Consumer Protection Bill 2007: Second Stage.

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

The Bill provides for the establishment on a statutory basis of the national consumer agency, the transposition into national law of the unfair commercial practices directive and the rationalisation and updating of the existing body of consumer legislation. It also updates and significantly strengthens the law on pyramid selling.

The Government has identified the development of national policy in the area of consumer protection as a priority for legislative reform. Our aim is to ensure that such policy is fully synchronised with practices in a modern economy.

This Bill implements one of the key recommendations of the Consumer Strategy Group, whose final report, Make Consumers Count — A New Direction for Irish Consumers, was published in May 2005. The group was strongly of the view that a new agency should be established with a robust and expanded mandate to protect consumer welfare and represent the interests of consumers. The group recommended that the new agency should have specific statutory functions in the areas of consumer advocacy, research, information, enforcement and education and awareness.

To begin this process without delay, I established the agency on an interim basis in June 2005 and appointed a board and interim chief executive to begin putting in place immediately the infrastructure of the new organisation and building a rapport with consumers. This Bill represents the next logical step towards a fundamental re-focusing of national consumer policy by providing the agency with all the statutory powers and functions it needs to do an effective job on behalf of consumers.

Specifically, the Bill includes provisions allowing the agency to advocate the consumer's case forcefully in public debate. These provisions are designed to ensure that the new agency will be a strong advocate for consumers within the policy-making arena, thereby ensuring that consumer interests are brought to the forefront of the national agenda.

The agency shall also conduct, commission and publish research on consumer issues. This reflects the strong view of the Consumer Strategy Group that well founded research is an essential prerequisite to enable the agency to act as a vigorous advocate for consumers. By being well informed, the agency will be in a position to debate issues from a position of strength.

The agency will also promote public awareness, conduct public information campaigns and promote educational activities and initiatives. The aim and intention behind this shift in consumer policy is to empower consumers, make them better informed about their rights and allow them to be more assertive in exercising those rights.

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

This new body of law will ensure that consumers can have confidence that they will be treated fairly in their commercial dealings with traders and that the relationship between consumers and traders will be based on fairness and respect. To enforce these statutory provisions, the agency will inherit the existing enforcement functions of the Director of Consumer Affairs but will also be armed with a number of additional and novel enforcement options. In addition, the legislation provides for significant penalties for traders found guilty of offences under the Bill. I will deal in detail later with these enforcement provisions. Specifically, however, the Bill will ensure that the national consumer agency has all the necessary powers to enforce actively the statutory protections afforded to consumers and to pursue aggressively those traders who do not comply with their obligations. The Bill further provides specific protections for persons who report offences to the national consumer agency.

I will now summarise the main provisions of the Consumer Protection Bill. Part 2 provides for the establishment of the new national consumer agency. Many of the provisions of this part impose standard corporate governance type powers, duties and obligations on the agency and its staff. If there are particular issues I fail to mention, I will be happy to expand further on them when replying and I would welcome the contributions of all Senators in that regard.

Within Part 2, section 8 is key because it sets out the agency's functions. The agency will have a general function of promoting consumer welfare and will also be responsible for investigating, enforcing and encouraging compliance with consumer law. The agency is given specific functions relating to advising and making recommendations to the Government and Ministers in respect of any policy or legislative proposal impacting upon consumers. It will be empowered to recommend new legislative proposals to Ministers and will also be entitled to submit recommendations to any other public body regarding any matter impacting on the welfare of consumers. The national consumer agency will also promote the development of alternative dispute resolution procedures as a means of resolving disputes arising out of consumer transactions. Such arrangements are increasingly seen internationally as an alternative to expensive court proceedings. Section 8 also makes the agency responsible for carrying out the functions previously exercised by the Director of Consumer Affairs and which are transferred to it by section 37.

Section 9 allows the Minister to consult the agency in respect of proposals for legislation specifically aimed at consumers. The section obliges it to keep existing consumer protection legislation under review and to submit to the Minister and other Ministers appropriate proposals regarding such legislation.

Sections 10 to 13, inclusive, relate to the appointment of the members and the chairperson of the agency and set out the procedures with regard to meetings of the new national consumer agency. They also provide for the manner in which the agency shall carry out its business.

Sections 14 to 17, inclusive, provide for the appointment, and certain terms and conditions of employment, of the chief executive officer of the agency. For example, these sections prohibit a former chief executive from acting as a consultant or taking employment where he or she may be likely to use or disclose information acquired in the performance of his or her functions as chief executive for a period of 12 months after the person ceases to hold the office. The chief executive will be obliged to give evidence before Oireachtas committees.

Section 20 obliges the agency periodically to prepare and submit to the Minister strategy statements and annual work programmes.

It is critical that the State and the taxpayer should obtain maximum value for money from the resources employed in protecting consumer interests. Thus section 21 provides that the agency shall enter into co-operation agreements with other public bodies to be prescribed by the Minister. The purpose of such agreements shall be to facilitate co-operation and avoid of duplication of activities, while simultaneously permitting consultation and the conducting of joint studies and analysis between the agency and those other bodies that are parties to such agreements. However, the inclusion of these provisions will also enable the agency to provide a strong consumer voice to complement the work of the various sectoral regulators and to question their decisions if they are seen to act against the interests of consumers. Copies of co-operation agreements must be available to the public. I intend to consult other Ministers before prescribing any other bodies in accordance with these arrangements. However, I envisage that existing sectoral regulators will be among the bodies to be so prescribed.

Section 22 requires the agency to provide the Minister with a copy of its annual report and requires such reports to be laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas.

Section 23 obliges the agency to keep proper accounts and to submit its accounts for audit to the Comptroller and Auditor General. Copies of the accounts and of the Comptroller and Auditor General's report shall be presented to the Minister who shall lay copies of them before the Houses of the Oireachtas.

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

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

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

Among the remaining sections of this Part of the Bill, I draw particular attention to section 35, which allows, among other things, for the transfer of existing staff of the Office of the Director of Consumer Affairs. These staff are currently civil servants employed by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. At any time within 24 months following the establishment of the agency, they may opt to return to the Department and preserve their Civil Service status. There will be no change to their terms or conditions of employment.

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

Part 3 moves away from the administration of the new agency. Its main focus is on prohibiting a wide range of unfair, misleading or aggressive trading practices. This part also transposes the EU's unfair commercial practices directive. The aim of this directive is to harmonise the laws of European Union member states and provide a high level of consumer protection. Consumers will enjoy similar levels of protection for purchases made throughout the European Union, while business will benefit from having a common framework of rules instead of a host of disparate national regulations.

Studies undertaken by the European Commission show that Irish consumers make higher levels of cross-border purchases and Irish business has higher levels of cross-border sales than the European Union average. The harmonisation effected by the directive will, therefore, benefit both consumers and business in Ireland.

This part of the Bill introduces a number of new elements to Irish consumer law. Ireland, for example, is one of the few EU member states that do not have a general legislative clause dealing with fair and unfair trading towards consumers. Section 40, which gives effect to a general prohibition of unfair commercial practices, fills this gap in our consumer protection code. It provides that a commercial practice is unfair where it is contrary to the general principle of good faith in the trader's field of activity and the standard of skill and care that a trader could reasonably be expected to exercise towards consumers. The main advantage of a general clause of this kind is that it can be used to combat novel commercial practices that are not covered by specific provisions in consumer legislation as well those that are consciously designed by unscrupulous traders to fall outside the scope of such legislation.

Sections 42 to 44, inclusive, prohibit misleading commercial practices. These provisions have some elements in common with those of the Merchandise Marks and Consumer Information Acts on false and misleading trade descriptions and advertising. However, they go further than the existing law by providing a non-exhaustive list of such practices.

Section 45 provides that the omission of material information to consumers is a misleading practice. This is not expressly provided for in existing legislation and is a useful addition to it.

Section 47 allows the Minister to make consumer information regulations to specify certain information that should be provided to consumers in specified transactions. The section is broadly similar to the provisions of the Consumer Information Act on marking and advertising orders.

Sections 49 to 51, inclusive, relate to aggressive commercial practices and bring a further new element in our consumer protection law. Aggressive commercial practices are defined as those involving harassment, coercion or undue influence that impair consumers' freedom of choice or conduct and affect their purchasing decisions. They include pressure sales tactics that seek to intimidate or coerce consumers and practices that seek to take advantage of consumers who are vulnerable by virtue of misfortune or circumstance. The practices described in the these sections are prohibited only in circumstances where they would be likely to cause the average consumer to make a transactional decision that he or she would not otherwise make. The intention behind this test is that a practice should not be regarded as unfair, misleading or aggressive unless it actually impinges on consumer decisions.

Section 52 contains an extensive list of commercial practices that are prohibited in all circumstances. These are not subject to the same test on the basis that they are deemed of their nature to impair consumer decision making in all cases. These practices include prize promotions where there is either no prize or consumers must make a payment to claim a prize, claims that products can cure illnesses where they cannot, false claims that a product or trader have an endorsement or authorisation or that a trader is about to cease trading or move premises, and persistent unwanted cold calling. While some of these practices might well have been covered by the provisions in our existing legislation, others most certainly were not and it is helpful to have them dealt with by means of clear and specific prohibitions.

Sections 54 to 57, inclusive, relate to price display regulations, the provision of weighing facilities in grocery retail outlets and the prevention of persons from reading prices. These provisions are based on provisions in existing domestic consumer legislation which still have a useful role to play.

Before discussing section 58 and section 59 that deal with the fixing of maximum prices during a state of emergency affecting the supply of a product, I would like to refer to the extensive range of other price-fixing powers that are being repealed by this Bill. The Prices Acts 1958 to 1972 confer seven separate powers on the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment to fix maximum prices. The only one of these that is being retained is that dealing with emergency situations. The Consumer Strategy Group recommended the repeal of the price control provisions of the Prices Acts, and this view is supported by the Competition Authority, the ODCA and the NCA. Our experience with price controls, particularly in the period from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s when extensive recourse was had to them, strongly supports the view that they are a wholly ineffective way of restraining prices.

Emergency situations can arise, nevertheless, in which normal competitive forces do not apply and it is prudent to make provision for such circumstances. Factors such as the volatility of oil supplies, the increased likelihood of extreme weather events and the lengthening of supply chains for many products underline the need for such a provision in my view.

Section 59 amends the provision at section 16 of the Prices Act 1958 by providing that orders fixing maximum prices during a state of emergency should be made by the Government and not by the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment. I am doing this to emphasise the exceptional nature of these powers.

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

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

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

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

Section 70 provides that where the agency considers there is a case for seeking an injunction or prohibition order against a trader in respect of a prohibited act or practice, it will have the option of accepting a written undertaking from that trader containing whatever terms and conditions the agency considers appropriate in the circumstances. If the trader subsequently fails to comply with the terms of the undertaking, the agency may then apply for a prohibition order.

Section 72 similarly provides that when the agency considers that a trader has been engaging in prohibited activity, it will have the option of serving a compliance notice on the trader concerned directing him or her to remedy the prohibited act or practice. If the trader does not appeal the notice, it takes effect within a specified period. Failure by a trader to comply with the terms of a compliance notice is an offence and may lead to the taking of criminal proceedings against him or her.

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

Section 82 will permit the agency to impose on-the-spot fines on traders for offences relating to price display. This is in line with a recommendation of the Consumer Strategy Group and again reflects the view that, where it is practicable to secure effective enforcement of consumer law by means other than going to court, this should be done.

Many businesses spend a great deal of money building a reputation for themselves and their products. Bringing to public attention the names of those traders who breach consumer legislation, therefore, can be a powerful sanction and a compelling incentive to compliance. This is especially so for large businesses for which fines may represent a negligible sanction. Section 79 permits a court, on the application of the agency, to require a trader convicted of a number of specified offences to publish, at his or her expense, a corrective statement in respect of the facts relating to the offence. Section 83 requires the agency to maintain a list of traders convicted of criminal offences, subject to court orders, giving an undertaking, served with a compliance notice or subject to a fixed payment notice, and to publish this list at any time and in any form it considers appropriate.

A further element of this part of the Bill to which I would like to draw attention is the enhanced provision made for redress for consumers. Section 71 gives consumers aggrieved by a prohibited act or practice a right of action for relief by way of damages against the trader who has committed the act or practice in question. In some cases it is sufficient that a practice detrimental to consumers is halted whether as a result of civil or criminal proceedings. In others cases where consumers have suffered loss or damage as a result of such an act or practice, it is right that they should have an opportunity to seek redress for that loss or damage. Section 79 further permits a court to require a trader convicted of an offence under the Act to pay appropriate compensation to a consumer who has suffered loss or damage as a result of the offence. Such a compensation order may be instead of, or in addition to, any fine or penalty the court may impose on the trader.

Part 5 provides for tougher penalties, particularly for repeat offenders. Section 76 maintains the existing maximum fine of €3,000 for summary convictions and €60,000 for convictions on indictment. However, the section also provides for a maximum fine of €5,000 for a subsequent summary conviction for the same offence and of €100,000 for a subsequent conviction on indictment. The section also provides for additional penalties for continuing contraventions by persons convicted of offences. It is right in my view to penalise more heavily those traders who repeatedly breach the law. A substantial part of the overall detriment suffered by consumers results from the activities of a small number of hard-core transgressors, and these should be a particular target of enforcement action.

Sections 85 and 86 give recognition to codes of practice drawn up by traders or groups of traders, allow the agency to approve such codes and for the provisions of a code to be admissible in court proceedings. Section 87 allows the agency to issues guidelines to traders and consumers alike in regard to the practicalities of transacting business.

I also alert the House to the fact that I will be introducing a number of mainly technical amendments to the Bill on Committee Stage to tidy up some residual drafting matters. I also propose to introduce some additional powers in regard to product safety and casual trading, two matters of particular concern to consumers.

There is one non-consumer provision in the Bill. Section 93 amends the Industrial Development Act 1993 to give retrospective effect to an assignment of powers made by Forfás to IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland on 26 May 2006. The assignment of powers is being made retrospective to 25 July 2003, the date the Industrial Development (Science Foundation Ireland) Act 2003 came into effect. This provision is necessary because the 2003 Act consolidated provisions dealing with employment grants that had been included in the 1986, 1991 and 1993 Acts. As a consequence, a new assignment of powers to the agencies to make employment grants under section 25 of the 2003 Act was necessary. However, this assignment was not made until 26 May 2006 with the result the agencies were actingultra vires in approving employment grants between 25 July 2003, when the 2003 Act was commenced, and 26 May 2006.

The Attorney General has advised that primary legislation is necessary to make the assignment of powers retrospective to 25 July 2003. While any potential financial liability arising for the State on foot of the delay in assigning the powers is judged to be minimal, I am of the view that any potential risk should be closed off by introducing the necessary validating legislation at the earliest opportunity.

The Bill represents a fundamental realignment of national consumer policy by establishing a new agency with much expanded and enhanced powers and creating a forceful new consumer advocate, a role lacking in public debate and policy-making in recent years. The Bill replaces nine existing Acts with a single statute. This represents a significant gain in the accessibility and transparency of our consumer protection code and one that I am determined to extend to the remaining areas of that code.

I commend the Bill to the House.

The Fine Gael Party will support the Bill on Second Stage but will seek to amend it on later Stages. The Bill is frightfully late and shockingly weak. The national consumer agency has nothing like the powers it needs to protect consumers. The Fine Gael Party has been calling for a strengthened version of the Bill's provisions for over two years.

For the past eight years Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats have played a cruel,laissez-faire game with consumer’s rights. They sat back as the economic boom they inherited let rip and every scam artist and rip-off merchant made a mint. Consumers were treated to the highest inflation and prices in Europe with the worst value for money. After years of this hardship, the Government comes up with a new agency.

When Fine Gael attempted to create a consumer rights enforcer through a Private Members' Bill in the Dáil, the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Killeen referred to "comprehensive measures and policies already in place and envisaged, both domestically and internationally, to protect and represent consumer interests" and instructed Fianna Fáil and Progressive Democrats Deputies to vote down our proposals. I introduced a Private Members' Bill to abolish staged payments, a most unfair practice and contrary to the consumers' interests, but it too was voted down. Staged payments are counter to the EU directive on unfair commercial practices and an existing provision in Irish law, recently brought to my attention.

During the launch of the rip-off Ireland campaign, my fellow Kerryman, the Minister for Arts, Sports and Tourism, Deputy O'Donoghue, condemned Fine Gael for even raising the issue, asking what rip-off. I am glad he has been shouted down at Cabinet and the Government has started to acknowledge the problem. Senator Leyden claimed that Fine Gael was single-handedly destroying Irish tourism by even mentioning this issue. When we launched the campaign, he asked the Seanad, on 10 November 2004:

Why is Fine Gael trying to jeopardise employment and tourism by discouraging people from visiting Ireland? I have travelled in different parts of Europe and, irrespective of the costs, Ireland is relatively competitive in many areas. This has not been recognised on the Fine Gael Party's website.

The Government is the father of rip-off Ireland. No fewer than 50 stealth taxes have been introduced by the Government since it won the last election. From ESB bills to passport fees, the only way has been up. Ireland has become a consumers' graveyard with annual inflation at its highest level for four years and further electricity price rises on the way. The price increases in the 12 months to December 2006 are the highest for four years. Prices are up 4.9% and the electricity price increase has yet to bite.

A comparison with prices across Europe shows that Irish prices have risen in the past 12 months at a rate 26% faster than in the rest of the euro area. Put simply, Irish price increases in Government-regulated sectors and sheltered service are more than twice that in the rest of Europe. Yet, in contrast, price increases in Irish goods markets have been far slower. These trends are continuing a prevailing pattern making Ireland the dearest country in Europe. This is all as a result of poor public policy promoted by Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats. Goods in our shops have not increased at all in price over that entire period. The prices of services delivered by companies exposed to international competition have actually fallen. Yet prices in sheltered service sectors have grown by 24%. This is the main driver of inflation over the past five years.

While the Bill will establish the national consumer agency on a statutory basis, it has been in a state of semi-existence since last year. The Fine Gael Party has been singularly unimpressed with it. Take for example the strange events surrounding the exit of BUPA Ireland from the health insurance market. That decision highlighted the complete ineptitude and powerlessness of the structures and bodies set up by the Government to protect consumers' interests. It was extraordinary that the national consumer agency and the Competition Authority responded so weakly. The agency's silence was shocking but not surprising. Even the Minister's most enthusiastic supporters could not believe his claims that the agency is more than window-dressing. The Government may think it can substitute the odd radio commercial for a proper consumer policy but consumers, and voters, know differently. They will remind Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats of that.

For the past two years my party has been calling for a consumer rights enforcer with real power to root out blockages to competition and ensure consumers get the fair deal they deserve. Under our proposals, the new body would have the same status as the Ombudsman and would cut the umbilical cord with Departments that represent vested producer interests. The office of the consumer rights enforcer would replace the Office of the Director of Consumer Affairs and be a pro-active champion, watchdog, defender and advocate of consumers' rights and interests. A key feature of such an office would be its independence. To be properly effective it would need to be a stand-alone office with its own staff and a secure budget.

Specifically, a consumer rights enforcer would conduct regular price surveys that highlight good value and name and shame those charging excessive prices; create a price league website with tables on all major products; develop codes of conduct for service providers and retailers on issues like passing on exchange rate movements; devise and promote a good practice provider quality mark for suppliers of goods and services that agree to be bound by relevant codes of practice; work with local authorities to drive a pro-consumer agenda at local level involving regular price surveys and measures that protect consumers' interests against local cartels; and represent the consumer in national partnership agreements. It is clear that recent agreements have been dominated by the producers with consumers given little thought. These are the proposals the consumer needs and should be in this Bill. We look forward to the Government including them on Committee Stage.

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Martin, and his team of senior officials from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. I compliment them on bringing this comprehensive Bill before the House. The Minister established the interim national consumer agency in 2005 in response to recommendations in the report of the Consumer Strategy Group. This interim arrangement was worthwhile because it got the process moving. The agency is already a well established body and I commend it on its current initiatives.

The Consumers Association of Ireland, a voluntary organisation whose chief executive is Mr. Dermot Jewell, was in place before the establishment of the national consumer agency. This organisation was funded by the Department and I assume it will continue to receive some level of support.

It might have been better if this body were amalgamated with the new national consumer agency to prevent any duplication of functionality.

Since its establishment, the national consumer agency has put in place a highly informative and accessible website which clearly outlines consumers' rights and updates them on relevant consumer news, including developments in regard to PIN number technology for credit and debit cards, customs charges on on-line Internet purchases, hidden charges by banks, telecommunications companies and so on, procedures for switching telephone companies, and details of the €50 million of Dublin Bus refunds that remain unclaimed. These are all worthwhile initiatives.

Senator Coghlan referred to the progress of Fine Gael's campaign on consumer issues. I was delighted when that party followed my initiative in naming and shaming those service providers who do not offer consumers good value. I raised the issue of variations in petrol prices throughout the State, a problem that persists. In the latest edition of theSunday Independent, for example, we are told that a filling station at Usher’s Quay in Dublin is charging €1.35 for a litre of petrol, some 36 cents more than the average price of 99 cents. I wish to alert both the Garda Síochána and the Health Service Executive to this issue because this petrol station is a designated fuelling location for both organisations in the central Dublin area. The price it is charging represent an enormous rip-off that is taking place under our noses.

Why has the national consumer agency not responded to revelations about this petrol station's practices? The agency should take a proactive approach by interviewing those involved to ascertain the circumstances in which any State agency, whether the HSE or the Garda Síochána, can commit themselves to purchase diesel and petrol from this outlet? It is a Statoil station, which company has recently been taken over. This is an important issue. I am surprised there are no members of the national consumer agency in the Chamber today. When a Bill of this nature is being discussed, I would expect a representative to be in attendance.

Senator Coghlan is confident about the Fine Gael strategy on consumers and, in particular, its website,ripoff.ie. However, the information included on this website on taxi prices dates from August 2005, while the cost of disability information relates to November 2005. It seems there has been a lull in which Fine Gael has given up the ghost as far as quality is concerned. Data on fresh food prices were last updated in July 2006. Information on funeral expenses, meanwhile, died a death in July 2005, and car rental figures have not been updated since Christmas 2005. A section detailing news items about rip-off Ireland has not been added to since June 2005. It is case of RIP for rip-off Ireland.

When did Senator Leyden last check prices?

It seems there was a flurry of activity which suddenly came to a halt. Perhaps Fine Gael's backroom boys will pay heed to this debate and examine the party's website.

We cannot rely on any one party to guide us in this area. That is why the national consumer agency was established.

How long is it since Fine Gael called for the establishment of such an agency?

Senator Coghlan proposes major amendments to this Bill because, Fine Gael claims, the measures it contains are not strong enough. The out-of-date data on Fine Gael's website suggest an inactive organisation. The Fine Gael Party must provide more up-to-date information if it wishes to get into power. Perhaps it accepts that rip-off Ireland died in 2005, coinciding with the establishment of the national consumer agency. I presume Fine Gael is satisfied the agency has taken over its responsibilities in this area.

It is a long time since Fine Gael recommended the establishment of a national consumer agency and a consumer rights enforcer.

That is true. As far as the Minister is concerned, however, it is difficult to prepare a Bill of this size and complexity. Instead of waiting for the Bill to go through, he wisely established the body on an interim basis in 2005. This Bill is so complex it is vital it is passed without delay.

We are prepared to take further Stages on Thursday.

I compliment Senator Coghlan on his consistently co-operative approach to the passage of legislation in this House. I hope the Minister will be able to have this Bill passed by both Houses before 18 May or whenever.

I hope to have it passed by Easter.

It is important legislation.

Nobody doubts its importance; strengthening its provisions is our concern.

It includes many effective provisions, as I will outline presently.

I ask the Minister to elaborate on his reference to a non-consumer provision in the Bill. He stated:

Section 93 amends the Industrial Development Act 1993 to give retrospective effect to an assignment of powers made by Forfás to IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland on 26 May 2006. The assignment of powers is being made retrospective to 25 July 2003, the date the Industrial Development (Science Foundation Ireland) Act 2003 came into effect. This provision is necessary because the 2003 Act consolidated provisions dealing with employment grants that had been included in the 1986, 1991 and 1993 Acts. As a consequence, a new assignment of powers to the agencies to make employment grants under section 25 of the 2003 Act was necessary. However, this assignment was not made until 26 May 2006 with the result that the agencies were actingultra vires in approving employment grants in the period between 25 July 2003, when the 2003 Act was commenced, and 26 May 2006.

The Attorney General has advised that primary legislation is necessary in order to make the assignment of powers retrospective to 25 July 2003. While any potential financial liability arising for the State on foot of the delay in assigning the powers is judged to be minimal, I am of the view that any potential risk should be closed off by introducing the necessary validating legislation at the earliest opportunity.

It is suitable that this provision be included in this legislation rather than having to bring forward another industrial development Bill, necessitating a further delay. We should note this important provision. I do not see how any liability could arise because we are talking about the provision of grant-aid. Science Foundation Ireland has done great work since its establishment and has been an enormous success. Representatives of that body gave evidence before the Joint Committee on Enterprise and Small Business last week of the work it is doing and the amount of assistance it has provided.

As well as providing for the establishment of the national consumer agency, the Bill also gives effect to the unfair commercial practices directive and allows for the prohibition of unfair, misleading and aggressive commercial practices. A blacklist of 23 misleading and eight aggressive commercial practices are set out, including pyramid schemes, false claims about products and bid advertising. Pyramid selling was highlighted in Cork city — in an area perhaps close to the Minister's constituency — and I believe throughout the county. As far as I recall, it was highlighted on "Liveline" with Joe Duffy. A number of people have been misled by pyramid selling. It is strange how people can be taken in by a scheme which was very active in the 1960s and 1970s. Legislation was introduced but, apparently, it was not strong enough to prohibit pyramid selling. The Minister has strengthened the provision in this Bill.

It is very important the National Consumer Agency forms a network of support throughout the country in regard to consumer issues, for example, obtaining and preparing information on supermarket costs. Has the Minister detected a decrease in the cost of products in the supermarket chains since the ban on below cost selling was removed?

It is down by 1.6%.

That is certainly a vindication of the Minister's stand in that regard.

There is great competition among retailers. All the major retailers, including Dunnes Stores and Tesco, are in my home town of Roscommon. All the local shops are still competing very effectively against the multinationals. When the ban on below cost selling was removed, I was concerned it could put them in jeopardy but that has not been the case. It has not been brought to my attention, although Senator Coghlan may have found otherwise. The drop in the cost of products to the consumer, as indicated by information from the Department, has vindicated the Minister's stand in that regard.

I am anxious the Bill is passed as quickly as possible and that is why I do not wish to spend much time discussing all the details. The Minister outlined the facts and figures in great detail. Everyone must be particularly vigilant as far as consumers and prices are concerned. While there is good competition, I highlighted the cost of petrol at various filling stations in Dublin. The display of prices outside filling stations was brought in by a previous Administration and it has been very worthwhile. People can see the cost of diesel, petrol and unleaded petrol and they can drive around to get better prices. The consumer agency will have to monitor the situation in regard to price fixing. It is no coincidence that if the price of a litre of petrol is 99.9 cent in one filling station, it is the same price in all filling stations in a town. Few companies will buck the system. It may not be price fixing as such but the filling stations keep to the same price.

There are a lot fewer filling stations than there used to be.

That is a factor too. There are fewer stations and that is a major concern. There are property deals——

The retail outlets have opened filling stations.

The retail outlets have opened filling stations, so it balances out.

It is vitally important prices are clearly displayed in stores. The requirement to display the price of petrol and diesel on large signs is being adhered to 100% by filling stations and that has been of major assistance. The same should apply to supermarkets. Going through supermarkets, I sometimes notice prices are not as clearly displayed as they should be. Sometimes the product is not directly above or below the price. People should be aware of the cost of products before they leave the supermarket.

I commend this Bill which has full support. I am delighted the Minister will be able to get it through in this session because it is important. I suspect the National Consumer Agency does not believe it has the teeth to work until it has the power of this legislation behind it. I note staff will be assigned and re-assigned to it. I wish the Minister and his officials, who put much work into this Bill, well.

My colleague, Senator O'Toole, indicated he would like to share time. He is at a meeting in the building and if he arrives, may I share time?

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the legislation. I am not part of the partisan pre-election ping-pong. I congratulate the Minister on producing the legislation, although it is a bit like the Taoiseach's slogan — some done, more to do. I have a strong feeling part of the motivation for this Bill is the fact we are required to implement an EU directive. The Minister is shaking his head but he referred to this EU directive several times and it is inescapable that it is part of the motivating factor.

The introduction of this Bill is welcome. The National Consumer Agency was set up some time ago but not on a statutory basis. There is much exaltation here such as forcefully advocating the consumer's case. That is fine but it is a bit wishy-washy. It is stated that a commission will publish research. This Government is committed to committing, commissioning, researching and so on but there is far too much dithering.

The Senator is summing it up well.

I am glad this Bill does not remain in the land of dither in that it actually produces penalties. Some of the penalties are fairly significant but again we must rely on the courts to implement them. There is a case in the Minister's constituency about which I cannot say too much because I do not believe the sentence has been passed. It concerns Ford dealerships and price rigging. That is very anti-consumer. There has been a conviction in the case but the sentence has not been passed.

The Minister referred to these quiz games, prizes or whatever. They are in every bloody newspaper nowadays. One scratches a card and wins a prize. These prizes are not worth a damn but they gull one into making a telephone call. People make money out of the enormous number of telephone calls made. Consumers are entitled go be protected against this because the language used is totally inflated. I have done research in this regard. I wasted my unfortunate secretary's time, because I would not waste my own, getting her to dial up. It was very unfair of me. One is kept waiting and waiting. It is dreadful the way this is done. The prizes are a mirage.

People also receive letters congratulating them and, in tiny letters, they are told they are in a draw to win €500,000. The letter will contain a certificate, a gold key or sometimes one has to scratch a card, but one wins sweet damn all. These games are unfair.

Worse still is something the Minister mentioned, namely, these unscrupulous, heartless people who have quack remedies and who claim they are able to cure diseases such as multiple sclerosis and cancer. That really should be stamped out. I believe this is considered by legislation under the Department of Health and Children as well. There has been a good initiative in regard to the alleged qualifications of these people, their right to practice and so forth and it covers quacks.

Does the Minister believe a sufficient amount has been drawn into this Bill because the power is scattered around a number of different agencies and ministries, including, for example, ComReg, the telecommunications regulator? I will say a little about the telephone situation which is appalling. Eircom is an absolute disaster. I refer also to the financial regulator which has powers in this area. I am glad pyramid schemes are being addressed. They are also cruel because there is absolutely no way they can work without the majority of people engaged in them losing very heavily. Very often they operate in housing estates of the poorer levels of society. While some people will make money, a great number will be defrauded. They join the schemes because they are gulled into thinking they will make money.

Will this legislation address the question of moneylenders, which has never been addressed satisfactorily, as it ought to be. While scandalous rates of interest are being charged, people who go to moneylenders simply do not know this is the case. Allied to this is the credit card scam operated by the banks. While on the subject of banks, I wish to make two points. Everyone knows they are crooks who have been dipping their hands in our pockets. They are also liars who lied about the late Mr. Haughey, thus causing severe disruption to the career of a good journalist who wrote an article to the effect that AIB was owed £1 million by Mr. Haughey. The bank flatly denied this, which was an outrage. However, it got away with it.

The Minister should also examine the issue of equity releases. Elderly people, who are drawn into flogging off part of their interest in their houses, do not realise it could be highly disadvantageous to them. For example, such people must secure permission from the relevant bank to modify their houses to install something like a chair lift.

Members should also consider the manner in which such advertisements are couched. They portray individuals who had never envisaged they could spend their declining years on the island of Barbados, or similar tripe, and this is unfair. Moreover, Members should consider the manner in which advertisements for many financial institutions include warnings that they are subject to this, that and the other. However, it is all muttered quickly and one cannot hear it. How are the advertising authorities protecting the consumer?

I note my colleague, Senator O'Toole, has entered the Chamber. How much time remains?

Half the time, or seven minutes, remains.

May I speak for another minute? I have some other points to make.

As for rip-off Ireland, the Minister should accept he was wrong regarding the groceries order. He was misled and prices did not drop. The consumer was not——

They did.

No, they did not. The consumer was not protected.

The Senator is wrong.

Members should consider people like me, who are unable to deal with computers properly. Given airline fare structures, one must be an Einstein to get a proper fare. Why not have some kind of standard fares from airlines that claim to operate scheduled flights? The seats are all flogged off to tour operators and one must scramble months in advance, or pay four times the price, to get a seat from an airline. The question of price fixing also arises.

While I should allow my colleague to make his contribution, my final point is that I wish the Minister well and I will not be partisan in this regard. However, my hopes are not high. Like theSkibbereen Eagle, Members are watching because the Government’s record in looking after consumers’ interests is poor. For example, Members should consider the e-voting issue. Mr. John McCarthy has stated he gave evidence to an Oireachtas committee some time before the Minister signed the order for the machines that are not worth a tuppenny damn. Members have now discovered that the Minister for Health and Children was warned about the BUPA situation, whereby any number of insurers will float in to get a free ride in respect of risk equalisation. The concept of caveat emptor applies to both the ordinary individual citizen as a consumer and to the Government, which represents the people on our behalf.

I thank Senator Norris for allowing me to share time with him. Before the Minister leaves the Chamber, he should note the three questions that must be answered, namely, how much, how many and when. To make the new agency work, how much money will it get for its budget, how many people will it be able to appoint and when will it receive its money?

I have witnessed this process many times previously. I serve on a number of bodies and am director of several agencies on the State's behalf and, inexorably, the following sequence takes place. Initially, there is great hoopla and brouhaha about establishing the body in question. As soon as it has been established by the Oireachtas, the parent Department, which in this case is the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, is given the job of setting up the authority or agency. At present, this agency is working on an interim basis. However, this has become a four-year process and I propose to take the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Killeen, through the steps. There will be at least six months of arguments regarding the chief executive's pay, followed by another six months deciding how many people will be allowed to work. The process will then move from the interim board to the Department, which will argue, do whatever it can and thereafter will take up the matter with the Department of Finance. The argument will then start up again with the Department of Finance, which will include the budget for the new body in the budget of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. Consequently, this will create other constraints every year.

Matters within some of what one might call quasi-Government Departments are appalling. The State should set up such agencies and allow them to work on their own. However, this will not happen, which will be the death of many bodies that work with a parent Department. This is not a reflection on the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. In respect of some of the bodies with which I am involved, it has been completely supportive and progressive in terms of getting things done. However, matters run into the sand within the Department of Finance and this is what will happen in this instance.

As I stated at the outset, there are only three questions to be answered about this body. It has been set up because the previous body lacked the resources to carry out the purpose for which it was established. While the previous consumer body had many plans to undertake initiatives, it did not receive the funds to so do. This Bill is a political response and its purpose is to be seen to be doing something by creating a brand new office with a brand new set of support structures. No one can oppose it, as the announcement of the establishment of a new consumer protection agency or Bill will meet agreement from all, as though it were motherhood and apple pie, as it is a great idea. However, Members should not forget that a good system existed previously that did not get sufficient resources. This agency will not be able to do its work if it does not get the requisite resources. How much money will it receive for its budget? How many people will it be entitled to appoint and when will it be allowed to so do?

I ask the Minister of State to respond to my next point regarding a problem the new national consumer agency will face as it sets up its structure. Everyone appointed to it will have a salary related to Civil Service or public service grades, probably the former. Hence, all salaries will be based on those enjoyed by higher executive officers, assistant principal officers, principal officers, assistant secretaries or whatever. Problems will arise subsequently, because this agency will need some professionally qualified people. It should be permitted to recruit them at levels that pertain in the private sector. I repeat that it should be allowed to recruit on the basis of what is being paid in the private sector. If Members want people who can examine tight situations within several different industries to join the agency, they should note this will not be done by paying generalists. I use the latter term to refer to people without qualifications. While such people may be highly committed and so on, one must be able to recruit professional support and expertise when needed, which entails paying the market rates. This agency will not operate successfully if it is told otherwise by the Department of Finance.

The chief executive will be paid at the first point on the pay scale of the grade of assistant secretary within the general Departments of State. I guarantee this will be the first question to arise and I guarantee it will restrict the level of people who can be recruited into this market. Why does the Department of Finance always do this? It pertains to some internal structures that no one else understands. This constitutes another problem.

As for dealing with issues, Members respond politically to issues pertaining to the consumer. For example, members should consider briefly the groceries order. I spoke in this House on the groceries order a number of times. I also spoke on the committee that dealt with it, on which Senator Coghlan and I both served. My view was that the Minister had no choice and made the correct political decision in abolishing the groceries order. I also stated it would make not one whit of a difference to prices which would go up and down as they always did. It has not really changed matters. Certain prices were decreasing before the groceries order was introduced and others were not.

Prices in Ireland are not as bad as politicians state they are. Every time I travel abroad I check the cost of certain items common to countries, including a ten-mile or 15 km taxi ride and a box of Mach 3 razor blades. This country is not as overpriced as we are led to believe. We need a certain element of support to ensure people are paid fair prices.

Today, the issue was raised of the filling station on the quays at Usher's Quay. I used it twice during the past year because I was stuck. I am sure other people do the same. Just because newspapers hold the view that Departments and the Garda Síochána fill up their cars there does not mean they pay €1.35 per litre. The way it was covered in the newspapers last week is grossly unfair to those bodies. It is the only place one can fill up in town. I presume it was tendered and they obtain it at a competitive price. Otherwise, someone should be sacked. I cannot believe anyone in the Garda Síochána or the Health Service Executive is stupid enough to pay €1.35 for a litre of diesel or petrol.

I wish the national consumer agency well. It can be a great success. I will finish with the same point with which I began. It will only be a success if it can recruit at private sector rates and is provided with enough of a budget to do so. The Department of Finance must be told if it does not provide a budget, it will undermine the political direction determined by the Oireachtas. The agency must also have sufficient staff. How many staff are foreseen? When will it receive money and staffing and when will it be operational? I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Killeen, to the House.

I also welcome the Minister of State to the House and I welcome the Consumer Protection Bill. The idea of such legislation is fortuitous at this time. With so much money and affluence in the country, we must ensure people receive value for money, are not mislead and that even companies with a good track record are kept in line. We know €10 billion will come on stream through the special savings incentive accounts shortly. However, many issues continue to require attention and it is good this Bill has been introduced.

I check the Internet daily and receive an offer from a poor country in west Africa where a recent coup has taken place. It states if I supply my bank account details, vast sums of money will be forwarded because the new government will take it off the incumbent. It is a simple offer, many different types of which exist and we all receive them. Even though it is international and borderless, I would like to see the new national consumer agency act in conjunction with other agencies to ensure fewer such offers are received. Unfortunately, people will fall for unscrupulous scams. We saw it recently with pyramid selling in Cork.

On a number of occasions today, oil prices were mentioned. In particular we discussed the service station on Usher's Quay which was mentioned twice during this debate. If oil is sold at €1.35 per litre on Usher's Quay and is available at 95 cent in Urlingford, it means a 40 cent differential per litre. This amounts to €1.70 or €1.80 per gallon or approximately €100 per barrel. This means a price of $130 per barrel, which is twice its price. Why is this allowed? Rather than imposing a price order, it should be examined.

As I stated previously, it is the first service station met by a lorry or a car coming off a ferry. Many people will wait to buy petrol until they arrive in Ireland because it is supposed to be significantly cheaper given the sterling differential. They are salted by the first filling station they come across. This has created a great deal of annoyance.

Recently, auctioneering firms have been criticised. I gladly note one auctioneering firm was made to account for misstating the size of a property by 1,800 sq. ft. It was brought to court and made pay. We are becoming more conscious of our rights under consumer legislation.

Moneylending was also mentioned. The least well-off in our society are those who still pay extortionate rates of approximately 20% at a time when European Central Bank rates are 3.5% and 4%. Technically, these people can least afford such high rates but seem to manage to afford it. It is no surprise that the Nobel peace prize went to a man who provided funding for people with little or low income in countries with a percentage of Ireland's wealth. We should ensure that moneylenders give the full extent of the cost of lending money and seek alternatives. They are in it for a profit and must be making a good one. Perhaps State agencies could provide the money at a lower rate and provide a public service. I am certain the sums involved are small.

Interesting and positive guidelines were published today by the Financial Regulator. It warns homeowners to consider their options and obtain independent advice before using an equity release scheme on their home. The guide to equity release explains the different types of equity release products available and the main issues to consider. Lifetime mortgages and home reversion schemes are designed for homeowners over 60 years of age and give people the option of getting a lump sum or regular income without having to move out of their home. When these were first launched I thought they were an excellent idea. However, people must be made aware and one of the benefits of this Bill and the establishment of the national consumer agency is that it will educate people.

According to the consumer director, Mary O'Dea:

Our research shows that almost 4 in 10 consumers aged over 50 would consider releasing equity from their homes at some point in the future. The benefit of these schemes is that they provide you with cash to meet your current needs, which is particularly appealing if you are living on a tight budget and your home is worth a lot of money now. But the risk is that you may not have enough money in the future to meet your long-term health or care needs. If you want to release some of the value of your home, consider the cost carefully and remember there are different risks than with other financial products. Any financial decisions you make at 60 can look very different when you are 75 and your needs and circumstances may have changed. Make sure to get independent legal and financial advice and consider whether you should talk over your plans with a family member.

Think carefully about the long-term costs and risks. With a lifetime mortgage the longer the mortgage lasts the more it costs. You could end up owing over €245,000 in 15 years time on a lifetime mortgage that would give you €100,000 in cash today. This is because with this type of equity release you make no repayments until your home is sold and the interest is added to the amount you owe, so it builds up quickly and the amount you eventually owe could be close to or equal to the value of your home. If you needed money for long-term care later on, you could find that there is very little value left in your home to pay for it.

Home reversion schemes involve selling part of your home for a cash price. You are not borrowing against the value of your home but are actually selling part of it to raise cash now.

Typically with a home reversion scheme you will get less than the market value of the portion of the house you sell. For example if your home is worth €500,000 and you sell half of it you could get between €112,000 and €146,000 in cash rather than the €250,000 market value of a half share.

The Financial Regulator urges people considering equity release products to make sure they consider the following main issues and risks: First, any lump sum or income raised through an equity release scheme could affect entitlement to State benefits such as the means-tested State pension. Second, the money may not last for one's lifetime, and its value will gradually fall due to inflation. There is a need to consider future financial needs and also long-term health and care needs. Third, raising cash through equity release will mean there is a lot less, or perhaps nothing at all, left for beneficiaries. If this is a cause of concern it should be discussed with one's family or a solicitor. Fourth, there is a need to consider how much money is really needed. Not all of these points will affect everybody but they will affect some, therefore, I welcome that part of the Bill which concerns education and the dissemination of information, which is opportune.

This consumer protection legislation will extend new protection for consumers and will overhaul structures in what will be the biggest reform in this area for 30 years. It will help to ensure Ireland has one of the strongest and most modern consumer protections in the world. The Consumer Protection Bill 2007 includes bans and tough sanctions for 31 anti-consumer activities including pyramid selling, prize bond scams and persistent cold calling of consumers, for which some communications companies, particularly telephone companies, are particularly at fault, having caused much concern to people.

It will also formally establish the new national consumer agency, which will have the funding and power to act forcibly on behalf of consumers. It is the first major consumer legislation in 30 years and will replace legislation which is long outdated, including two Acts which have been in place for over 100 years. A total of ten older Acts are being repealed or modernised by the new Bill. The consumer agency will be a powerful advocate on behalf on consumers because it will have the resources to contribute on all issues of real concern to consumers. I welcome the Bill.

I broadly welcome the Bill. Members will forgive me for being a bit churlish at the beginning of my contribution but some of the rhetoric used by the Government side in welcoming the Bill was a bit over the top. The Bill, in effect, consolidates existing legislation and transposes into Irish law the unfair commercial practices directive of 1995. It also gives significant additional powers to the new agency, which it very much needs if it is to be an effective advocate of consumer rights and an effective protector of consumers.

I am probably not a great consumer. If I want a blue shirt I typically go into just one shop and buy a blue shirt. I do not shop around for the cheapest or the best value, nor do I inspect every blue shirt in Grafton Street or Henry Street. I am not very price sensitive though I do not allow myself, or do not think I allow myself, to be ripped off. I do not much welcome the assistance of shop assistants and am unlikely to complain afterwards. I say that to make the point that I do not regard myself as unusual. Quite a few men and, no doubt, some women, are like me. Irish people generally are not great consumers. We are not great complainers and are not very familiar with our rights. If we do complain, it will be weeks or months later, in the privacy of our own homes or the pub. If my blue shirt turns out to be a dud I simply do not return to that shop for another blue shirt, but I do not complain.

This is an important point because the culture of consumerism is critical. We can and should put in place the proposed new agency. It is important we have all the rights set out in this and other consumer legislation but, if we do not know about them and do not seek to enforce them, they are hardly worth the paper on which they are written. A very important aspect of the new agency is that it does not rely on the individual consumer to protect consumers. One of the great faults of the core Act, the Sale of Goods and Supply of Services Act 1980, is that it puts the onus on consumers to enforce their own rights. We are entitled to have products that are fit for purpose and of merchantable quality but, if we do not get them, the obligation is on the consumer to complain and enforce his or her rights in the Small Claims Court or another court. In many cases that costs too much or is too much hassle so we do not bother. One of the potential advantages of the proposed new agency is that while it does not become involved in individual cases, it has powers to proactively protect consumers by carrying out research, publish its results and name and shame.

The power to name and shame could prove the single most important power of the new agency. The agency has enhanced powers to impose fines, which will be used in cases coming to court, but the power to name and shame is crucially important. We have seen its effectiveness with health and safety legislation and, perhaps more important, with food safety legislation. Where courts publish the names of individual restaurants which have transgressed regulations it has a powerful, coercive effect on restaurateurs, as it should. I hope the power will be extensively used because it is an important part of the armoury of the new agency.

I listened with interest to what Senator O'Toole said earlier. He is more expert than most in the mechanics of setting up an agency of this kind. The agency has existed on a non-statutory basis for some time so perhaps some of the hurdles he identified have been cleared, which I hope is the case. It is hugely important that we recruit the right people but also that it is properly resourced. One of the flaws in the current Office of the Director of Consumer Affairs is its lack of appropriate resourcing. A new office will always take time to get up and running but it is crucially important the new consumer agency be appropriately resourced to put into practice what we are setting down in law.

The major complaint from individual consumers, as we have heard this afternoon, is about price inflation. I saw the programme featuring Dr. Luntz the other night and price inflation was raised, though not on very many occasions. I hope Members will forgive me for using the phrase, but we have had a very unintelligent debate about inflation in this country. We take into account headline prices but scarcely anything else. We pick out bad examples and highlight them, which is right to do, but we must also look at the underlying picture, which is much more complicated. There is, for example, a huge difference between the rate of inflation of goods manufactured in Ireland and that of imported goods. There is a huge difference between the rate of inflation for services and that for goods. It is, unfortunately, axiomatic that goods produced in Ireland are likely to be more expensive than those produced abroad. The rate of increase in domestically produced goods, such as still exist, is much higher than for imported goods, the most obvious example being clothing. We now produce virtually no clothing but the clothing we import has, for the most part, come down in price in recent years rather than risen.

I will digress for a moment to introduce a different element into the discussion. Energy exercises people greatly, not least because it is, directly or indirectly, affected by Government decisions. We should seek to keep the price of energy low and it is incumbent on regulators to do so. Indeed, in so far as it makes decisions directly affecting prices, such as in setting excise duty, it is also incumbent on the Government to do so. We must, however, stand back for a moment. We have embarked on an interesting debate on climate change in the past few months. The greatest contributor to carbon emissions is unquestionably the use of energy. One of the proposals for reducing carbon emissions from energy is to activate the price mechanism. Are we speaking out of both sides of our mouths? We argue that we must keep energy prices low to sustain economic growth in the interests of consumers on the one hand, but most of us genuflect in the general direction of the climate change agenda by suggesting an increase in the price of energy on the other. I am trying to sort out this dilemma because climate change and what Ireland can contribute are worthy of a more intensive debate.

I did not support the abolition of the groceries order. It provided a minimal but useful element in ensuring that competition in the supply of groceries sector, the supermarket sector, continued. It would be fair to state that the jury is still out. The Minister claimed that he could point to a reduction in prices. If there is a reduction, it is slight and based on the November or December consumer price index figures. This is an important issue.

I am not a fan of price-fixing and the relevant powers are retained in the Bill. Nor am I a fan of maximum price orders, a power that the Bill also retains. To ensure that prices are within reasonable ambits, we need competition in all sectors, including supermarkets. The groceries order was a clumsy but useful way to maintain competition.

I will revert to my basic point. Many of the measures in the Bill are good. The list of restrictive, unfair or aggressive practices to be outlawed numbers 26 or 30, which is impressive. If it can be done successfully, we and the European Parliament will have done a good day's work on behalf of consumers.

To ensure that the Bill becomes a reality, we must resource the agency and people must know their rights. A long list of outlawed practices is of no use if the general public is unaware of it. For example, the Bill will outlaw the bait and switch practice. A wonderful phrase, it involves bringing people into shops to sell them products at low prices, those products becoming unavailable suddenly and asking the people to buy something that is not as cheap or as good a bargain. The last of the cheeky Charlie arguments is pretending that one is running out of a particular product. We can agree that such aggressive or excessive trading practices should be outlawed, but people must know of it. One of the first jobs the agency must take upon itself is to ensure that it informs people of their rights by way of the Internet, leaflets or so on.

I was struck by Senator Hanafin's remarks regarding the Internet, which poses a growing problem, but no effort has been made in the Bill to tackle Internet shopping. It is difficult to police the Internet, but since an increasing amount of shopping is being done through it, we must find a mechanism to police it on a European-wide basis at least. I am not sure whether any moves are afoot, but it is a lacuna in our regulations on consumer protection that must be addressed. I welcome the Bill and will support it on Second Stage.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Killeen, to the House and I am glad to contribute to this welcome Bill. The explanatory memorandum refers to provisions on pyramid schemes. I assume the provisions are new, as there have been many warnings on this issue, particularly in respect of last year's scam in County Cork.

In terms of consumer protection, advertising is of concern. Senator Norris referred to problems encountered when banks tell elderly people in particular that they can release their houses' equity. In the lunchtime news, some of the finance houses stated that elderly people are smart and can make up their own minds, but that advertising is over the top compared to what is available. It is not the only type of questionable advertising. Credit cards have been hyped considerably, but we all know of the charges imposed if people do not clear their credit card bills in time.

Like Senator McDowell, I do not shop around. It is not as easy to do as some believe, particularly if one lives in rural Ireland. This is not a matter of being the poor mouth. Regarding investigations into the price of home heating oil, I wonder how many operators are involved in so-called cartels. I have investigated the matter and found that people have been brought to court and prosecuted on home heating oil sales. Often, I have heard that there is little difference between the prices at which a town's pubs sell pints of Guinness. If one examines the price of drink in nearby towns and villages, the price is much the same.

This issue was brought to my attention by last weekend's debate on a petrol station on the quays that sells petrol at €1.35 per litre, approximately 35 cent dearer than most filling stations. As most filling stations charge less than €1 per litre, one could claim that they are involved in price-fixing. There is a strong argument concerning the location of petrol stations. More and more, stations are being closed and turned into property developments and apartments. As I find when travelling around my county, one does not have the same choice in terms of shopping around for petrol and diesel as one used to.

Last week on the national consumer agency's website, I read about a multi-million euro Spanish lottery scam that was becoming prevalent. Several consumers contacted the agency about the scam, which was intended to get people's financial information. Consumers were warned to be vigilant, advice that pertains to any Internet offer of millions of euro requiring one's financial information to be provided to unscrupulous people.

People are concerned about where they should go with their queries. The national consumer agency has had an interim board and an interim chief executive, but when people with particular concerns approach the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, they are told that such matters are dealt with by a new agency, the Financial Regulator, ComReg or another body. I brought a simple scam to the attention of the Minister. People were taking the numbers of car insurance certificates from the windscreens of cars and if they were involved in an accident, they would quote someone else's policy certificate number. I made a practical proposal that the insurance certificate number should be on the back of the disc or elsewhere in the car. The certificate number is a matter between the customer and the insurance broker. I have met people who saw their premiums increase because someone had used the number displayed on the disc. The Department should investigate this. When I raised the issue I was told it is a matter for the financial regulator but I am yet to receive a response from either the regulator or the Department to my inquiries about this scam. The law could be easily changed to address this; the car registration, engine capacity and make is already on the insurance disc and there is no need for the policy number to be displayed.

My colleague, Senator Cox, has long advocated changes in the way charges are imposed on credit card transactions. All young people know about the extra charges for tickets to concerts or sporting events or on other purchases. Previously, if someone made a booking with a credit card, he or she could pick up the tickets but now people are charged way over the odds just for the privilege of reserving a ticket. It is time to introduce legislation to change the way credit card schemes are operated. If the Department does not do it, a Private Members' Bill may be introduced to make the changes because fraud is taking place, with ticket touts involved, and it is not good for the consumer to have to pay over the odds when making a credit card booking.

Without much apology to the Minister of State or the House, I find this Bill particularly unsatisfactory. I am astounded there has been so much fuss for so long about a Bill of this nature; it is the emperor in new clothes. The reaction to it demonstrates political cowardice. There is a refusal to confront the reality that it will not address the problem. It is a snow job, a smother. This Bill produces yet another quango in order that politicians can tell people not to worry about prices because they have set up a super-quango to deal with them and an agency with a board of a dozen people will look after everyone's interests.

We only have to look at the details in the Bill to see that the agency has no meaningful powers. It takes the powers of the Director of Consumer Affairs but the Director of Consumer Affairs had one major problem — she did not have the power to address any problems. This supersedes the Director of Consumer Affairs with the same powers.

The agency will have other powers and functions, there is a long paragraph in the explanatory memoranda which tells us what the agency can and cannot do. The paragraph is a puff of smoke. It reads:

In addition, the Agency is given specific functions in relation to advising and making recommendations to the Government, Ministers, Ministers of State in relation to any policy or legislative proposals impacting or likely to impact upon consumer protection and welfare. The Section also provides that the Agency may submit proposals to the Government, Ministers, Ministers of State to amend any existing enactment.

I can do the same myself. Any citizen can do that. What great powers are being vested in this agency when anyone walking down Grafton Street can do the same today? It can refer issues to the DPP but in itself the agency is a complete umbrella excuse. The Government is aware, and it is not necessarily to blame, that the price increases, the scandals in the financial services industries, the cartels and the rises in the cost of living cause great public anguish but it is at a loss as to what to do about them. Therefore, it does what all Governments do in this situation, it establishes another agency. This is just another agency that will achieve virtually nothing, like all other agencies that have been set up to tackle consumer problems. They never appear to work.

I have referred to the Director of Consumer Affairs and that was bad enough. She could find out things but then could do nothing about them. She did not have the power to prosecute. This will be the same but there will be a few more people. It will have a board with a chief executive. Who will appoint the board and the chief executive? The Minister of the day. Let us wait and see what happens when the board is appointed, be it by this Government or the next. It will be full of political puppets, like every other agency. They will not, however, all be political puppets, some of them will be other types of puppet: a social partner, a trade unionist, a representative of consumer affairs, a couple of people from the Department and then a few cronies from the Minister's constituency, whoever the Minister is at the time.

The board has been already appointed.

That is what always happens. They will be re-appointed and, with any luck, by a different regime from Senator Leyden's. That is the pattern of experience with consumer agencies.

As an example, I will mention IFSRA, the great god of consumer agencies, which issues press releases almost every day to say what a great job it does and to issue warnings, as it did this morning about equity release. What has IFSRA ever done to discover some of the great scandals which it is so fast to step in upon when they are rumbled? IFSRA is the great publicist but did it discover the foreign exchange scandal in the banks? No, a whistleblower did. It moved fast after it had happened.

The problem with the agency established by this Bill, as with all agencies, is that it will discover nothing and then move in very late after any discovery. The institutions which are guilty of so many offences against the consumer need someone to sit on their backs. Why does the Minister not impose on the banks, which are the worst of the offenders, an external compliance officer who would act truly independently and who could move around the banks and demand at will information on their practices? Why must we always wait until someone else discovers something is wrong for the Government or the agency to move in so late in the day? It is no accident that one of the most prominent of the appointments made to the agency to which Senator Leyden referred was somebody who was very close to running a cartel in this country.

Let us look at the criticisms made of the financial services industry by independent organisations based overseas. The EU has constantly cribbed about the cartels which operate in Ireland, but the multitude of agencies which exist here have managed to do nothing about it. The cartels get away with it here, there and everywhere. The agencies have done nothing about the charges imposed by banks, stockbrokers, investment managers and auctioneers.

On this morning's Order of Business, I raised an issue pertaining to auctioneers. It is outrageous that auctioneers should be allowed even to suggest they will crucify the public by increasing their prices merely because their income is coming down when they did not reduce their prices while their income was increasing, yet that extraordinary suggestion, which in effect would entail running a cartel, was made by one of the auctioneers' bodies. As the Minister of State will attest, cartels are not operated in a formal manner, so it is difficult to catch people price fixing. Cartels are operated by people who nod and wink at each other before coincidentally and suddenly charging the same price.

What will this agency, with its politically appointed board, do to solve the problems in the auctioneering business, which crucify poor house buyers and sellers, in the stockbroking industry, whereby people are being charged outrageous fees because they know no better, in the banks, which have not been addressed by any other agency with any degree of credibility or in the investment management industry, whereby pensioners are being charged outrageous amounts by people with fewer skills than a monkey walking up a wall? We do not need an agency to solve these problems. We need someone with independence who can sit on these people's backs. We do not need the Government to continue to produce bodies which lack power or credibility to solve a political problem. This Bill will get the Government through the next six months but the scandals and overpricing will continue and the financial services will remain largely unpoliced by independent bodies.

Listening to Senator Ross, I began to ponder what I was about to say. I intended to speak positively about the proposed agency and, after hearing the negative opinions expressed by the Senator, I remain intent on emphasising the positive ends this legislation will achieve. A national consumer agency will be established which will make consumers count because they need a new direction which will address the concerns that have been expressed about certain practices. This legislation provides for a general prohibition on sales tactics which could be considered unfair, aggressive or misleading and addresses key areas of consumer concern, including making false claims about products or services, baiting customers by advertising for sale products which are not available, pyramid selling, price draw scams, certain types of advertising directed at children and persistent or unwanted cold calling.

Senator Ross is correct that financial services, cartels, bank charges and information on financial products should all be regulated. It can be the case that the information provided on certain products is inaccurate or deliberately misinterpreted. The new statutory agency should have the power to enforce root and branch changes so that I, as a consumer, will be able to telephone it, say what happened to me and easily learn my rights or be facilitated in starting a public debate. If this legislation can do that, I will praise it.

Senator Ross is correct that regulators have lacked teeth. However, the powers provided in this Bill must be made clear to the public through awareness raising campaigns, research, education and creating links between traders and consumers, so that all can understand the penalties which will ensue from breaches of the law. It is welcome that the Bill is being debated in this House but will the public know about it when it is passed in two weeks' time? Will it be made evident to every trader, shopkeeper, auctioneer and bank that this legislation has the power to regulate their behaviour? If that will be the case, I will welcome it.

The establishment of this agency will give consumers enhanced abilities to make complaints. Senator Ross has spoken at length about auctioneers who vary the information they provide according to the demand for houses. That must stop. If I am buying an expensive product, I will not shop for it on my own because I am aware the seller will see me coming but I would be happy to go on my own if I felt this legislation was behind me and that if my purchase did not work out, I could bring any complaints I may have to the national consumer agency.

I am a positive person and am not overly concerned about what happened in the past, as long as we correct our mistakes and the Minister is aware the legislation must count. The consumer must be confident and there must be confidence that the consumer agency has powers to take action resulting in penalties when offences occur. We should not need to have recourse to the courts in such cases. With this legislation in place it should not be necessary to take matters that far. I will be happy if that is the outcome of the legislation, which I welcome. The agency needs to be given teeth and I want to see the reform implemented. If that happens, we will have got it right.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. The Bill before us is very weak from the point of view of consumers. It is too little and too late. My party has highlighted the concerns of consumers with its website,www.ripoff.ie, which was established several years ago. Fine Gael recently launched a new consumer charter to highlight the shocking increases in the costs of household utility bills. The key to ending the rip off in these utilities is by injecting new much-needed competition into these markets and making sure consumers have the protection they deserve by hurting those service providers who do not provide them with a decent level of service.

The proposed charter will compensate consumers who lose their utility service for more than three hours in a 24-hour period by forcing providers to deduct the cost of one day's service from the bill. This applies to electricity, gas, telephone, Internet and cable television providers. It will also limit Government and regulator-driven price increases to at or below the rate of inflation, unless a clear public interest case can be proven. It will also ensure competition in these markets by instigating a full review of how regulation works, merging all non-financial regulators into one powerful, efficient and less wasteful organisation, and taking steps to promote new entrants into markets. It will empower the Oireachtas to force the new regulator to instigate a review of prices when it deems fit. Such a scenario might have prevented the massive increase in gas prices that occurred late last year. It will establish a consumer rights enforcer to replace the weak and toothless NCA.

These measures will put it up to service providers, the Government and the regulatory regime to give consumers the rights and representation they need to get better and cheaper services. Fine Gael has championed the rights of consumers for some years and will continue to do so in the run-up to the general election and beyond, when we will be in government.

Fine Gael will propose a new law to tackle rip-off practices in professional services such as estate agents, dentists, solicitors and insurance brokers. The consumer protection (professional services) Bill will demand greater transparency in pricing, better representation of consumer interests where a conflict of interest exists and introduce tougher fines or demand compensation from service providers that are in breach of the new guidelines. The Bill will also propose to extend the remit of the existing financial services ombudsman to cover professional services. It will protect consumers, put professional services on a proper regulatory footing and punish the minority of practitioners who do not uphold their responsibilities to their clients.

The Bill will impose three key responsibilities on these professions. All providers of professional services covered by the Bill will have a statutory obligation to ensure they employ all reasonable skill, diligence and expertise in the provision of professional services to clients. Where the provider of professional services believes that he or she may have a conflict of interest in respect of a consumer of that service, the provider will have a statutory obligation to alert the consumer in writing within seven working days and to desist from taking any further action on the matter without the consumer's express consent. Remuneration for professional services should be charged on an open, transparent and comprehensible basis and outlined to a consumer in advance in such a manner as to allow the consumer to make an informed choice about the value for money and competitive alternatives available for the service concerned. This will, for example, ensure that doctors and dentists display their prices properly.

The Bill will also provide for the payment of compensation in respect of service that is below a required standard and will provide for penalties and fines to be levied against professional service providers in respect of certain defined offences. To ensure these responsibilities are met, the Bill proposes to extend the remit of the existing financial services ombudsman to cover professional services. The new financial and professional services ombudsman will be a champion for consumers of these vital services and will have the power to order a service provider to pay compensation in respect of the provision of a service to a consumer that is below the standard which should reasonably have been provided or where the service provider otherwise breached these provisions.

These are some of the consumer protection proposals that Fine Gael has made. There is no doubt that the consumer has been ripped off in many areas. I recently read my mother's gas bill. For two months' service it had a €56 or €58 standing charge. A similar charge appears on ESB bills. Although the gas had not been used for a few months, she was charged an additional €19 for having the pilot light on for two months. The consumer is being ripped off in so many areas that we need legislation. However, the legislation before us is not strong enough to protect consumer rights. I urge the Minister to introduce strong amendments if it comes before us again before we go to the country. We need much stronger consumer legislation. We have been discussing rip off for too long. It is time to take action and this Bill does nothing to give consumers adequate protection.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on the Consumer Protection Bill. Senator Kitt mentioned an area on which I wish to focus my attention, namely, credit card charges and surcharges. Members will recollect that I proposed to the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment a Private Members' Bill for consideration. It proposes to abolish credit card charges and surcharges by companies providing event tickets, airline tickets etc. All Members of the House would agree that any definition of consumer protection must provide that all consumers are treated equally, regardless of whether they live in the far end of Connemara, the centre of Galway city or the centre of Dublin. We must also ensure that to protect the consumer everything is transparent. The consumer must at all times be aware of what he or she is paying for, how much it will cost and that he or she will not suffer any additional hidden costs half way through the transaction. I am aware that the Bill deals with misleading advertising and suggestions that something costs a given sum. I refer, however to the growing practice of companies which sell services on the Internet or over the telephone that impose a surcharge for the use of a credit card.

We want to move from a cash to a plastic society in which people will use credit and debit cards. In recent months the newspapers have reported a spate of bank robberies and kidnappings. We need to reduce the amount of cash revolving in society. Cash is not necessary but if we do not protect the consumer in using an alternative to cash, we facilitate the continued growth of the cash industry. We must encourage people to use credit and debit cards to pay for goods and services and stop any practice that might act as a disincentive to that practice. When one books a ticket on the Internet from Ryanair or Aer Lingus, one pays airport taxes, security charges, surcharges and a credit card charge per ticket. That charge might be €2.50, €5.50 or €6 depending which is additional to the price of the ticket.

The advertising of 1 cent flights to America or Europe is misleading. This also creates inequity. People in rural Ireland are increasingly forced, by virtue of their location, to make bookings on the Internet. In the old days there were post offices everywhere but these are closing down, as are bank branches, and it is even becoming more difficult to do one's business in the city centres.

As more people use the Internet to buy goods and services, they are charged extortionate sums for doing business with these companies. It does not make sense. Ticketmaster is my delight but it charges a fortune for booking concert tickets. When I bought tickets recently for a concert in the Point Depot for 12 children and three adults, I paid more than €80 in credit card surcharges. It is ridiculous that I must pay more money just because I am paying the company for concert tickets. This probably should have been dealt with under the legislation to deal with the Financial Regulator. It may be a financial matter for which the Department of Finance should be responsible. Neither the legislation for the Financial Regulator nor the consumer credit legislation dealt with this issue. We now have an opportunity to deal with it.

Will the Minister of State consider where an amendment could be placed because if he is not in a position to do so, I will have to try to find an area and table an amendment or, as Senator Kitt said, we must introduce a Private Members' Bill. We as a Government should tell companies that if they want to do business here they must comply with certain rules, and that we will protect consumers who are entitled to do business with these companies without paying more money because they use their credit or debit cards on the telephone or the Internet than if they walk in off the street and pay cash. Restaurants and shops do not charge an extra 20% because one uses one's credit card. If businesses on the high street and corner shops do not do this, the likes of Ticketmaster and Ryanair and even the GAA, which is beginning to take Internet bookings, also need not do it.

When I was at a Christmas concert in the Helix in Dublin, I noticed that as and from 1 February a new booking fee would be introduced for on-line bookings. Presumably the theatre decided that if everyone else was imposing these charges, it might as well jump on the bandwagon and make that extra money. We consumers subsidise and contribute to profits for these organisations which have lower costs because the transaction takes place on the Internet, with fewer people involved, less employment, less tax going to the Government and more profits for large organisations, yet the Government condones this.

I urge the Minister of State to look at the consumer rights in this area and say that the Government will stand up to Ryanair, Aer Lingus and Ticketmaster and not allow them to profit from the public. The Government should make this illegal. It can tell these companies to make their profits another way by taking the money back from U2 or Westlife or from their shareholders to make an equitable profit rather than on the backs of consumers. We can create and protect such a society.

I doubt that I am the person to suggest where the Bill could be amended to achieve this but there are sections in Part 3 which might accommodate the amendments. We could propose a new section to deal with this on Committee Stage. We should not be frightened away by the big guys who think we should not take more money from them. This is not good enough for our society. The Government is in charge of the country and it is for us to make the regulations and rules.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. This has been an interesting debate because one can hear different views expressed on all sides. The Bill further strengthens the consumer's legal powers in the marketplace and its objective is to ensure that the consumer is protected against sharp practices. We should not, however go overboard on this. I have some difficulty with Senator Cox when she says that the Government runs everything. The marketplace is the answer to the problem. We must maintain competition there. We should recall the Latin phrasecaveat emptor — let the buyer beware. If I am stung once I do not return to that place. I am very careful in that respect and am therefore shy of saying that the Government should legislate to cover everything.

I am concerned too that the agency replaces the Director of Consumer Affairs because I have been very impressed by successive directors. The public had a relationship with the director, perhaps because the office was held by an individual. I am not sure that it is easy to sustain the same relationship with an impersonal agency instead of a director. To what extent is it possible to ensure that whoever is in charge of that agency can establish the link with customers?

We must protect the public from sharp practice but let us not try to protect it from everything. When I started in business in the 1950s, there was a practice known as re-sale price maintenance. Those of us who went into business at that stage were trying to take business from the traditional traders. When we cut a price below the recommended retail price, some long-established business people told me that it was unethical to do business that way. It is for this reason I am concerned by the use of the phrase "A trader shall not engage in an aggressive commercial practice." That is wrong; people should engage in aggressive commercial practice because that is how competition is created. If traders did not engage in such practice, they would all sell at the same price and would not try to take business away from each other. I have no difficulty with Chapter 4, which refers to prohibited commercial practices and provides a list thereof. Using the phrase "A trader shall not engage in an aggressive commercial practice.", gives rise to the danger that the level of competition might be reduced.

The price of petrol was referred to by approximately six previous speakers. The introduction of legislation a number of years ago obliging the owners or operators of petrol stations to display their prices on signs of a certain size was extremely helpful. Senator Leyden referred to a petrol station located close to the quays in Dublin that sells petrol at a price that is approximately 35% above that charged at other stations. I am of the opinion that it is fine to do this because most people will not be stung a second time by someone operating in this way. It may be that the operation to which I refer is geared towards trapping tourists arriving off the boat and has, therefore, a captive market. One of the things we must do in this legislation is ensure there is increased competition.

I referred to petrol on previous occasions because a large number of petrol stations in the area on the northside of the city in which I reside closed down. As a result, one is often stuck and has no choice regarding where one buys petrol. It would be incorrect, however, to state that traders should not charge different prices. If I travel to a five-star hotel to attend an important event, I know that I will be obliged to pay more than I would if I were staying at a two-star establishment. If I go to a lounge bar, I know I will pay a higher price than I would in an ordinary bar. Let us not try to control everything; let us ensure we encourage competition and that we do so in a manner that ensures consumers are given a choice.

It is important there is a sufficient number of outlets.

Yes. However, we must also ensure the behaviour in which people engage is fair and that they do not engage in misleading practices.

I wish to deal now with airline and hotel prices. When low-cost air travel first appeared, members of the public were mislead with regard to the prices they would be charged. Some airlines advertise extremely low fares but consumers often end up paying a great deal for flights because they are often faced with a plethora of additional costs such as Government taxes, airport charges, fuel surcharges and, most recently, new baggage charges. If a person is not anticipating such charges and is caught by surprise, it is clear the practices involved are misleading.

Some years ago when people operating in the business in which I am involved still sold by the pound, one company introduced a 15 oz. pack of butter — as opposed to the regular 16 oz. pack — which was misleading. A number of traders indicated they would refuse to handle the product in question and the Government of the day introduced legislation or whatever which stated that butter had to be sold in packs of a certain size. This development made a great deal of sense.

I have a difficulty with the argument Senator Cox made in respect of credit cards. Such cards cost considerable sums of money and there is a cartel in existence among the banks which forces a lack of competition in the area in question. Two weeks ago, the Polish competition authority stated it intended to make illegal the interchange fee that banks insist on charging. I am sure the banks in Poland will argue against this development. However, when a cartel exists between the banks — as I believe is the case in Ireland — regarding the interchange fees they charge, traders and customers have no choice but to pay such fees. It should be legitimate for traders to indicate the prices they would charge people for paying by credit card and for paying by some other means. I can understand that argument against such behaviour, particularly if it misleads the public. However, at least indicating prices in this way would be open, above board and visible.

The situation is not the same in respect of other cases. When value added tax was first introduced 20 or 30 years ago, some traders insisted on showing value added tax as a separate charge. This meant customers believed they were purchasing something at a lower price and it was only when they came to pay the real cost became apparent. There is no easy solution to this matter. However, what we are attempting to do in the Bill is to avoid misleading customers and ensuring there will be increased competition in the future.

The Bill is worthwhile and is aimed in the right direction. However, I have a number of concerns about it and perhaps we might be able to tease them out on Committee and Report Stages. It is worth reminding ourselves that the ideal solution in terms of a customer obtaining a fair deal is providing that customer with choice. We must maintain competition and, to ensure that this happens, we must encourage as many traders as possible to remain in business. We must also ensure people cannot engage in many of the sharp practices to which previous speakers referred and to which the Bill alludes.

We are nowhere near the end of this process and there are a number of further steps that must be taken to encourage increased public awareness. A great way to assist members of the public is to provide them with information. When such information is hidden from people, we deprive them of the ability to make rational and reasonable decisions.

I began by using the Latin term "caveat emptor”. I wish to conclude with another Latin phrase, namely, “Obesa non iam cantava”. The Minister of State may not be too sure as to the meaning of this phrase but I can inform him that it translates as “The fat lady has not sung yet”. We have not yet reached the end of our journey and we have a long way to go. What we want to achieve with this legislation is ensure that everything will be open and above board, that there will be competition and that members of the public will be presented with choice and with the knowledge relating thereto. We must ensure ways are not found to hide such knowledge from them before they make their decisions. However, I am also of the opinion that most people cannot be fooled a second time.

I thank the Senators who contributed to the debate.

Senator Coghlan referred to the Fine Gael Private Members' Bill that was voted down in the Dáil some time ago. That Bill did not go as far as the proposal currently before the House. Furthermore, it would have done nothing to effectively transpose the unfair commercial practices directive and would have left us in breach of our obligations.

Other Senators referred to the rate of inflation and accused the Government of contributing thereto. I am not sure what national governments are expected to do about external factors — such as increases in oil or commodity prices — outside their control. There are, however, instances where we can do something. For example, we took action in respect of groceries order and costs were brought under control as a result. The cost of groceries has declined by 1.6% since the order was removed last March.

Senator Coghlan is being unfair to the NCA in suggesting it did nothing in response to the closure of BUPA. The NCA was first into the fray and within 24 hours had placed extensive advice for consumers on its website. Perhaps the Senator was unaware of that.

The bird has flown. Look what has happened.

Fine Gael has proposed a consumers' rights enforcer but there is nothing——

We cannot allow all those fellows to cherry-pick.

——in that proposal that is any different or better than what is being proposed in this Bill. If the Senators read the Bill carefully they will understand that the national consumer agency has a wide range of powers to decide what is of most concern to consumers and to employ its resources to most effect. That is a more effective approach than legislating in a prescriptive manner which allows the agency little flexibility in the way it responds to a particular set of circumstances.

Senator Leyden referred to the price charged for petrol by a garage in Usher's Quay. This is an interesting case. The most powerful sanction against businesses that charge excessively for its products is for consumers to bring their custom elsewhere. Customers must be assertive in their reaction to such practices but I do not agree that a national consumer agency has an important role to play in bringing such matters into the public domain.

Senator Leyden referred also to display of prices. I agree that the law in this regard is of great benefit to consumers. That is the reason the Bill retains existing legislative provisions in that regard. Indeed, the power to extend price display regulations is reinforced by this Bill. Consumers are well advised to make use of the information and report it to the consumer agency when business fails to comply with its obligations in regard to the law.

I agree with Senator Norris regarding his comments on prize draw scams, which do nothing but cost the consumer money. The Bill seeks to tackle such practices.

Senator Norris also referred to the role of other regulators. He mentioned ComReg and the financial regulator in particular. The Bill requires the NCA to enter into agreements with other regulators to avoid duplication of activities.

Senator Norris was wrong when he said that the groceries order had failed to bring down prices. As I mentioned previously, since the order prices have come down by 1.6% at a time when the headline rate of inflation is 4.9%. Senator O'Toole also referred to this issue but he did not give due credit to the impact of the removal of the order.

Senator O'Toole wanted to know the amount of money the NCA would have to spend. It will have a budget of €8.4 million in 2007 when combined with the Office of the Director of Consumer Affairs. That is almost twice what was available to the ODCA on its coming into being in 2006. Funding in future years will be decided as part of the Estimates process. Staff numbers have increased from 62 to 69.

Senator Hanafin referred to requests from overseas for people to provide their bank account details. That issue is probably better tackled and prosecuted under fraud and theft legislation. The likelihood is that regardless of the legislation in place, the perpetrators of such practices, who are often located in foreign parts far removed from these islands, will never be located or prosecuted. The best way to deal with the issue appears to be to educate consumers not to be taken in by such scams.

Senator McDowell referred to the consolidation of existing law. He admitted to not being a good consumer, one who is not price sensitive and does not shop around. Senator McDowell was right when he talked about changing consumer culture. That will be a key task of the national consumer agency. He was right, too, when he referred to the powerful sanction that is a name and shame policy. That is a key part of the Bill.

Senator Kitt and a significant number of other Senators referred to financial services, be it money lenders, equity release, which should really be called borrowing, credit cards and so on. These all fall under the remit of the financial regulator. However, the provisions of the Bill also apply to financial services and arrangements will be put in place under the Bill to ensure co-operation between the national consumer agency and the financial regulator.

Senator Ross said the Bill is particularly unsatisfactory, that it was a snow job producing another quango with no powers. I reject such suggestions. The Bill will have extensive powers and it is in these uses that those powers will be critical. Much of his commentary was directed against the financial services sector — auctioneers, stockbrokers, banks, investment managers, etc.

The usual suspects.

Senator Ross missed much of the point of the Bill. We must change a culture and the approach to doing business. Senator Ormonde spoke of a new direction for consumers, and that is the point. Business must see consumers as an asset, not as a target to be ripped off. Consumers must be educated and helped to understand how they can help themselves. There is a world of difference between buying a loaf of bread or a pair of shoes and buying stocks and shares or an investment policy. Traders in all sectors must treat consumers fairly and with respect. Consumers must know their rights and stand up for them where they are denied. That is a culture shift that the legislation and the national consumer agency can help bring about. Prosecutions and enforcements are only part of a much bigger picture and I urge Senator Ross to check his facts in that regard.

I thank the other Senators who also contributed to the debate and I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Next Tuesday, 13 February 2007.

Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 13 February 2007.
Sitting suspended at 6 p.m. and resumed at 6.30 p.m.