There is a growing recognition in the country that our current arrangements for the articulation and promotion of consumer interests are not all that they should be.
We all know how effective and persuasive other sectors and groups can be in defending and pursuing their economic interests. I have no difficulty about that, but if we are to have a fully competitive economy with functioning markets in all goods and services, we need the full participation of consumers and the effective representation of their interests in the economic and political process. The voice of the consumer must be heard and heeded more than it is at present.
There are many problems to be addressed in this area. Some are rooted in our culture such as the lack of assertiveness of many consumers. Another difficulty is the diverse and changing nature of the consumer agenda. Consumer representative structures in this country are generally perceived as weak relative to those of other countries.
I have been giving some thought on how best to move things forward. To help in this work, I propose to bring together a small group of independent minded and public-spirited persons with an interest in tackling this challenge. The mandate of the group will be mainly advisory, with an initial focus on consumer prices, consumer representation and advocacy arrangements and important new EU proposed consumer legislation. The group will be expected to add value to what we already have and not to substitute for any current role or responsibility carried out by my Department, the Director of Consumer Affairs, other regulatory bodies or by bodies such as the Consumer Association of Ireland. I propose to stand down, at least for the time being, the consumer advisory council which has not met for some time. The new group will also be expected, in due course, to make useful contributions to longer-term strategic issues in areas such as consumer law, consumer education and public sector provision for consumer policy and implementation. I wish to see the new group liaising effectively with the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Enterprise and Small Business and in that way helping to raise the consumer policy profile in our deliberations here. I hope to be in a position shortly to announce further details of the proposed new body, including its composition, terms of reference and related matters.
To those who may suggest that this is a case of setting up a committee in lieu of taking action, I say that if the problems which we are addressing here, were capable of simple or quick solution they would have been solved long ago.
I have every confidence that this new initiative, the broad lines of which I am conveying to the House today, can make a valuable and lasting contribution to the interests of consumers and to national competitiveness and I hope that all sides of the House will support it.