Tuesday, 10 February 2004

Ceisteanna (38)

Joan Burton


112 Ms Burton asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment if her attention has been drawn to reports that some pubs and entertainment venues charged up to €12 for single drinks at New Year's Eve 2003 events; the steps she intends to take to stop such exploitation of consumers; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [3780/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (23 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Minister for Enterprise)

The best way of ensuring that markets for any goods or services are delivering value for money to consumers is through increased competition and greater consumer vigilance. That is the objective towards which all our policy interventions in the field of competition and consumer policy are directed. Certainly, I have no plans to return to the days of official price control.

Regulatory action has been taken under SI 263 of 1999 to require the price of certain alcoholic and soft drinks to be displayed just outside or immediately inside each entrance to a licensed premises. This order is enforced by the Director of Consumer Affairs.

Based on the Tánaiste's answer, if there is competition in any area, it is in the drinks industry. There is an over-abundance of premises where people can buy and consume alcohol, so competition is not the answer and clearly has not worked in this case. In a recent question I asked about the additional charges that can be made for on-line bookings and the answer I received was that the Tánaiste did not envisage legislation for this area because she feared it would impose a greater charge on the individual customer. Surely then the Tánaiste must consider imposing some price restrictions on the drinks industry to do what she suggested in that answer, to protect the individual customer. Such exploitation of customers cannot continue.

I do not envisage a situation where there will be someone from the Office of the Director of Consumer Affairs to police the Act outside every pub on New Year's Eve or other times of celebration.

Why not?

It is not sensible. I know of no country where price control works. On the contrary, those that have the most free markets are those where prices are most competitive. Not every pub in Ireland charged €12 for a drink, so people had a choice to go into a place that charged €12 or a place that did not. There is only so much one can do for a consumer. If a facility has decided it can rip people off because it is a busy night, I suggest that consumers do not go there and go somewhere that is cheaper.

Price control does not work; it has even disappeared in the countries of the former Soviet bloc. They have embraced the free market with greater enthusiasm even than me. I was recently in Slovakia and the manner in which the Government there has approached reform of tax, competition policy, consumer policy and health care reform is remarkable. These countries are doing that because they know what works.

If price control does not work, the free market is definitely not working for the consumer in Ireland. It is beyond reason that people should have to shop around on New Year's Eve to find a pub charging reasonable prices instead of €12 for a short or €10 for a pint. People do not go on a pub crawl on New Year's Eve because they want to stay in one venue to celebrate with their friends. They should not be ripped off for that pleasure.

Do admission charges to pubs on occasions of celebration have an effect on the licence? Are pubs allowed to charge a cover fee when they are public houses or do they need permission from the courts? Are they in breach of liquor licensing laws by charging a cover fee?

I am not an expert on licensing law but, given that we do not have price controls, if publicans wish to charge a fee of this kind, I presume they are free to do so, although I am not certain of the licensing implications. Licensing relates to a person's suitability to have a licence, police it and enforce the criminal law and opening times. It does not refer to pricing.

It is wrong to say people do not have choices. The majority of pubs do not charge these cover fees, but some people seem to be insensitive and will pay almost anything to go to places they believe to be popular. The variations in this city between a pub in one area and in another nearby are incredible. My message to consumers is that the law cannot protect them in these situations and it is not practical that it should. We cannot have people inspecting every price on every occasion to see if the controls are enforced. We must ensure that, through competition and people shopping around, the free market operates in this area, as it does in airline tickets, hotel rooms and other areas of life.

The Tánaiste is out of touch because airline ticket outlets are certainly not as numerous as pubs. Progressive Democrats members like café-style bars and even spoke some years ago about the deregulation of pub licences, although we have not heard much about that lately. In rural areas, however, there would be great difficulty shopping around. On New Year's Eve people want a drink and are not concerned about the price of it. They will not travel from Ahascragh to Caltragh to find out the price of drink in different pubs. They are only concerned about the drink running out.

The Deputy has proved my point.

I am sure Progressive Democrats supporters travel from pub to pub to find out the price of drink.

They travel by helicopter.

I stayed at home on New Year's Eve.

We should get real about what people do. What mechanism does the Tánaiste propose to establish within the new quango, the consumer panel, to allow people to complain about prices and products with which they are unhappy?

The country is full of pubs and I am certain that pubs in Kilkenny and Carlow did not charge €12 for a drink.

I know every one of them.

The Deputy was probably in all of them at some stage.

They are not café-style bars.

Café-style bars change the drinking culture as well as providing drink for a reasonable price.

That is happening in Dublin 4.

It is happening not only in Dublin but all over Europe and elsewhere.

The Minister needs to travel beyond Newlands Cross.

It is happening all over the world. The Deputy has been in those establishments.

I have not been in them in a while.