Consumer Protection (Gift Vouchers) Bill 2009: Second Stage.

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

I welcome the Minister of State to consider the Bill. I am pleased to bring the Consumer Protection (Gift Vouchers) Bill 2009 before the House on behalf of the Labour Party. The Bill extends the definition of prohibitive commercial practices in section 55 of the Consumer Protection Act 2007. The Bill adds a new paragraph to the list of prohibited commercial practices. Under the Bill it will be a prohibited commercial practice to sell or offer for sale a gift voucher with a redemption period of less than five years. The net effect will be that all vouchers will remain valid for five years following the passing of the Bill, should it be passed. It shall be an offence under section 56 of the 2007 Act to contravene this provision. Consumers will have a right of action for damages for breach of the provision under section 74 of the 2007 Act. It is a short and simple Bill, which we have deliberately decided not to over-complicate by trying to resolve all potential difficulties with gift vouchers and rather deal with one specific matter only.

I shall outline the provisions of the Bill. Section 1 amends section 55(1) of the Consumer Protection Act 2007 to prohibit the issue of a gift voucher with a period of validity of less than five years. Section 2 is a standard provision. Regarding financial and regulatory implications, the Bill has no implications for public expenditure, but the protections for consumers will enhance confidence and will have positive economic implications.

With Christmas approaching people are considering gift possibilities. Rather than choosing a gift, many people decide to purchase a gift voucher to present to a family member, colleague or friend. As we all know the commercial world has convinced many people that gifts should be presented on many other occasions throughout the year. Gift vouchers are great; I have given and received many in my lifetime. We are introducing the Bill because in practice many consumers have problems with them. One common problem with gift vouchers is that they may have an expiry date that may have passed by the time there is an attempt to redeem them. In many cases the expiry date can be as short as three to six months. As many retail outlets make gift vouchers available which have no expiry date, there is not a problem with all gift vouchers. However, just because a gift voucher does not have an expiry date printed on it, does not mean there is no expiry date. It is not a guarantee of an open-ended expiry date policy.

The National Consumer Agency's website,www.consumerconnect.ie provides a comprehensive list of outlets together with their gift voucher expiry date policies. While many good policies have no expiry dates, it is usually the ones with the short shelf-life that cause the problems. There is no reason for having an expiry date on gift vouchers. There is nothing perishable about them. They are usually made of paper or cardboard. Most importantly, the money has been exchanged for the value of the voucher not for the voucher itself.

Some dedicated gift voucher companies, who, perhaps, may build in some percentage of non-redeemed vouchers into their business model, may feel that the transition to a five-year expiry date would present them with some initial cash-flow issues. However, many jurisdictions have moved to outlaw such practices, which is what we are attempting to do today with this Bill. The US has moved at federal level to prohibit gift cards or vouchers expiring before five years from the date of purchase. In Canada, different states have different policies. However, in 1997 Ontario and Manitoba moved to prohibit expiry dates on gift cards and other states are also moving now.

Although our proposal is for an expiry date of no less than five years, we would be open to argument on Committee Stage that there may be a case for something shorter. There has been much discussion on the matter of gift vouchers in recent years. It is now time to address one of those issues. We are consciously not trying to address other possible difficulties with gift vouchers in the Bill at this stage. Some of these are: partially used vouchers and varying policies on getting change; change of shop ownership; and possible closing down of the business before an attempt to redeem the voucher is made.

Since the publication of the Bill, the case has been made to me that a distinction might be made between vouchers with a stated monetary value and those based upon an agreed provision of service. In the latter circumstance, the cost of delivering the service may have escalated over the five-year period and thus it may be unfair to expect the provider to provide the specified service at the rate that was paid. However, this can be considered on Committee Stage. There may be merit in a two-tier system.

I look forward to hearing the contributions of other Senators. I hope the Minister of State will give the Bill his support at this Stage and introduce any amendments he may consider necessary on Committee Stage.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House and second the motion pertaining to this Bill which is being presented by my colleague Senator Ryan. I compliment him on his legislation which could enhance the rights of consumers at the stroke of a pen.

It is disappointing that the Government has failed to act in this area. For the last 12 and a half years it has caved in to powerful vested interests such as bankers and builders while allowing ordinary consumers to be hung out to dry with inflated prices and poor service. We need a new and enlightened approach to consumer policy and rights. A coherent consumer rights policy ensures consumers get what they have paid for and can easily and quickly secure redress when things go wrong.

We also need to ensure consumer advocacy organisations have a greater role in the policy and decision-making process. In 1962, in a seminal speech on this issue, President John F. Kennedy described a situation that is unfortunately too often the case in Ireland. He said:

Consumers, by definition, include us all. They are the largest economic group, affecting and affected by almost every public and private economic decision. Yet they are the only important group ... whose views are often not heard.

It is true that consumers here enjoy greater rights than before, particularly as a result of the Consumer Protection Act 2007. However, we can thank the European Union for that development because much of the legislation consisted of the transposition of the unfair commercial practices directive into Irish law.

One of the issues we must consider is the enforcement of existing consumer rights because consumer legislation will only make a real difference when it is applied and enforced. Many wronged consumers, when they seek to obtain redress or make a claim, face barriers. This happens every day. Retailers try to absolve themselves of responsibility and put people off complaining by forcing consumers to go through complicated and lengthy processes to obtain redress. Some traders operate a "fob off and frustrate" policy which is predicated on the fact that people have busy lives and are likely to give up and forget about the complaint. A classic example is the practice of some airlines to demand an administration charge or insist on customers putting their claims in writing within seven days of any problem they have. Some businesses appear to think they can cut corners and treat consumers with disdain. That is a short-sighted approach. Most consumers are reasonable people. If they have a problem that is dealt with quickly and fairly, they are likely to provide repeat business. If they are treated badly and feel their problems are ignored, however, they will bad-mouth the businesses involved, which is no good for anybody.

A study by the National Consumer Agency published in August found that even though four out of ten consumers had reason to make a complaint in the past year, almost one third of these did not bother. One out of every five said they did not want the hassle of complaining, 25% said they did not have the time, another 20% said there was no point in making a complaint, and one in seven said they worried that making a complaint might have an impact on them. Of those who did complain, two out of three felt frustrated by the whole process. These data raise real worries about how we deal with complaints in our society. It suggests that some businesses are not responding adequately to the complaints of consumers and are making the process time-consuming, frustrating and challenging for people who feel they have a complaint that needs to be addressed.

We need to consider ways of assisting consumers in obtaining redress. We have done it before. The introduction of the Small Claims Court allowed individual consumers to seek remedy in a fairly inexpensive and swift manner. However, I accept this does not suit every situation. There are other things we could do. The Consumers' Association of Ireland has proposed the introduction of a group action procedure. Group actions — legal procedures which allow people with similar claims to come together to take cases against the same defendant or defendants — are growing in popularity across Europe. Fourteen out of the 27 EU member states have this procedure. The CAI gives examples in which the group action procedure could be applied, suggesting that cases could be taken against a telecommunications company for overcharging, retailers that are colluding to keep prices high, or an airline for the imposition of unfair charges. It gives a good example from Portugal in which a group action was taken against a telephone company which was found to have been overcharging consumers over a number of years. The company in question was, in the end, forced to give refunds to all customers who could produce bills, which more than 70,000 did.

In this country, unfortunately, the Government has managed to undermine both the National Consumer Agency and the Competition Authority at a time when they should be fighting on behalf of consumers. In October of last year the Government announced the merger of the NCA with the Competition Authority, yet 14 months on nothing has happened. I call on the Minister to move forward with this reorganisation as soon as possible.

While the NCA and the Competition Authority have done good work, we must explore whether they are fit for purpose. The lack of legal action by these organisations in cases in which there has been a breach of law has been disappointing. In contrast, the Office of the Financial Services Ombudsman has not been afraid to take on the big guns on behalf of consumers. Last year alone, the ombudsman dealt with almost 6,000 cases, two thirds of which were resolved in favour of consumers, and it is estimated that €45 million has been refunded to consumers since 2005. Given the positive outcome of the establishment of the ombudsman, we should consider establishing a general consumer ombudsman, such as exists in Denmark, or a high-profile consumer advocate as proposed by the UK Government.

I make a plea to the Minister for the development of a new approach to consumer policy. For too long it has been underdeveloped, poorly understood and badly enforced. A clear consumer rights policy would be good not only for consumers but also for business and for society as a whole.

I welcome the former Senator Michael Dawson, who I see is in the Visitors Gallery, back to the House.

I commend Senators Ryan and Hannigan on the introduction of this Bill. I understand it seeks to prohibit the commercial practice of selling, or offering for sale, gift vouchers with a period of less than five years from the date of sale for the purpose of the Consumer Protection Act 2007. Like Senator Ryan, I am a person who has both given and received gift vouchers. There is no doubt they can sometimes prove beneficial. We are all aware of practices that occur in certain instances. For somebody who is celebrating a particular event, who would like to achieve certain things and identifies a particular pattern or structure to which people can go to give their piece to the party, for want of a better description, it can be helpful in providing a bigger picture and allowing the beneficiary to pick what he or she wants. I refer to somebody who is perhaps celebrating an event in his or her life. The easiest example to which to refer would be a wedding party, where a person would indicate a list in a shop or that one could buy a voucher in a particular outlet, which can be hugely helpful and beneficial.

As Senator Ryan mentioned, no doubt there are problems experienced by both the purchasers and the recipients of gift vouchers which probably require even fuller consideration than there is in the Bill, but it is to be hoped the Bill is a starting point. I would like to think that the House and the Government are committed through a number of actions to outline how best this can be achieved. In that regard, I would be interested to hear what the Minister of State, Deputy Kelleher, has to say on how we can address the problems and improve the existing system.

My understanding is that the Consumer Protection Act 2007, among other things, transposed the EU unfair commercial practices directive, UCPD, into Irish law and that section 55 of the 2007 Act essentially gave statutory effect to the list of the 31 specific commercial practices contained in the annex to the directive which were stipulated as being considered unfair in all circumstances. The UCPD was a maximum harmonised Community measure and the list of prohibited commercial practices specified in the directive's annex was also exhaustive in its nature.

It is my understanding — the Minister of State may clarify this point — that as a result,it is not open to Ireland to add unilaterally to the list of practices which are prohibited through the EU, as would be the case if this Bill were to be enacted. However, the UCPD contains a review clause which requires the European Commission to submit a report to the European Parliament and the Council on the operation of the directive, including any proposals torevise the directive by June 2011. It is open to Ireland to seek to add to the list of commercial practices prohibited under the directive and I understand this issue can be considered in the context of any review of the UCPD. It will be interesting to hear whether the Minister of State is happy merely to seek that particular mechanism or would like to see, as I mentioned, a fuller consideration and a better readjustment to address all the difficulties and problems.

Seemingly, it is being accepted on both sides of the House not alone that there are problems but that they are encountered by both the purchaser and the recipient. There are probably others — those in the voucher business — who may be in a position to assist the Minister of State and work with him and his office to improve the current system.

We are not talking about the UCPD alone. I understand people are aware of concerns expressed by consumers and others about the manner in which some gift vouchers are offered for sale, and especially the difficulties consumers have experienced when seeking to redeem vouchers for related goods or services. Therefore none of us would be unsympathetic to addressing some of the issues contained in Senator Ryan's Bill.

My son brought to my attention recently that he was dealing with a gift voucher issue. When he went to see whether he could utilise a voucher for a sum, say €100, he could not do so. The best the shop could come up with in the festive season where there was nothing in the shop that met his need was to offer to split the voucher in two so as to have two vouchers to give as gifts. They would not give him back the money and I suppose in the scheme of things it probably was not a bad offer.

I am particularly annoyed when I receive a gift in the form of a small sheet of paper indicating that it is voucher for a meal for two in a restaurant and I go to cash it in the company of a friend, wife, partner, neighbour or whoever only to be shown the small print on the back stating it is not redeemable on Thursday or Friday nights between the hours of 8 o'clock and 10 o'clock. Such pure nonsense must be addressed. Cash is king. If a purchaser pays his or her hard-earned cash for a €100 voucher, that should be honoured left, right and centre as long as the cows take to come home and regardless of the time of day. That would be my short and simple version of how a voucher should be utilised.

I have experience of this voucher system and the number of vouchers that are redeemed because my wife has a premises in which she offers vouchers. It is amazing the number of vouchers purchased which are not redeemed, and this is through a system where, for want of a better description, there are no holds barred. She uses a system where one gives the voucher which may be cashed at any time. I understand that the current system allows the retailer to dictate the redeemability of a voucher.

The sale of items such as gift vouchers or gift tokens should be conducted in as transparent a manner as possible with terms and conditions on such matters as redeemable periods attaching to such items. I ask the Minister of State and his Department to examine the possibility of making regulations under the Consumer Protection Act 2007 with a view to prescribing specific information to make it as easy as I said. If it is a voucher, it should be treated as if it were cash.

I welcome the legislation and the efforts of the Labour Party to bring an end to what I would deem to be an unfair commercial anomaly. I very much agree with what has been said by the previous speaker, Senator Callely. Even though I may not have the option of being here because I am substituting for Senator John Paul Phelan and I must revert to another meeting, I look forward to learning of the Minister of State's response.

This is the type of initiative brought forward by Opposition Senators which should be taken on board by the Government. I can see no reason we would not be in a position to make this minor amendment.

It is an appropriate day to hold this debate. In the other House this afternoon the Minister for Finance had to introduce a Budget Statement to try to deal with the economic crisis in the country. We could debate forever what and who caused the problem and what needs to be done to redress the economic situation facing us, but certainly one of the clear matters of concern to the body politic is the lack of competitiveness in the economy. Obviously, that lack of competitiveness has led to job losses, taxation and revenue reductions. Some of that competitiveness has been lost because of excessive regulation, bureaucracy and red tape. This case, where we are talking about the limit being placed on a gift voucher, is part of that same cycle of commercial bureaucracy and retailers using their financial power to extract the last drop from the consumer. If we are to attempt to turn the economy around and generate trade, income, wealth, profit, jobs and taxes, we must simply shred every last vestige of restrictive practice, and this is one of them. I concede that it is probably not the biggest issue facing the Minister of State's Department. Notwithstanding that, however, a solution for it has been designed and presented to us, which we should accept. There is no genuine reason gift vouchers should only have a three, six or 12-month shelf life. Therefore the proposed amendment to the Consumer Protection Act is realistic, workable and worthy of support. Previous speakers have highlighted cases whereby people receive gift vouchers and put them away for later use. To their great disappointment and financial upset, however, they may find that the voucher has expired. If the small print had been read with a magnifying glass, they would have seen the expiry date. As we are trying to generate trade and growth in the economy, such restrictive practices should be dropped. Such practices are not useful or beneficial in any area of commercial life and therefore the Minister of State needs to resolve this problem. I look forward to hearing what he has to say. It would be disappointing if the old Irish political style of Opposition proposing and Government rejecting were to apply in this case. I can see no good reason this Bill cannot be accepted.

Presumably the Bill would not be retrospective and would apply to gift vouchers issued from the date of the enactment of the amending legislation. In that case, no retailers could complain that they were suffering as a result of new legislation. This is a straightforward, black and white case. It is a good proposal that has been made on quite a few occasions by Senator Brendan Ryan. Just because it is an Opposition proposal, it does not mean it is either inadequate or erroneous. In the spirit of the politics we generally have in this House of co-operation and respect for others' views, I ask the Minister of State to take on board these good ideas and accept the proposed Bill. It would be a first for Senator Ryan and his colleagues for such a Bill to be accepted by the Government.

Is it the Mullingar accord?

Unfortunately, I think normal politics have been resumed. Tradition has it that Oppositions propose while Governments reject, but the opposite could equally apply. As it is unfortunate that this debate clashes with the budget debate in the Dáil, as it might be overshadowed in terms of the coverage it merits. That is regrettable.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Private Members' Bill. The Consumer Protection (Gift Vouchers) Bill 2009 seeks to prohibit the sale of gift vouchers where the period of redemption from the date of sale of the voucher is less than five years. The Bill proposes to achieve this statutory prohibition by way of an amendment to the Consumer Protection Act 2007. Specifically, the Bill proposes to amend section 55 of the Act by adding to the list of prohibited practices the "selling or offering for sale a voucher redeemable for gifts, goods or services which is valid for a period which is less than five years from the date on which the voucher is sold or offered for sale".

By the insertion of this provision, the Bill proposes to make the practice of selling gift vouchers with redemption periods of less than five years illegal, and render those engaging in this practice liable to prosecution under the relevant provisions of the Consumer Protection Act 2007.

While I have some sympathy with the sentiment underlying the Bill, there are several specific reasons I am not in a position to support the Bill. The most prominent of these relates to the provenance of the Consumer Protection Act 2007 and, in particular, Part 3 of the Act, which includes section 55, as it relates to business to consumer commercial practices. Section 55 essentially transposed the EU directive on unfair commercial practices, or the UCPD as it is commonly referred to, which included a list of 31 commercial practices deemed to be unfair in all circumstances. The UCPD is a maximum harmonised community measure, the implications of which I will deal with later in my address.

Part 3 of the Consumer Protection Act essentially transposed into Irish law European Directive No. 2005/29 concerning unfair business-to-consumer commercial practices in the internal market, as agreed by the European Parliament and the Council in May 2005. The promulgation of the unfair commercial practices directive was one of the most significant consumer protection measures adopted by the EU in recent times. The purpose of the directive is to harmonise the laws of member states with regard to unfair commercial practices, which directly harm the economic interests of consumers.

The directive essentially regulates unfair commercial practices in the Community in several ways. First, it provides for a general prohibition on practices which are contrary to the principle of good faith in a trader's field of activity, or are contrary to the standard of skill that a trader may be reasonably expected to exercise in respect of the consumer. The general prohibition also requires that the practice would be likely to impair the average consumer's ability to make an informed choice about the product or service which the trader is seeking to sell, and also cause the average consumer to make a transactional decision he or she would not otherwise make.

In addition to the overall prohibition, the directive contained general prohibitions on misleading and aggressive commercial practices. In terms of misleading commercial practices, the directive set out various considerations to be taken into account in determining whether a particular commercial practice would be considered to be misleading. The directive also required that the test of impairing the average consumer's ability to make an informed choice and the transactional decision test should be applied concerning the determination of misleading commercial practices.

Similarly, in the case of aggressive commercial practices, the directive prescribed a number of factors to be taken into account in determining whether a particular practice was aggressive, and that such determinations should be subject to the aforementioned average consumer and transactional decision tests.

The directive proscribed a number of specific practices, 31 in total, which were to be considered unfair in all circumstances. This blacklist, which was effectively transposed into law by section 55 of the Consumer Protection Act, essentially relates to practices which were deemed sufficiently egregious as not to require the average consumer and transactional decision tests. In so far as the 31 specific practices in the blacklist are concerned, they would include particular practices which can seriously disadvantage consumers, such as: representing that a product can cure an illness, when it cannot; representing that a product is able to facilitate winning in games of chance; representing that a trader is a signatory to a code of practice, if he is not; representing that a code of practice has an approval or other endorsement that it does not have; representing that a trader is about to cease trading when he is not; representing that a consumer has won or will win a prize if there actually is no prize; or, if the consumer has to make a payment or incur a loss to claim the prize; failing to comply with a consumer's request to leave the consumer's residence; persistently failing to comply with a consumer's request to cease communicating with or sending unwanted or unsolicited representations to the consumer; and establishing, operating or promoting a pyramid promotional scheme.

While a significant number of the 31 practices proscribed in the directive would most likely have been caught by the provisions of existing Irish consumer protection law, some would not. Accordingly, the transposition of the directive by the enactment of the Consumer Protection Act 2007 provided significant additional protections for Irish consumers against unfair commercial practices.

As I have advised the House, the key issue concerning the unfair commercial practices directive is that — unlike previous Community measures in this area, such as the directives on misleading advertising and door-to-door selling, which lay down minimum standards withwhich member states must comply — the UCPD is a maximum harmonisation measure.Effectively this precludes member states from going beyond the provisions of the directive by adopting additional or more extensive protections within the field harmonised by the directive. In this regard, it is important to note that the list of 31 practices deemed under the directive to be unfair in all instances, is an exhaustive list. It is not open to Ireland to unilaterally add to the list by amending section 55 of the Consumer Protection Act, as is proposed in thisBill.

The only way in which the blacklist can be modified is by way of a revision of the UCPD itself. The directive commits the European Commission to submit a report to the European Parliament and the Council on the application of the UCPD and on any proposals to revise the directive by June 2011. Member states will have an opportunity in this context to make proposals to amend the directive, including its blacklist of prohibited commercial practices.

Though the maximum harmonisation nature of the directive limits the legislative discretion of member states, this limitation must be seen in light of the advantages of harmonisation both for consumers and traders. Consumers benefit from the fact that they can rely on a common set of protections when they make purchases in any member state of the Community, whether on-line or in person. They do not have the burden of trying to establish what protections apply under the national legislation in force in another member state. Traders who wish to sell goods and services in other member states benefit similarly from the fact that a common set of rules applies across all 27 countries. This is a real benefit to a country as reliant on the export of goods and services as Ireland and of particular value to indigenous small and medium-sized enterprises which wish to access markets in other member states but do not have the specialist legal and other resources available to larger firms.

Another aspect of European law which may impinge on this area is the current proposal for an EU directive on consumer rights which was published in October 2008 and is the subject of intensive discussions at the relevant Council working group. In this regard, the House may be aware that I established the sales law review group in November 2008 to report to me on several issues relating to consumer and commercial law, taking into account the implications of the proposed directive for national consumer protection law. The review group's report which was published in June is a thorough, expert analysis of the provisions of the proposed consumer rights directive. The proposed directive will have a major influence on the future of Irish consumer law and it is important that we are in a position to fully understand its provisions and their implications while discussions on the proposal are still ongoing. The review group's report is a substantial input into the Irish response to the proposed directive and its contents have already been of significant benefit to the officials of my Department involved in discussions on the proposal.

Aside from the considerations of European law, I am, as I said, not unsympathetic to the sentiments underlying the Bill and particularly the difficulties consumers can experience when seeking to redeem vouchers they may have bought or received by way of gifts. Undoubtedly, gift vouchers and tokens offer alternative and flexible purchasing and selling channels for consumers and traders. Their popularity, particularly around this time of year, is in no small measure due to their flexible characteristics in that they allow people to purchase goods and services as gifts for recipients who can choose to avail of the goods and services at a time best suited to the recipient. Unfortunately, the prepayment nature inherent in gift vouchers also can bring particular problems for consumers. These problems can range from expiry dates that have lapsed to having a voucher for a shop that has closed down, something which, unfortunately, is more common in the current economic climate.

Senators will be aware that the periods for redeeming vouchers differ from trader to trader. In some instances traders may stipulate that a consumer has up to a specific period from the date of purchase to redeem a voucher and in others traders are more flexible and willing to extend the expiry date, if requested. Often, however, difficulties arise because the purchaser or, more usually, the recipient of the voucher is not aware that the expiry date for the voucher has passed. This can be due to either the expiry date not being particularly transparent in the terms and conditions accompanying the voucher or because no expiry date is stated on the voucher. It could be put in a drawer and forgotten about, and then pulled out later. If a man then wants to take his wife out for a meal and the voucher is found to be out of date, this can be very embarrassing. In so far as the latter situation is concerned, the Consumer Protection Act provides that traders who omit or conceal material information or provide such information in an unclear, unintelligible, ambiguous or untimely manner may be engaging in a misleading commercial practice. Accordingly, consumers who cannot redeem a voucher on the basis of the trader's reliance on the voucher having passed the expiry date, despite the consumer not being informed of any such date, may wish to exercise their rights under the Consumer Protection Act to take an action before the courts on the basis that the trader may have engaged in a misleading commercial practice.

Some commentators have suggested prohibiting traders from imposing redemption periods on gift vouchers or requiring that redemption periods be of a minimum of five or ten years duration. For my part, any suggestion of imposing a statutory obligation that a trader must honour a gift voucher into the future would be problematic and inimical to both the interests of the trader and the purchaser of the voucher. Such an obligation on the trader would effectively amount to an open-ended liability which the trader would have to carry into the future. In the case of the purchaser or recipient of the voucher, the greater the effluxion of time between the purchase and redemption of a voucher the greater the likelihood that the monetary value of the voucher will increasingly erode. If there is an inflationary aspect in the economy, obviously the value of the voucher will diminish over time.

While the Bill is not proposing the abolition of redemption periods for gift vouchers, it is proposing that where a trader does seek to impose such a period when seeking or offering for sale a gift voucher, it must be of a period of not less than five years duration. Again, the imposition of such a lengthy period of redemption may not, for the reasons mentioned, be in the interests of traders, purchasers or recipients of gift vouchers. The interests of all parties would be better served by making the redemption period attaching to a gift voucher as transparent as possible. In this regard, I have requested my officials to examine the issue of transparency with a view to considering the possibility of making regulations under section 50 of the Consumer Protection Act. Such regulations could require that specific information be given on the terms and conditions attaching to the sale or advertisement for sale of gift vouchers, particularly in relation to the redemption periods and conditions attaching to the voucher. The House will be aware that I am preparing legislation to give effect to the Government's decision to merge the National Consumer Agency and the Competition Authority. I have asked my officials to examine the possibility of including specific provisions in this legislation with a view to building on the existing levels of consumer protection in the area of gift vouchers, subject to consistency with EU law.

The House may be aware that the National Consumer Agency has produced a guide to gift vouchers which can be accessed on its websitewww.consumerconnect.ie. The guide gives valuable advice to consumers on the purchase of gift vouchers, particularly on issues such as the different types of vouchers and gift cards available in the marketplace; the various expiry or redemption period policies operated by different traders; consumers’ rights in relation to partially used vouchers; the importance of keeping vouchers safe; consumers’ rights where the trader closes down or there is a change of business; and specific issues in relation to travel agent vouchers. Given the characteristics of gift vouchers, the guide encourages consumers when purchasing vouchers or gift cards to minimise their risk by buying vouchers that can be used at more than one outlet or chain such as shopping centre vouchers or gift tokens issued by trade associations; using a voucher as soon as possible; looking for a gift voucher that has a clear expiry policy; always checking the terms and conditions and taking special account of the expiry date; what happens to any unused portion and whether it can be used in every outlet in a chain.

The agency's overall advice, issued as recently in a public statement as last Friday, 4 December, on gift vouchers is that they should be treated the same as one would treat cash. Consumers contemplating purchasing gift vouchers may wish to consult the agency's on-line guide in order that they are in a position to ensure the value inherent in the voucher can be enjoyed by the recipient. I understand the agency also intends to consider this matter further with a view to possibly issuing guidelines under section 90 of the Consumer Protection Act 2007 to traders on particular commercial practices regarding the sale or advertisement for sale of gift vouchers.

Raising the issue of gift vouchers and the concerns surrounding the manner in which some vouchers are sold and offered for sale is timely in the run-up to the festive period. I have outlined to the House the avenues for redress currently open under consumer law to those who experience difficulties in relation to particular aspects of the sale of gift vouchers. I accept that this is an area that merits further consideration. I have advised the House of the work ongoing in my Department, particularly on the possibility of making regulations prescribing specific consumer information that should accompany the sale of gift vouchers, and also the work being undertaken by the National Consumer Agency. It is my intention to ensure this work continues to progress having regard to developments at national and EU level. I have also outlined to the House the various actions the Government is taking on the issue of gift vouchers. The House will see, therefore, that consumer protection is a matter which the Government takes seriously. I have to ask the Seanad, however, to oppose the Bill, as it is not open to Ireland to unilaterally add to the list of prohibited commercial practices prohibited under the unfair commercial practices directive, given its maximum harmonisation nature.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue. It is timely, given the many people who are purchasing gift vouchers as presents for the festive season. A sizeable number of vouchers are never drawn down, but there cannot be a continuous liability on a trader. There has to be an expiry date. There is an obligation on the recipient to use the voucher in order that a trader will not have an ongoing liability for an indeterminate period. In effect, the longer the duration the greater the likelihood of a voucher being left in a drawer and forgotten about. When a person eventually finds it, he or she may find that the issuing chain has closed down, moved or been taken over. There is an onus on people to inform themselves and to be conscious — this also applies in the context of websites — that the purchase of a gift voucher is essentially a transfer of cash and should be treated as such. People should also read the terms and conditions attached to the purchase of gift vouchers. We encourage companies and businesses providing gift vouchers to ensure consumers are fully aware of the terms and conditions that apply in that regard.

While I am on my feet speaking about gift vouchers, I thank Members in advance for them and wish them all a happy Christmas.

I thank the Minister of State for his contribution. I wish to make some points in support of my colleague, Senator Ryan. Making vouchers redeemable for five years benefits the issuer and consumer. Having in place specific legislation is also likely to benefit both parties. As Senator Ryan stated — this was also mentioned by the Minister of State — issuers operate differing and often inexplicit terms. Customers are often confused or misunderstand the terms under which the voucher is issued. A common problem is that people do not understand that vouchers have a limited life or that the product or service in respect of which they apply is only available for a limited time. While I am aware of this, it must surely create uncertainty in the customer's mind. I believe it is safe to assume that potential sales are lost because of this. Clear rules in regard to the obligations on the issuer and the rights of the consumer are likely to increase sales by improving customer confidence. In this regard, this legislation would be useful.

Not alone would the Bill improve consumer confidence, it would encourage retailers and service providers to develop creative and imaginative ways to attract business through a range of voucher options. There is no reason the range of goods and services that can be purchased with vouchers could not be expanded. For instance, the Post Office offers a voucher which applies to numerous retailers and services. There is scope for expanding this principle so that vouchers for complimentary products can be issued, for example, where parents pay for a honeymoon as a wedding present or a person buys a voucher for car hire, visitor attractions and so on. This is quite common in the US but not so common here yet. This suggests that creative thinking on the part of businesses is required. God knows we need a little innovation in this regard.

A lead on this is being taken at a local level with chambers of commerce in many towns operating a system during the Christmas period which allows people to buy gift vouchers which can be used in participating shops. I see no reason a countrywide scheme along these lines cannot be developed to operate all year round. This would help small downtown businesses attract trade from the multinationals in the out-of-town shopping centres and retail parks. All our towns are now suffering a lack of investment due to the location of larger shopping centres on the edge of towns which offer free parking and other associated benefits. Clonmel is an example in this regard. I am aware we have bucked the national trend by being the only town this year to open not one but two shopping centres. The Showgrounds shopping centre, with Marks & Spencer as the anchor tenant, was opened in the latter part of this year by the Taoiseach. We are delighted Clonmel is now a wonderful shopping town.

There is an increasing need for Irish retailers to protect themselves from the threat posed by Internet shopping. Members will be aware that yesterday was the busiest day of the year for Internet shopping in terms of the timeline for deliveries to consumers before Christmas. Everybody was warned that yesterday was D-day in that regard. It seems inevitable that just as the price of goods has decreased during the past 20 years because they are sourced from low-wage economies, these economies will develop their Internet retail capability in the coming years. We will need to monitor this. Those in recorded music and book sales know all about this threat and all the evidence suggests this will expand into other areas of the retail sector, putting added pressure on retailers here to add value to their offering. One of the ways of doing this is through legislation which gives consumers confidence that vouchers bought in Ireland will be redeemed and that they have the weight of the law on their side.

There are further ways in which issuers would benefit through vouchers being redeemable over a longer period. Vouchers redeemed some years after purchase are very much in the interest of the retailer who receives cash. Vouchers also act as a form of credit provided by the consumer to the issuer. They are, in effect, interest-free loans to the retailers because the cash is received before the product or service is provided. In the event that someone waits some years to redeem their voucher, the issuer, owing to inflation, which is expected to return sometime next year, could get an added margin. For instance, a voucher bought for €100 tomorrow and redeemed in three years' time will purchase less owing to inflation. That is not a universal benefit because in some cases the voucher is for a specific product or more often a service. Where the voucher has a cash value, which is the most common, the issuer could be quids in. A five-year time limit on the redemption of vouchers is not something that retailers and service providers should fear. As Senator Ryan has shown, longer redemption terms are feasible and have been introduced successfully in other countries. I thank the Minister of State for listening to my contribution.

I begin by thanking the Labour Party first for accommodating Private Members' time in the past fortnight and second for introducing this Bill. It is timely in the sense that it addresses an important consumer issue that has a particular poignancy at this time of the year. I admit I have occasionally indulged in the art of present giving through vouchers. However, it must be accepted that it is the least intimate form of present giving. I am not too sure it should be encouraged in any society. The only people who really gain from the production of vouchers are retailers. The Labour Party Bill deals with an important aspect in terms of the redemption of vouchers. However, as the Minister of State indicated, a greater value is lost through people forgetting to redeem them. Even for those who do redeem vouchers eventually, the cash value of the product or service for which they are using the voucher has reduced in the time they have taken to redeem it. There is no way the retailer loses in this situation.

It appears every retailer up to and including petrol stations has a voucher system. I wonder how many people will be honoured by that type of present this Christmas. Given events of the Budget Statement in the past hour or so they might have a particular value now. I am persuaded both by the need to correct current legislation as proposed by the Labour Party Bill and the Minister of State's argument in regard to how such change can be brought about. We have had commitments from the Minister of State this evening in terms of impending consumer protection legislation that can incorporate much of what is suggested in the Labour Party Bill. It appears there is an even greater legislative bar in terms of what we can do unilaterally in this area given our commitments in terms of the European Union. The draft proposal in terms of a new EU consumer protection directive is a document into which the Government, informed by our own political system, can have an input. The Minister of State highlighted the effect of the Council working group in this area. The Labour Party is to be commended on its proposals in this area.

If and when the Government is prepared to introduce amending legislation and to bring about amendment of European legislation in this area, a wider issue needs to be considered. As mentioned by several speakers in this debate, we are speaking about the conversion of currency through the production of vouchers. If we are speaking in terms of consumer rights and protection, we will need to ensure that currency has maximum value. If it is being abused in regard to the terms and conditions being attached and if consumers are not being properly informed as to their rights and entitlements in regard to how the maximum value can be obtained from vouchers, either the system of consumer protection or the legislation that informs it is in need of change.

I noted in the Minister of State's contribution a willingness to take on board many of the ideas included in this Bill and an acceptance that the legislation is in need of constant revision. I am not sure to what extent the Labour Party wishes to progress its legislation but the better vehicle for getting the ideas it is articulating into legislation is to take the Minister of State at his word and await new legislation which he will produce in the near future. The House can then see how the Labour Party's ideas can be put into it.

Once again, I thank and congratulate the Labour Party for raising this issue and having an influence on eventual change in the legislation in this area. Holding Second Stage of this Bill tonight was the subject of unfair comment on the Order of Business in recent days and that should not be allowed to remain on the record of the House. It is an interesting and important Bill that highlights an area where legislative change is necessary.

I welcome the Minister of State. I hope he will accept the Bill as I am aware he has expressed sympathy for the principle of it. As Senator Boyle said, there has been some criticism of the timing. The timing of the introduction of the Bill is perhaps unfortunate in that it clashes with the budget, but it is appropriate that it be debated in December. It is the busiest month for gift voucher purchases and research shows that the week before Christmas is the time when most gift vouchers are purchased. The week after Christmas and the month of January is the time when gift vouchers have the highest redemption rate.

We are also aware that a large number of gift vouchers are not redeemed by consumers, thereby giving a major gift to retailers but an unfair one. There is a serious lack of consumer protection in this area. I was in the Dáil Chamber earlier to hear the Minister for Finance deliver his Budget Statement. The Minister's critical aim in the budget, with which we all agree although many of us are critical of the way he is pursuing it, is to boost consumer confidence, ensure an increase in consumer spending and thereby try to bring about an economicrecovery.

All Members have heard from representatives of the restaurant industry, which is beleaguered, and the retail sector, which is also under pressure, especially in the Border counties where it is suffering as a result of cheaper prices in the North. There is huge pressure on retailers and restaurants, but these are two of the main sectors in which gift vouchers are purchased. One small but important way to boost consumer confidence and spending is to create a sense of goodwill, in the season of goodwill, about gift voucher purchases. Many people are put off buying gift vouchers because of the difficulty with redemption. The expiry date is often as short as six months. I have seen many vouchers which must be redeemed within six months, which can be difficult for people. In addition, traders often do not make it easy for consumers to redeem gift vouchers. I will describe later my recent experience with a gift voucher which will show how difficult it can be to redeem them and the importance of this Bill.

The Minister of State said a number of times that he is sympathetic to the principle of the Bill. He acknowledged that there is a serious issue of consumer protection and unfairness to consumers. However, he was critical of the implementation mechanism in the Bill which he said is inappropriate under the European directive. If he thinks it is not the right mechanism, that is fine. If he could indicate that he will bring forward similar legislation, it would be a step in the right direction and would demonstrate that he is taking the issue seriously enough to deal with it in similar terms in other legislation. That would be an important concession but I did not hear him make it.

The Minister of State accepted there is a problem and pointed out that the periods for redeeming vouchers differ from trader to trader. That is the issue we are trying to address in the Bill. The period for redeeming vouchers can be as short as six months. Some traders, although the number is limited in Ireland, have no expiry period for the gift voucher, but that is very much the exception. It occurs in other jurisdictions. In this country, the trader can set any expiry period they wish. I received a gift voucher for a hotel in Ireland which I will not name. It became almost impossible to redeem it within the 12-month period. The hotel insisted that it would have to be spent over two nights of a weekend rather than one night, as suited us. That example shows the difficulty for consumers in trying to redeem gift vouchers. Where there is a tight expiry period the trader can make redemption almost impossible.

One might argue that it is not in traders' interests to make it so difficult for people to redeem vouchers because it does not inspire confidence among consumers in the service offered by the trader. Frankly, many traders might lose all interest in redeeming vouchers because the money has already been paid up front. Once the voucher has been purchased, the trader has made his money and, in a sense, it is against his or her interests to redeem it. That gets to the core of this problem. Other than a general idea of creating goodwill and ensuring trust among consumers in their service, there is no particular commercial interest for a trader in redeeming a voucher. If, for example, a hotel or restaurant has sold a voucher, it has made its money and it will simply cost it to honour or redeem the voucher. That is the reason one finds, in practice, hotels imposing specific rules on the holders of gift vouchers which make it difficult for them to redeem the vouchers and the reason the issue of gift vouchers is so unbalanced without regulation.

I note the Minister of State's reference to the National Consumer Agency guidelines. The agency helpfully provides guidelines on its website for consumers who have purchased gift vouchers or have been given them. They suggest that consumers use a voucher as soon as possible, look for one that has a clear expiry policy and so forth. It is striking, however, that the onus is placed on the consumer. It is a little like, in the criminal law context, the advice given to people to avoid becoming victims of muggings. I recall a memorable advertising campaign in London some years ago. Prominent advertisements were displayed which showed a person using a mobile phone on a street with a shadowy character looming behind them to grab the mobile phone. The message of the advertisement was not to use one's mobile phone in public. It was laughable. All of us use our mobile phones in public all the time and we have a right to expect to be able to do that without being mugged. To imply that the person using the mobile phone is in some way responsible if they are mugged for doing so sent out all the wrong signals. In fact, I have used that advertisement in criminology class as an example of a victim-blaming strategy that sometimes occurs in crime.

It is obviously a different context but the National Consumer Agency guidelines appear to blame the consumer for the failure to redeem the vouchers, telling them that it is up to them to check the expiry date and use the voucher as soon as possible. Of course, consumers, myself included, lose vouchers and they are not redeemed, but many more are not redeemed because the expiry period has elapsed — the consumer might not even be aware that there was a specific expiry period — or the trader has attached difficult conditions to honouring the voucher.

It might appear to be a small point but this market has enormous value. I have looked at some of the data available. In 2006, for example, the gift voucher or gift card market in the US was worth $80 billion. It is estimated to be worth approximately £3 billion in the UK in 2009. I have tried to find studies on redemption rates. The estimates that are most easily available on the Internet show that 10% of vouchers are not redeemed. I have heard of other studies relating to book tokens which show a higher rate of non-redemption. However, even if the rate is 10% and 90% of vouchers in the US were redeemed in 2006, there was still an enormous gain for retailers of approximately $8 billion. Retailers unfairly, as it were, made $8 billion on the back of consumers because they sold vouchers that were never redeemed. Some of the non-redemption was clearly the fault of the consumer, but some of it could have been due to the difficulties imposed upon the consumer by a lack of a clear expiry period, a short expiry period or other conditions.

I was particularly interested in the American situation where no uniform standards are imposed on vouchers. Fees or other conditions can be imposed for redemption. Some firms have moved to advertise no fee no expiry policies to try to encourage consumers to purchase gift vouchers. This seems to be a novel approach but it relies upon the goodwill of individual traders. Key to this issue is the lack of any commercial benefit to a trader in encouraging people to redeem their gift vouchers. It is the other way around since the trader will have made money without providing the service, books, meals or hotel nights. Clearly, there is an imbalance. There is a lack of protection for the consumer who bears all of the onus of ensuring the voucher is redeemed. There is no real obligation on the trader and no uniform standard has been set in Ireland or the US in terms of expiry periods and conditions for redemption.

Some provinces in Canada have passed legislation to regulate gift vouchers and, for example, ban expiry dates and the practice of imposing fees. We should follow this model. The Labour Party Bill presented to the Minister of State provides an excellent example of a relatively straightforward way of doing this, namely, it would not be possible for a trader to sell or offer for sale a voucher redeemable that is valid for a period less than five years. This clear rule and restriction on traders could be imposed and would go some way towards redressing the imbalance felt by consumers.

There is some interesting literature on the philosophy of gift vouchers and whether it is better to receive a bad present, but one that is individually chosen, or a gift token. I do not like receiving gift tokens because it shows a certain lack of thoughtfulness. When one receives a token, it is of greater benefit if one sees that there is an expiry period of longer than 12 months. In practice, it is difficult to remember in every case to spend or redeem a gift voucher within a short period. When expiry periods in many cases are as short as six or 12 months, something is wrong. We must address the imbalance through legislation and I urge the Minister of State to accept the Bill.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House and the fact that the Labour Party has introduced the Bill at this particular time of the year. It is important that we raise the awareness of gift vouchers and people's entitlements. The Minister of State gave a comprehensive reply and I do not intend to recite it all, but the Government is concerned that the sale of items such as gift vouchers and tokens should be conducted in as transparent a manner as possible. The Minister of State and his Department are examining the possibility of making regulations under the Consumer Protection Act 2007 with a view to prescribing specific information, including information regarding the period in which a voucher must be redeemed. This information would accompany the voucher's sale and advertisements.

The sellers of gift vouchers are practical people and allow more than the stated time, particularly in the hospitality sector, including restaurants and hotels. In my part of the word, such sellers are good. I know of a case in which a voucher was four years old but the hotel honoured it. Perhaps the situation in Dublin is different given the volume of business, but sellers are practical in the west. If one telephones them to say that one will not be able to make it within the 12 months, they will normally allow a further period in which to cash the voucher.

I was surprised by Senator Callely's remarks as I had never heard of small print on a voucher in the west to the effect that it could not be used on a Thursday or Friday night. Those who are giving vouchers should come west and buy their vouchers as presents there.

The hotel I mentioned was outside Dublin but I will not say in which county.

Although the Minister of State, Senator Bacik and others have covered a certain matter, it is important that I do so again. The National Consumer Agency produced a guide to the types of vouchers and gift cards available in the marketplace. One in particular, a travel agent's voucher, should be examined. A number of travel agents have gone out of business and more may follow. We should be careful in this respect. If someone gets a voucher, he or she should try to use it as soon as possible. It is not easy. For example, I have a voucher at home that has probably passed its expiry date but I still intend to use it before the end of January.

That the Minister of State cannot accept the Bill is unfortunate, but I agree with him that the Labour Party has done a service in bringing the issue to the fore at this time.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House and commend Senator Ryan on his research ahead of this Bill and on introducing it in the House. It is one of those issues that exercises everyone's mind at one stage or another. Unfortunately, when we get over the initial reaction to an individual situation, we tend to move on and forget about the problem's root cause.

This matter affects us all. No one in the House has not been affected by the manner in which shelf life has been applied to vouchers. It is unjust and unfair and should be illegal. As a consequence of a booming economy, people realised that this would be the case and were cognisant of the fact that if they issued vouchers with a shelf life for their goods, the money spent buying the voucher was no longer legal tender after six months, 12 months or two years. I was rifling through a list of the companies and outlet stores that apply shelf life and those that do not. Quite a number do not apply any expiry date, which is welcome, but others apply dates of two years, 12 months or, in many cases, as little as six months.

We are living in straitened times and a difficult budget was just announced in the Lower House. In the past two years, we have come to learn that disposable income has diminished and people have lost their jobs, with a consequential reduction in their income levels. After this budget, basic social welfare rates will be cut by 4%. It will be said of the budget that pensioners were left alone, but that is wrong. They were the first group singled out by the Government in the supplementary budget that abolished the Christmas bonus, equating to a 2% reduction in the rate of the old age pension. Considering all of the above, it must be borne in mind that people have less disposable income than they used to. It is incumbent on the Government to consider the Bill's merit and outlaw some of the activity that is robbing more money from people's pockets.

This entire matter relates to consumer issues and the rural economy. I spoke to a lady last week who said she generally used the Christmas bonus to buy Christmas presents for her grandchildren. That bonus is now lost to the local rural economy because it no longer exists. That is a considerable loss to this economy. If one replicates that throughout many other towns and villages, one will find the local economy suffers. It is not as if people used to save that kind of money. They did not but used it for expenditure particular to the season.

The Government must take the issue on board. This kind of practice is unfair and unjust. The evidence suggests that it is those on lower and middle incomes who are the victims in this situation. We can offer examples of corporate fraud, areas where checks and balances were not in place and the consequent fall-out from that lack of regulation. We can look at where it did not work. This is one area where it might. The Government should look at the merit of this Bill and take it on board. It would be an enormous shot in the arm for people at this time of year. There must be sanctions, too, for people who take advantage of the fact that vouchers may not be redeemed.

I apologise for missing the Minister of State's opening comments. I have no doubt they were congratulatory of the Bill. As he is a fair-minded person like the rest of us, I am sure the Minister of State supported it. I hope he will see his way to flexing his ministerial muscle and ensuring this will become Government policy.

As I said, unfortunately, the harmonisation nature of the directive gives member states very little discretion regarding this legislation before the House. I commend Senator Ryan and the Labour Party on introducing this Bill, especially in view of the time of year.

Senator Bacik referred to a number of issues regarding the psychology of purchasing vouchers in the first place. As a man, the major concern I have is that vouchers often get one out of a very difficult corner. In my experience of buying gifts from time to time, one can get away with shoes, handbags, perhaps a ring, and vouchers, but when it comes to buying clothes——

The Minister of State is a brave man.

He is wise to say it.

When one goes into Brown Thomas or an equally high-end store, invariably one ends up going to the gift voucher department because otherwise one might be under some pressure if one bought an item in the wrong size.

Seriously, reference was made to our blaming the consumer. We are trying to advise the consumer and make him or her aware of the risks that arise if one does not look at the terms and conditions of a voucher. The other interesting aspect that emerged is the rate of redemption and whether it is as high as 10%. I believe it is higher in some areas. That is a major problem. We have all opened a drawer after two or three years and found a voucher in the bottom wishing us a happy Christmas or birthday.

It was asked whether the Government proposes to introduce legislation. We will do that with regard to the amalgamation of the National Consumer Agency and the Competition Authority and have asked our officials to consider including in that legislation provisions that may address some relevant issues. Again, such measures must be compatible and in accordance with the harmonisation nature of the EU directive.

Equally, with regard to the unfair commercial practices directive, there is a mechanism in place whereby a blacklist can be added to or amended. A report is to be brought from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers by 2011 concerning this directive and the 31 blacklisted items. Additions and subtractions could be made at that stage and there would be an opportunity for member states to put forward their views. That is scheduled for June 2011, which is somewhat distant, as the Senator noted. However, with the amalgamation of the two agencies, there may be some room to ensure we can make regulations that are more protective of consumers' rights. I wish it were possible to accept this Bill but I am prohibited by the constraints put on me by the various directives and their harmonisation nature.

Because of the Christmas season, people should be careful. It is a pity this item is overshadowed by the budget which will probably take more prominence on the front pages tomorrow as opposed to this very important debate. These issues should be aired publicly to make people conscious of their rights and entitlements and, equally, to make them aware that when they purchase a voucher, they should read the small print and advise the recipient of the terms and conditions.

I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive statements at the opening of the debate and its conclusion. There was some criticism yesterday concerning the timing of the Bill which I will address. This Bill was due for discussion two weeks ago, as the officials and the Minister of State may be aware. On that occasion the Labour Party ceded its time to the Leader to allow for a comprehensive discussion on the flooding situation. Last week the Green Party asked us to switch with it for tonight and consequently we are discussing the matter in the Chamber now. If Private Members' business had not been ordered for tonight, we would not be here but it was, it is our turn and we are dealing with the matter.

It is unfortunate that, as a result of comments by Senator Quinn, we are almost obliged to apologise for introducing the legislation but I do not apologise in any way for it.

I thank the Minister of State again for his comprehensive response to the Bill. He cited the need for EU approval for it because if such legislation were enacted in Ireland, it might not be compatible with EU legislation. However, our legal advice was that approval could be sought post-enactment, not necessarily at the time of publication. Our advice is that this is either not an issue or, if it is, it can be overcome.

I thank the various contributors. Senator Carty said sellers are practical people and offered good advice on how consumers should deal with gift vouchers, but this does not eliminate the problem. There is plenty of good advice atwww.consumerconnect.ie but this means trying to get around the problem rather than addressing it.

I thank Senator Callely for his contribution which broadly welcomed the principle of the Bill. He talked about the nonsense connected with gift vouchers. It is that nonsense that prompted my party to introduce the legislation. We believe it is robust, specific and worthy of acceptance. On behalf of Fine Gael, Senator Bradford welcomed the initiative.

The Minister of State said that many retailers are flexible. We know that. As Senator Carty said, many retailers will extend the shelf life of vouchers if a consumer goes back to them. The problem arises because some retailers are not flexible in that regard and will not modify the terms. Trying to deal with such outliers is what prompted this legislation. In 75% to 90% of the time the situation is fine and there is no problem with the retailers. We wished to deal with an acknowledged problem, one that has been discussed for years in many fora, most recently on Joe Duffy's radio programme.

The Minister of State said he intended to make regulations which will deal with some aspects but he has not committed to dealing with the shelf life issue and stated there might be a problem associated with it. In addition, there is no timeline for taking such action. The Minister of State may come back to it in 2011 and address some of the issues but this does not deal with the issue.

Senator Boyle supported the principle of the Bill because of the need to correct the problems. He agreed with the need to do something but wondered if this were the way to do it and had some sympathy with the Minister of State's position. I thank my colleagues in the Labour Party for their commitment and their contributions to the debate.

This legislation is necessary. It needs to be enacted soon. This has been a problem for too long and the Minister of State should be aware that it is happening in other jurisdictions. The United States and Canada have moved to address it. There are no examples of Europe moving to address it yet but that does not mean we cannot lead the way in terms of what needs to be done in Europe.

The Consumers' Association of Ireland has given much good advice which I will not repeat here but in the context of the problem, people must be careful. This is a time when people will purchase gift vouchers and we would advise them to be very careful and to keep receipts. The Bill we propose is based on what we have identified as a need in this area. I rest my case.

Question put.
The Seanad divided: Tá, 20; Níl, 27.

  • Bacik, Ivana.
  • Bradford, Paul.
  • Burke, Paddy.
  • Buttimer, Jerry.
  • Cannon, Ciaran.
  • Coffey, Paudie.
  • Coghlan, Paul.
  • Cummins, Maurice.
  • Doherty, Pearse.
  • Fitzgerald, Frances.
  • Hannigan, Dominic.
  • Healy Eames, Fidelma.
  • McCarthy, Michael.
  • McFadden, Nicky.
  • O’Toole, Joe.
  • Prendergast, Phil.
  • Regan, Eugene.
  • Ross, Shane.
  • Ryan, Brendan.
  • White, Alex.

Níl

  • Boyle, Dan.
  • Brady, Martin.
  • Butler, Larry.
  • Callely, Ivor.
  • Carroll, James.
  • Carty, John.
  • Cassidy, Donie.
  • Corrigan, Maria.
  • Daly, Mark.
  • de Búrca, Déirdre.
  • Ellis, John.
  • Feeney, Geraldine.
  • Glynn, Camillus.
  • Hanafin, John.
  • Keaveney, Cecilia.
  • Leyden, Terry.
  • MacSharry, Marc.
  • McDonald, Lisa.
  • Ó Domhnaill, Brian.
  • Ó Murchú, Labhrás.
  • O’Brien, Francis.
  • O’Donovan, Denis.
  • O’Malley, Fiona.
  • Ormonde, Ann.
  • Phelan, Kieran.
  • White, Mary M.
  • Wilson, Diarmuid.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Ivana Bacik and Dominic Hannigan; Níl, Senators Camillus Glynn and Diarmuid Wilson.
Question declared lost.

When is it proposed to sit again?

Ag 10.30 maidin amárach.