Tuesday, 27 May 2008
The single biggest decision made by the Irish people will be made on 12 June in respect of the Lisbon treaty. As the Taoiseach is aware, the Lisbon treaty has the full support of the Fine Gael Party since it was first agreed and even before it was signed in December.
The Taoiseach will be aware that from the outset I have openly advised the public and the supporters of this party to set aside any differences with the Government on this issue and to campaign strongly and vote for the treaty. It is my firm belief that this country's future lies in being at the heart of a coherent, strong and effective Europe which will equip our people to deal politically and in every other way with the challenges that lie ahead. The recent opinion polls have highlighted the difficulty of those of us campaigning for a "Yes" vote in getting across the message to the people so that they are fully and properly informed when they make their decision on 12 June. From that perspective it is very necessary that all the parties supporting the Lisbon treaty would co-operate fully in the endeavour of informing people as fully as possible so that they can make their minds up on 12 June. In that regard I will continue to put the country first and will continue to campaign vigorously right through to the end of this campaign for a "Yes" vote.
This is not a comment which the Taoiseach should take personally but I was disappointed at the tenor and import of his remarks at the weekend in regard to both Fine Gael and the Labour Party — for whom I do not speak on this matter — about the effort that good people all over the country are putting into the campaign. People who are supporting the "Yes" campaign but are not supporters of Fianna Fáil have felt the antagonism. It is necessary that the Taoiseach clarifies this matter. I ask him to withdraw that remark and to say he encourages everybody who is supporting the "Yes" campaign to continue to do so. We do need co-operation among those supporting the "Yes" campaign to have everybody properly informed about what is in this treaty and how it can equip Europe to meet the challenges that lie ahead. From that perspective, the Taoiseach's remarks at the weekend, as reported, have caused a great deal of antagonism and difficulty for people supporting the "Yes" campaign who are not supporters of Fianna Fáil. In the interests of harmony and running a cohesive "Yes" campaign by all parties that support the treaty, I ask the Taoiseach to withdraw those remarks and clear this matter up.
In response to a question I was asked about the opinion poll, I indicated that all the parties that support the referendum intend continuing to ramp up and intensify our campaign over the coming two and a half weeks. If people want to seek out offence I suppose they can take it. I would not offer any offence to anybody — quite the contrary.
I am simply making the point that an opinion poll is a snapshot of opinion. I was glad to see we were ahead in the poll. I have said on numerous occasions this is not a party political matter. I was asked a question and simply said we were all going to work hard over the coming two and a half weeks to ensure we get the result in the national interest. Any interpretation to the contrary does not take into account the import of what I had to say. I have plenty of reasons to have rows with Deputy Kenny on a range of issues, but I have no issue with him on this matter and never had. Rather than trying to find offence where none is intended, and none was actually offered, we should just get on with the campaign and proceed. That is the point and any interpretation to the contrary is mistaken.
I am not looking for anything out of this. My focus is on having the treaty endorsed by the Irish people and passed by them with a resounding "Yes" vote. In order to do that they will have to be properly and fully informed, but they must also be enthusiastic about wanting to come out to vote. The Taoiseach's remarks, as reported, were to the effect that his party is the most pro-European in the campaign and that other parties, including Fine Gael and Labour, should crank up their campaigns to the level of the Fianna Fáil one.
The Minister for Finance said that if Fine Gael exercised dictatorial control over its members the Lisbon treaty might be passed. It is perfectly obvious to all and sundry, however, that this party was first out of the traps with its campaign, including posters and public meetings. The fact is that the Taoiseach's remarks have caused a deal of antagonism across the country. I am telling him this face to face. It makes my job more difficult and from that perspective I think he should withdraw those remarks, as reported. That would be in everybody's interest. The Taoiseach has admitted he has not read the treaty. The Tánaiste had her difficulties with the commissioners.
Our EU Commissioner has not read this treaty. The Green Party is campaigning for and against the Lisbon treaty. In the interests of everybody working in co-operation and harmony to see that there is a "Yes" vote, we need co-operation among the parties that are campaigning for a "Yes" vote. I ask the Taoiseach again to withdraw that remark and clear the air. He should not antagonise or insult members of the public or parties that are campaigning for a "Yes" vote but who are not members of Fianna Fáil. It is in the Taoiseach's interest and that of the country for him to do so. If the Taoiseach takes this occasion, two week's before the people are asked to decide, to deal with this matter he will not hear me mention it again. He now has an opportunity to respond and I hope he will do so positively in the spirit in which I have made this contribution.
I have no issue with Deputy Kenny at all. I am trying to indicate that I responded to a question concerning an opinion poll that was published in the Sunday newspapers. In my response I indicated that I had every confidence that we would all be working hard to ensure we get this through. The opinion poll contained the information but I did not conduct the poll. I am not making an issue about the opinion poll.
I am not making an issue of it. I was simply responding to a question which was put to me. All I am saying is that we are all on the one side and there is no reason for any contention. We should get on with the business and at the end of the day we want to see a successful outcome on 12 June.
I am sorry if some people are taking offence but none was intended. I can do no more than to say that because that is the truth of the matter. If it is interpreted in a certain way, or if the response from the Deputy's own press officer or his party's press office is the way it was, I cannot forecast how he will take what I have to say. I listened to many remarks over the weekend but I do not take them personally. I do not care what the Deputy has to say about me.
There are occasions when, in the country's interest, the Taoiseach will have to resist the temptation to give the Opposition parties a kick every time he sees us.
I wish to ask the Taoiseach about the prices issue I raised last week. I was glad that after I raised the issue here last Wednesday, the Taoiseach asked the Tánaiste to get a handle on the problem. Following that, I understand the Tánaiste had discussions with the National Consumer Agency. I see from a radio interview given by the chief executive of that agency on Friday, that the NCA will conduct a survey of prices in retail outlets. However, a bit more than a survey is required to deal with the prices problem I raised last week. I ask the Taoiseach to address a number of ways in which this problem can be tackled. First, if the National Consumer Agency is doing a survey, can the Taoiseach ensure it will list retail outlets that are ripping off Irish consumers? For example, retail branches of British multiples that have one price in the UK and another price here should be named and shamed in the survey.
Second, will the Taoiseach ask the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment to introduce regulations to allow people to pay by credit card in sterling for goods that are marked in sterling prices? In other words, if goods are priced in sterling, people should be able to pay for them by credit card in sterling.
Third, will the Taoiseach ask the Tánaiste to introduce regulations, which she is entitled to do, under section 50 of the Consumer Protection Act for the labelling of goods, so that where prices are marked in sterling and in euro, the euro equivalent of sterling at a particular date is given? I appreciate this cannot be done every day because of varying exchange rates. However, one should be able to display the sterling price with the euro equivalent on whatever date. If a separate euro price is charged it should also be marked. In that way, consumers can see the extent to which they are being ripped off.
Fourth, will the Taoiseach call in the senior management of the large British multiples and tell them in his own blunt language what is required of them in this country, and that the ripping off of Irish consumers will not be tolerated?
Fifth, will the Taoiseach ask the National Consumer Agency and the Competition Authority to examine what is happening with regard to diesel prices, which I also raised last Wednesday? They have shot ahead of petrol prices, even though they have traditionally been lower.
This matter has been discussed by the Government. Arising from that meeting it has been decided that the National Consumer Agency will again meet Retail Ireland, which is part of IBEC, in the near future to discuss the delays in passing on the benefits accruing from the appreciation of the euro. The Tánaiste will be talking to Retail Ireland in the morning. We have also arranged for contact to be made with the major retail outlets, both here and in the UK, in the coming days to ask what plans they may have to deal with any unjustified price differentials that exist.
The National Consumer Agency will undertake a greater number of surveys with particular emphasis on North-South pricing by big retailers across a whole range of goods from groceries to clothing. In addition, the National Consumer Agency will undertake a more extensive information campaign to keep consumers better informed on pricing developments. The advice from them that consumers split their grocery shopping basket if possible and seek value in the range of shops available to them remains valid.
The increase in the price of diesel seems to be linked to a huge demand in China. The price of diesel does not come under the auspices of the National Consumer Agency. It is a question of trying to do what we can in that respect. There is a background to the increase in oil prices that sets out that situation. The Government will do absolutely everything it can to ensure that public awareness is at its highest and that people are aware of the situation. Whatever assistance we can give, including, if possible, accommodating some of the suggestions made by the Deputy, will be given. The Tánaiste will contact, through meetings of the National Consumer Agency, Retail Ireland. She will write to the heads of the retail outlets in Ireland and in Britain to ascertain what plans they have to deal with the situation.
I am pleased to hear some action is being taken to deal with this problem but it will require more than just pleading with the British retailers concerned and it will take more than meetings between the National Consumer Agency and Retail Ireland. The Government needs to show that, if necessary, it will flex its muscles on this issue. This has gone on for quite a while. The change in the relationship between the euro and sterling has been in play for some time and the value has not been passed on to the Irish consumer. With each passing day, consumers are continuing to be ripped off. I appreciate that attention is being given to the matter arising from the question I raised last Wednesday, but the full powers of the Consumer Protection Act need to be used by the Minister. There are powers in that Act which provide for regulations to be made by the Minister in regard to labelling which, I understand, would include price labelling. If necessary, additional regulatory and legislative measures should be introduced to force retailers to adopt practices that are not ripping off Irish consumers. I am glad that some attention is being given to this matter. I ask the Minister to look to the powers available to her under the Consumer Protection Act and to the possibility of strengthening those powers, if necessary.
As I said, this matter has been discussed by the Tánaiste and me and by the Government since this issue was brought to the floor of the House. I have indicated that whatever action can be taken by Government will be taken. The Tánaiste will arrange for correspondence to issue to the organisations concerned which will set out clearly what we expect and what we believe should be possible. We will look at the situation in terms of the reply we receive. If the reply is not what I expect, the Government will look at every lever available to it to ensure consumers are protected in this jurisdiction and that they get the same value for money as people can expect elsewhere.