costs account for a major portion of their fixed overheads. They just cannot compete.

My next point concerns a service agreement with our phone companies. I meet people every day who have continuing issues with their phone providers. They call the customer support centres, but they are totally inadequate and unable to deal with the simplest of queries. Rural Ireland has a poor broadband service and the people in those areas are at the mercy of these providers. ComReg gets involved, but the level of stress caused by these companies is harmful to people and businesses.

We have also seen the lack of fertiliser supplies, as well as the rising cost. I refer to all the legislation and regulation the Government is bringing in. This is a case of supply and demand, but the Government must support the farmers. Nitrogen is needed early in the year because the temperature of the ground here means that farming cannot work without it. If the Government does not support farmers, we will end up with a lower intake of grass, which in turn will mean a lower output of milk. This situation will work out across the food markets and then we could end up with food shortages in Ireland. Therefore, the Government needs to stand up and ensure the farmers get the reward they need to keep them going and to keep us fed. The Government must subsidise the farmers for the cost of fertiliser.

My next point relates to the retrofitting scheme that was launched yesterday by the Minister for Environment, Climate and Communication, Deputy Eamon Ryan. I represented the Rural Independent Group at the launch. The document that was produced, and which I had in front of me, contained a breakdown of the different grant schemes which are going to be available, including examples of how much it would cost in various cases. For example, in the scenario where it cost €50,000 for a full retrofit of a house, the scheme would provide €23,500 of a grant. I asked the representatives of the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, when this document with all the facts on it was printed. I was told that the paperwork associated with the examples of retrofitting of houses was done in October 2021. Does the Minister of State know that there have been four price increases since then? That equates to an overall increase of 17% in the cost of retrofitting. Therefore, in the context of the percentage of the grant available, a person who undertook a retrofitting project worth €50,000 in October 2021 will have to pay €60,000 for the same work to be done now. In addition, this retrofitting scheme is not coming into operation until the autumn, so we will have a couple of additional price increases by then.

Where are all these price increases coming from? They are coming from anything oil-based. I get this information from a weekly data sheet because I am in construction. Insulation materials that are oil- or silicon-based have seen the price increase every month since October 2021. I can tell the Minister of State now, in the context of the retrofitting scheme launched yesterday, that the grants must be increased in line with the rate of inflation in the cost of materials. The scheme sets out that a house retrofitting project costing €50,000 will get a maximum grant of €23,500. If the cost to retrofit the same house rises to €60,000, the Government must increase the grant aid in line with what the retrofit project is costing. That is common sense.

I ask that neither I nor the public be given public paperwork that is out of date. The real facts and figures should be provided. I say that because if the grants are not raised to match the cost of the retrofitting, the people paying for these projects will no longer have an €83 saving per month. Instead, retrofitting a house will mean that people undertaking such projects will, in the context of that approximately €80 per month over the course of a 20-year loan, see the current figure for the associated cost rise from €50, which is what is in the document, to €70 over the next 20 years. I ask the Government not to lie to the public and to put current facts out there.

Can I clarify if there will be a second round for Deputy Michael Healy-Rae?

Yes, as long we reach him before the debate has to conclude.

Similar to what my colleague has said, we are dancing around here on the head of a needle with all these grandiose schemes, such as the one introduced yesterday. This retrofitting scheme has been eagerly awaited and much wanted. People want to engage with it. It will, however, cost them €500 to get an assessment, and they will get back €250 whenever. I am talking about people on the margins. People have told me they have been waiting for two and half years already for the SEAI. I understand from Deputy O’Donoghue, and I thank him for attending the briefing yesterday, because he understands building, that the scheme is not going to start until the autumn of this year. Why does the Government keep announcing it? It is like going out fishing and throwing out a fly to catch a sardine or, hopefully, a trout. I ask the Government to not be fooling the public. People are sick and tired of schemes being announced.

The Government is also telling us that the credit unions and banks will be involved. The credit unions will be, certainly, but the banks are closed for business in respect of people undertaking things like this. Those seeking loans will be asked where they work and what they are doing, and every employment situation is precarious as far as the banks are concerned.

Regarding this situation, I have said numerous times that the CPCC is useless, toothless and fruitless. We have authorities for everything now. All these seem to consist of are a plaque, about the size of an A4 sheet of paper, up on the wall, lovely plush offices and nice big swivel seats and desks for the board and employees. I am not being personal about anybody, but we have so many quangos. Quangoland is alive and flourishing, and does not need any nitrogen. There are insiders and jobs for the boys and for friends of political parties and whatever appointing them. These quangos have no function because they are doing nothing.

Let us take the example of the meat cartels. Goodness, we all stood outside the factories two years ago. It is shocking the way the farmers are being treated. One Christmas, about five years ago, Deputy Michael Healy-Rae and I went to a Dunnes Stores outlet with representatives of the IFA. There was a protest ongoing, and three or four-----

-----shopping trolleys were filled up to the water level with goods in that Dunnes Stores outlet. The whole lot came to €16 or €18. It was shocking. There were loss leader products, and all these types of things. The companies are getting the money back in other ways, but they are selling all these things by way of champion products and below cost selling. It is shocking. I refer to the position in which they are putting the ordinary shopkeepers, the fear gnó or bean gnó. Those shopkeepers look after the people when raffles are being held for the GAA or for other fund-raisers, such as when people are sick. They are the first people to give spot prizes.

They have been trodden on. I said it this morning. All the globalists. It is a globalist policy, and we are denuding our country of expertise in business. I see today now I will be attacked for saying it as an employer myself. I called about it and they said now we are going to give an extra 12 days' sick leave. How are small business clinging on? The Minister of State should know this. They are hanging on by their fingernails after Covid. It is one scheme or promise after another but they are all heaped on top of these people who cannot afford to pay them and they will be doomed to shut, gone out of business. It is fine to have all the promises then. Is everybody going to be on an unemployment register? We cannot manage that.

We have the beef cartels. Some of them were bailed out in bygone days and they got away but they are back now and they are not helpful to anybody. Insurance, my goodness, what a racket and the carry-on. We hear every day of the week on different radio programmes about shopping around and elderly people and all kind of penalties and loading. That is not a fair crack of the whip for anybody whether young, daoine óga or daoine aosta. There is no fairness at all in the system and we have an insurance regulator. We have a regulator set for everything now, everything.

The eTenders is the biggest load of baloney as well; certain levels of the tender are at EU level. I have a community now in my county who were successful and did great work. It is a wonderful community shop and enterprise, and they got grant aid before Covid but now the prices are doubled and trebled and they cannot do the work on that kind of funding. Now they want to know, ní neart go cur le chéile, they want a meitheal. They want to do it themselves, overseen obviously by the Department and by a local engineer and architects. They cannot get around it. They are killing the spirit of the people. The spirit of the Irish people has been magnificent and the spirit of the meitheal has been magnificent throughout our country with neighbours helping out and doing barter arrangements where they can. eTenders is another way to kill small businesses. Someone has to have so many builds in the bank to apply, including contractors and everything else; you have the whole works.

I refer to transport and the cartels that are there and the price of fuel now. I am talking about the National Transport Authority, NTA, now and bus transport. We have JJ Kavanagh's whom I salute and many other small operators in my county. They are being squeezed and squeezed and squeezed until there is nothing left to squeeze. Every last drop of blood will be squeezed out of them. We have empty coaches. Outside the door here are double decker buses up and down the street one after the other and níl duine amháin istigh sa bhus; a lot of them have no one inside of them, but no problem, this is Dublin and we can have anything we like.

I mentioned also the whole situation with fertiliser. Denmark, Sweden, France and all the other countries have intervened in the pig industry in the EU and they are allowed to. The EU Commissioner was before the committee. Deputy Michael Collins was there and he heard that the Irish Government can intervene and subsidise this. If it does not subsidise the fertiliser for farmers, the foodstuff is going to be more expensive for mom's purse, as Deputy Healy-Rae phrased it, on a Friday evening. It is as simple as that.

Everything is gone the same way. We have regulators for everything. We need someone to get in and regulate these regulators and put them on a training course and make them understand what their job and their role is. An awful lot of them are political hacks and they are in there creaming it off. They are putting people to the pin of their collar.

I also mentioned the loss leaders in the supermarkets. These are punishing the small shops. Since the pandemic there is not a small shop left in the capital. Some of them are gone in the country. Look at An Post and the telephone network. I saw Albert Reynolds at an Ard Fheis once waving a phone. Everyone had a phone in their house in a month. Now we wait maybe two years to get a phone and we wait five or six months to get it repaired. Elderly people are waiting for hours on the phone. Customer service is appalling in some of those big companies and there are the monopolies again. It is shocking the way we are treating our people.

I said today they are waiting in the long grass. There is a lot of long grass this year because it has been a mild winter but it will be grazed fairly bare. The Government will have no place to hide when the election comes because it will be laid out bare naked and the people can see it.

The purpose of the CCPC is to have the consumers at the centre of its work, to act on their behalf and to protect them from anticompetitive measures that will ultimately have a negative effect on them. This is the case for individual consumers as well as businesses and by extension, the economy as a whole. For this protection to be effective, the CCPC needs to have powers that will deter those intent on engaging in anticompetitive practices from trying to do so, while also ensuring that it has the resources and powers of enforcement needed to sanction effectively those who do.

Right now we are one of a few EU member states that allow a company to be fined only if a court has found that there has been a breach proven to a criminal standard, which is staggering. This seeks to rectify that by allowing the CCPC for the first time to fine companies for breaches of competition law. It will enable the commission to issue maximum fines of up to €10 million or 10% of total worldwide turnover for breaches of competition law, while encouraging whistle-blowing on secret cartels by offering reductions in fines to companies that provide evidence against other cartel members.

As matters stand, everyone is being failed through anticompetitive practices that are carrying on in the knowledge that our bark is worse than our bite. While this Bill may seem to be broad yet targeted, it is no thanks to this Government or any previous ones that we are discussing it here today. It is because the State has been compelled by a European directive to implement legislative changes to ensure the CCPC has the tools and resources it needs to enforce EU competition law like many other member states.

The people of this country will know very well the consequences of a light-touch approach when it comes to white-collar crime. Generations to come will be paying for the manner in which a light touch to corporate crime has in the past brought this country to its knees. We continue to see instances and allegations of malpractice in high finance, insurance, public procurement and building development. The list goes on.

International estimates from the OECD suggest the rate of overcharge in public procurement is between 20% and 30%. We have heard of how a study in 2007 found that Ireland was losing somewhere in the region of €2.5 billion a year from economic crime. If that figure is applied for each year since, the loss to this State would be eye-watering. The Government sees white collar-crime as something apart from crimes that are committed further down the food chain. That is why there has been no appetite to legislate, regulate and tackle corporate and economic crime, and why the Government was forced to implement legislative changes to ensure the CCPC has the appropriate tools and resources to enforce EU competition law.

While I welcome this legislation as a good starting point, we must have a firm commitment that resources and funding will be provided to uphold a CCPC with powers that will make a difference.

I am sharing time with Deputy Jim O'Callaghan. I greatly appreciate the opportunity to contribute to this important debate. It is very interesting to hear Deputies say we are being forced by a European directive. Do people not understand how European directives are created? They are done with the co-operation of the Government through the European Council and with the co-operation of Irish MEPs in Europe. I fundamentally welcome this and I welcome the work the Government has done with European partners to ensure that the directive can be transposed into domestic legislation in an efficient form, in the format of this Bill.

Many Members have talked about various companies and practices but the important thing to remember is that at the heart of this Bill is the right of the consumer and the protection of the consumer. I have no doubt that if this Bill is to be effective and faith is to be given to competition in the State, we need to see the powers granted by this Bill for administrative fines put into action very quickly. Consumers and people across the country need to know that this legislation is on their side. They need to see the cartels broken up. They need to see both the National Competition Authority and the CCPC acting in a manner that is in the interests first and foremost of the consumers.

There are one or two areas that have developed in recent years that I am particularly concerned about. They require the attention of this legislation. The first is the post-Brexit reliance on British providers in so many areas and the fact that the UK is outside of this directive. It is key that this legislation ensures that operators within the State are in line with all that. Many people refer to insurance in a particular area, namely childcare providers and child recreation centres, which only have the option of one insurance provider and the impact that had with rising premiums leading to centres and schools closing and to fees and costs going up.

It impacted not just on parents and guardians in the State, but on children. I hope that this legislation will be used to ensure that a sense of fairness is created in this market. As Deputy Bruton mentioned, the main areas that the Bill seeks to address are collusive behaviour and the abuse of dominance. There is a vagueness that will need to be laid out specifically so as to ensure that the various agencies can act in an appropriate and, importantly, timely manner to identify these.

I will use this opportunity to speak to the one area that this Bill does not address and that I have previously raised with the Ministers of State, Deputies Troy and Fleming, and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, namely, competition in the mortgage market. It is detrimental to consumers that the level of choice for mortgages is so restrictive, particularly compared with European averages. The average interest rate in Ireland is 2.73% but 1.28% in the eurozone. This comes down to competition and choice. We want European providers entering the Irish market so that we can tell homeowners and prospective homeowners that there is competition, which will put more money in their pockets and take the pressure off the weekly budget.

I commend the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, on introducing this important legislation. Not only does it transpose into Irish law the European Competition Network, ECN, directive from 2019, but it does something novel, in that it extends the remit and powers available under the Criminal Justice (Surveillance) Act 2009 and applies them to the CCPC, which has not been the case to date. Up until now, the Garda, the Defence Forces and the Revenue Commissioners have been able to use the extensive powers available under that Act. Under this Bill, however, they are being given to the CCPC as well. I note that the Minister of State is not doing this because it was a directive given to the Government by the EU, but because it was contained within a recommendation in the report prepared by the former DPP, Mr. James Hamilton, and delivered in February 2020.

The Bill follows on and implements another recommendation from that report, namely, that a new separate offence of bid rigging be introduced. This will be transformative in terms of the CCPC's ability to investigate what are regarded as anticompetitive practices. I welcome that, instead of having to go to court, the CCPC will find itself in a position similar to the Central Bank whereby it can impose what are referred to as administrative fines on people who have been found to be in breach of competition law.

While I am on the topic of the Central Bank, an area of competition that we in political life need to examine actively is the lack of competition within the Irish banking sector. As the Minister of State will be aware, very few banks from outside the jurisdiction operate within Ireland and many of the banks operating in Ireland are controlled or have significant ownership by the State. We need to consider how to expand and introduce greater competition into the banking sector. The Minister of State might look into whether we should give some responsibility or jurisdiction to the Central Bank so that one of its remits would have to do with the existence of competition within the banking sector.

Competition is a complex issue and, from listening to this debate, I am conscious that it can have different consequences on different parts of the economy. The purpose of competition law is to try to ensure that we have a vibrant economy within which consumers have significant choice because there are so many competitors in various sectors that prices will decrease and standards will increase. To find an example of where there is great competition, one need look no further than the grocery sector. We see large volumes of advertising in our newspapers and everywhere else about the price of food in various competitive supermarkets throughout the country. That has a consequence, though. The lowering of prices in the grocery sector has a negative impact on the prices being received by farmers for their food. As such, competition law is not a simple issue' it is complex. We always look to place the consumer at the centre of it, but we also need to recognise that, by continuously promoting the benefits for the consumer, there are certain other individuals who will lose out.

I am pleased that the target of this Bill will be businesses that are openly breaching competition law. That is something that this new legislation will achieve. I hope that the surveillance powers will be a great deterrence to those businesses that are involved in bid rigging.

I welcome the Bill. It is important that we tackle tender rigging, which is a scam and drives up prices. Unfortunately, the Government does not seem to have the same inclination to end bid rigging in the private housing market. Ordinary working families and individuals are trying to buy homes every day but they are being outbid by cuckoo funds. One in five homes in Cork city is being bought by non-owner occupiers, many of which are global companies that are using the housing crisis to profit. The average rental price for a two-bedroom property in Cork is double what it would cost to buy the same property. How can that be right? Ordinary people are losing out because the Government is allowing institutional investment funds to buy up the properties that people need to live in and that they want to buy themselves. The Government is doing nothing to protect people. This matter needs to be examined.

I wish to discuss the mortgage-to-rent scheme. In 2018, there was a decision to allow a private operator, Home for Life, to essentially claim a monopoly on the scheme. Home for Life is the only private operator licensed in the market and the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage has confirmed that he does not intend to reopen the licensing application process. Home for Life is buying distressed mortgages and then leasing the respective homes for 25 years to local authorities. The homeowner remains in the property and becomes a local authority tenant. At the end of the 25 years, the local authority will have to find housing for that tenant and Home for Life will own the property even though the State has paid its rent for 25 years. More than 500 of these long-term leases have been completed since 2018.

This is a local authority scheme that does not need private investment. If we continue to rely on just one private operator, and assuming the investment patterns do not change, a conservative estimate is that the State could be looking at local authorities forking out €120 million over the next 25 years. This situation will be compounded year on year and not a single house will be owned by the State. It is a scandal. The mortage-to-rent scheme was set up for local authorities to buy the distressed mortgages of homeowners who could not repay their loans. Why was a private company allowed to make unbelievable profits on the backs of people who were losing their homes?

I commend the Minister of State and his officials on introducing this Bill. It is long overdue. I have been asking in the Dáil when the commitment in the programme for Government to empower ComReg to apply administrative sanctions would be introduced. I kept being told that it was coming, but it is finally here. I hope that it will be effective and lead to a change in how telecommunication services are provided.

Recently, we had a celebrated example of a company winning a great customer service award, namely, Eir. It was so confident in its win that it immediately blocked all replies on Twitter from anyone who might question the win. Subsequently, it transpired that Eir had bought the win.

Another organisation that received an award for its services was RTÉ News, but that is an entirely different story and not one I do intend to get into here today. The bottom line, however, is that Eir has been reviled by its customers for quite some time. It appears to have improved its customer service somewhat in recent months but has a long way to go and is far from unique in how it provides customer service. I hope that ComReg is empowered to take action on behalf of ordinary consumers across this State because there are consumers who cannot get broadband and are awaiting it under the national broadband plan. There are also those who in theory have broadband but whose service is completely inadequate. In such cases, the telecommunications provider, be it Eir or one of its competitors, is not fulfilling its contractual obligations at all and people can get no redress. I hope this will be addressed and that ComReg will have the power to tackle such rogue operators, be they rogue operators that have to buy customer service awards or others.

We talk a lot about working from home and its importance. I expect it is as important to the Minister of State's constituency as it is to mine that there be a facility to work from home, be it every day or some days per week. It enables young couples, older couples and young singletons to live in our constituencies while working for companies in our major urban centres in a way that would not have been possible heretofore. That has a large number of benefits because we need to see more balanced regional development instead of having all economic activity concentrated in certain urban centres that do not have the infrastructure to deal with the required level of development, while other parts of the country are simultaneously abandoned. Driving through most of the market towns of Ireland, we can see the large-scale abandonment of buildings. If lucky, we see some commercial activity in ground-floor premises. We see that nobody is living overhead and that a number of buildings are derelict. The ability to work from home is a means of addressing this problem but it has to be accompanied by an adequate telecommunications service. Therein lies a great challenge for the Government. I am referring to its rolling out of broadband but also to its empowering of the regulator to ensure contracts are adhered to. I very much hope that is brought about by a Bill. I commend the Minister of State on introducing this Bill.

There are a couple of other areas that I wish to turn to in the time available about which I am perhaps a little less optimistic. One such area, the beef sector, has been alluded to by previous speakers. While I was in the Chamber, Deputy Conway Walsh of Sinn Féin raised it towards the end of her contribution. We do not have any anticompetitive practices in the beef sector, according to our competition authority. We have never been found to have any anticompetitive practices in the sector. There are four major firms involved - one very big, another big and two slightly smaller. They control the beef sector. The sector is obviously very important to Irish agriculture. Year in, year out, prices rise and fall in unison; there is never more than a cent or two in the difference between the prices of those concerned. Farmers have long complained of anticompetitive practices in this regard but none have ever been found. In fact, I wasted my time writing to call for an investigation into the beef sector when I was a Deputy in a former Dáil. There is a degree to which the CCPC has demonstrated a lack of awareness of how the sector operates. Deputy Bruton talked about the capacity to introduce sanctions for the abuse of personal data. In the beef sector, the processors have all the data. They know how many cattle are in Ireland right now. They know how many cattle aged 21, 28, 29, 30 or 34 months are in Ireland and can set their price accordingly. It is not necessarily anticompetitive because the information is at least available from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, but its effect is to stifle competition in the sector. Prices will rise and fall in tandem because the processors know exactly how many cattle are available. Some years ago, they were facilitated by the BSE crisis through the introduction of the so-called 30-month rule, whereby people are rewarded for getting rid of their cattle at 30 months. In reality, it operates as a penalty. A farmer are penalised if his cattle are not killed by 30 months. If someone knows how many cattle aged 28 and 29 months are in the country at any given time and that live exports are not happening, for a variety of reasons, he or she can control the price. I appreciate there are animal rights arguments against live exports. Some of those arguments are slightly exaggerated, for commercial benefit. The benefit accrues to the beef processors because, if it can be ensured that cattle can leave Ireland only in one way, dead, they have to be killed in Ireland. If the processors know how many cattle are of a particular age, they just set the price; it is very simple.

Anybody who has anything to do with the beef sector will know phone calls are regularly made and that smaller operators fear the bigger operators. There are not many of them but there is still a fear factor because ABP is a huge operator. It could wipe a processor out overnight, in the same way that Cement Roadstone Holdings, CRH, could wipe out, and has wiped out, people in the quarry business. We have to acknowledge realities in this House.

The aforementioned factor has to be considered. Nobody is going to investigate it or determine what we can do about but it is going to be made worse by a couple of new steps. Like the Minister of State, I grew up in a village, Scariff. There were two butchers in the village when I was growing up. It is not all that long ago. I might look old but I am 47. Both butchers in the village were able to kill cattle or pigs. They did not kill horses for feed, unlike ABP, but they did kill cattle, sheep and pigs. The policy of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine was to wipe out those abattoirs, the thinking being that they were a nuisance and that it could not be dealing with small producers, no more than it wanted to be dealing with small cheese producers. The production of cheese in farmhouses across Ireland is inherently dangerous because cheese is made by bacteria, so the view was to sacrifice them. I once had a meeting with representatives of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine in Limerick but they did not say what I am saying. I could never accuse them of saying it. Regarding the people I represented, namely small cheese producers in a region where there had been a listeria outbreak, the Department was taking the opportunity to drive them under or get rid of them. There is a policy to abolish the small producers. It might not be stated to us but it is stated among people who work in the business.

I am glad the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, is present because the Green Party has a policy of promoting small food producers, craft producers and farmhouse producers. It is important that this happens, but what happens on the ground and what is promoted by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine are entirely different. The aim is to wipe out the small producers and regard them as a nuisance. If there is a listeria outbreak in a farmhouse producing cheese, the Department will say, perhaps rightly, that it could threaten infant milk exports to China. The approach is to ask why a risk should be taken for the sake of small producers producing a product that a couple of hundred people love when there is a need to protect the huge Chinese market. However, if we go down that road far enough, we will end up with just one person producing a product. That is where we are heading in the beef sector by wiping out the small abattoirs.

With regard to the number of regional vets employed, I understand they are paid through central government but employed by local councils. There are fewer and fewer of those positions available. When those positions are no longer available, there cannot be an abattoir. There cannot be an abattoir without a vet who can occasionally inspect. Year on year, we are reducing the number of places where cattle, sheep and pigs can be killed in Ireland and concentrating production into the hands of a small number.

That is not anti-competitive. That is fine; it is just business. However, it is a business model that has the same result as anti-competitive practices. There are small producers being driven to the wall. There are large multinationals making more and more money, to the extent that the controlling shareholder of one of them can own the building the Department of Health rents, while small farmers that produce money go to the wall. The shareholder to whom I referred is obviously a better businessman than the others - he would not own the building otherwise - but we need to look at the huge imbalance that exists.

I want to mention two things that in my view are going to make that worse, if inadvertently. The first is the application for protected geographical indication for beef. This is going to be brought in for grass-finished Irish beef. If the application is successful, it will be good news in theory because all beef finished in Ireland will be grass-finished Irish beef because, thankfully, the majority of beef cattle spend most of their lives outdoors. We have not yet reached the stage, although I think we will, unfortunately, where there are cattle that are 24 months old and have never seen grass under them or the sky over them. Personally, I find that immoral on some level. I am a farmer and I produce beef to be killed and eaten. I find it immoral that cattle would never see anything other than a roof over them and concrete under them. It offends me. I do not know exactly why it offends me, but it does. It seems to be so contrary to what is natural and to what farmers and generations of farmers did before me.

If every animal in Ireland is going to be grass-finished Irish beef, then what is the scope for the producers' groups? We were told the producers' groups could come together and perhaps apply for protected designation of origin, for example, for Burren beef, east Clare beef, Mullingar beef or Ballynacarrigy beef – take your pick. We were told they could apply for protected designation of origin that would be recognised and they could, perhaps, argue for a higher price from the big players such as ABP, Dawn Meats, Slaney Foods and Kepak. Now the Government has taken that from them by applying for this recognition for Ireland. If everybody has it, then it becomes worthless. It is like inflation. We are inflating away the possibility and the bargaining chips these farmers have.

The other thing that has recently been feted is ABP's advantage beef programme, which sounds great because it is about traceability. It is about ensuring less movement of cattle. It basically means there will be a 20 cent per kg bonus for cattle that are killed on the grid. The grid price will be averaged across all ABP and Slaney Foods plants. I think there are seven of them. The price will be averaged across them in any event. However, the conditions are the cattle will have to have been on not more than two farms during their lives and they have to be at least a year on the farm on which they are killed. That all sounds great for the consumers, but the actual effect of that is to ensure farmers cannot have cattle that were bought in a mart the year before they are killed.

Marts were introduced in the 1960s and the 1970s to ensure some degree of transparency in what was always, I suppose, a slightly murky business, but at least there were multifaceted places that cattle could be killed. Cattle were being brought to Dublin and shipped live to the Port of Bristol and elsewhere in the UK at the time. While there was no transparency in it, there was a greater degree of competition. If that is taken out, then the beef processors are being further empowered to set a price.

What happens when we do not have enough cattle? Sometimes supply does not quite meet demand. That happened last summer in the Irish beef business. It was a rare and a wonderful thing. Beef prices are good at the moment; I am not saying that they are not. However, I am very much afraid of the power of processors when beef prices and international beef prices take a turn. I am afraid of their power to use that to ensure they are insulated from the downturn in the market and ordinary producers get screwed. That is what they do. What happens when demand exceeds supply is processors have to go to the marts to buy finished cattle. They have to pay a market price for them. Lo and behold, they actually have to compete with one another for cattle in the marts. Then the farmers realise the processors are actually making more per kilo than the farmers thought they were, so the farmers can demand more per kilo. That is what happened last summer.

Apparently, this advantage scheme is being brought in with the backing of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. The Department backs anything that is advantageous to the big beef processors and the big dairy co-operatives to the detriment of small producers, whom they regard as a nuisance. If there is a scheme such as the one that is being proposed by ABP, then one cannot go to the marts. There will be less trade going through the marts and there will be even less transparency in a very non-transparent market. That, I have to say, worries me. There is a requirement that cattle have to be 12 months on a farm, with the exception of bull beef, which only has to be on a farm for six months. If there is a rationale for the 12-month requirement, then surely there is a rationale for the six-month requirement. One does not see young bulls traded in marts as much as cows and steers.

The scheme undermines one of the few areas in which we have transparency in the food chain in Ireland. There is no transparency in what the beef processors pay. They buy cattle and we do not know what they pay for them. They are using more and more feedlots. Of course, when supply wanes a bit, they are able to empty those feedlots to suppress prices. There is no transparency around what the retailers pay the processors. There is no transparency around the conditions attached to it that they be, for example, Angus beef, Hereford beef, 30 months old, 33 months old or 36 months old, the extent to which consumers want that, or the extent to which it is actually a ploy the processors have to suppress prices. There no transparency around any of that. However, there is transparency around what cattle of 450 kg, 550 kg, or whatever weight are making in the marts on a given day or week. That is absolutely transparent.

This programme, to me, is an attempt to undermine that and remove the one little bit of transparency farmers have. Of course, it is justified on other bases because there will be less movement and more certainty, and the cattle will all come from Bord Bia quality assured herds. However, up to now there has been a requirement that to finish cattle, they have to have come from a Bord Bia quality assured herd, unless they are being bought a long time before they are killed. I do not accept and I question the rationale for the programme.

That said, I am not convinced these are issues that can easily be addressed by way of legislation. I think a culture change is required in how we produce food, how we promote the food we produce and how we encourage food producers. It seems to me that, for a long time now, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has been corralling producers down one lane, and that is towards greater intensification. For example, farmers are told that if there is a lake in the middle of their farm, they should take it out because it is a waste of time. They are told that if there is a hedgerow, they should take it out because it is a waste of space. At the same time, we have a Government that is rightly promoting biodiversity. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine - inadvertently, perhaps - is promoting forms of agriculture that are completely detrimental to that. Therefore, we need to take a step back.

I do not think that what I have highlighted or sought to highlight can be addressed by way of anti-competition legislation. It is a political issue, but it is about who holds political sway in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. I do not mean it is about which party holds sway. The question is whether it is a Department for food producers or a Department for large-scale multinational beef packers and co-operatives that are increasingly moving away from the farmer base that heretofore owned them and controlled them. I fear the dairy sector will go the same way as the beef sector in that it will become, in a way, controlled by processors rather than controlled by producers.

As a number of the speakers listed are not present, we are going to suspend for five minutes.

Cuireadh an Dáil ar fionraí ag 5.50 p.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ag 5.55 p.m.
Sitting suspended at 5.50 p.m. and resumed at 5.55 p.m.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this important Bill. I will start with farming because I always like reminding the House that Ireland is predominantly a farming and agriculture-based country. This Government, however, as well as successive governments in the past, seems to have forgotten that. It has forgotten farmers and fishermen. Every obstacle that could be put in their way has been put in their way. Farmers are extremely resilient. They have to fight against weather and the cartels involved in beef factories. They have to fight all the time just to survive and make a living.

Unfortunately, the Government does not do much to help them. Who are the additional carbon taxes that have recently been imposed going to affect adversely the most? It is the farming community and people living in rural Ireland. I refer to the price of diesel in petrol stations at the moment. I never thought I would live to see the day that the price of agri-diesel would go over €1 per litre. I never thought that would happen. There are exactly 4.56 l in a gallon. I never thought I would see the day that a gallon would cost more than €4. It is nearly heading to €5. It is an awful expense on farmers. It is an awful burden to try to take.

When farmers go to the mart, they being are hit with a cartel or monopoly type of situation with the factories. I and Deputy Mattie McGrath and others from around the country stood shoulder to shoulder outside meat factories - I stood outside the meat factories in Rathkeale and Bandon - trying to stand up for farmers and be there for them in their time of need. Unfortunately, we still have not won our way. When I say "our way", what we wanted was fair play and a fair price. All farmers want to do is cover their costs and make a modest profit so they can continue trading the next year. That is not happening, however.

In the context of business and life generally, in the past, governments were made up of people who, at home, were doing the ordinary things. They were farmers, shopkeepers, publicans or undertakers. They employed just a few people here and there. Now when I look across the Chamber at Ministers - obviously, I am not referring to the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, who is present, as I would never personalise anything - talking about job creation, I see people who never created a job or paid a man or woman on a Friday. I hear people over here talking about the working man but a lot of these fellas here talking about it never did a day's work in their lives. When I look across at the Ministers, I see people who do not know what it is to stick their hand in their pocket and have to pay somebody. They do not know the obligations of being an employer. They do not know the obligations and rights to which an employer has to adhere to employ people properly. That is why I say they are out of touch and do not know what they are talking about.

I refer to the situation for small grocers at the moment, for instance. I will again declare that I am a small shopkeeper. I am a small employer in a small village and have been so since I was 18 or 19 years of age. Believe me, it is a terribly difficult place to be when you are trying to balance a book, pay your tax, keep your nose clean and be open for the next year of trading. It is not easy. Deputies might ask whether I have anything good to say about the Government. Of course, if it was not for the incentives that were given to small businesses and the schemes that were in put in place, and if it was not for those mechanisms to help employers and their employees, whether in the catering sector, the hoteliers or the pubs that were shut for so long, an awful lot of the small businesses in County Kerry that I represent would be shut today.

Of course, that was a lifeline and I acknowledge and say thanks for it.

Now that those schemes are finishing, the hard reality of trying to make the business wash its face is going to be back on those employers again who desperately want to hold on to their loyal workers. We must remember that if it was not for the workers, there would be no business. It is very important that those employees and employers are protected to ensure that our small businesses in our rural areas, in particular, are kept vibrant. We must also consider the fishermen who have been sold out. At the end of the day these are the things that are so important. The farming, the small businesses, the people who create two and three jobs and the fishermen. All of these businesses are in a constant battle just to keep their heads above water.

One thing I want to touch on is the whole scheme around contractors. I declare an interest as I have been involved in that business all of my life. It is becoming very difficult because of the whole E-tendering system. When a big job comes to a county, this job goes to a big contractor. I have no problem with that if the big contractor will employ the smaller local contractors, which is great. We have a situation where no matter what size the job that comes up now is, one really has to be in the stratospheric league of things to be able to qualify. In other words, when tenders are being offered, if there is a contractor who is tax compliant whose nose is clean from a regulatory point of view - which of course it has to be - that person should be entitled to take their chances and tender for that scheme. Remember, in order to grow, to get bigger and to make what one does better, one has to start somewhere. When I think of contracting in Kerry I think of great people, the likes of Mike Jack Cronin of the MC Group. I think of where he started, from what I would call very humble beginnings, and grew into a great organisation. It is very difficult for a person to do that. There are certainly no incentives there for a person like that. It is nothing but the height of absolute hard work, determination and, of course, a good workforce that is needed. It is great to see small beginnings like that come up along in the world and indeed the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage was in Kerry to go to one of Mike Cronin’s sites recently.

The Taoiseach visited another great group of people in Tricel. That family, a husband and wife organisation in the Stack family, started out from very humble beginnings and did great things. I compliment the Stack family on what they have achieved, where they now have 500 employees. This was a husband and wife team which started in 1973 in the great town of Killarney. Now it is doing very significant work exporting its tanks and its renewable energy solutions around the world. It is a great achievement for a small family business to grow into that.

The opportunities for others to do that is very limited and I blame the E-tendering scheme in the way that it is structured. It is like the chicken and egg - where does one start? One cannot start big, one has to start small but if one starts small now the opportunity of getting bigger is very limited because of the whole tendering system.

Our tendering system has to be open, of course, to every type of scrutiny and transparency, which is what we want, but I want to see more people being given the opportunity of a bite of the cherry. I compliment, as I am doing in talking about these types of businesses, all of the people who are involved in that type of contracting. We are fortunate in Kerry and Cork at the moment that there are a number of large infrastructural projects that are under way and are in the pipeline. I warmly welcome those, including the greenway which has been finally given which I would call the legal green light. It will be a lifeline to Cahirsiveen and to the people of the Iveragh Peninsula because it was held up for a number of years. I believe it will be one of the finest walkways we will have in Europe. People will come from all around the world to travel, to walk on and to use that walkway when it will be opened.

That is to be welcomed.

We have lessons to learn, and when I say “we” I mean all of us, as to how we go about securing permission from farmers when we want to do a project. There is a great difference between going to a landowner in one way as opposed to another. There was a very nice man in the place where I come from and he said it is all about how one approaches a thing. There is a great deal to be said for that. Those were very wise words. No matter what one is at in life, it all depends on how one goes about it. Unfortunately, there were a great number of lessons for us all to learn. I am not pointing the finger of blame at any one person or to any organisation but the legal complications that ensued were most unfortunate.

There is no point in life if, when we are so busy going forward, you look behind yourself and will fall over what is in front of you. We must look forward and that is what I will be looking to do in County Kerry. I hope now again that the Cabinet, where there is money already in the kitty, will provide additional funds which will be greatly needed. The Green Party is shouting all the time about greenways and walkways. Now is the time then for it to put its money where its mouth is to ensure that we will be putting funds there, on top of the funds that are there already, to start and complete the project and the job of work in a timely fashion. I am looking forward to as many people from Kerry being employed there as possible because the Iveragh Peninsula is so devoid of employment at the moment. It would be an economic boost in construction and a great economic boost afterwards to go from Mountain Stage on through Kells and down into Cahirsiveen. It will be a great lift for that entire region, be it going down to Ballinskelligs, Portmagee and Valentia Island and across all of that area. We will all benefit from the greenway which I welcome.

I come back to the obstacles that are put in the way of business. One of the biggest problems that we have at the moment in all types of businesses is the energy costs. It is laughable when I hear the Government saying that it recognises now that there is a problem. Of course there is a problem but who caused the problem only the Government? The Government, on the one hand is going ahead, gung-ho, in imposing carbon budgets and taxes on top of other ordinary taxes and increases. At the same time it is telling the people that it will hit and hurt them this way, but that it must try to devise a way to help and assist the people in another way. In other words, we must try to give the people some of their own money back. That is crazy. We should be ensuring that we have a surety of electricity supply in this country which we do not have at present. We are going to be overly reliant on England and France and we will finish up buying it from them because we have shut down Bord na Móna and ensured that those stations were closed.

At the same time, if one then looks at Moneypoint and Tarbert, they were shut because of the Green Party but in spite of that party they were opened again and the reason for this was if they were not, there is a great possibility that we would be here in the dark with a candle. That is a fact. This is a stark fact and it is one that the Green Party Members hate to be reminded of but I will remind them of it over and over again.

I will also remind them that last night it was very upsetting to hear a Minister coming out to say that it was great that we were going to give the people €25,000 of a grant while at the same time telling them that it will cost between €50,000 and €55,000 to do this job. The Government was saying that it will give a grant of €25,000 to people who have trouble paying their ESB bills, heating their homes and educating their families because money is so scarce in family homes at present.

I want to give a reminder to the Government at a time when it is topical to ask if the Government is in touch or out of touch.

I hold 40 to 50 clinics every month in rural areas and in the larger towns and centres of population in County Kerry. I like to think I am acutely attuned to what is happening in family homes and the pressures that are on families at present post pandemic, the financial constraints on them and the ever-increasing costs of just living. They go to the petrol station where previously €55 or €60 would fill the car but now it costs way over €100. That is a fact. It is costing €104 to €108 to fill the average car. I never thought I would see that happen, and it is getting worse. Consider what a person is paying for electricity. If the electricity bill was €100 previously, there is no problem in saying that the bill is now over €200. That is the reality. There is the cost of medical care and the cost of basics such as education - sending young lads out to school, packing their bags with their lunches, buying their books and sending them on their way. It is ordinary, daily living. When we talk about competition and living in Ireland, we must remember those facts. They are sore and hard facts of life.

I want to remind the Minister of State of another matter, and it is very upsetting. Take the example of people who have a small shop. In the past the shop supplied the needs of the local schools. Let us say there were a couple of big schools in the area. Those people, who were providing local employment, are now being faced with the problem that the schools are being told they can only deal with bigger organisations. In other words, the stuff will arrive in a van from Dublin to the school in the rural area, instead of from the local shop that was supplying such goods to the school and giving local employment. We are losing that connectivity, and it is a problem. I use that as an example. These are stationery stores, people who supply schoolbooks and the like. They are finding things extremely difficult because they are being debarred.

There is the same type of situation with the HSE. If there is a hospital in a community, the one thing the hospital should be doing is trying to procure and source all goods it can locally. Obviously, we want local people to get employment in the hospital, but we also want the services and the day-to-day supplies that are needed in the hospital. It is only good business sense that we support local and shop local. I do not mind giving a little bit of a rub when I see these international groups coming here - obviously, I would be too polite to name them - and hear them boast about creating so many jobs because they are opening this shop here and that shop there. These are people who would not even bank their money in Ireland; they take their money abroad to bank it, for fear something would happen it here. When those people are boasting about the jobs they are creating, they never mention the jobs they are displacing. They never say how many shops they have closed in a locality. It is similar to a petrol station, for example. When we see one being established with a shiny new place, nothing is said about all the places that had to close to make way for it. I have seen that happening.

I again thank and greatly support the small family businesses that take on the conglomerates and the big multinational groups that come here just to profit here and take their money and everything they can out of the country. It is like what we saw happening with the Debenhams workers in Tralee. It is all about coming in with a smash-and-grab effect. I am not talking about the business I just mentioned. I referred to Debenhams in the context that I felt the workers were treated so badly. In broad terms, I am talking about businesses that come here just to make what they can and go away with it. Compare that with the small family business that has been in the area perhaps for decades. It is there for years, and we see the generations - the older people, the present family and the younger people coming up - carrying on the business, whether it is a pub, a hotel, a shop, a plant hire business or a small building contractor.

Those people have a thing in their blood that the big businesses do not know about. I will explain. It is the blood that is running through their veins; the business is in their blood. The ability to survive is in their blood. The ability to make a couple of pounds, survive and just plod along is in their blood. That cannot be bought; it cannot be made. It is the spirit of resilience. That is the Irish spirit of fighting on the flat of one's back. When everything goes wrong and people are down and everything is down on top of them, they rise out of the ashes, take it on and fight on again to live another day. Some of the best friends I had and some of the best business people I ever knew went broke. They went broke possibly twice or three times. However, every time they went down, as sure as they went down they came back up again, and they came back up bigger, better and stronger. They plodded along. What else did they do? They created local employment again.

I think of all those business people, past and present and hopefully in future generations. We, as legislators, and today's Government are only all on a wheel. We are only here for a while. We must ensure that those businesses will be nurtured and looked after, and that everything that can be done to keep them rolling along will be done. We need not be too worried about the big conglomerates because they can mind themselves, but we must mind our local businesses because they are so important. That is the message I send from the House tonight.

I thank the Deputies for their overall support for this Bill and for the comments I have heard this evening. I will start by responding to some of those comments and questions.

Several Deputies mentioned the recent CCPC investigation of price-signalling in the motor insurance sector. This Bill means that in future such behaviour will be punishable by huge administrative sanctions. Deputies O'Reilly, Carthy and Ó Murchú mentioned the delay in bringing this Bill forward. In an Irish constitutional context, this Bill is groundbreaking. It also goes further than merely transposing the directive by extending the administrative sanctions to breaches of national competition law and increasing other CCPC powers regarding mergers and surveillance. The Minister is committed to ensuring that the CCPC is well resourced.

A number of Deputies raised the matter of flood insurance. The CCPC can only look at the insurance sector from the perspective of competition law. Regulation of the insurance sector overall rests with the Central Bank. On the matter of the banking sector, again regulation is within the remit of the Central Bank. The CCPC's role relates to competition law and assessment of mergers.

In response to Deputy Shanahan, this legislation would have had no role to play in the banking crisis as the issues at that time were not related to competition law breaches.

The public procurement issues raised are not within the Minister's remit as they are the responsibility of the procuring body. I am the Minister of State with responsibility for public procurement and I can say that the majority of public procurement spend is allocated to small and medium enterprises. I meet with representatives of the small and medium enterprises sector every quarter so their feedback can be taken into account in matters of procurement law.

Deputy Bruton asked about administrative sanctions for broader than competition law breaches. He mentioned the use of personal data. This is within the remit of the Data Protection Commissioner. As Deputy Bruton will be aware, matters regarding consumers switching providers in the areas of utilities, insurance and financial services fall to ministerial colleagues with responsibilities related to the regulation of those sectors, namely, the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications and the Minister for Finance. The Commission for Regulation of Utilities provides a list of electricity and gas providers with some helpful hints and tips on switching. Comparing insurance prices is more complicated as often insurance contracts cover a range of products, making comparisons more difficult. This is a topic that the Minister of State with responsibility for financial services, credit unions and insurance, Deputy Fleming, has pressed upon the insurance industry, urging more transparency. There is also a useful comparison on the Health Insurance Authority's website where consumers can compare the cost of plans from different insurers for similar benefits.

Comparing prices and using comparison sites, such as those provided by the CCPC, are always sensible steps in order that we can compare not only the prices but also the benefits of each supplier. That is why the CCPC recently launched a consumer information campaign aimed at promoting its free, independent money tools. I encourage consumers to visit the CCPC website, www.ccpc.ie, to avail of these very useful tools, which could end up saving consumers significant amounts of money.

I intend to bring the Deputies' concerns to the attention of my colleagues, the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan; the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Sean Fleming; and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath. To reply in particular to Deputies O'Donoghue and McNamara, the powers of ComReg to enforce competition law are affected by this Bill but the legislation does not have any effect on its powers as a sectoral regulator. Those powers remain under the remit of its parent Department, which is the Department for the Environment, Climate and Communications. Many Deputies raised farmers' concerns, especially around beef and pork prices. This Bill will not be the panacea for all the concerns of farmers but it provides for severe financial punishment for any operators in the meat sector found to be in breach of competition law.

In moving this Bill, we believe the powers being given to the CCPC and ComReg as a consequence of the legislation will act as a deterrent to anticompetitive behaviour by enterprise. These powers will help the Government in its efforts to tackle white-collar crime in our economy, which will be of benefit to everybody living and working here. The Minister of State, Deputy Troy, looks forward to working with the House during Committee and Report Stages of the Bill, including on any amendments that may be proposed. As mentioned, the Bill underwent pre-legislative scrutiny before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment and it has been drafted to reflect several of the key issues outlined in the committee's report. I hope there can be cross-party support to ensure we get this Bill enacted as soon as possible.

Question put.

In accordance with Standing Order 80(2), the division is postponed until the weekly division time later this evening.

Cuireadh an Dáil ar fionraí ag 6.23 p.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ag 6.30 p.m.
Sitting suspended at 6.23 p.m. and resumed at 6.30 p.m.
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