Tuesday, 10 February 2004

Ceisteanna (33)

Phil Hogan


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]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (5 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Minister for Enterprise)

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.