Dáil debates

Wednesday, 11 May 2022

Consumer Rights Bill 2022: Second Stage

 

3:57 pm

Photo of Robert TroyRobert Troy (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am delighted to bring before the House today the Consumer Rights Bill 2022. This Bill represents the biggest reform of consumer law in more than 40 years. It consolidates and updates existing legislation on the sale of goods and supply of services to ensure it is fit for the modern digital age. This Bill is the culmination of a significant amount of work in this area to implement recommendations by the sales law review group in 2011. A core focus of my work in the Department is to ensure we have a fair and effective market that works for both businesses and consumers. This Bill does that by strengthening protections for consumers while also creating clearer rules for business.

This Bill has required significant consideration due to its complexity, so I acknowledge the work of my officials, and indeed Deputy Bruton during his time in this Department, in developing this legislation. Not only does the Bill modernise domestic law, it also transposes two EU directives on contracts for the sale of goods and contracts for the supply of digital content and digital services. In addition, it transposes most of another EU directive, namely, the better enforcement and modernisation directive.

The purpose of the Bill is to bring about several positive changes for consumers, including stronger consumer rights, protections and remedies across a number of key areas. For instance, it gives people stronger consumer rights when it comes to how problems with goods or services they have received are resolved, so instead of just exchange, refund or repair, consumers will also be entitled to agree a price reduction on faulty goods and flawed services if that suits them better. They will also be entitled to withhold payment for goods or services that have been partially paid for if they are not satisfied with the quality of the item or service received.

Importantly, this Bill stipulates that any form of redress must be free of charge and must be carried out as soon as possible. The Bill brings together in one statute provisions that are currently contained in diverse pieces of law and some that have never been regulated before. In existing legislation, consumers have no rights to remedies when services are not provided as expected and agreed, for example in areas like legal services, personal care services and building services. The consumer rights Bill closes this gap. It also includes new protections for consumers in relation to digital content, including audio and video files, computer games and digital services, such as streaming services, cloud computing and social media. These new digital rights include the right to a full refund, exchange or repair when a good or service is not as described or not fit for purpose.

Consumers will be entitled to any upgrades to the product or service that is intended to ensure the goods continue to work as expected and as agreed, free of charge. It contains a new blacklist of contract terms and conditions that are automatically deemed to be unfair, and which should not be included in any consumer contract. This includes, for example, where the agreement is only legally binding for the consumer and not for the trader, or where the trader can decide to change the terms of the contract without informing the consumer in advance.

Businesses will be required to set out clearly a description of the goods or services being provided and the total price and costs of delivery before entering into a contract with a consumer. Furthermore, the Bill gives extra enforcement powers to the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, CCPC, which is the body responsible for enforcing consumer law in Ireland. These new powers mean that where traders engage in misleading and aggressive commercial practices, like posting fake reviews, or where they do not provide the remedies or reimbursement that consumers are entitled to, the CCPC can take action, such as issuing compliance notices or applying to the Circuit Court or the High Court for a declaration or injunction. It will also provide enforcement powers to ComReg in relation to electronic communication services and premium rate services and to the Central Bank with regard to financial services.

In the summer of 2021, I announced a public consultation on the Bill. The response was very positive, with respondents including the Consumers Association of Ireland, the Irish Business and Employers Confederation, IBEC, ComReg and the CCPC providing constructive feedback, which informed the drafting process. The Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment held a hearing on the general scheme of the proposed legislation in October of last year. While the committee made no specific recommendations in relation to the general scheme, the rich discussion at the hearing fed into the ongoing drafting process.

The dates given by the Commission for transposing these directives were July 2021 for the sale of goods directive and digital content directive and November 2021 for the better enforcement and modernisation directive. Unfortunately, Ireland, along with several other member states, did not meet these deadlines. As Members can see and as I noted earlier, the Bill is complex and highly technical and it required significant consideration and redrafting. The focus has been to make sure we get it right, even if that meant taking a little more time. I am confident, therefore, that the Bill before the House today is robust, well considered and fit for purpose.

Before I outline the main provisions of the Bill, I would like to take this opportunity to flag my intention to propose a small number of amendments on Committee Stage. This will be necessary to make minor technical alterations, to clarify the intentions of certain provisions and ensure the powers of both the CCPC and ComReg are sufficient for the additional functions they will have as a result of this Bill. It is my intention to bring forward on Committee Stage a technical amendment to section 459 of the Companies Act 2014 to clarify the role of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform when holding on trust the unclaimed property of dissenting shareholders who have not sought to claim their property in the seven years following an acquisition.

I now turn to the main provisions of the Bill. This Bill contains 13 Parts and six Schedules. It is important to point out at this juncture that with little exception, Parts 2, 3, and 5 transpose maximum harmonisation directives which give little or no discretion as to their implementation.

Part 1 deals with matters common to legislation, namely, citation and commencement, interpretation, regulations, repeals and revocations. It also contains generally applying provisions relating to the making of contracts, preventing traders from attempting to restrict the rights of a consumer and the jurisdiction of the courts to order remedies.

Part 2 focuses on the rights of consumers under sales contracts and on the remedies available to consumers where goods do not conform to those rights. It gives effect to the sale of goods directive 2019/771 and incorporates the provisions applying to consumer sales contracts in the Sale of Goods Act 1893. It also gives effect to Article 18, delivery of goods, and Article 20, passing of risk in goods, of the consumer rights directive 2011/83, as well as to the delivery provisions at sections 30 and 31 of the Sale of Goods Act 1893. Part 2 also deals with commercial guarantees.

Part 3 gives effect to the digital content directive 2019/770 on certain aspects concerning contracts for the supply of digital content and digital services. Its provisions set out the rights that apply under such contracts and the remedies that apply where digital content or digital services infringe upon those rights. As digital content and digital services are relatively new, consumer contracts for their supply have not previously been the subject of specific statutory regulation.

Part 4 will replace the provisions of the Sale of Goods and Supply of Services Act 1980 that relate to service contracts between a consumer and a trader. It deals with contracts for the supply of non-digital services. It expands the rights of consumers in respect of such contracts and establishes a scheme of statutory remedies that will apply where a service does not conform to these rights.

Part 5 re-enacts, with substantial amendments, the provisions on consumer information and cancellation rights contained in the consumer rights directive 2011/83, as given effect by European Union regulations in 2013. This Part also implements the significant amendments to the consumer rights directive made by the better enforcement and modernisation directive of 2019. As Part 5 deals with key aspects of consumer contract rights, its incorporation into the Bill is in the interests of regulatory clarity and accessibility. Its inclusion in primary legislation also permits the application of some provisions to contracts that had previously been excluded from the scope of secondary legislation. In addition, Part 2 repeats consumer rights contained in the consumer rights directive of 2011 and given effect in the 2013 regulations relating to payment of fees, additional payments, charges for calls to customer helplines and inertia selling, which involves the sending of unsolicited goods to potential customers in the hope of making a sale.

Part 6 makes a number of important changes to the provisions of the European Communities (Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts) Regulations 1995, SI 27 of 1995, which transposed the unfair terms in consumer contracts directive. As the directive is a minimum harmonisation instrument, member states are free to extend its provisions to excluded terms and to add to the protections it provides. The changes made to the regulations include extending the scope of the unfair terms provisions to include contract terms that have been negotiated between the consumer and trader, strengthening the transparency requirements that apply to contract terms, narrowing the exemption from assessment for unfairness of core contract terms, expanding the grey list of consumer contract terms presumed to be unfair and introducing a blacklist of terms that are automatically unfair.

This Part also gives effect to the new penalties provisions inserted in the directive by the better enforcement and modernisation directive.

Part 7 sets out the enforcement powers and penalties under the Bill. The CCPC will have enforcement responsibilities for consumer contracts under all Parts of the Act. The Central Bank will continue to have an enforcement function under Part 7 in respect of unfair contract terms in consumer contracts with regulated financial service providers. ComReg will have an enforcement function under Parts 5 to 7, inclusive, in respect of consumer contracts for electronic communication services.

Part 8 contains the various amendments to the Consumer Credit Act 1995 required to ensure that the protections and remedies available to consumers in regard to the purchase of goods will be available irrespective of whether the consumer pays the price in a once-off payment or by way of instalments or any other types of deferred payments, for example, hire purchase agreements or other longer-term hiring arrangements.

Part 9 contains the various amendments to the Consumer Protection Act 2007 required to transpose amendments to the unfair commercial practice directive made by the better enforcement and modernisation directive. These amendments will extend and enhance the enforcement measures available to the CCPC.

Parts 10 to 13, inclusive, provide for a number of amendments to other consumer protection-related enactments. Part 10 amends the Central Bank Act 1942, Part 11 amends the Communications Regulations Act 2002, Part 12 amends the Competition and Consumer Protection Act 2014 and Part 13 provides for minor and consequential amendments of enactments.

With regard to the Schedules, Schedule 1 sets out repeals and revocations. Part 1 of Schedule 1 lists the Acts that are repealed. Part 2 of Schedule 1 lists the statutory instruments that are revoked.

Schedule 2 sets out the information to be provided by the trader prior to the conclusion of an on-premises contract.

Schedule 3 sets out the information to be provided by the trader prior to the conclusion of an off-premises or distance contract.

Schedule 4 provides information concerning the exercise of the right to cancel and includes the model cancellation form.

Part 1 of Schedule 5 sets out the list of contract terms that are presumed unfair. Part 2 of Schedule 5 provides for certain restrictions on the application of the first part of the Schedule.

Part 1 of Schedule 6 sets out amendments of Acts. Part 2 of Schedule 6 sets out amendments of statutory instruments.

In conclusion, a comprehensive consolidated consumer rights Act will provide a legislative framework that is more appropriate to present-day conditions and requirements, is simpler to understand, creates clearer rules for businesses and strengthens consumer rights. Therefore, I believe this legislation is good news for consumers. It is equally good news for business because it recognises the behaviours of responsible traders and puts them on a legislative footing, and it also ensures that regulators, like the CCPC and ComReg, have the powers necessary to sanction businesses that do not uphold the standards that this Bill demands. I am confident that, once enacted, this legislation will strengthen protections for consumers, while also creating clearer rules for businesses ensuring the market works fairly and effectively for both. I commend the Bill to the House.

4:12 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I call Deputy Louise O'Reilly, who is sharing time with Deputy Thomas Gould and Deputy Patricia Ryan.

Photo of Louise O'ReillyLouise O'Reilly (Dublin Fingal, Sinn Fein)
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There is an imbalance in consumer rights legislation between goods and services, and I genuinely hope the Consumer Rights Bill 2022 will see that rebalanced. The Bill increases the statutory rights of consumers in relation to contracts for the sale of goods and the supply of digital content, and it gives more power to the regulator, the CCPC. I hope that with these increased powers for the CCPC, we will see increased resources. The Minister of State will not be surprised to hear me say this as I have said repeatedly that all the rights in the world are no use without the regulator having sufficient firepower to be able to exercise them. Only recently, we had the Competition (Amendment) Bill, which also seeks to give the CCPC additional powers. That Bill seeks to provide for a system of non-criminal enforcement of certain provisions of competition law. Naturally, the passing of both Bills will necessitate additional resources, both human and financial, for the CCPC.

As with the competition Bill, the Consumer Rights Bill transposes EU legislation into Irish law. The Minister of State, Deputy Troy, previously remarked that this Bill is one of the biggest overhauls of consumer law in the State in decades. I wholeheartedly agree with him, and anyone who has familiarised themselves with the over 160 pages of the Bill will probably agree too. As the Minister of State said, fair play to the officials in his Department, and to the Minister of State himself, because this is a highly technical piece of legislation and it is clear that a huge amount of work has gone into it.

The legislation seeks to enshrine a whole raft of consumer-friendly rules into Irish law. This, it is hoped, will make seeking redress easier in the future. Importantly, it also amends the law on unfair terms in contracts between consumers and traders. I am sure that many of our offices have been contacted by constituents who have been the victims of unfair terms and conditions in contracts. We all know the offer is always in big letters but people would need a magnifying glass to read the terms and conditions. Indeed, we ourselves may have even been the victim of these unfair contract terms. The reality is many of the laws in place to protect Irish consumers were drawn up before the age of the Internet. Naturally, this means there are many practices and terms and conditions in place in the online world which are totally unacceptable in the real or non-virtual world. This has left customers with little or no protection and, naturally, it has also left them exhausted and frustrated when they have sought a refund, replacement or repair for a product or service purchased.

If I walk over to a shop and buy a desk lamp, and it fails or breaks shortly after purchase, I have certain rights to a refund, a repair or a replacement. However, in the online world, I do not have the same rights if I spend money on a digital product as if I buy that physical desk lamp in a shop. We know that vulnerable people can be and are targeted all of the time, including people like me who are not digital natives and who are not brilliant with technology. This is designed to protect them, which is very welcome. Essentially, the change the Bill seeks is to give consumers the same rights and protections over digital content and digital services, such as streaming, downloads and cloud products, as they have currently with any other products or services.

Therefore, I think we can all see the importance and scale of this Bill. It is a significant overhaul of consumer law. However, it is not before time. It is not today or yesterday that customers began purchasing products or services online. Thankfully, the Bill will see more redress options put on the table for consumers. They will be entitled to agree a price reduction on faulty goods and they will be entitled to withhold payment for goods partially paid for if they are not satisfied with the quality of the item received.

The Bill also makes it clear that any form of redress must be free of charge and must be carried out as soon as possible. Again, this is important because a time lag on something like this can leave people frustrated. What happens in real life is that people spend a lot of time trying to deal with it and in the end they just throw their hands in the air and say they will leave it. Of course, that is not good, so the idea that it will be carried out as soon as possible is very welcome.

The Bill covers digital content and digital services, such as streaming, downloads and cloud products, and the new digital rights will include a right to full refund, exchange or repair when a good or service is not as described or not fit for purpose. As we will see from Chapter 3, Part 2, remedies in sales contracts are set down as a short-term right to terminate the sales contract; a right to repair or replacement of the goods; a right to a proportionate reduction in the price and to final termination of the sales contract; reimbursement within 14 days by the trader, using the same means of payment and without the imposition of any fees; and a general right to withhold payment where the trader fails to deliver goods in conformity with the sales contract. Businesses will also be required to clearly set out a description of the goods or services being provided, the total price of the item and the cost of delivery before entering into a contract with a consumer. I know this will come as good news to people who have been stung with additional charges which were never foreseen when the product was purchased. This is often particularly the case in terms of additional charges for delivery.

An important aspect of the Bill is that it will see a legislative crackdown on companies leaving fake reviews of their own products or services, or fake reviews of a competitor’s products or services. Hardly a week goes by where we do not hear of someone who has fallen victim to a fake review. There have been several high-profile cases in the past.

I will not name anyone but we all know who we are talking about. If one gets an advertisement for a face cream purporting to be from someone whose age one knows but whom one thinks looks very young, one can be duped into believing that person is backing the product and that somehow one is buying into that person's beauty regime or, indeed, one may pay the money and not get the goods or service. Those people currently have very little opportunity for redress. This in turn causes customers to suspect nearly every company’s reviews. The knock-on consequence for those companies that do not engage in this process is that nobody believes the review online. A genuine review gets ignored in the same way as a fake review does. This is very unfair to those companies that do not engage in this currently immoral but soon to be, I hope, illegal practice. Decent companies that are above board are put at a commercial disadvantage as a result. Thankfully, companies who engage in misleading and aggressive commercial practices, such as fake reviews, could be subject to fines imposed by the courts following enforcement action taken by the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, CCPC.

Another important aspect of the legislation is that it defines prohibited blacklisted terms and conditions which are automatically regarded as unfair when put in a contract and grey-listed terms and conditions which are presumed to be unfair. Examples of blacklisted terms and conditions include any condition which allows a trader to unilaterally change the terms of a contract and any provision which would indemnify a trader from harm caused by a product or service. This is extremely important and it is reinforced by the importance of section 134 which provides that a trader must ensure that contract terms are transparent. Without transparency of contract, consumers are again put at a disadvantage.

The legislation is being driven by the fact that oftentimes businesses treat their customers unfairly when things go wrong. This significantly impacts customers, but it also impacts good businesses and puts them at a distinct disadvantage to rogue competitors. It is fair that the playing field be levelled up, although I should probably be wary of speaking about levelling anything given the interview in the media today.

I am glad to support this Bill and I will work collaboratively with the Minister of State with regard to amendments on Committee Stage and on Report Stage. Importantly, the Bill will ensure that in cases where someone cannot contact a trader and it is not already covered by a sectoral regulator, the CCPC will have the power to intervene to force the trader to engage with its consumer.

4:22 pm

Photo of Thomas GouldThomas Gould (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
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The Consumer Rights Bill 2022 is an important step forward in advancing consumer rights in this State. It is good to see the pulling together of consumer rights which is long overdue. While many of the protections in this Bill already exist in EU, it is important to see them enshrined in Irish law as well. Granting the CCPC powers to enforce regulations is one of the most vital aspects of this Bill and one that will finally see an end to the disadvantage experienced by businesses which operate legally and within the regulations.

We need to very clear that Covid-19 has had a considerable and in some cases devastating impact on businesses in this State. The closure of the hospitality sector, loss of revenue and various lockdown restrictions have had effects right across Irish businesses. I hope this Bill, along with other State supports, will help to bring back some of these businesses and relieve the burden on them.

When I was looking at this Bill and speaking to constituents, what instantly came to mind was the need to be very realistic about the protections that are most important to consumers right now, protections that will shield against the rising cost of living and the cost-of-living crisis we are in. People are choosing between heating and food and yet, energy companies are hiking up prices while simultaneously making considerable profits.

The ESB made a record €679 million profit in 2021 and in March it announced plans to increase residential electricity prices by 23.4% and gas prices by 24.8%, effective from 1 May. SSE Airtricity is supposedly a 100%-renewable energy provider but it charges a carbon tax despite wind energy not being a fossil fuel. It has increased its expected share dividend because of an increase in expected profits. In April, SSE Airtricity announced it would increase its standard household gas and electricity unit price by 24% and 32%, respectively. How can this company justify these increases when wind remains free? PrepayPower announced a net profit of €14.2 million last year. The increase that it imposed on the average consumer amounted to €374 per year.

Ministers might tell consumers to shop around. The Minister of State can shop around all he wants but there is no use in doing so when energy providers are increasing their costs. Some 68% of people in the latest RedC poll said that the quality of their lives had been reduced by the cost-of-living crisis. What will happen next year when we find out the profits of these large companies have increased, on the back of consumers having to cut down on food shopping and on what they enjoy?

Some form of consumer protection has to be considered for these people who are buying essential goods and to prevent large-scale profiteering by electricity and gas companies. Considerable profits may have to take a hit but it is far better than having ordinary people wearing jumpers and being unable to afford childcare, to put their kids into camps, to go to events or to have a good, decent quality of life. Consumers need to be protected and the good businesses out there that are operating properly need to have a level playing field.

Photo of Ruairi Ó MurchúRuairi Ó Murchú (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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I will reiterate some of what Deputy Gould has said in the sense that it is very difficult to talk about consumer protections while not talking about the necessary mitigations and protections and, possibly, if we are talking about energy suppliers, windfall taxes. I will put it as simply as that. While we accept that Government has done some things and cannot do everything, we will all accept there is more that needs to be done, given the condition in which people find themselves at present. They are under severe pressure.

I absolutely welcome this legislation. Whatever protections we put in place for consumers and whatever we do to increase the powers of the CCPC will fade into nothing unless, as Deputy O'Reilly said, we provide the resources to the CCPC. Otherwise, it will be incapable of doing what needs done.

With regard to dealing with the cost-of-living crisis, most of us will have seen on "Claire Byrne Live" people looking at their digital content, streaming apps in particular. We all know that certain people come with technical proficiency and others do not. We may need a service for a two- to three-week period. We have seen many people who sign up to something thinking they can easily desist before the first payment comes out. However, they will either forget or find it incredibly difficult to do so.

We will probably need a greater suite of tools to deal with such. Anybody who watched that show will have seen that people had forgotten how many streaming services and apps they had signed up to. Some of the apps made it very difficult, especially for those who did not have the necessary level of technical proficiency, willpower or the time to chase them down.

We all know there are certain things we cannot avoid.

I accept that people are making difficult decisions regarding how much heating they pay for. People need food and heating. We all need the basic necessary requirements. Some of these digital services obviously do not fit in that context. We must therefore ensure we have a sufficient level of protection in this regard, particularly for those vulnerable people who may accidentally sign up to these services. It can be easy to do that, but a hell of a lot more difficult to withdraw from them. We must explore this issue.

If we are going to talk about consumer protections and so on, whether organisations, community organisations or businesses, one issue not dealt with by the Minister of State's Department, or other Departments, is insurance. We must do so. I am talking specifically about public liability insurance. This issue is on my mind because I attended a local residents association meeting last night. A considerable amount of time at that meeting was taken up discussing the fact that an estate in Dundalk, the one where I live, is looking at paying a public liability insurance bill of about €3,400. This is utterly ridiculous. The development group-residents association is a custodian of a field. It is one of these unintended consequences that sometimes occur in developments. The group, alongside other parties, has done a significant amount of necessary work in the estate, tasks from which the local council and other State agencies have sometimes stepped back. This issue must be dealt with in some shape or form because the current position is utterly unworkable. I noted previously that a community centre in Dundalk was being charged €12,000 for an insurance premium. Obviously, in some cases, claims that have been submitted are being dealt with. I am not going to get into whether those claims are spurious. The Government has taken certain actions in that regard. There have, however, been failings in the sense that we still do not have that piece of work complete. I know this relates to the portfolio of the Minister for Justice but this duty of care issue must be addressed.

I may have digressed in raising this matter, and it is not the first time I have done that. I apologise but I believe these are issues that must be dealt with and we are talking about consumer protection. We must ensure the necessary resourcing is available for the CCPC. There must also be extra powers for ComReg whose representatives I intend to meet soon. Significant legislation relate to ComReg and we must ensure it has the necessary powers to bring firms to book, particularly communications companies and possibly certain telecommunications operators. We must ensure they are offering the services people require. We must ensure all the due diligence is done.

We need to do a specific piece of work to ensure we have covered all that needs to be covered regarding the online realm, including digital services and apps. I welcome that we are dealing with spurious reviews, which is a subject that has been talked about. Other issues, such as online scams, are also worrying people. I am aware that work is being done on best practice and ensuring everybody is informed about maintaining digital hygiene at the best level possible. Cybersecurity has been given a greater level of resourcing but that adds to the difficulties with apps and people trying to remove themselves from payments, etc. A great deal of due diligence must be done to ensure we are adding all the protections necessary for people.

4:32 pm

Photo of Seán SherlockSeán Sherlock (Cork East, Labour)
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I welcome this legislation. It is no easy task to transpose EU directives. I applaud the efforts of the Minister of State and his officials in this regard and in presenting this Bill. Starting with the issue of domain names, specifically .iedomain names, there are 309,953 such .iedomains. Only 278,042 of those are based in the Republic of Ireland, while 4,532 are based in Northern Ireland. The kernel of my point is that this leaves 31,911 of those .iewebsites operating from outside the island of Ireland. Where do consumers stand when they procure a product or service from a domain registered in Ireland but whose activity is offshored, perhaps in the United Kingdom or elsewhere globally, whether in the EU or in a third country? If such a company is based in the UK, where do consumers stand regarding their rights in the context of the transposition of these directives into Irish law? If consumers purchase goods and services from companies in the UK, via a .iedomain or another such domain, where stand their rights?

Despite Brexit, people in Ireland are still consuming a significant number of goods purchased online from the United Kingdom. We do not know if this legislation is silent or active on the dynamic of protecting the rights of consumers in this context. Consumers are protected in an EU context because this is an EU directive being transposed. If some clarity could be provided on this point by the Minister of State, I would be very grateful. I raise this matter because we are increasingly coming across instances of fraud where people who have logged onto a .iedomain to procure goods or services find their money has gone into the ether, the services or goods do not arrive and there is no recourse whatsoever for those consumers. This trend is on an upward trajectory. That is the first issue I wish to raise regarding this legislation.

I turn to the issue of Internet service providers, ISPs, specifically section 2 of the Bill, where there is an interpretation of an "electronic communications service". This is defined as "a service normally provided for remuneration via electronic communications networks, which encompasses, with the exception of a service providing, or exercising editorial control over, content transmitted using electronic communications networks and services, the following types of service". These services are then set out in section 2(a). They include "a publicly available electronic communications service that provides an internet access service". I take that to mean that if a company is an Internet services provider, and offering a broadband service encompassing several platforms, such as Wi-Fi, television services and other similar services, then the legislation covers such a service, as I understand it. The Minister of State is nodding in the affirmative.

If that is the case, the position is unclear to me, notwithstanding the Minister of State's point that the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, the Central Bank and ComReg will all have a role in enforcing the legislation. As I understand it, under the Bill a consumer is given a general right to withhold any outstanding part of payment to the trader until the trader's obligations are fulfilled. In those circumstances, the price withheld by the consumer should be proportionate to the decrease in value of the digital content or supply that does not conform with the contract and the consumer’s decision to withhold payment must be expressed in a statement to the trader. I will use a concrete example to illustrate the outworking of that. Let us say I sign a contract with an ISP for the provision of my broadband on a residential or commercial basis and that service is subject to regular outages or broadband speeds are less than adequate, for instance, where one ISP is offering services of up to 1 GB but the service provided is far less than 1 GB and no better than 4G such that, at times, people have to switch over to 4G or even 3G because the service is so bad. In the context I have just outlined, what recourse does the consumer have? If the consumer advises the broadband provider that he or she has called its helplines on numerous occasions and is not getting the service for which, for example, he or she is paying €80 a month, is not satisfied with the service and is now withholding the following month’s bill until such time as the ISP provides him or her with the service it has contracted to provide, what mechanism is open to the consumer in that instance? As it stands, I do not see where the legislation speaks to that very dynamic. I am open to correction on this, but from my perspective and in terms of a consumer protection ethos, there does not seem to be some mechanism built into the legislation that allows the consumer to push back against the ISP without the ISP saying it will just switch off the service. There needs to be some mechanism built in, a protection for the consumer, to allow him or her to make a complaint and withhold, per the legislation, part-payment or a proportionate decrease in the value of the digital content that is being provided in a way that gives him or her some sort of assurance and confidence that he or she can do so without being penalised or the service cut off by the ISP. If the legislation can speak to that dynamic in very explicit terms, it will send a clear message to the ISPs that there is redress when the consumer has an issue.

The reason I am raising this issue specifically is that every week thousands of households that have contracts with ISPs have to go through outages and blackouts or are switching over to 3G and 4G because they are not getting the service they have entered into a contract to receive and there does not seem to be any recourse for them. Will this legislation protect the person who procures the services of an ISP? That is one element.

My understanding of the legislation is that Irish consumers are being afforded a robust network of redress options as part of their newly-found digital rights, including a right to a full refund, exchange or repair, when the digital content or digital service contract is not as described or not fit for the purpose intended. Where the trader is liable to the consumer due to any failure to supply or lack of conformity of the digital content or digital service with the digital content or digital service contract, the Bill provides that a consumer may pursue remedies against the person liable for the failure or lack of conformity. This is probably a nicer way of saying what I have been trying to say for the past five minutes. It is concise legal language that has been offered to me by the law firm, Matheson, and I acknowledge its role in that. However, it all boils down to the kernel of the point that I am making, namely, what mechanism does the consumer have, without placing an undue burden where the proof is absolute in respect of the lack of the service being provided? We cannot have a situation where we are putting consumers through hoops to have their rights vindicated. If we are talking about consumers having to go to the CCPC or ComReg on an issue such as this, they would be forgiven for thinking that ComReg might not have the capacity to deal with the individual case if there are hundreds, or possibly thousands, of those coming in its door every week. Can some mechanism be found to ensure the legislation is so robust that there is no way that the ISP can slip off the hook so easily? What I am advocating is that if a consumer decides to take a case, make a complaint or seek redress or compensation for the loss of service, they should not face an onerous burden in doing so.

I reiterate the point in regard to Brexit. Where stands the consumer in this new paradigm in which, post Brexit, we are still trying to negotiate our relationship with the United Kingdom in regard to the procurement of goods and services? Where goods or services are procured from the UK, that is another jurisdiction and obviously not subject to EU law. Is there a mechanism within this legislation that protects the rights of Irish consumers? There are probably hundreds of thousands of online transactions at a residential and commercial level every week for which there is no recourse that I can see at present. That is not anybody's fault. It is a matter for politics and begs the question as to whether there is something in the Bill that can speak to that dynamic.

I welcome the legislation. I seek some clarity from the Minister of State in regard to the registration of .ie domain names which are not held by Irish businesses. They are providing services into Ireland on a pretext that people are buying from an Irish website. If that service is being procured from third countries, for example, the US or New Zealand, what rights has the consumer in the context of procuring from a .ie domain where that domain is not registered in Ireland?

I thank the Minister of State for bringing the legislation before us. He will be very much aware of online fraud, in particular, with regard to the registration of .ie domain names. I welcome this Bill as a comprehensive leap forward. If the Minister of State can reassure us that the requisite personnel will be put in place in the statutory agencies that will regulate this space, such as ComReg and the CCPC, that will give consumers greater confidence.

4:42 pm

Photo of Dara CallearyDara Calleary (Mayo, Fianna Fail)
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I commend the Minister of State on bringing forward this Bill. It is one of the most significant overhauls of consumer rights legislation in some time and it is long overdue. What we are doing is embedding many rights but will we give information to people regarding their rights when they get involved in the system? I am sure everybody in this Chamber has signed up for some sort of service and pressed the "agree" button after about three or four pages of text.

Who among us has read every single page of such text, which is normally full of opt-outs for the company to which we are signing over our money and account details? Something needs to be done to embed the rights of consumers in the process so that when they press the "Agree" button, they will actually know what they are signing up to, as opposed to signing up to illegible text. When signing up, there is a danger they might inadvertently sign some of their rights away. Some of the new rights to be enshrined in this legislation regarding digital services, in particular, and also downloads and cloud products are too important not to be given the kind of profile and attention needed.

What additional resources will the CCPC be given to circulate the required information so consumers will be armed with knowledge? Most of us do not know our exact rights and responsibilities until a situation arises. Often when a situation arises, it can result in high stress and lead to very challenging circumstances.

The ComReg figures for the first quarter of this year point to 12,500 contacts, with 4,600 complaints having been made on broadband and mobile telecommunications. I suspect all of us had dealings with one company, in particular, that is just impossible to deal with in respect of customer relations. It is a matter of the extra rights that will be given to consumers. Deputy Sherlock asked whether a consumer who holds back payment will lose the entire service. In many digital contexts, the entire service is essential to daily living. I am referring to the effort to prosecute, for want of a better word, the rights that consumers are to be given under this legislation. There is no sense in having all the rights unless the companies are going to respect them and unless there is a robust regime within the CCPC of defending and backing up consumers and giving them the ability to ensure the rights stand to them.

I have often felt the CCPC is overloaded. It is the competition authority and the consumer protection authority. It was always feared that there would be an overload. We need to ensure that, with this new legislation and the powers that come with it, additional resources will be made available so consumers will know their rights and that when those rights are not being respected, they will have redress under the powers and protection of the CCPC.

What is the likely timeline? Does the Minister intend to have the Bill passed before the summer recess, or will it be passed in the autumn session? Considering the endorsement of the legislation by groups such as Digital Business Ireland and the considerable expansion of online business, including retail business, particularly over the past two and a half years, and the fact that online business will be done daily, the rights are essential. It is essential that businesses, particularly small businesses that do not have the capacity or resources of major multinationals, understand their rights and responsibilities under the legislation. From the start, a campaign must be designed that gives the information required by small businesses, particularly those discovering their way around e-business and e-sales. From the outset, they will need to know their responsibilities in the same way that consumers will need to know their rights.

I commend the Minister for his work on this. It is important that we see this through quickly. It pertains to a space that is changing every day. The digital arena and the services are changing every day and dominating our lives in a way that we could not have imagined even two years ago, never mind 15 years ago or when the last major Bill on consumers was passed. I commend the Minister and wish him well.

4:52 pm

Photo of Patricia RyanPatricia Ryan (Kildare South, Sinn Fein)
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The Consumer Rights Bill 2022 is long overdue and represents a very welcome transposition of EU law. Unfortunately, however, it is the outcome of another missed deadline by the Government. The Government really needs to get its act together in transposing EU directives.

There has been an imbalance between goods and services in consumer rights legislation, and it is hoped that this Bill will address it. The new law will increase the rights of consumers regarding contracts for the sale of goods and supply of digital content, and it gives more power to the regulator, the CCPC. It is one of the biggest overhauls of consumer law in the State in 40 years. Many of the laws in place to protect Irish consumers were drawn up before the age of the Internet. Prior to the EU directives being transposed, someone spending money on a digital product did not have the same rights as when purchasing a physical one. This is going to change. Under the new law, consumers will have the same rights and protections regarding digital content and digital services, such as streaming, downloads and cloud products, as they currently have regarding other products or services.

The Bill amends the law on unfair terms in contracts between consumers and traders. These include terms and conditions that allow a trader to unilaterally change the terms of a contract. Any provision that would indemnify a trader from harm caused by a product or service will not be allowed. Businesses will also have to set out clearly a description of the goods or services being provided, the total price of the item, and the delivery cost before entering into the contract with a consumer. The Bill will see more redress options put on the table for consumers, and consumers will be entitled to agree a price reduction in respect of faulty goods. They will be entitled to withhold payment for goods partially paid for if they are not satisfied with the quality. The Bill also makes it clear that any form of redress must be free of charge and carried out as soon as possible.

The legislation cracks down on aggressive commercial practices such as a company leaving fake reviews of its own or a competitor's services. Companies that engage in such behaviour could be subject to fines by the courts following enforcement action taken by the CCPC. Importantly, the Bill will ensure that where someone cannot contact a trader and a sectoral regulator does not already cover the matter, the CCPC will have the power to intervene and force the trader to engage with the consumer.

I commend my colleague Chris MacManus, MEP, on his work on consumer rights in the European Parliament. He has been to the fore in highlighting the lack of consumer protection provided to the families affected by mica. He has signed the second amendment that was passed to introduce the mandatory labelling of products to provide clear information to consumers on their estimated lifetimes and reparability at the time of purchase. This information will greatly benefit consumers and allow us all to make more sustainable choices when shopping. There must be an end to manufacturers building obsolescence into their products. This is a technique whereby manufacturers design products that break down or malfunction after a period. This is shameless profiteering and it is harmful to the environment and the circular economy. I was greatly disappointed to see that Fine Gael MEPs voted against the initiatives proposed by Mr. MacManus and progressive forces in the European Parliament. Sinn Féin, in this Parliament and the European Parliament, represents the interests of ordinary citizens, while some back the trickery of the manufacturing industry.

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
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I, too, welcome the introduction of the Consumer Rights Bill. It is a much-needed consolidation of existing consumer rights legislation and it strengthens other areas of consumer rights that were in dire need of modernisation, particularly regarding digital goods and services.

Many of the reforms in this Bill are existing EU law, coming from the sale of goods directive, the digital content directive and elements of the omnibus directive. The first two directives, both introduced in 2015, were due to be transposed into Irish law by 1 January this year, while the omnibus directive, proposed in 2017, is to be implemented by 28 May. Their inclusion in this Bill is welcome and somewhat overdue, but I acknowledge that putting together consolidated legislation such as this takes considerable time and effort on the part of the Department.

I would like to ask the Minister about the decision not to transpose Articles 2, 5, 6 and 7 of the omnibus directive at this time. There is nothing in them that struck me as particularly controversial.

Article 2 deals with the rules for how member states should label price reductions in terms of transparency, while Article 5 requires the provision of a single digital information point for citizens looking for their consumer rights on out-of-court dispute resolution benefits. Will these be transposed in a separate Bill? It may well be the case that consolidated legislation is limited in terms of adding additional things. If that is the reason, I would understand that. The Minister of State might tell us how they might be introduced, and why they were not included in this Bill so that we can at least understand the position.

The sale of goods and the digital content directives were formed with the goal of contributing to the faster growth of the digital Single Market. They were shaped, in part, on the outcome of the 2014 EUROSTAT survey, which found that 18% of consumers had purchased online from another EU country, while 55% did so domestically. I suspect the figure is now significantly higher than that. The pandemic will have driven that particular aspect of trade to a much greater degree than was the case before.

At the time, there was a clear need to ensure that consumers had proper protections while buying goods online from other EU member states and, importantly, that they were aware of their rights. Of course, that has changed since Brexit. A lot of trade was done with Britain. It goes without saying that those numbers are completely different now. Some 87% of people in 2020 purchased services online. Modernisation in terms of consumer protections in the digital sphere has been sorely needed for a long time now and we have been quite slow to catch up in that regard. Much of our consumer protection legislation was drawn up long before there was widespread use of the Internet, which means that consumers online have had little or no protection from practices which have been illegal in the real world for decades.

I am focusing on the digital side of things, but for those who are lucky enough to buy their homes there can be many issues, such as estates not being finished and so on. People very often feel that, in terms of consumer protection, sometimes the big things are not protected. We have fallen into serious problems on foot of not paying attention to that side of things. It is somewhat off the beaten track, but, for example, the regulation of builders in Australia puts the consumer at the centre and elevates standards. Sometimes we have not paid attention to the big things and they come back and bite us. We have seen that in many different ways.

As it stands, people do not have the same rights if they purchase digital products such as streaming services or downloads as they do when a they buy a physical item. It can be very frustrating. Very often things default to payment, even though people do not want to continue using a service. People buy something on a monthly basis and then discover that they pay the next month and have to go through a rigmarole to cancel the service. Very often the rigmarole is pretty difficult for people, in particular those who are not tech savvy.

These facts will come as a surprise to most people who naturally assume they have standard consumer rights to a refund, exchange or repair of the goods they buy, no matter where they come from. This Bill will, thankfully, rectify that situation by bringing the protections for digital goods and services into line with the standard existing protections. This does, however, point to the need to ensure people are properly informed about their consumer rights and protections and what protections they have.

Fines will be introduced for companies found to engage in misleading or aggressive commercial practices such as fake reviews, following action taken by the consumer watchdog. We all wonder when we are reading a review of a hotel or holiday whether it is written by a real person. It is only when we see a large number of such reviews that there is a possibility of objectivity. A crackdown on bad actors who write false or glowing reviews of themselves on various online review sites is sorely needed. An abundance of choice in terms of providers for goods and services online can sometimes be overwhelming for customers. Many people go through the effort of researching providers to ensure the money they spend will be safe. For that research and careful consideration to be undermined by fake reviews and ratings on sites such as Yelp or Trustpilot does an absolute disservice to the consumer. It also means that trustworthy businesses which would never consider such an action are badly impacted. There is an unfair advantage with bad actors getting an unfair advantage. Equally, in the service sector a business truly does hinge on its reputation.

The most important aim of the Bill is to allow the CCPC to take enforcement action against traders who fail to provide consumers with a remedy or reimbursement for faulty goods and services. The CCPC has provided a very valuable service in informing consumers of their rights and enforcing competition law, but it has been sorely lacking in teeth for a long time. Very often our regulators, in theory, have a remit, but they need to be resourced so that they can have that in practice. We have a lot of law in theory in this country, but when we start looking at how it is enforced it very often falls down. There is no doubt that it requires more teeth. The circumstances in which the CCPC can issue fixed payment notices will be expanded, as will the time period for bringing forward criminal prosecutions, which will increase from two to three years.

A further critical development is the implementation of the omnibus directive. The Bill will amend existing law to provide for fines of up to 4% of annual turnover of the relevant member state and up to €2 million if turnover information is not available for certain breaches, including in Part 5, which deals with consumer information and cancellation rights, and Part 6, which deals with unfair terms in consumer contracts.

We have historically had a bad habit, as I said, of giving enforcement agencies a large remit but no power to fix the problems they are being asked to resolve. We have seen this with the CCPC and can observe the same problem with agencies such as the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO, which is also in dire need of reform and an expanded remit and enforcement powers. It is in a different sphere, but it makes reports every year which we ignore. We should be paying far more attention to the kind of flags they are raising.

All in all, this Bill goes a long way towards modernising our consumer protection legislation by transposing the three EU directives as well as by ensuring the legislation is easier to find and understand through consolidation. Indeed, I wish we could have other pieces of consolidated legislation, in particular in the criminal justice and transport areas, because trying to make sense of the law when there are bits and pieces all over the place can be really tough. It requires an expertise that most people do not have the ability to pay for.

I welcome the fact that this is consolidating legislation. I reiterate the point that sometimes we are not regulating for the big things that cause us problems. I refer to things like pyrite or mica and shortcuts being taken underground. Some of us remember when HomeBond was not available at a time when people thought it would be their fallback position when their homes were damaged by pyrite.

One sometimes has more consumer protection when it comes to small things such as a packet of crisps or biscuits than for something that is a very big outlay and can cause serious problems for the individual, but also sometimes for the State as well.

5:12 pm

Photo of Alan FarrellAlan Farrell (Dublin Fingal, Fine Gael)
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The Bill offers the opportunity to bring our consumer rights legislation into the 21st century and, in so doing, make it fit for the increasingly digitised world. The vast majority of the population daily streams or downloads goods or services from the Internet or the cloud. This practice is a clear divergence from the way we lived our lives just a decade ago, or even more recently.

Through the past two years of the pandemic, we had no better example of how digital goods and services provide a major factor in consumer behaviour. As we stayed at home and avoided traditional shops, we increasingly engaged with online goods and services. I do not believe this behaviour will change in the years to come. In fact, like many, I believe it will play an ever-increasing role in consumer habits and behaviours.

As my colleague Deputy Calleary mentioned, the lengthy terms and conditions to which one must sign up when availing of a service online are often confusing and written in opaque language that is difficult for the vast majority of the population to interpret. It is important, therefore, that the legislation and consumer rights protections in the State are updated to keep up to date with such changes. Despite the changes that have taken place in recent years and entered every home in Ireland, the legislation has, to date, not been updated to reflect those changes.

The Bill represents an opportunity to provide the most radical change to our consumer rights law in several decades. By bringing digital goods and services under the same category, for all intents and purposes, as traditional goods and services, we will expand the confidence of people across Ireland when availing of digital items and strengthen the position of the consumer, which in turn benefits the entire nation. Among the rights that will be enhanced by the Bill is the right to a full refund, exchange or repair of a good or service that was not to the standard advertised, as well as appropriate upgrades to the good or services so that it will work as intended. These enhancements of consumer rights will reform how we think of and engage with digital goods. Of course, it will also provide confidence to small businesses that heretofore might not necessarily have engaged online because of the prohibitive costs of going online, but also the difficulties associated with trying to sell one's products online both when there are so many large digital retailers available and in competition with them. The confidence it instils in those small businesses' consumer base is a very important business attribute. The Bill also contains important changes to transparency practice with regard to terms and conditions as well as costs of contracts that companies offer to consumers. Importantly, it restricts the ability of a digital product provider unilaterally to change the terms of a contact, thereby once again strengthening the position of the consumer in the market.

I am encouraged that the Bill will see a crackdown on fake reviews. There are countless examples of misleading and inaccurate reviews of digital goods and services companies and websites. During the pandemic I relocated to my constituency office for several months and, while there, a local retailer informed me he had been inundated with fake reviews from Thailand. In fact, some of the reviews were in Thai and he had to use the Google translate service to figure them out. They all rated the retailer negatively, which was extremely unfair, and were very difficult to remove. I know of other instances closer to home involving digital reviews that were completely inappropriate because the reviewers had never met the individuals in question, among other things. These things have to be regulated. There has to be a process in place with these firms for the rapid removal of such reviews because they can be extremely detrimental, particularly for small businesses that are trying to trade online and compete with global companies. There are countless examples of misleading and inaccurate reviews of digital goods and services on companies' websites. As other Deputies have mentioned, some of these reviews are left by companies' representatives to bolster positive reviews left for their products. In some cases, negative reviews are left by competitor companies in respect of goods and services. These reviews are a deliberate attempt to deceive and gaslight consumers into picking one good or service provider over another. Although the vast majority of businesses do not engage in that practice, it does show complete contempt for the consumer and damages consumer confidence and the overall online trading sector. The measures under the Bill will allow ComReg and the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, CCPC, the ability to pursue these bad actors and tackle the culture of dishonesty, which I firmly welcome.

The Bill speaks to the ever-changing nature of society with respect to new technologies. I believe that in the years ahead we will have to update our legislation continually with regard to the myriad of technological advancements that will continue to offer people new methods of engaging with businesses, society at large, transport, the State and more. In this context, we have a duty to ensure our legislation accurately reflects the everyday encounters of citizens. In recent years, for instance, we have seen the emergence and growth of more advanced artificial intelligence, AI. I note the Minister appointed an AI ambassador this week. We have seen the ambition of companies such as Meta to develop the metaverse. These developments will continually change how people engage with goods and services on the market and in the digital space and it is important, therefore, that we work closely with our European partners in these sectors to ensure consumers are protected while active in this field.

I note with appreciation that publication of the Bill has been well received among industry stakeholders and agencies involved in the regulation of the market. That is a positive endorsement of the work of the Ministers and the Department. It is another important boost to consumer rights in Ireland, which have been strengthened in recent years, and I very much look forward to the passage of the Bill.

I wish to reiterate my experience with the CCPC, which is a fantastic agency. I am not criticising it. I wonder, however, whether the Department should consider reviewing its funding because there are times when its work on behalf of consumers can be delayed simply as a consequence of the amount of work it has. That may be an indication of a minor lack of resources or personnel appropriate to complete the jobs at hand. I do support the Bill and very much look forward to its passage.

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Limerick City, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Bill and congratulate the Minister of State and his staff on bringing it forward. I remember studying a subject grandly entitled "personal property" in UCD about a hundred years ago or so. At that time, the basic legislation in this area was the Sale of Goods Act 1893. That Act provided that goods had to be of merchantable quality and-or fit for the purpose required. There was, of course, subsequent legislation in 1980 and a European influence through directives in 1982 and 1983 which seem to me to have caused more confusion than elucidation. However, the Bill, which enshrines a plethora of consumer protection measures into law, will certainly rectify that and I very much welcome it.

One of the attractive features of the Bill is that it creates greater flexibility in respect of things like price reductions and withholding payments for goods that have already been partly paid for. Much of this is happening in real life already, but it is very important for it to be underpinned in law, as is now being done, and I very much welcome that. The Bill deals with several lacunae in the law as it exists currently, especially in the area of advertising, and I very much welcome that. I listened to an earlier section of the debate and heard Deputy O'Reilly referring to this in the context of beauty cream. I do not have much personal experience of that material.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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That makes two of us.

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Limerick City, Fianna Fail)
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What I have noticed is that if a person wants to purchase a product, he or she checks out where it can be sourced and then, because the supplier is unfamiliar to the person, he or she goes on Google. Lo and behold, the person finds that Tricky Dick, the supplier, has loads of testimonials as evidence of his being the most honest guy ever to walk the face of the Earth.

It is small wonder he has so many testimonies, given that he probably wrote them himself. This type of thing is rampant on the Internet, with actors mouthing the testimonies that were written by the suppliers. This is grossly fraudulent, reprehensible and totally immoral. It is amazing that it has taken so long to make it illegal, but I really welcome that it is being done.

On the digital side, much of the consumer protection law that is on the Statute Book was put there before the advent of the Internet and it does not capture the sale and supply of digital goods and services. It is very important to address this because business is increasingly being done digitally, even down to high street shopping, which is more often done online. The digital area, incidentally, is very difficult to control. It will be fascinating to see how effective the legislation is in policing digital transactions, which involve people connecting to the cloud or accessing material that has to be streamed or downloaded. That will be fascinating to watch. The Bill makes a very good effort to deal with that situation.

Regarding fair terms and conditions, we have the blacklist, which sets out the practices that are an absolute no-no, and the grey list, which deals with the terms that are presumed to be unfair. There are a number of very welcome additions to the blacklist in this legislation.

I also welcome the extension of the power of the CCPC to police this legislation and step in when the consumer cannot get a proper remedy from the supplier. That is extremely significant; nobody should underestimate its significance. I note the provision in section 34 that, provided one does not claim twice, the provisions in the Bill are not an alternative but an addition to present remedies. If someone chooses to do so, he or she can rely on the Sale of Goods Act 1893, which was passed in the reign of Queen Victoria, and seek the appropriate remedies set out in it.

In the time remaining, I would like to make two further points. First, the new legislation certainly will increase litigation. Of that there is no doubt. Unfortunately, this is happening at a time when access to the courts is becoming increasingly difficult. The time limit is beginning to grow again and the costs are once more rising. There is a commitment in the programme for Government to set up some sort of forum to discover ways to ease and facilitate access to the legal system. I wish that forum the very best of luck. I do not know whether it has yet been set up but, if not, it certainly needs to be done very quickly. In addition, the powers of the CCPC are going to be massively increased. That will require extra staff. There are several organisations in this country, the Residential Tenancies Board, RTB, being one that springs to mind immediately, where the rules are in place and the people in question are operating those rules as fairly and efficiently as they can, but they are simply overwhelmed. The time it takes to get a remedy or sometimes even an answer from the RTB in these circumstances certainly has devalued the work of the board. I do not want to see that happening in this instance. When the Minister for Finance stands up to announce the next budget, I will expect a substantial increase in provision for the CCPC.

I know I am speaking to the converted but the final point I want to make is that this is a very lengthy Bill, with 163 pages and 173 sections. I ask the Minister of State to be generous in dealing with amendments that are put forward. Despite the wonderful work that has been done by the Parliamentary Counsel and the staff in the Department, nobody has a monopoly on wisdom. As I read through the Bill, I saw several places where the provisions could usefully be amended to strengthen them. For example, section 47, which is a very useful section dealing with transactions involving motor vehicles, is too tightly drawn and could be made much more efficacious if it were made more flexible.

I congratulate the Minister of State on his initiative in bringing this legislation before the Dáil. I wish it a speedy passage and I hope it goes through unopposed. I heard several cribs from the Opposition benches about the fact we are already past time for transposing the relevant EU directives. In fact, these directives have been transferred very quickly, comparatively speaking. I could cite what happened in the past but time does not permit me to do so.

5:22 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I thank Deputy O'Dea for his words of wisdom. We move now to the Regional Group, for whom Deputy Shanahan will give us the view from the sunny south east.

Photo of Matt ShanahanMatt Shanahan (Waterford, Independent)
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Indeed I will, a Cheann Comhairle. I enjoyed some of Deputy O'Dea's prescient remarks. As the Minister of State outlined, this Bill will transpose two directives, namely, the digital content directive and the sale of goods directive, which relate to contracts for the sale of goods and contracts for the supply of digital content and services. It also transposes elements of a third directive, namely, the omnibus directive that relates to better enforcement and modernisation of EU consumer protection rules. The Minister of State outlined his hopes that these provisions will provide a more modern legislative framework that will create clearer rules for business and bring about substantial improvements for customers. Once enacted, the Bill will strengthen the protections for consumers provided by the CCPC and ComReg by creating clearer rules for businesses and ensuring the market works fairly and effectively for both consumers and traders.

Like many others, I welcome the additional consumer protections and remedies the Minister of State has outlined in the Bill, particularly the provision for a price reduction on faulty goods and flawed services. It is long past time that consumers would be entitled to withhold payment for goods or services that have been partially paid for if they are not satisfied with the quality of the item or service received. It is important that the Bill stipulates that any form of redress must be free of charge and must be carried out as soon as possible. Of course, the question then arises as to the whole issue of enforcement.

The Minister of State outlined that there will be new protections for consumers in regard to digital content. As we all know, the Internet already is the global marketplace. It is becoming a marketplace for consumers of all ages, many of whom are easily exploited by unscrupulous sellers. In areas such as audio and video files, computer games, digital streaming services and social media, consumers are open to unfair and substandard sales services. I have a question as to the degree to which this legislation will be able to target international media providers and possibly their Irish subsidiaries. That will remain to be seen as the Bill is enacted and rolled out.

Under new digital rights, there is a right to obtain a full refund, exchange or repair where a good or service is not as described and is not fit for purpose. Unfortunately, I would say that happens quite a lot with Internet purchases. Consumers will be entitled to any required upgrades to the product or service, free of charge, to ensure it continues to work as expected and agreed. Will the legislation pertain solely to Irish purveyors on the Internet and, if not, how does the Minister of State intend to enforce its provisions on foreign companies?

I welcome the blacklist of contract terms and conditions that are automatically deemed to be unfair and which I agree should not be included in any consumer contract. Clearly outlining what is legally binding on a buyer and seller is a transparent right but one that often does not apply. The provision that neither party can change the terms of the contract is welcome. In this instance, it is usually assumed that it would be the merchandising party who might do so. There is a requirement for the proper representation of product, which is difficult, and full transparency regarding final taxes and charges. I would point out that where people are buying online, even through An Post, they often find that subsequent taxes and charges are notified to them of which they were not made aware when they made the purchase.

The Minister of State outlined that the Bill gives extra enforcement powers to the CCPC, which is the body responsible for enforcing consumer law in Ireland. These powers will mean that where traders engage in misleading and aggressive commercial practices, such as posting fake news, or where they do not provide the remedies or reimbursements consumers are entitled to, the CCPC may take such action and compliance measures as going to the Circuit Court or the High Court and requesting declarations or injunctions.

How is all this activity to be audited? As I think has been asked already, what is the methodology to trigger this? What resources will the Department give to the CCPC? We had the CCPC before the enterprise committee some weeks ago. One of the main issues that arose at that committee meeting was that that body is already significantly weighed down with work. With the best will in the world, I am not sure it will be able to take this on without significant additional resources.

The Minister of State outlined extra enforcement powers for ComReg in respect of electronic communication services and premium-rate services and for the Central Bank in respect of financial resources. Again, what auditing has the Department done in respect of the Central Bank? The Minister of State said the Department has had wide, robust and productive engagement but I am not sure he outlined exactly what the situation is with that. It is possibly he will do that yet.

As for ComReg, I will outline something that happened to me relatively recently. I got a bill for €900 for a mobile phone in the name of my daughter. It was with one of our main providers in Ireland. Obviously, she had not calculated or known she had been running up such a bill. I got in touch with the company concerned and was told that she had unwittingly clicked on a competition which ran for a month and ergo would cost €900. I did not go to ComReg but I took it up with the company concerned. It was very difficult. I would not like to be an average Joe trying to do it. Eventually, I had to settle for half and I paid €450. The company left me in no doubt that, legally, I did not have a leg to stand on. Again, where will the law sit in that regard?

Another thing I will ask the Minister of State about is part exchange, which is now becoming a feature in business. We have been aware of it for a long time in the context of the motor trade. It is also happening in gaming and computer games and even bringing in computer peripherals to exchange them against something else. Sometimes it is a case of buyer beware, as much as we might like to think it is not, and we might like to think this consumer legislation will cover that. One of the interesting transactions that happen in the motor trade is the trading in of cars. There are two exchanges going on. You do not trade in the car. In law, you sell it to the dealership and give an undertaking to the dealer as to the car's quality, what you understand its condition to be, the fact that it has not been crashed and the fact that the mileage is, as best you know, accurate. This has led to many people getting caught out. Sometimes people in the motor trade get caught out and unwittingly sell on a car which turns out to have a significant history. Is there anything in this new Bill the Minister of State proposes to tighten up some of that? Sometimes those who sell merchandise need to be protected in that situation also.

Overall, I welcome the Bill. As I said, we discussed it in the enterprise committee. As Members said, the Minister of State's office and Department have done a great deal of work on this. It is to be hoped it will tighten up a lot of things and give better protections. I have concerns about Internet sales and how we will manage to police them where the companies are resident outside of this State, but maybe there is no simple answer to that, or maybe the answer is just to shop at home, where people have consumer rights and can have them enforced in the courts or legally through other areas. We wish the Minister of State the best of luck and look forward to the his amendments.

5:32 pm

Photo of Jennifer Murnane O'ConnorJennifer Murnane O'Connor (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
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As previous speakers said, the Bill brings with it a number of positive changes for consumers, including stronger consumer rights, protection and remedies. With the explosion in online trading, digital streaming and downloading and the move away from the high street and local traders, this is so important. Once upon a time, if you wanted to buy a television, you walked to your local main street and bought one from the man your mammy would have known or the shop your family would have gone to. If there was a problem with it, you could go back to the main street and get it sorted the next day. We have seen huge change since then. It is important we have this Bill.

Some consumers are getting caught out with faulty goods and breaches of their rights, so it is right and proper that we protect them. Even more important now is protection in the cloud space, where digital products such as music are bought and sold. It is welcome that the Bill will bring consumer protection to digital goods and services in order that cloud services and downloadable and streamed goods are covered by the same arrangements as a television bought in a shop. That product protection is better when we look at the redress which will come to the customer, and it will have to come quickly. That question has been asked. We need clarification on the timing of it.

There are also long-term issues with the policing of all this and what exactly the laws on this are. I know that the Minister of State will come back to us on that. For too long, products downloaded or streamed from the cloud or other means have been left unregulated, and that has not always been good for the consumer. This Bill will stamp out misleading information on sites. The banning of fake reviews is especially welcome. We have to trust other customers' experiences of services. For too long, suspect reviews have been allowed to go unchallenged and customers have lost out. We absolutely must support this legislation to place a legal obligation on traders to ensure that any reviews on their websites are from real and verified consumers. We cannot allow a business to show only its best side with reviews from friends and family. That is important. For the social media operator, this will be a really important clarification. We have seen during the Covid pandemic the surge in online shopping. This Bill will go a long way towards stamping out bad actors who have surfaced during the surge in online shopping. The one thing I have learned about from the pandemic and from speaking to many of my friends and various other people is the surge in online shopping. I have been taken aback by it. Having spoken even today to a friend of mine, I understand that online shopping for clothes in particular seems to have surged during Covid and seems to be continuing now.

As previous speakers said, this legislation will be so important. We have to do this. In fact, we are late to the game. The digital content directive and the revised sale of goods directive were due to be in force on the first day of this year. Coming down the tracks is the European electronic communications code, which seeks to incorporate new rules which share a similar consumer-first focus with this Bill. Like other speakers, I welcome the Bill. It is so important now, given the surge in online shopping. People have been looking for this. It is important we get it through as quickly as possible. I know that when he comes to Carlow at the end of the month, the Minister of State will visit many people in my constituency and will be able to give them a lot of information on this. Again, I fully support the Bill and its progression. Other Deputies have spoken about amendments and how we will focus on them. While there will be amendments, it is important that the Bill goes through as soon as possible.

Photo of Carol NolanCarol Nolan (Laois-Offaly, Independent)
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Tá áthas orm labhairt ar an mBille seo. It is a very wide-ranging and complex Bill, seeking as it does to consolidate and to update the legislative provisions that regulate the main types of consumer contract. Sections of the Bill are very welcome and will make a real and practical difference to people in everyday life - for example, section 19, which deals with the provision of remedies for the incorrect installation of goods. The Bill makes it clear that an incorrect installation of goods will result in a lack of conformity of the goods with the sales contract where the installation was carried out under the trader's responsibility. I welcome that provision. We are all aware of cases where people have been left high and dry after handing over significant amounts of money only to have the goods they had purchased damaged at the point of installation. Obviously, most decent and conscientious traders look after their customers and reputation is important to them, but there are elements out there that seek to take advantage. Unfortunately, we hear more and more of that.

Section 25, on repair or replacement of goods, is a welcome and pragmatic move as it provides that a trader must ensure repair or replacement is carried out free of charge, within a reasonable time period and without any significant inconvenience to the customer. Those safeguards are necessary and welcome. This will strengthen people's rights in this area. That is positive, particularly as there is a balancing provision in section 28, which deals with the obligations of the consumer in event of termination of sales contract. The majority of traders are, as I said, hard-working and decent people. They, too, need proportionate protection of the law.

I note the Bill will also amend the Consumer Protection Act 2007 which will strengthen the enforcement powers of the CCPC. This is an approach that was badly lacking for many years, particularly in the agricultural sector, which was left very exposed. If we are to have regulators, they better have teeth and the ability to do their job and make a difference.

In the context of the agricultural sector, I accept that we now have the unfair trading practices, UTP, directive which has been transposed into Irish law but I note from a recent ministerial reply that the directive does not and will not address below-cost selling as it was considered that legislation dealing with this issue had acted against the interests of consumers. I understand that there were also difficulties in terms of enforcement. I have some concerns regarding that particular approach. If the Government is intent on protecting consumer interests, it must do so in the round. Are farmers not consumers? We must remember that farm families also purchase goods and that these costs are increasing all the time as input costs soar. When they go to sell their goods or products, however, they are not protected by the same consumer protections in terms of value for money. Why is that the case and how is it right that we have that type of situation? Why must farmers endure disproportionate levels of below-cost selling by the multiples? This Bill does not deal directly with this particular issue but I want to raise it and to highlight the fact that if we are to be serious about protecting the rights of consumers and traders, we should try to spread the net to include those in the agricultural sector also.

One last issue I wish to raise is dealt with in section 60, which provides for the remedy for failure to supply digital content or digital service. All Members will be aware that many families in rural Ireland continue to endure poor or at best patchy Wi-Fi services and connections. Is it fair to expect a family to pay a monthly fee for a service that should be enabling them to access a digital service or digital content on an intermittent basis? I hope that this Bill will provide some positive remedy for such families, who, more often than not, must endure poor services because of the lack of alternatives.

5:42 pm

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this important matter of the Consumer Rights Bill 2022.

At the outset, as I always say in situations like this, I have been a small retailer for many years and I try to always ensure that my customers are happy with the goods and services that I provide.

This Bill is important. While the existing legislation on consumer contracts offers consumers necessary protections, it is disjointed and deficient in a number of respects, including the rights and the remedies of consumers in respect of the quality and other aspects of goods purchased under contracts of sale. They are regulated by two separate and not always consistent sets of statutory provisions, namely, the Sale of Goods Act 1893 and the Sale of Goods and Supply of Services Act 1980, as well as the European Communities (Certain Aspects of the Sale of Goods and Associated Guarantees) Regulations 2003. While services now account for an increasingly large amount of consumer activity and expenditure, the statutory provisions on the supply of services comprise only four sections of the Sale of Goods and Supply of Services Act 1980, compared with the more than 60 sections in the Acts regulating the sale of goods. Moreover, they are silent on key issues such as the remedies for services that do not conform to the contract. When people are working hard and buying goods or services of any type, we want to ensure they are treated properly and fairly. We have seen many of the multinationals that have come into the country using unorthodox procedures and efforts to try to win over customers. I always use the following analogy because it is straightforward to understand and shows what large groups of people can do. A certain town - I will not even say what county it is in but it is in Ireland - had many service stations and a large multinational group came riding in on the big white horse to that town and opened up a massive service station. It significantly reduced the cost of fuel to such an extent that it made more sense to people who had fuel at home, even if they had a large number of trucks on the road, to go to that service station because it was selling it at a price that no one else could provide. One by one, the lovely small family service stations that were in that large town closed until eight of them were gone. There were three of them that they were not able to shake but they did get eight of them closed up. Their tanks under the ground had to be sucked out and filled with concrete, which is a regulation, and those service stations shut. As for this big conglomerate that had come in on its white horse, that had brought down the price and that was the new saviour to the consumer because it was selling very cheap, all of a sudden the price started to go up week by week. There was nothing that could be done about it because it had the monopoly on the town at that stage. Now that town is one of the most uncompetitive places in the country to buy fuel quite simply because the conglomerate closed down everyone else. That is what I would call blackguarding the system and messing with the consumers.

People and families work very hard. I was speaking before coming into this debate at a Committee on Budgetary Oversight meeting and I was talking a lot about mom's purse. I like talking about mom's purse because it is my way of understanding the economy. My attitude is if mom's purse is not right on a Friday evening, the world is very wrong in that household. No Minister for Finance and no person over in Europe can tell mom about her purse. Mom knows about her own purse and if it is not right, it is wrong.

When people must pay for goods, we want to ensure that the goods are proper. Deputy Nolan rightly spoke about technology, for instance, services online, and about technological services that are provided and that are no proper and right, and stated that people are paying a fixed monthly contract for a service that might not be up to what it should be. That is obviously wrong. Those consumers must be protected.

There was a significant increase in online shopping during the pandemic and that, of course, did a great deal of harm. We must ensure that there is a proper balance between the rights of consumers and trying to keep the local shops going as well.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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I, too, am delighted to be able to comment on this legislation tonight. I thank the Minister of State. Indeed, while I am on my feet, we had Mr. Edmund Honohan, former Master of the High Court, in recently and he was fulsome in his praise the Minister of State. I cannot think of the name of the relevant Bill, it had an unusual acronym, but he praised the efforts in that legislation which the Minister of State had brought in to try to bring some clarity to situations regarding families and, indeed, farms and places that found themselves in difficulty. I acknowledge that, on his behalf, because he understands well the intricacies of that. The name of the Bill eludes me now.

5:52 pm

Photo of Robert TroyRobert Troy (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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It is the small company administrative rescue process, SCARP.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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Yes, it is SCARP. We were calling it "SCAMP" for a while. The Minister of State is right. In fairness, he should take the credit when he is getting it. We are well able to criticise so it is nice to pass on those congratulations.

This Bill is very important because consumers are being ripped off, left, right and centre, especially online. Then there are massive reviews on different media online and they are all one-sided. There is no control or basis. They might be wildly inaccurate. Big companies are powerful. Like Deputy Nolan, I am very concerned about farmers, and it was a very worrying issue for Mr. Honohan as well. They are in no-man's-land. Why are they not included in this as consumers? They are falling in between. They are important and their work for this country is enormous. They are under savage attack from all sides so they need protections.

I introduced a Bill on behalf of my colleagues to try to bring about some protection in respect of the family home and the farm, to separate the home from the land holding, and to protect spouses and siblings who may accidentally be on leases or whatever else. They need protection in this area as well, because they are consumers as well. There is an attack on them. A few years ago an Teachta Michael Healy-Rae anseo agus mé féin went to Dunnes Stores off Grafton Street with members of the Irish Farmers' Association, IFA, to support the IFA. The Minister of State remembers it well. They filled up four trolleys with a water level of goods. I think it only came to approximately €20, and we were shocked. I know the value of a bag of spuds, a turnip, a carrot or any of the produce that comes from the land. It does not fall off the trees and grow. Seed has to be bought, the ground has to be prepared, fertilizer is required and one has to look after the crops, spray them and make sure they are good products. Consumers want that for their protection. However, the below-cost selling is beyond all. I know of several farmers who have the left the market this year of supplying fruit and vegetables, mainly vegetables and potatoes. They are leaving because it is not viable. What we will be left with is multiples that will be able to charge what they wish because there will be no competition.

Then there are the small shops. By all means, consumers must be protected. The vast majority of them are, and the vast majority of business people are good, decent business people. They want to work and they want to provide a service, but the rogue element must be driven out. However, to catch that rogue element, often with legislation, the impact and pressure it puts on small businesses is unwieldy. One would have to be a legal mind to traverse the amount of paperwork and to understand it. The small business people do not have the time or the energy for it and they cannot afford to hire the expertise, so they are really struggling. This Bill is welcome in many ways, but there are many aspects of it that are leaving people behind.

Another area in agriculture that is under attack is the farm suppliers. They are very reputable. Previously, they were selling medicines, but that has all been clamped on and has been taken back in under the agricultural veterinary products. They are being squeezed every which way. Then there are the single- or two-person sales teams on the roads. They have small businesses and are paying their taxes, rates and everything. There are unintended consequences sometimes, but some of these are intended consequences because there are powerful lobbies that want these people out of the way.

This is Second Stage, but we hope we will be able to table amendments for Committee Stage. We hope the Bill will be practical, user-friendly and consumer-friendly. Also, a correct balance must be struck between the consumer and he or she who delivers the services. It saddens me to see the amount of online shopping. I put my hand up that my páistí do it, but it is a pity. We see the vans on the road and, indeed, they would blow one off the road. The shopkeepers are being denied their bit of business. There is a squeezing taking place all the time. The fabric of not only rural Ireland and but also urban Ireland in the big rural towns is being killed by the big outlets and online shopping. We must try to get a balance even though it is very hard. The lockdown hastened the demise of small businesses because they were closed. They were supposed to be closed, but the big multiples were open and did all the business. The profits they made were enormous.

Photo of Richard O'DonoghueRichard O'Donoghue (Limerick County, Independent)
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I welcome the Bill, particularly with regard to buying online and clarifying one's rights as a consumer. However, who will protect the consumer against the Minister of State and the Government? I will outline a small issue I have. Due to the shortage of vehicles in this country, dealerships have to go to the UK and other countries to import cars because the people want to do their bit for the environment. I will take the example of a €22,000 vehicle in the UK, such as a 2018 Volkswagen Passat. Can the Minister of State tell the consumer how much tax the Government takes on the vehicle? It is €5,700 in vehicle registration tax. On top of that, the Government takes VAT. The consumer needs to be protected against the Minister of State and his Government and the amount of tax they take on vehicles when people have no alternative but to drive cars. It is one thing that we are protecting people online, but we also have to provide protections to protect them against the high rates of taxes that the Government is putting on people who are trying to survive and make a difference in this country and who are trying to do the right thing by upgrading their vehicle to a lower-emission vehicle. What does the Government do? It takes almost €9,000 on a €22,000 vehicle. Who is going to protect the consumer from the Government?

I understand the Bill will be especially helpful to SMEs when they purchase goods and services across the EU. It will also help them as they will be able to supply digital services to their consumers without fear when it comes to legal contracts. The rights of a consumer are addressed in the legislation by ensuring that goods conform with the sales contract. I also see that the buyer is protected if the product purchased has full title and is not encumbered in any way. That relates particularly to property and land. I am also glad that the legislation covers after-sale services and availability of spare parts.

We have to look at the tax regime in this country. We must examine how we can lower the living costs so that people can survive. We spoke earlier about wage increases. Regardless of what wage increases are given, it will only drive inflation because businesses cannot sustain what is happening. Consumers are being charged more because of all the taxes that are imposed on suppliers. The suppliers add that onto their price as a running cost, which the consumer pays. I return to my question: who is going to protect consumers in this country from the Government when they are trying to do the right thing?

Photo of Patrick CostelloPatrick Costello (Dublin South Central, Green Party)
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Given that this is my first time to speak in the Chamber today, I will take a moment to mark the passing of Shireen Abu Akleh, a veteran Palestinian journalist who was shot while trying to cover a raid by Israeli occupation forces in a refugee camp in Jenin. The shooting of a journalist trying to document truth is a tragic and deliberate crime that violates all international laws and norms. However, I will leave that for the moment.

There is much to celebrate and welcome in this Bill, particularly with regard to enhanced digital services and enhanced protection in respect of digital services. There is a bewildering array of services and ways to engage with these services. Many people pride themselves on being digital natives, but there are many who are not. Many struggle to understand what is being put in front of them, how to engage these services and how to protect themselves. Anything we can do to protect people who are not tech savvy or au fait with some of these services is very important.

There is an issue if we are to protect and vindicate rights. Giving consumers these rights and protections is very useful and important but they will only be useful and meaningful if we provide full enforcement. Deputies have spoken about how the CCPC struggles in terms of its resources and ability to enforce the powers it has. This is something we need to address. I would love the Minister of State to commit to providing more resources for its enforcement.

I am also quite taken by, and strongly welcome, section 13. This provides an ability to extend some of the regulations to cover services where personal data is given as consideration. This dovetails with the Data Protection Commission. Let us be honest: I could probably fill 20 minutes speaking about this. It is a subject the justice committee has dealt with extensively. It provides a perfect example. If we allow the regulator, which is the watchdog, to slip and if we do not give it the resources it needs, then regulation becomes meaningless. Something that strikes me about this is the recent case taken by the Belgian data protection authority seeking to move against the incessant pop-ups we all get. They have been ruled to be in breach of the general data protection regulation. This comes back to my original point on digital services. Other Deputies have also raised this issue. When end user service agreements pop up in front of people when they are sitting at their computers most people click through them without reading. We need to be much more aware of the importance of consumer protection in this regard. There are deliberate attempts to obfuscate, spin and get in the way of consumer rights. As I have said, these have been held to be in breach of the general data protection regulation.

Another element in the Bill that I found interesting is section 46 on the rights of recipients of gifts. This is a small but important reform of privity of contract. We have danced around the edge of reform of privity of contract for a while. The Consumer Insurance Contracts Act 2019 included some reform in this regard. A very detailed report on the much-needed reform of privity of contract by the Law Reform Commission from 2008 is gathering dust. It provides a suggested Bill in its appendix based on international legislation that has reformed privity of contract.

We are addressing issues with regard to implied terms and unfair terms in these consumer contracts. On the wider issue, if we could address the fundamentals of privity of contract it would be very important. Our courts have done their best. I cannot remember which judge referred to the attempts to address privity of contract as simply judicial subterfuge in the face of a lack of legislative reform. Here we have a report from 2008 with a model Bill. It is sitting there gathering dust. I found one parliamentary question on it from 2015 addressed to the Department with responsibility for trade asking whether it could do something. The Department replied it was up to the then Department of Justice and Law Reform. There did not even seem to be a follow-up question to that Department. I appreciate many of the issues I am speaking about fall into the area between justice, which often deals with regulation, and the Department with responsibility for trade. I stress that we have danced around the edge of reform of privity of contract. We are doing some good work on it here but it needs wider reform. It is a nettle we need to grab.

Overall I believe the Bill will ultimately enhance consumer protection. Consumer protection will only be enhanced in real terms if there is money in the enforcement and if people are aware of their rights. People need the information to know what their rights are so they can ensure their rights are protected and vindicated. This comes back to deliberate attempts to obfuscate and screen people from their rights. I would love to see whether we could resource the CCPC to run an information campaign so people know what their rights are. We are producing the Bill to transpose an EU directive. It is very important that we tell people what their rights are now and what they can do for numerous reasons. It would enable them to vindicate their rights. They would have the knowledge that gives them the power to vindicate their rights. It is important to show the protections the European Union gives to its citizenry and that the EU is out there looking to support people and protect them. It is important to show citizens the everyday benefits the EU gives to put lie to deliberate attempts to portray the EU as doing quite the opposite.

6:02 pm

Photo of Robert TroyRobert Troy (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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I thank all the Deputies who contributed to the debate. I thank them for the points raised. It is fair to say, and I acknowledge, that there has been very broad support for the general purpose of the Bill. The debate has been constructive. The Bill has at its heart the improvement of consumer protection. Its enactment will be good for consumers and responsible traders alike. I will take this opportunity to address some of the points raised during the debate. I will concentrate on the points relevant to the Bill.

A number of people acknowledged that the Bill is overdue and that it should be implemented in a timely manner. This will largely be in the hands of my colleagues but it is my intention to enact it before the summer recess. Given the broad support outlined I do not see any reason we cannot have this. A number of Deputies also signalled their intention to table amendments. We will certainly cons any amendment tabled with an open mind, based on the fact that amendments can enhance the provisions in the Bill.

A number of Deputies, including Deputy Costello, spoke about the enhancement of the CCPC's enforcement powers and whether it would have adequate resources to undertake these functions. Additional funds to facilitate the enhancement of enforcement functions were factored into the Estimates process for the 2022 budget and the CCPC received a significant 9% increase on its annual budget as a result of this. This was on the back of an increase the previous year. Recruitment has begun for additional staff. At present the CCPC has approximately 140 staff and the intention is to increase this to 200. There is a firm commitment and acknowledgement to increase resources for the CCPC in recognition of the additional responsibilities it is undertaking.

There was discussion on the rising cost of fuel and the cost of living more generally. The war in Ukraine has intensified pressures on global commodity prices, including crude oil. This has led to an increase in the prices paid by consumers for essential items such as petrol and diesel. This worrying trend negatively affects all consumers but has a particularly devastating impact on the most vulnerable members of society. While neither the Department or the CCPC can direct businesses on what prices to charge, it is illegal for competing businesses to form a cartel. This is an agreement to fix prices, to agree to a common pricing policy or to carve up a market so they do not have to compete. The CCPC can take action where it considers a trader's action has a wider adverse effect on consumers. With regard to the current situation with fuel pricing, I and most members are aware, because CCPC officials came before the Oireachtas committee on enterprise a number of weeks ago, that it has taken steps to ensure compliance with the law.

It will be open to it to carry out further investigations, impose sanctions or penalise anybody it feels is breaking the law.

Deputy Sherlock raised a point about Brexit. Since Brexit, consumers buying from the UK can only rely on UK law, not EU law. The new legislation cannot alter that. The Irish Government can only legislate for commerce in Ireland. However, if such commerce involves something purchased from an Irish-based intermediary, Irish consumer law will apply.

Deputy Sherlock also discussed domain names, specifically those ending with .ie and gave some statistics of which I was unaware regarding the number of companies with .ie domain names that are not located in Ireland. While that is a matter for the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, I share the Deputy's concerns. It is an issue I have already raised with the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications and I will follow it up with the Minister on foot of the Deputy's points.

Some members of the Rural Independent Group raised the matter of broadband services in terms of outtages, speeds etc. This is a matter for ComReg as the statutory regulator and is currently covered by the current licensing arrangements. Deputy Calleary spoke about transparency and clarity for consumers. The Bill introduces new prohibited blacklisted terms and conditions that are automatically regarded as unfair when included in a contract. Examples include any condition that allows a trader to unilaterally change the terms of a contract or any provision that would indemnify a trader from harm caused by a product or service. Businesses will also be required to set out clearly a description of the goods or services being provided, the total price of the item and the cost of delivery before entering into a contract with a consumer.

Deputy Catherine Murphy raised a number of points about the omnibus directive that are not contained in this Bill. These will be transposed by way of secondary legislation, that is, a statutory instrument, which is being drafted. Hopefully, that will reassure the Deputy. The Deputy along with Deputy Calleary pointed out the need for consumers to be informed. I could not agree more. We have already spoken with the CCPC, which has assured us that it will be embarking on an advertising campaign to make sure consumers are fully aware of their rights once this Bill is enacted. In addition to consumers being aware of their rights, it is important that businesses are also aware of their responsibilities.

In my opening statement, I indicated that I would be bringing forward amendments on Committee Stage to clarify the intentions of certain provisions to ensure that the powers of the CCPC and ComReg are sufficient for additional functions they will have as a result of this Bill and to amend section 459 of the Companies Act 2014. As I said at the outset, I am open to looking at any proposals that come from colleagues. Indeed I am looking at some of my own items to see whether they fit in with the Bill but there is that opportunity over the next number of weeks before Committee Stage to look at possible amendments. I look forward to a constructive debate on Committee Stage because it has been very constructive here today. I believe this Bill will enhance and solidify consumers' rights so I hope we can have cross-party support to ensure we can get it enacted before the summer recess at the latest.

Question put and agreed to.