Priority Questions.

Consumer Protection.

Phil Hogan

Ceist:

108 Mr. Hogan asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment the precise role of the new consumer panel that she proposes to establish in respect of measures dealing with consumer protection; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [4177/04]

I am increasingly disturbed by stories of rip-off Ireland and the time has come for some radical new thinking in terms of our approach to consumer issues. My key objectives are to put in place the structures and mechanisms which will promote effective competition in consumer markets, which will encourage the active participation of consumers at all levels of economic, political and social life and which will ensure that in the future greater attention is paid to consumer interests in the development of economic and social policy. I also believe that consumers will benefit when product and service providers become more appreciative of the contribution a satisfied customer can make to the growth and development of business.

In the past it has proved difficult to establish an effective consumer lobby in Ireland and this is due in large part not to the lack of effort on the part of those involved but to the diverse and changing nature of the consumer agenda. I am determined to change that situation. I want consumers in Ireland to have a powerful voice and for that voice to be heard. I want consumers to have effective representation and input in the development of policy proposals at national and local level. I want to encourage effective consumer participation in national debate on issues of importance to them.

Competition will only succeed with the full co-operation of consumers. Therefore, I want to encourage and see develop in Ireland a culture where consumers are confident and insistent in demanding value and quality at all times. Consumers should be able to easily understand their rights and have a simple and effective means of redress when they believe those rights are denied.

To make progress on these important objectives, I will shortly announce the establishment of a small group to advise me on the development of a national consumer agenda. Membership of the group will comprise people with the interest and expertise to allow them to contribute positively to the process. The terms of reference for the group will reflect the objectives I have outlined. I expect the group will be in a position to report within a relatively short timeframe given the importance and complexity of its task.

Following the Tánaiste's seven years in office, she has now discovered that consumers require a stronger voice and will seek advice, from another quango that she is about to establish, on what should be done in respect of consumer issues and consumer protection before the reshuffle given that she has already announced her desire to move from her present Department. She proposes to put another group of people, or cronies, on a committee to discuss the issue. Does the Tánaiste accept that we need a powerful review and committee system that will investigate these issues in a more thorough fashion, that changes in legislation are required in the area of consumer protection that will give consumers greater diversification and choice, and that full implementation of many EU directives in the context of the Single Market is required to give greater competition to consumers?

There is no question of a quango. A consumer advisory group involving 33 different personalities was established by my predecessor. Many of the 33 people represent the regulators or the producers. In many other countries, the consumer lobby has grown organically in society. Unfortunately, that has not happened here.

The intention is to replicate what happened in insurance with the Motor Insurance Advisory Board but to have a smaller group. The group of individuals will be chosen for the personal qualities they bring to this agenda rather than being representative of any particular vested interest. That is what is required. The idea is to stand down the existing group and replace it with a more focused and smaller group of individuals who will examine, among other things, how to develop an effective consumer voice in Ireland, act as an expert adviser to me, and be separate from the enforcement role which is the responsibility of the Director of Consumer Affairs.

The EU has an important role to play. A number of EU draft directives are being discussed during Ireland's Presidency, one of which relates to unfair commercial practices, to help consumers do business on a Community-wide basis. That does not supplement the need for a more effective lobby for consumers. Time and again when Deputies, Ministers and others seek a consumer representative, with the exception of the Consumers Association of Ireland, it is not easy to find the appropriate person or group. It is time we put an end to that difficulty.

I submit that the Tánaiste would have a stronger Consumers Association of Ireland if more resources were given to that body. We will not have an effective consumer voice unless there is a properly resourced Consumers Association of Ireland. The Tánaiste could do more to further the interests of consumers through that organisation if it were properly resourced. Some of the powers taken from the Office of the Director of Consumer Affairs, since its establishment in 1978, have been transferred to Irish Financial Services Regulatory Authority. This is a statutory body that could be overhauled to the extent of representing consumer interests and dealing with consumer problems.

The website for my political party, which was established recently, has had more than 20,000 visitors during the past two months. This is an indication of the level of consumer frustration with the manner in which many issues are being dealt with. Does the Tánaiste agree that a review of the powers and the legislation surrounding the Office of the Director of Consumer Affairs would be preferable rather than establishing another advisory committee?

There is a need to do both. Obviously the role of the director is to enforce the law. She has made some valuable suggestions in the area of more display orders for the medical profession, dentists and doctors. From time to time the Director of Consumer Affairs makes her opinions available to me and obviously we act on them in most cases. The role of that office is to enforce the law and to deal with the criticisms consumers bring to her attention. It is not the role of that office to be an advocate or to carry out a constant review of legislation.

Structures may need to be examined. For example, some have suggested the Competition Authority and the Office of the Director of Consumer Affairs, in the future, may be more appropriate in one location because they are two sides of the same coin. That may be an issue on which the new group can advise. Together with the consolidation of the law, we will have resources to carry out research into areas where prices appear to be out of sync with other European countries. I have provided considerably more resources to the Consumers Association of Ireland than it had prior to my becoming Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment.

Insurance Industry.

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

109 Mr. Howlin asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment the progress made to date with regard to the implementation of her action plan for the insurance industry; the elements of the plan yet to be implemented; the timetable for the implementation of the different elements of the plan; if she intends to take steps to deal, in the meantime, with the escalating cost of insurance; the number of persons recruited to date to the staff of the Personal Injuries Assessment Board; when she expects that the board will be operational; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [3821/04]

The insurance reform programme that I announced on 25 October 2002 comprises a comprehensive set of inter-related measures designed to improve the functioning of the insurance market. I chair a ministerial committee established to drive the co-ordinated implementation of this reform programme across the relevant Departments and other bodies concerned. Substantial progress is being made on a range of measures that will radically overhaul the functioning of the insurance market and help tackle the high cost of insurance.

One of the key measures in the reform programme is the implementation of the recommendations in the Motor Insurance Advisory Board action plan within a target timeframe. To date, 32 of the recommendations have been fully implemented, three have been partially implemented and work is in progresson the implementation of the other recommendations. I have precise information on each of the recommendations which I will make available to the Deputy.

Another key measure is the establishment of the Personal Injuries Assessment Board. As the Deputy will be aware, the Personal Injuries Assessment Board Act 2003 was signed by the President on 28 December 2003. The provisions of this will be commenced soon. A chief executive officer has been appointed and commenced duty on 2 February 2004. The proposed structure and staffing levels of the new body are being finalised in conjunction with the new chief executive officer, and it is expected that a recruitment campaign will commence later this month. The board will become operational when the necessary staff and information technology systems are in place, which I expect will be within the next two months or so. The PIAB interim board has made enormous progress in this regard.

In addition, my Department and the Competition Authority are undertaking a joint study into the insurance market. A significant amount of the work was completed in 2003 and a report will be produced shortly.

Indications are that the reform programme is having its desired effect. The Central Statistics Office publishes monthly indices of costs for a number of classes of insurance. These statistics show that there was a reduction of 11.7 index points — 11% — in motor insurance between December 2002 and December 2003. Further, the CSO noted a significant contribution from insurance to the recent reduction in inflation. As implementation of the reform programme continues, I expect further significant reductions to occur in all forms of insurance. I am also confident that the measures the Government is putting in place to reform the insurance market will attract new players into the market and lead to further downward pressure on premia.

The Tánaiste said she published her action plan for insurance industry reform in October 2002, a plan containing 67 measures. It is now 2004. How many of those measures are outstanding and what is the timeframe for the full implementation of all 67 measures? What is the inflation index on which she is working with her Department regarding insurance premia costs for 2004 for each of the various sectors, for example, motor insurance and the various types of business insurance? By how much would the Tánaiste expect insurance costs to rise this year?

Has the Tánaiste any comment regarding the December report of the IFSRA which found a 500% variation in motor insurance costs? When the same circumstances were presented to a variety of motor insurance companies, the difference between the cheapest and the dearest quote was 500%. Surely, the market is dysfunctional if that level of disparity is allowed to exist.

I have concentrated on the implementation of the recommendations which would reduce price, such as the establishment of the PIAB, the introduction by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform of the court and civil liability Bill, which was cleared at Cabinet today, and the introduction of the penalty points system and other road safety measures. We have concentrated on the areas which can bring about the biggest reduction in premia costs. Many of the recommendations refer to transparency and information and they have, in the main, been passed on to the IFSRA. I do not expect a rise in insurance costs but a further and substantial decrease.

Of how much?

I cannot put a figure on it but it should be quite substantial. If the decrease was 11% from 2002 to 2003, I expect it to be greater this year because the impact of the measures implemented is only now coming through. With regard to motor insurance, anecdotal as opposed to hard evidence suggests there are reductions in some cases of 40% to 50%. Nevertheless, while that is the evidence presented to me by many individual motorists, I do not want to exaggerate it or say it is general across the board.

With regard to the IFSRA, at one level one could say that the fact there are such significant discrepancies indicates there is competition in the market. I accept that such wide discrepancies are extraordinary but it proves my point — for which I was heavily criticised by Deputies and others — that it is very important for all consumers, not least in the insurance market, to shop around. That information is now given in advance of premium renewal and is of great assistance to consumers because the 15-day gap allows them to try alternatives instead of simply placing their insurance with the broker or company they have been with for a considerable time. That is proving very successful.

Information can mean power and the information from the IFSRA should help to drive home the importance for consumers of asking all necessary questions and making sure to get a number of quotes before they place their insurance.

The Tánaiste has given the figure of 11% for the decrease in motor insurance costs. What is the figure for business insurance costs, including public liability costs? Does she expect a significant reduction in that category of costs during 2004? She will be aware that many small businesses in particular are vulnerable and regard insurance costs as the second greatest pressure in regard to their survival.

Regarding the PIAB, we discussed during the passage of the relevant legislation the expectation that the board would have been operational from 1 January last. We are now talking about a period of some months from February 2004. When will the board hear its first case?

The chief executive of the PIAB was appointed and took up her position on 2 February last. The IT system and headquarters have been secured and the chief executive is now in the process of recruiting the staff required to assist her in the task. I met with her only last week and she is anxious to ensure that everything is in order before the board opens for business, given the importance of the role of the PIAB. We expect a commencement date of sometime in April or 1 May, perhaps the latter as it is the start of a calendar month, and we are working towards that date.

I do not have the figures regarding employer liability insurance or business insurance generally. However, awards are down and the volume of claims is substantially down, and that will feed into the system very early on. Some have suggested to me that they have already experienced a reduction in premiums. However, until all measures are in place, the exaggerated and false claims provisions being brought in by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform in the court and civil liability Bill will have a particular impact on reducing the level of fraud and exaggeration and, therefore, the high cost of premia.

Equal Opportunities in Employment.

Arthur Morgan

Ceist:

110 Mr. Morgan asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment her views on the publication by the National Disability Authority of the report entitled Towards Best Practice in the Provision of Further Education, Employment and Training Services, which found that 60% of disabled adults in the 16 to 64 age group do not work; if it is her intention to implement the recommendations contained in that report in relation to employment and training; if adequate resources will be available to implement those recommendations; the other steps the Government will take to increase the participation of disabled workers in the labour force; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [4105/04]

Arthur Morgan

Ceist:

182 Mr. Morgan asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment her views on the publication by the National Disability Authority of the report, entitled Towards Best Practice in the Provision of Further Education, Employment and Training Services, which found that 60% of disabled adults in the 16 to 64 age group do not work; if it is her intention to implement the recommendations contained in that report in relation to employment and training; if adequate resources will be available to implement those recommendations; the steps the Government will take to increase the participation of disabled workers in the labour force; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [3931/04]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 110 and 182 together.

I am aware of the recent report by the National Disability Authority, entitled Towards Best Practice in the Provision of Further Education, Employment and Training Services for People with Disabilities. The report, which was received in my Department on 14 January, contains a number of conclusions and recommendations which have policy implications for a number of Departments, including the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment in the area of employment and training services for people with disabilities.

Policy and programme provision in this regard are subject to ongoing monitoring and review by my Department with a view to providing the most efficient services possible for people with disabilities. The conclusions and recommendations contained in the report will assist and inform my Department's future policy development, planning and monitoring of employment and training service provision to people with disabilities. FÁS remains committed to prioritising, within available resources, the training and employment supports for people with disabilities with a view to providing the maximum potential for employment in the open labour market.

Will the Minister of State explain to the House the reason for the failure to meet these targets? There is an exceptionally low level of employment among people with disabilities. In 1977, a 3% employment target was set in regard to people with disabilities in the Civil and public service workforce. The target was never met yet I hear that ongoing monitoring and review processes have been set up. What are those processes telling us? What are the reasons for this failure to enable people with disabilities to find employment? Such reasons are not clear from any data I have seen published by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment or other Departments, and the various representative organisations are not in a position to identify the reasons for this total failure to meet the targets.

In 2002, over 4,000 people with disabilities were employed on community employment schemes, which is a particularly high take-up. However, less than 10% of those progressed into the workforce. That figure indicates a willingness on the part of such unemployed people to enter the workforce yet less than 10% were able to achieve that. Does the monitoring and reporting to which the Minister of State referred give us any indication of how such a ludicrous situation came about? Can the Minister of State tell the House that the situation has improved as there has been no obvious sign of improvement in regard to this major issue? The monitoring of the progression of people with disabilities through various supportive pathways to the open market is needed yet I have not heard of this coming about. The Minister of State might outline the steps he proposes to correct that.

The situation is improving. A determined effort is being made at present and considerable resources are being expended to improve the possibilities of people with disabilities going into employment.

There are a variety of reasons we have not reached the targets set. These relate to historical and cultural issues in the past regarding people with disabilities. The greatest problem in finding opportunities for people with disabilities is the attitude among employers who are not informed sufficiently on the advantages of employing people with disabilities, particularly in considering the abilities of people rather than their disabilities. It is quite clear from experience that people with disabilities make a significant contribution to the workplace, not just in the actual work they do themselves, but in the positive impact they have on other employees, customers and the general public.

The Deputy is correct that we have reached the targets set out. We must focus on a number of issues. My Department will respond in a focused way to the proposals in the report. We must promote initiatives for greater access to employment and improve our ability to integrate people with disabilities into the labour market. We must develop policies and supports to enable people in the area of self-employment and small business opportunities. We intend to focus on this area in the coming 12 months. We must link more closely with other Departments, particularly the Department of Education and Science, to prepare people with disabilities for the workplace at a younger age than is happening at the moment. Some very useful pilot projects are in operation and greater co-operation within the two Departments will serve to make the projects more effective.

The level of programmes and resources has been increased substantially in recent years. There is the sheltered employment scheme, Workway, and the equal programme, all of which are being co-ordinated in a much more synchronised way than in the past. There have been a series of seminars throughout the country, beginning in Dublin, to bring all these organisations together and focus on a more co-ordinated role, with a strong message being sent to employers throughout the country that they should look positively on employing people with disabilities. If we can crack that one, we will reach the target we have set ourselves.

I agree with the Minister of State regarding the positive influence people with disabilities have on the workforce. How then does he explain the lack of take-up by employers of people with disabilities? How significant a role does the benefits trap play? Will he accept that the removal of medical cards and secondary benefits on taking up employment is a disincentive to people taking up employment?

We are currently discussing the issue of benefits. We must ensure there is no difficulty for people who need to retain their disability benefits if they go into the workplace. We have addressed that matter.

Corporate Killing.

Brendan Howlin

Ceist:

111 Mr. Howlin asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment the progress made in her consideration of the recommendation made in the recent discussion paper from the Law Reform Commission that there should be a new offence created of corporate killing; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [3822/04]

The Law Reform Commission published a consultation paper on corporate killing in October last. The commission recommends that a new offence of corporate killing should be established which would be prosecuted on indictment, without exclusion of any entity, whether incorporated or not. The offence would apply to acts or omissions of a high managerial agent, which would be treated as those of the undertaking. This is much wider than in the context of workplace safety. The commission also recommends that the legislation should provide for an unlimited fine, in order to reflect the gravity of the offence or in certain circumstances an individual high managerial agent should also be subject to imprisonment of up to five years.

I welcome the recommendations of the commission. In order to give practical effect to these recommendations, I am taking the opportunity to provide for the creation of this new offence in law in the Bill on occupational health and safety now being prepared. This will have to be subject to the final views of the Law Reform Commission when its consultation process is complete and also subject to the advice of the Attorney General.

My Department is in consultation with the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel at present and I hope it will be possible to include an appropriate provision in the new Bill, which I expect to be in a position to publish next April.

I welcome the announcement by the Minister of State because there has been some confusion on whether the Government accepted the Law Reform Commission's report.

We have been waiting almost two years for the amending safety, health and welfare at work Bill. The Minister of State said in December that it was a very lengthy Bill, it would have many clauses and it was very difficult to construct. Will the inclusion of the new offence delay the Bill, because he gave the original date of publication as March or April? Will he have discussions with the social partners in advance of finalising the Bill, in other words, by circulating heads of the Bill? Will he give the same courtesy to the Committee on Enterprise and Small Business? If the Minister of State's original comments are accurate, it appears to be a very important Bill which we might have an input into at an early stage. When does he expect to be in a position to present the Bill to the House?

I expect to be able to publish the Bill in April. I do not anticipate a great delay as a result of the inclusion in the Bill of this provision. We are already in consultation with the social partners on aspects of the Bill. There will no be problem continuing with the consultations prior to its publication. If there is a request from the Oireachtas committee to have a discussion on aspects of the Bill, I will be happy to facilitate that.

I welcome the response of the Minister of State. He will get an invitation to present his thoughts on the Bill to the Oireachtas committee.

Is he satisfied with the volume of inspections currently being carried out under the existing health and safety legislation? Is he satisfied with the number of inspectors currently employed? Is it in tandem with tightening the legislation to broaden the scope for inspection and provide resources to the Health and Safety Authority to ensure that the more rigorous regime implemented in the new Bill will also be met by more rigorous enforcement?

There is a rigorous and effective inspection and enforcement regime in place at present. We are happy that there have been considerable improvements in the inspection process. As I stated in the Dáil some time ago, we wish to have more inspectors in the field. There are currently approximately 130 inspectors. Obviously resources are always an issue. In the context of the new Bill, we have considered providing for a regime whereby the Health and Safety Authority could provide an information and advice service to industry, which would involve remuneration. This would enable us to employ an increased number of inspectors. This is currently being considered.

I am satisfied that the Health and Safety Authority is doing an effective job. There is a reduction in the numbers of fatalities. Thank God, so far this year we have had quite a good record, which indicates that there is a good regime in place. In the end, it is all about prevention and thinking safety, which is our main priority. This is now happening in the construction and agricultural sectors, where there have been the greatest number of fatalities. Both industries are to be complimented on the significant efforts they are making by way of prevention. I would like to see greater co-ordination between the agencies involved in road safety, water safety and health and safety in the workplace so we can get the message across more effectively. The television advertising campaign by the Road Safety Authority should be extended to all sectors.

The insurance industry representatives indicated to the Oireachtas committee that they funded some of their own health and safety initiatives. Is the insurance industry included in the new Bill and is there a role for it in making the workplace safer and reducing premiums for all industries and industrial users?

I have had discussions with the insurance industry about contributing to campaigns to improve the preventative approach and on rewarding companies in the public liability and employers' liability sectors that have good records.

A reward scheme was promulgated but nothing came of it.

There is clearly a system in the insurance industry whereby companies with good safety records enjoy lower premiums. We have impressed on the insurance industry that, in the context of health and safety, it must recognise good practice and records in the premiums being charged.