Committee on Finance. - Control of Prices (No. 2) Bill, 1937—Committee.

Sections 1 to 15, inclusive, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
SECTION 16.
Question proposed: "That Section 16 stand part of the Bill."

On this section, I think it would be desirable that the Dáil should determine definitely a matter that arose in connection with the last Prices Commission. Are interested parties entitled to be heard before the commission by counsel? There was an occasion during the lifetime of the outgoing Prices Commission when an interested party elected to appear by counsel. The proceedings became somewhat acrimonious, and counsel was told that he had no locus standi and was asked to leave. In any case, he was given to understand that he had no locus standi. Is it the desire of the Minister that interested parties should appear before the commission by counsel?

For myself, I would be strongly opposed to the practice developing of interested parties appearing before the commission by counsel. The purpose of the commission is to get at the facts, to get at them by whatever means which, within the limits of their powers, are open to them—by question, by cross-examination, and so forth—and the intervention of counsel between witnesses and the members of the commission would only impair the efficiency of the commission in that matter. So far as the Bill is concerned, we are leaving it as the Act provided —that the Prices Commission can determine their own procedure; but if they should ask my advice at any time as to whether they should encourage the practice of representation by counsel at sittings of the commission, I would agree strongly against it.

My views are opposed to those of the Minister in this matter. It is all very well, if you are dealing with a highly experienced company chairman, or somebody who is in the habit of giving evidence or standing before a tribunal; but this tribunal is entitled to summon any shopkeeper before it, and to question him as to the price of a particular product. There are a number of rural factories the proprietors of which might be brought before the commission. A countryman might be asked to stand up and answer a fusillade of questions from all directions. I think it is very unfair to ask such a person to appear without some kind of assistance. Will he be allowed even to bring a solicitor with him?

So far as I know, there is no restriction on persons who are asked to come as witnesses, bringing whatever clerical staff or other assistance they may require with them. In certain cases the commission may object to that course but in the ordinary course of events, the sole purpose of the commission is to get all the information they can. Therefore, anything that may assist a witness in giving information would be welcomed by the commission but the purpose of counsel, particularly in the case to which the Deputy refers, is different. They are briefed. They are not experts. They know no more in the ordinary way about the matter before the commission than the ordinary man in the street. They only know what they are told, and people in that position are no use to the commission. What the commission require before them is not the legal representatives of particular firms but the accountants of those firms. It is from the accountants, and not from the lawyers, they will get the information they want.

Supposing a firm has not got accountants?

Well, I hope that one of the purposes which will be served by the Prices Commission is the extension of the practice of the employment of accountants by firms engaging in manufacture.

Sections 16 to 21, inclusive, put and agreed to.
SECTION 22.
. . . . . . .
(b) a price investigation under Section 24 of the said Control of Prices Act, 1932, is pending at the commencement of this Act,
such public inquiry or price investigation (as the case may be) shall be continued by the commission and shall be deemed to be a price investigation under Part III of this Act by the commission, and any acts or things done by the former Prices Commission shall be deemed to have been done by the commission under this Act.

I move amendment No. 1:—

To delete line 47 and substitute the following:—

(b) an investigation under either Section 24 or Section 41 of the said Control,

and in line 50 to delete the word "price."

This is in effect a drafting amendment. The intention of the section is to provide for the continuance of several existing inquiries, and through an error in drafting no provision was made for the continuance of inquiries under Section 41, that is, investigations into manufacturers' prices. It is desirable to keep those inquiries alive so that they would not have to be restarted by the new commission, and the purpose of this amendment is merely to make the provision complete.

Amendment agreed.
Section 22, as amended, agreed.
Sections 23 to 35, inclusive, agreed.
SECTION 36.
(1) Any person may make to the Controller a complaint (in this Part of this Act referred to as a complaint) that a person who carries on a business by way of trade or for the purposes of gain has sold or offered for sale to him in the course of or as part of such business a kind of a commodity at an unreasonably high price.

I move amendment No. 2:—

In sub-section (1), line 17, after the word "make" to insert the words "in writing".

I have not very much to say about this. I think that, both for the protection of the commission and everybody else, anybody who wishes to make a complaint should do so in writing.

This section does not relate to complaints to the commission. It relates to complaints concerning individual purchases, made to the Controller of Prices by an individual who has gone into a shop and purchased a pound of sugar, a pair of boots, or anything else, and, believing that he or she was over-charged, wants the matter investigated by the Controller of Prices or an inspector acting under the Controller. The Prices Commission does not come into the picture at this stage at all.

Under the existing Act there is a formal procedure which has to be followed by persons desiring to make a complaint. They have to make a complaint in writing and in the prescribed form. It is my belief that the formality associated with the making of the complaint has deterred quite a number of people from availing of the machinery which is there to have their grievances examined, and I think it is good policy to make the procedure for lodging a complaint as informal as possible. I see no reason why a person who feels that he or she has been overcharged for some commodity should not be allowed to lodge a complaint forthwith by telephone if he or she so desires, or alternatively to drop a postcard asking an inspector to call. The less formality there is about it the better. In any event, we are proposing now to give the controller power to have an investigation made where the inspector in any event thinks it necessary, so that it will still be possible to act upon informal complaints. That is the reason why we cut out the provision concerning the making of complaints in writing in the prescribed form. We are anxious to make the procedure informal, in the belief that people will thereby more readily avail of the machinery which is there for their protection.

Does the Minister not think that this might open up the way for frivolous complaints? Of course I desire that there should be every means for dealing with overcharging or profiteering, but there should be some check upon frivolous complaints. Any person, by making a telephone call, can immediately set the machinery going, and that person can then possibly disappear out of the picture because there is nothing in writing to make him come and face up to his charge against an individual seller or shopkeeper. I should like the Minister to give that matter a certain amount of consideration, so that he may find a means of being able to deal with frivolous complaints, or complaints by a buyer who may have some desire to wound a particular trader or individual shopkeeper.

The answers to the Deputy's representations are two-fold. First of all, the Controller need not act on a complaint which he regards as frivolous. Secondly, if in the course of investigation it is found that a person gave false or misleading information, that person becomes guilty of an offence and can be penalised under the Act. In the ordinary event, the Controller will have little difficulty in determining between genuine and frivolous complaints. He will have reliable information as to the prevailing prices of most commodities of common consumption, and complaint about a price equal to or below what he knows to be the prevailing price charged will presumably not be investigated by him at all. It is only where the facts seem to indicate that an offence has occurred that he will take proceedings, but he is given power under the Bill to require a person making a complaint to supply whatever information is necessary for the conduct of the investigation, and there is also power taken to punish a person who gives information which he knows to be wrong.

I know that a man may be punished for putting in information which is wrong, but nevertheless he can put in a frivolous complaint against a merchant, particularly if he has any ill-feeling, against the merchant, and I should like to sound a note of warning. There seems to be an attitude growing up in this country that any man who earns his living is a sort of public enemy. He has to be beset by inspectors, and every kind of supervision, or he will do wrong. The fact that you earn your own living in this country is becoming prima facie evidence of the fact that you are a potential criminal. If you are on the dole, or looking for outdoor relief, or looking for relief works, that is prima facie evidence that you are an honest man, but if you happen to be rowing your own canoe and asking nobody for help it is prima facie evidence that you are a rogue, so you have to be inspected by the factory inspector, by the Board of Trade inspector, by the prices inspector, and by several other inspectors.

All necessary.

Very possibly, all necessary. I have no doubt the Deputy has never encountered them. But the next time the Deputy sits down to spend a pleasant evening preparing his legal work, and considers how he would get his work done if he had to suffer a necessary inspection every half-hour he was doing his work in accordance with the law, I think he will scratch his head. I quite agree that abuses must be checked, but I urge most strongly that the time is rapidly coming when we ought seriously to consider whether we should facilitate too much the incursions of these hordes and legions of inspectors that are raging around this country. If you have four inspectors calling on you in one day and you have to meet and satisfy each of them in accordance with the statute, by the end of the day you are in a pretty ragged condition. But if, having satisfied the inspector, you have visits from Guards concerned about the enforcement of five or six restrictive laws——

The Deputy might now refer to the amendment.

The amendment seeks to put some slight check on the thousand and first inspector who is going to be launched out on the inoffensive commercial community in this country and the only check that is asked is that before you let loose this further bloodhound you ought to set down in writing the reason you want him to come in and take a piece out of the merchant's leg. The Minister suggests that if he imposes the obligation on anybody of writing, nobody will have the industry to do it, but if a person can pick up a telephone and say "Send somebody in to ginger up such-and-such a fellow," then the controller will get all the complaints he wants. I think he will get more complaints than he ought to get, complaints which will induce him to send inspectors into perfectly respectable merchants at a rate far more than he ought to.

We have had reference made here to valid and invalid complaints. It is a really difficult thing for the Controller to distinguish between them. If a man says "I was charged so much for a pound of sugar in O'Connell Street and in Ear! Street it is a ½d. less," that establishes a prima facie case of overcharging and the Controller is bound to investigate. If such a situation as that arises, and if a person feels about it, he ought to have the courage to write it on a post card. If he is a public-spirited person he will not hesitate to write it on a post card; but if he is a purely frivolous person, in something of a bad temper, a person who is not anxious to check up on his prices and find out whether there is not some simple explanation, then he will go to the telephone and set the machinery in motion. It may seem a small matter, but it may mean a great deal to a number of merchants.

Would you encourage anonymous letters?

No, I would put them in the wastepaper basket, where I have no doubt the Deputy will put his. Soon enough he will have the same experience as many other Deputies in the matter of anonymous letters and when he gets them I advise him to put them in the wastepaper basket; it is the best place for them.

The most amazing thing about Deputy Dillon is his audacity. He actually complains that there is growing up here a mentality which condemns as a criminal everybody who engages in some useful work. If that mentality is growing up, there is nobody more than Deputy Dillon who has tended to foster it. Of all the Deputies in this House there is nobody who, day in and day out, persists in the idea that every manufacturer and worker is out to make the most he can, by fair means or foul, out of the community. That is his chief stock-in-trade, his morning prayer and his evening prayer.

He objects only to the inspectors.

I suggest that we should have an easy approach from the public to the Controller of Prices. I stated already that the experience over 12 years has been that it is useless to rely on the public spirit of the citizens to write in for the purpose of starting investigations into prices. Prices Commissions found that out and reported it; the Prices Commission in 1926 found it out and reported it.

And so will this one. It is perfectly futile.

And so will this one? Therfore, we should make it as easy as possible for the citizen to approach the Controller and give the Controller and the commission power to act on their own initiative. That is what we are proposing to do. The amendment makes more formal the manner of the approach and I do not think we should do that. There is no question of penalising the trader unless, on investigation, it is found that there is an excessive price charged. Up to that stage there is no injury inflicted on the trader concerned. It may mean that here and there a trader will have his prices investigated without due cause. But I do not think that is going to do them any harm. It will prevent them increasing prices without due cause at a later stage.

Observe the Minister's attitude—it is not going to do them any harm and it will prevent them from increasing prices without due cause at a later stage—the assumption being that every person in business is a rogue, and the sooner you give him a kick in the behind the better for him, because if he has not done wrong in the past he will probably do wrong in the future. The Minister was in business in this city before he became a politician, and I wonder has he ever had the experience of Government inspectors coming in, squaring up, sticking out their jaws and saying: "Come on, tell us all we want to know; we are from the Department of Industry and Commerce." Suppose the trader puts it to the inspector: "What is it you want to know?" the reply invariably will be: "I do not know. I am an inspector. I am here to tell you what the law is, and not why it is the law." If you suggest: "I doubt if you ought to be here, or if this comes within your purview," the inspector will say: "I do not know; I was sent here, and I am going to stay here until I get what I want."

Just a slight exaggeration.

The question is whether a person ought to write or ought not to write.

Whether to blather all day long, or write.

Just imagine if that came into your house as a Government inspector. I will say no more than that. Just imagine that.

On a wage of 24/- a week.

Perhaps Deputy Dillon would not get off as easily with the district justice if he did go in as an inspector.

You would get a nervous breakdown if you saw it coming in.

Amendment 2, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment 3 not moved.
Sections 36 and 37 agreed to.
SECTION 38.

I move amendment No. 4:

To insert at the end of sub-section (2) a new paragraph as follows:

(c) any other person, who carries on a business by way of trade or for the purposes of gain, and who sells in the course of or as part of such business the kind of commodity to which such complaint relates, to furnish him with such information as he may reasonably require in relation to the price which such person pays for such kind of commodity and the price at which such person sells such kind of commodity.

The Bill gives power to the inspector to obtain information from the person making a complaint or the person in respect of whom the complaint is made. It is also desirable that the inspector should have information about other people who are selling the same types of articles in the same area. It is the purpose of this new paragraph to enable the inspector to get that information when carrying out his investigations. He would be in a position to receive information, not merely from the complainant and the person against whom the complaint is made, but also from other persons selling the same article. It is a power the inspector obviously should have.

Amendment agreed to.
Section 38, as amended, agreed to.
SECTION 39.

The following amendment stands in my name:

At the end of the section, to add a new sub-section as follows:

(2) Whenever a price certificate for the time being in force in relation to a commodity has been served on any person who carries on any business by way of trade or gain, and such person is satisfied that the price fixed by the Controller is not a fair price for such commodity, such person may send a representation in a form to be prescribed to the commission for an investigation into the price of such commodity, and thereupon the commission shall hold such an investigation, and, pending the result thereof, the said price certificate shall not take effect.

I was impressed with what the Minister said on the two previous amendments which I put down and I am rather inclined to agree with him in this way, that it is very hard to get the public to come forward, and I rather make him a present of that if he thinks there is some point in it, and I think there probably is. He mentioned that this matter would not come before the commission.

I mentioned it would not come before the commission at that stage.

I would like to say to the Minister that there seems to be a needless amount of circumlocution in connection with this Bill. We have three sets of Orders which have been made—Prices Order, Restriction on Profits Order, and Price Certificate. You have a commission and Controller. Apparently the commission is functioning on the Prices Order and the Prices Restriction on Profits Order, and the Controller is functioning on the Prices Certificate. There may be and there is a certain amount of overlapping. I see this provision, for instance: "The Controller may, with the consent of the commission, make a certificate (in this Act referred to as the Price Certificate)." I do not know what the relations between the Controller and the commission are going to be but I think that it is very desirable that they should be very intimate and that the Controller should be part of the commission and that the commission should be more or less part of the controller, if it could be described in that way in the case of a body dealing with an individual.

My reasons for urging these points are that prices are highly technical subjects. If you get a Controller who merely draws his remuneration and sits in a chair, nothing will be done. If he gets out and tries to do his very best, sooner or later he will do a certain number of things which he ought not to do. I am not suggesting that there is anything wrong with him, but a Controller who can give an intelligent and expert opinion on what retail prices ought to be for the whole country would probably want to have the assistance of all the judges there are at present. I would be inclined to suggest that such a man has not yet been born. He is bound to make mistakes and, in saying that, I am perfectly certain that nobody would be more ready than the Minister to admit that that is possible, either through inaccuracy or because a telephone message might have been wrongly recorded, or because something else like that might have happened. The purpose of my amendment is that there shall be a review of the Controller's opinion. I should think that if a commission is not well up on prices, it will not be very long before the education of that commission is improved. I think that the fact that there was to be a review by a commission of the prices fixed by the Controller would be eminently desirable.

The Minister has not made quite clear what the relations between the Controller and the commission are going to be. I would like to suggest that the Controller could serve a very useful apprenticeship on listening to the Prices Order and the Prices Restrictions on profits investigations by the commission and that the commission, if necessary, could be called on to review decisions by the Controller. There is one other matter to which I would like to refer and it is at the root of this Bill. The Minister is talking about prices and the public are thinking about prices. Now these two are not the same thing. Having regard to that, you must take into account the quality of the articles supplied. It is nonsense to talk about prices, prices, prices, and absolutely neglect quality. The Minister may have in his mind: "Oh, well, it will needlessly complicate matters if the slippery retailer is allowed to plead that this quality is somewhat different from somebody else's quality." But there is no disguising the fact that the public are looking for value. What is the use of fixing prices when, say, for the sake of argument, an Irish-produced article is to be so much if the quality is halved or quartered? Is that an infringement? It certainly is profiteering. Is that a subject for investigation by the commission? The question of the quality of the article must be taken into account because that is the way in which the public looks at it—price and quality. People have only got a certain amount of money, they have to study their purse. There are other people who can spend what they like on an article and they are looking for the quality that will suit them. You have, broadly speaking, that position. I had a case brought to my notice recently. It was the matter of an Irish-made article. The price was, broadly speaking, what it ought to be in the international market. My complainant's contention was that this Irish-made article gave one-quarter of the service of the international article. I contend that that is a charge of 400 per cent. on the consumer. The Minister must take a fact like that into account. I see the Ceann-Comhairle looking at me, and I do not know whether the idea is that the point I am dealing with is not within the scope of the Bill.

The Ceann-Comhairle is listening attentively and with interest.

I thank you for your expression of opinion, Sir, but I certainly think that unless the Minister is going to take value into account and that is the broadest and simplest way of looking at the matter—this Control of Prices Bill will be just as useless as the previous Acts that the Minister has been complaining about. I do not know what the Minister has to say to the amendment standing in my name but I would like to press the Minister first of all that he should explain to us how intimately the Controller and the commission were going to be connected or coupled together, and, secondly, that he would consider last, but not least, the question of value.

Section 39 deals with the position which arises when a complaint has been made and investigated and the Controller has come to the conclusion that the complaint is well-founded, and that the overcharge was made by some trader for some commodity to the person who made the complaint. I take it that the Deputy's purpose in the amendment is to provide that from the decision of the Controller there will be an appeal by the trader concerned to the commission.

I submit that the Deputy's amendment is not necessary because, if he turns to the words of the section which he himself quoted, he will find that, before the Controller acts, he has to get the consent of the commission. The Controller acts by making a price certificate and, before he does that, he has to get the consent of the commission. Of course, it would be inappropriate and wrong to provide subsequently for the trader an appeal to the commission which had consented to the making of the certificate. In any event, it would be unnecessary. The Deputy has, I think, misunderstood the machinery of this part of the Bill. The Regulation of Profit Orders have nothing whatever to do with this part of the Bill. To use the Deputy's own words, "the retail price for a commodity throughout the whole country" is not affected by anything that may be done under this part of the Bill. This part of the Bill deals only with the complaints of individuals—complaints relating to the sale of some single commodity on a single occasion by a particular and named trader. In such circumstances the Controller comes in to investigate. It is the Controller decides whether an investigation is to take place and arranges for it. If he comes to the conclusion that an overcharge has, in fact, been made and that action should be taken, he has, before he takes action, to get the consent of the commission. I submit that the Deputy's amendment is not necessary. The commission consent and the Controller makes his price certificate. That price certificate is, in itself, no real safeguard against any general tendency to overcharge for the particular commodity named in the certificate. It is directed to the trader against whom the offence has been proved, and relates only to the price to be charged by that trader. Of course, the penalty upon the trader is greater than would appear, particularly if the Controller considers that the circumstances are such as to justify him in publishing the fact that such a certificate has been made. It is the effect of the publicity rather than the actual effect of the certificate which will deter traders who may be charging excessive prices from continuing to do so after the Controller has had investigation made.

The Deputy referred to the general question of the relation of prices to value. It is precisely because of the difficulty of controlling prices by making maximum price Orders where the articles are of variable value that this amending Bill is considered necessary. I referred already to the difficulty, for example, of controlling the price of flour. The only reason it is not possible to control the price of flour by making a maximum price Order is because of the infinite variations possible in the quality of flour that might be offered for sale. As some Deputies will remember, we spent a considerable time away back in 1929 trying to get some chemical definition which would enable one quality of flour to be distinguished from another. That was in connection with the Economic Committee set up by the House in that year. We had to abandon the attempt. We were assured by the foremost chemists in the country whom we called into consultation that there was no known test by which it would be possible for the ordinary person to distinguish one quality of flour from another. Therefore, that method of fixing flour prices is not operating. The same thing occurs in connection with the whole range of commodities in respect of which variation in quality cannot be easily detected. It is to deal with such circumstances that we are widening the powers of the commission and giving them authority to control prices by regulating, not the actual selling price of a commodity, but the margin of profit which a manufacturer or wholesaler or trader may take. If that cannot be done, then they can advise that some modification of customs duty or import restriction should be put in operation. These alternative methods of dealing with a situation in which excessive prices are being charged have to be resorted to precisely because of the difficulty to which the Deputy has referred. That difficulty was always there and I frequently expressed the opinion that the term "price" has no significance unless related to quality. It was always visualised that the procedure of controlling price by fixing a maximum could not be easily adopted in the case of a number of articles. When we introduced the 1932 Act, the view held was that it was only in a few cases and as a last resort that a maximum price would, in fact, be enforced. We felt that the publicity attending the inquiry, the publication of the report and the publication of the finding of the commission that excessive prices were being charged would be sufficient to get manufacturers and traders to reduce prices to a reasonable level. That was sufficient in all cases in our experience except one. In that one case, it was possible to act by way of fixing a maximum price. That was the case of bread. All that, I submit, has no direct relation to this section. This section deals only with the powers of the Controller in relation to some individual sale, and the Deputy's amendment to provide for an appeal from the Controller's decision to the commission is unnecessary. It would achieve no purpose, because the section provides that, before he acts, the Controller must have got the consent of the commission.

I do not know if the Minister has appreciated the point I made or, alternatively, whether I fully understand the procedure which will take place. My idea was that a consumer, "A." would possibly ring up the Controller and make a complaint about the price that a retailer, "B," was charging for a commodity. That is the start of the case. The Controller will make some sort of preliminary investigations, and then he will make an order which will be nominally with the authority of the commission but which will really mean that the commission initialled some sort of report or statement which he made about the case. I do not want to make a State trial out of every complaint. In eight or nine cases out of ten, the Controller will probably be in the right. But there may be alternative submissions by the retailer in reply to the Controller's price certificate. I want the submissions which the trader makes to be reviewed if they are thought sufficiently important. That is the decision which I want to get at. The Minister knows that one story is very good until you hear the other. If there is an alternative submission to the order of the Controller, I want that submission reviewed by the body which is in association with him. It is a very complicated and difficult subject, and that is what I am seeking.

Sub-section (4) provides that the Controller may, with the consent of the commission, revoke a certificate. I think I see what the Deputy is at, and I believe his purpose would be served if the sub-section were amended to provide that the commission could by itself decide that a certificate should be revoked. I shall consider that with a view to having an amendment on the Report Stage.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Question proposed: "That Section 38 stand part of the Bill."

Sub-section (6) of this section deals with the service of a price certificate on the person therein named. If the Minister will look at the next section he will find that sub-section (1) provides for what must be there before an offence is committed, and in sub-paragraph (c) he will find set out that "a copy of such certificate has been duly served on the person named therein." I suggest that the word "personally" should be substituted for the words "by registered post."

I would not accept that.

It might be served on a servant maid or a shop boy, and it could be a defence by the person when charged that he never got it.

We have had that question considered here in relation to a large number of measures, and it has become now the standard practice to insert in measures of this kind a sub-section such as sub-section (6) deeming a notice to be served when it is in fact sent by registered post to the address of the person concerned. I think we have to stick to that, because of the difficulty which has often been experienced of dealing with the legal technicality of what constitutes service. As the Deputy is no doubt aware, people have frequently succeeded in evading the consequences of their acts by some legal quibble of that kind. I think we have to stick to this practice. I do not believe that any case has arisen under any Act of real hardship, although we have had it discussed here upon a number of occasions.

All the Agricultural Acts, all these various measures which were enacted for the control of the production of eggs, butter, milk and so on, the Cereals Acts for which the Department of Industry and Commerce is responsible and quite a very large number of such measures, provide for something happening when documents are served upon individuals. We have made it the standard practice to adopt that provision, and I should be very indisposed to change it.

Question put and agreed to.
Sections 40 to 47 and the Title agreed to.

May I draw your attention, Sir, to the fact that in line 20 of sub-section (2) of Section 47 there is a misprint. The word "effected" should be "affected."

Bill reported with amendments.
Report Stage ordered for Wednesday, 27th October.