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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 4 May 2022

Vol. 1021 No. 4

Competition (Amendment) Bill 2022: Report and Final Stages

Amendments Nos. 1 and 2, arising out of committee proceedings, are related and can be taken together.

I move amendment No. 1:

In page 106, between lines 21 and 22, to insert the following:

“Amendment of section 21 of Act of 2014

28. Section 21 of the Act of 2014 is amended by the insertion of the following subsection:

“(2) When considering the provision of moneys to be provided to the Commission, the Minister may give consideration to the additional powers the Commission may have undertaken, or been provided with, in a given year, and the increased expenses the Commission may have incurred as a result.”.”.

The purpose of amendments Nos. 1 and 2 is broadly similar. The amendments recognise the new powers that will be conferred on the commission by passing the legislation. It will mean that the workload increases. The concern is that unless money is provided to reflect the increased workload, important work will not be done, to the point that it affects the organisation's ability to carry out necessary functions. I have tabled amendments and think that we need to have a belt, braces and baler twine approach to ensure that the commission has all the resources that it needs. New powers are welcome, but they are effectively useless without the capacity of the organisation to back that up. The two amendments are broadly similar.

Amendment No. 1 is a proposed new section 28, not a new section 26, as incorrectly printed in the numbered list. Amendment No. 2 should be a proposed new section 31 of the Bill, not section 29, as incorrectly printed in the numbered list.

I thank Deputy O'Reilly for giving an opportunity to address these amendments. I intend to address both amendments together, because there is considerable overlap between them. I agree wholeheartedly with Deputy O'Reilly that it is important that the regulatory body is adequately resourced to coincide with any necessary legislative provision that gives it additional powers. As I stated previously, my Department and the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, CCPC, recognise that significant additional resources will be required to implement the new legislation. In the past two budgets, the CCPC has received an increase of over 30%. It currently has 146 staff and it intends to increase the number to more than 200 by the end of this year. If the CCPC assessment is that additional funding is required, based on the structures required under this Bill, it can submit an increased Estimate bid as part of the budget 2023 negotiations. This bid is subject to agreement by the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, and if it is approved, it will be incorporated into the overall departmental Estimates package, which will be the subject of negotiation with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform for the upcoming budget.

The Deputy's amendments would be an unusual departure from the process, in that past spending would have to be accounted for rather than projected spending. Accounting for projected spending has been the norm. If the budgets were based on past performance in 2017 and 2018, the CCPC would not have received the additional 30% budget increase in 2021 and 2022, because those were based on projected activity, not past activity. The best way is for the CCPC to come forward in advance of the budgetary process and put forward a business case for the funding it needs to carry out its future work. That has been done in the past two budgets.

We demonstrated in these budgets that we recognised that additional resources would be needed and those resources were provided. I advised on Committee Stage that the Government is obliged under EU law to ensure that its competition authorities are sufficiently resourced. Since then, I have given the points raised by Deputy O'Reilly further consideration, because I genuinely accept where she is coming from, particularly with regard to what options are open to the CCPC if it found itself under-resourced and unable to carry out its functions at any future date. I consulted the CCPC and was advised that if such an event occurred, it has the ability to contact the European Commission's Directorate-General for Competition directly. The CCPC has direct contact with Commission officials in the appropriate unit. That would probably be the first point of contact if it had concerns about resourcing. This means that the CCPC has recourse if a future Government did not adequately resource the commission or, as Deputy O'Reilly suggested on Committee Stage, a Government decided to slash its budget.

While I genuinely appreciate the Deputy's concern and know where she is coming from with regard to belt, braces and baler twine, I believe that there is no need for these amendments so I do not propose to accept them.

I thank the Minister of State for the reply. What he pointed out about the Directorate-General for Competition is important.

The legislation provides that "the Minister may give consideration". It does not compel the Minister and nor does it compel the Minister to only look at the previous year and use that as the basis; it is just something to be considered.

I have a particular concern about this because of the recruitment embargo. When it was implemented, the way it was implemented essentially was to abolish existing vacancies. When a job became vacant, that post was suppressed and the job was not replaced. Its application was very uneven and I would be concerned that it would happen in this case. Notwithstanding that, I welcome that the Minister of State has had a discussion with the commission and that it is satisfied that it would be able to take matters further, should it require. The Minister of State can see where I am coming from in this regard. It is an abundance of caution and knowledge of what happened with the recruitment embargo. I will not go into the reasons it happened but it was very unevenly applied. While it did not leave agencies unable to perform their functions, it really hampered them in being able to perform their functions. As I have said, the clarification from the Minister of State is very welcome. The Minister of State can see where we are coming from on this. It is to be cautious. We want to make sure that the maximum amount of resources are going to be made available. The additional powers will mean the commission will have a huge amount of additional work, which is very important work. I have that concern but I accept the Minister of State's response in that regard and again thank him for considering it.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment No. 2 not moved.
Bill received for final consideration.
Question proposed: “That the Bill do now pass.”

I was not sure if I could speak before or after that but I thank the Ceann Comhairle.

If the Minister of State does not speak for too long he will be all right.

I will not be too long. When I introduced the Bill to the Dáil earlier in February, I spoke about the imperative for fair and open competition for our businesses, our economy and our society. We know that the vast majority of businesses do not engage in uncompetitive practices but there are some who do. These practices drive out competition, drive up costs for ordinary citizens, and undermine the dynamic nature of our economy. This is why I prioritised this legislation as soon as I took office and was determined to bring the Bill before the House for consideration.

I sincerely thank the Deputies across the House for their overall support for the Bill to date and for the time they have taken to engage in depth with a Bill that, by necessity, is long and legally complex. The Bill is weighty legislation that required much consideration and redrafting to get right, particularly in light of our unique constitutional position, the large volume of legislation the Oireachtas had to consider due to the pandemic and the Zalewski judgment. It has been time well spent and I am confident that the Bill we discussed today is robust and will allow Ireland to effectively deal with anti-competitive behaviour at a national and European level in a way that is wholly in accordance with our Constitution.

Anti-competitive practices affect everyone, make it more difficult for honest businesses to prosper and have adverse effects on consumers. By strengthening the powers of our competition authorities we are taking an important step to ensure that Ireland's economy is open, fair and transparent. While enacting the Competition (Amendment) Bill is about meeting our obligations as a member of the European Union, it is much more than that. The Bill is about ensuring that Ireland's citizens are protected. The Government is committed to taking a tough stance on white-collar crime. As I said at the outset, most Irish businesses operate in a fair and honourable manner. We have an obligation to those businesses to effectively and efficiently deal with anti-competitive practices in order that law-abiding businesses can thrive. Competition benefits all consumers. It drives innovation and efficiencies. These efficiencies can be passed onto consumers in the context of competitive pricing.

Again, I thank Deputies for their positive reception of this legislation to date. I hope to keep the momentum going through the Seanad in order that the Bill can be passed sooner rather than later. It is important that our businesses will have the certainty and that consumers can reap the benefits of a dynamic and competitive economy.

Question put and agreed to.

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Troy. I congratulate him and his team, and all the Deputies, for bringing this important piece of work to this stage. The Bill will now be sent to the Seanad.

Sitting suspended at 6.35 p.m. and resumed at 6.38 p.m.