Thursday, 14 June 2012
Competition (Amendment) Bill 2011: Report and Final Stages
I welcome the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. Before we commence, I remind Members that on Report Stage a Senator may speak only once, except the proposer of an amendment who may reply to the discussion on the amendment. Also, on Report Stage each amendment must be seconded.
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 8, between lines 36 and 37, to insert the following:
"6.—(1) Subsection (1) of section 30 of the principal Act is amended by inserting the following paragraphs after paragraph (g) -
"(h) to study and analyse any practice or method of competition or decision with implications for competition in markets for goods and services that has its origins in a decision or action by a body working with or on behalf of a Minister of Government or agency of Government;
(i) to analyse the actions and practices of all regulatory agencies, statutory bodies and ministerial departments of the State for violations of Part 1 of this Act;
(j) the right to publish to the public-at-large non-commercially sensitive findings and analyses of firms, regulators, agencies and sectors that that authority has conducted as part of this Act;
(k) to report to the Minister on an annual basis any pre-existing practices by firms, regulators, agencies and sectors that can be understood to limit, restrain or undermine competition in the markets for goods and services such that it constitutes a violation of Part 1 of this Act and to propose remedies to those violations.".
(2) The Minister or the IMF-EU-ECB mission team for the duration of the memorandum of understanding support programme may request the authority to carry out a study or analysis of any practice or method of competition affecting the supply and distribution of goods or the provision of services or any other matter relating to competition and submit a report to the Minister or to the IMF-EU-ECB mission team for the duration of the memorandum of understanding support programme in relation to the study or analysis; the authority shall comply with such a request within such period as the Minister or the IMF-EU-ECB mission team for the duration of the memorandum of understanding support programme may specify in the request.".
I welcome the Minister less than 24 hours after his last visit to the House. I have tabled this amendment because I am trying to incorporate what the Minister found in the Dáil and the report on competition policy by Goodbody in the last month that we must strengthen his hand and adopt a more radical approach to competition policy because of its importance. That is the purpose of the amendment.
There is a view that the Competition Authority has been too weak and has not stood up where there have been abuses of competition rules. There is also a strong view that this is an important issue for Ireland and that, although we have a strong internationally traded sector, it is held back by the privilege and regulatory capture of the sheltered sector. That is a strong theme that the Competitiveness Council has been pushing - that we avail of the opportunity arising from the IMF-EU agreement to promote and develop competition policy as a means of developing the rest of the economy and that we have too many sheltered sectors and sectors protected by Departments, with too many instances of regulatory capture, where the industry takes over its own regulation. There is a lack of a strong focus, whereby the Competition Authority would take on inefficient regulation in areas such as transport, energy and health insurance. We also need a much smarter performance from the professions and other sheltered sectors. The delivery of the programme is part of the rescue package with the IMF. I heard Mr. Richard Downes reporting from Washington this morning that stricter enforcement of competition policy had been included in the IMF briefings in Washington on the scope of the programme.
This is a also an opportunity. I have in mind the Office of Fair Trading in Britain. It found that the regulation of airports by the Civil Aviation Authority had been captured by the British Airports Authority and intervened to secure the competitive sell-off of these airports. We have regulatory capture in transport; the Public Transport Regulation Act reserved all the routes for one company and all its subsidies with the agreement of the Competition Authority. The Health Insurance Authority exists to protect VHI, as does Government policy, on which we have lost cases in both the Supreme Court and the European Court. There is an outstanding case on how much money we owe the people wrongly accused of not insuring old people.
There are people in the energy field who believe our energy costs - electricity and gas - are far too high and that stricter regulation of these sectors is necessary. There is a €40 million subsidy in the case of peat and the same in the case of wind energy. These sectors have captured their regulators and operate outside the realm of competition policy which we need so badly. There was an interesting remark made by the Minister for Finance in the Dáil that the professions in Ireland had a rule that dog did not eat dog, but it is about time the taxpayer got a bite. We need to open up all of these areas to competition.
That is the purpose of my amendment, that we use, as the Competitiveness Council states, this opportunity when we are trying to help the economy out of the difficulties it experienced between 2008 and 2010, of which improving our competitiveness is part. The general view when the Minister and the Minister of State were here to take Second and Committee Stages was that they were not being radical enough. The Competition Authority issued only one summons and four warrants in 2011. It does not reassure customers that it is acting on their behalf and does not scare the cartels. This should be an all-government approach which would lead to huge benefits for the economy, some of which I will outline.
The Milliman report shows the high costs of VHI do not stem from the fact that it insures a lot of old people but from the fact that it keeps them in hospital for 11.6 days for treatment that should take 3.7 days to complete. The last time he was in the House the Minister quoted Adam Smith. One of his quotations was that monopolists produced too little, charged too much and greatly increased their emoluments as a result. Substantial benefits would derive from competing health insurance companies reducing the costs of hospitalisation, for instance, as it would have a cross-over benefit to the public sector. It took a parliamentary revolt and subsequent policy changes by the late Jim Mitchell and Garret FitzGerald to open up the aviation sector. Many of us will recall a time when it cost more than £200 to travel from Dublin to London, with one airline carrying 2 million passengers on that route annually. This year, Aer Lingus and Ryanair will carry 90 million passengers between them. That increased competition and enhanced service has allowed us to develop our tourism industry. These are the contingent benefits of competition. If energy costs can be reduced, for example, it will not only benefit householders but also help to stimulate those sectors of the economy which the Minister is trying to promote. We all took note when one of the representatives of the EU-IMF troika observed on a recent visit to the State that the cost of a GP call-out in Brussels is approximately half what it is in Dublin. In that regard, the Minister has received strong support in this House for proposals to open up the General Medical Services, GMS, list to new doctors.
What is proposed in this legislation is merely part of what needs to be done to make ours a truly competitive economy. The Goodbody review and the report of the National Competitiveness Council suggest that a more radical approach is required. The IMF made the same call this morning, if I have interpreted Richard Downes's report correctly. We are behind on the timetable we agreed for promoting a more competitive economy. The purpose of my amendment is to strengthen the Minister's hand and to convey the support in this House for measures that would take on the sheltered sectors in our society. We must make the economy more productive to bring the unemployment level back down from 14.5% to approximately 5%. There are far too many restrictive practices in various sectors which have proven immune to the new economic realities. We must step up to the plate and assume a much more active and interventionist competition policy. Everybody will reap the benefits of such an approach.
I welcome the Minister back to the House. He has become very fond of us in recent days. Senator Barrett has set out his concerns in regard to this amendment very well. I am not quite sure the amendment would solve all the problems to which he referred, but it is a step in the right direction. Senator Barrett referred to the observation by one of the visiting troika officials that the call-out fee for a doctor in this country is double what it is in Belgium. There are many instances of this type of anomaly which clearly point to the need for greater competition.
The question is how it can be achieved. I consulted the Golden Pages recently in search of a dentist's address and was astounded by the number of advertisements for dental services north of the Border. I have also noted newspaper advertisements offering medical services in Hungary and India, with packages including treatment and travel costs. When I started in business, resale price maintenance was the norm. We were told that one could only sell Jacobs biscuits or Cadbury's chocolate, for instance, at the fixed price. That practice was accepted by retailers and by the Government of the day. It was not until the British Government removed resale price maintenance in the neighbouring jurisdiction that we did the same and prices came down. As Senator Barrett observed, there are many such cases of restrictive practices.
The amendment seeks to insert several new provisions in section 30 of the principal Act. The new subsection (1)(h) would broaden the remit of the Competition Authority by allowing it to have oversight of potentially anti-competitive practices in public as well as private bodies. This is a very important point and Senator Barrett pointed to the areas of energy and health to support his case. There seems to be little or no competition in these sectors for reasons that are not entirely clear.
Another important element of the amendment is the provision in paragraph (j) that the authority should be able to make public any findings that are not commercially sensitive. It makes perfect sense that any data that are commercially sensitive should not be released in this way, but all other findings should be available for examination and review by the public. Paragraph (k) proposes the Competition Authority be allowed to act on its own right rather than requiring that investigations be initiated on some other basis. Everybody will agree surely that these are sensible proposals.
The proposed section 30(2) of the principal Act, as provided for in the amendment, seeks to address the fact neither the Minister nor the troika team - the latter for the duration of the bailout programme - has the right to request the authority to initiate an investigation into a particular matter. On each visit to Ireland, members of the troika team repeatedly urge that such and such be done. They and the Minister should have the right to instruct to the Competition Authority to complete any such investigation within a specific timeframe.
The examples to which Senator Barrett pointed can be well defended and should be in operation. I urge the Minister to accept the amendment on the basis it will strengthen Government efforts to encourage increased competition, with all the benefits which flow from that. It is a particular problem for this country that we have got into the habit of charging a much higher price than others for a range of goods and services. Senator Barrett referred to the cost of flights between Dublin and London before the introduction of competition on that route. I can well recall paying up to £300 for a flight when there were only two state-owned airlines operating on the route. There was an assumption at the time that this was how it should and always would be. The introduction of competition in this area was driven by Brussels and by those in Ireland with the vision to make changes which have been of huge benefit to the travelling public and to the economy. We can do a great deal to improve competition, reduce prices and make this country more competitive in the marketplace. The amendment is worthy of acceptance as part of our efforts in that regard.
What is proposed in this amendment seems merely common sense. It begs the question why these provisions are not already in place. When the Government sets up an independent body, it does not set up a secret service..There must be some comeback in terms of a capacity to examine, without undue interference, the work it is doing and how it is organising its business. The amendment proposes that the Competition Authority should be obliged to publish all findings that are not commercially sensitive. Under the freedom of information legislation, unfortunately, many organisations are not covered and there is no way of getting this type of information. In the area of competition, such scrutiny would be good commercial practice. The provisions of the amendment are very much in line with the principles of good housekeeping which we have been discussing frequently in this House. It is good housekeeping practice to ensure a regulator is independent, but an individual could go AWOL, in which case the Government has no comeback. Perhaps there is something already in legislation to cover that, in which case the Minister might elaborate on it.
I am particularly interested in the energy sector. We have a very progressive Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Pat Rabbitte, who has indicated his absolute commitment to renewable energy and to meeting our targets for 2020. I understand, however, that representatives of commercial bodies, especially in the west, that are ready to go with wind energy production have been told it will be 2020 before they can connect to the grid. Since 2004 there has been considerable liberalisation in respect of the energy grid, deregulation and so on, but I would like reports on whether it is working fast enough. If we are to meet our targets, should we not do more to facilitate private sector renewable energy development? I know of the fantastic work going on to promote grid 25 and to ensure we have the capacity to take it in. Not having the capacity is one thing, but it is another if private organisations say the capacity would be there if they were allowed in.
I am not too sure about the IMF, the EU and everybody else scrutinising our internal business because as everyone knows, we like our independence. We want to get rid of the troika as fast as we can. I hope we will be able access funding on the open market under Deputy Bruton's stewardship. I compliment him on the work he is doing. We should have the wherewithal to manage our own resources. I would like information from the Minister. What I said about energy applies to all areas of competition.
I welcome the Minister and support this common sense Bill. It is all about protecting the jobs created by the US multinationals. However, we should also concentrate on maintaining indigenous jobs, an issue I have raised on numerous occasions in the context of the viability of businesses and commercial rates. I still believe we should have a national review of commercial rates for small businesses in particular. We should build commercial rates into the debate we will have on a proper property tax.
We need to look at the way the Revenue Commissioners do their business, with which I have an issue. I do not believe they look at the bigger picture. The outcome of how they do their business has knock-on effects on other businesses. I am privy to a particular instance where a small wholesaler in the west of Ireland was owed €52,000 by two small businesses, which were paying him over a period of time. He brought down what was owed to him to €52,000. He went to deliver to them one morning but both businesses had been closed down by the Revenue Commissioners. He was owed €30,000 by one of those businesses. The Revenue Commissioners had a fire sale of his assets and got €4,000 for them. The €30,000 worth of stock they sold belonged to this wholesaler. This threatened the viability of his business. On top of that, the two businesses which closed down put 11 people on social welfare. It makes absolutely no sense that they should conduct their business like that when it has an overall effect on our finances.
I refer to a debate we had in the House on cartelism. I recently damaged my iPhone. The damage was irreparable but it was insured, and I am going to collect it today. The person in the phone shop told me the phone was worth €390 so I asked if I could change it for two BlackBerry phones costing €130 each. The person said I could not do so and that if I wanted to change it, all I could get for my iPhone was €40. It begs the question as to what the phone is actually worth. The person in the shop was only willing to give me €40 for it and yet I was told it was worth €390. We need to look at the whole area of cartelism, as does the Competition Authority.
I thank Senators for very interesting contributions. I agree entirely with Senator Barrett that we need to achieve much more competition in the Irish economy. We have had a real problem with competition in the economy for a number of years but the problem has not been the lack of power in the hands of the Competition Authority to analyse nor the lack of power to publish outcomes of cases. The problem has been a lack of willingness to act on recommendations which have been brought forward by the authority. As the Senator knows, the Competition Authority reported on a number of sectors over the years, but the changes it sought were not implemented.
There is no doubt that since the IMF, the EU and ECB came to town there has been a new impetus, but the main new impetus has been to implement recommendations from the Competition Authority which were outstanding. It has not been hammering on the door demanding new studies. The truth is the Competition Authority has a free hand to undertake any study it chooses and to analyse competition in any sector where it believes there are problems. Indeed, under the action plan for jobs, which I recently published, one of the actions to be delivered by the second quarter is that a selection of new sectors in which it is believed there are sheltered activities which are damaging competition will be investigated. The Competition Authority will put forward proposals as to areas which should be analysed and I will commission such an analysis. There is no lack of power to analyse the problems. The problem has been the willingness to act on the recommendations.
Clearly, one is now seeing action on the recommendations in reforming the legal and medical professions and so on. The troika has created timelines for the implementation of various changes and the publication of various Bills, including this Bill to strengthen the enforcement powers.
That brings us to what other things are needed to make competition much stronger. That is the purpose of this Bill. The reason there are not amendments on more powers of analysis is that there is no defect in the Competition Authority's power to analyse. There is a desire - this is the whole theme of this Bill - to strengthen the incentive to comply and to make it a bigger risk for people who are engaged in anti-competitive activity. That is why we are strengthening the penalties and bringing in other changes, which Senators have seen in the Bill, to show there are greater consequences for failure to comply with the requirements. That is the focus of this Bill.
The Competition Authority also has an additional power which is rigorously applied, namely, it has a free right to comment on any legislation being initiated by the Government. That comment goes directly to the Minister who cannot amend it or say he or she does not really like it. It goes to the sponsoring Minister and it is put on record as the authority's comment - a free and independent comment on the legislation. That is a very important power.
Competition is not the entire gamut of public policy. Senator Barrett said it was wrong that there were subsidies for those generating electricity from wind and asked whether that was anti-competitive. We are giving people generating from renewable sources a bigger payback than others. However, there is another dimension of public policy which says we need to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels and become more self-reliant and exploit our renewable resources. The consequence of that is that one develops a refit price that gives a higher subsidy to people who generate power from wind than those who generate it from gas or oil. That is a perfectly acceptable public policy to pursue. Competition, while it is very important, is not the sum total of the debate.
We discussed the issue of out-of-town malls versus town centres on Second Stage. The competition view would be to let everyone flourish and let people set up wherever they like. However, there is a different dimension to public policy. Some Senators expressed the view that we need to protect our town centres and that there is a value in having a town centre. Obviously, I am an advocate of competition, but it must be recognised that there are limits to which the competition mandate runs. It must be recognised that there are limits to which the competition mandate runs. That is not to say it justifies much of what has happened. Much of it is unjustifiable.
The other aspect is enforcement activity. Senator Barrett stated that the cartels are not scared. We have made a decision, which is on foot of the second quarter, that we will be putting ten additional enforcement staff into the Competition Authority. The authority has been given the clearance to recruit to strengthen its capacity in the area of enforcement. The Competition Authority is a relatively small agency which employs approximately 50 staff. This is effectively a 20% increase in its scale, but it is focused very much in the enforcement area to ensure the authority has the enforcement capacity when investigating an issue of anti-competitive practice, whether it be cartel activity or abuse of dominance. That is the real issue.
The twin approach we need to achieve is to act on recommendations of public policy where regulatory problems are protected by an existing system, and to take enforcement action when problems are found and investigation reveals anti-competitive practices. We are strengthening the Competition Authority's enforcement capacity, providing stronger penalties and adding further disincentives to anti-competitive behaviour. Clearly, the Government is determined to implement changes that have been recommended and is committed to the undertaking of new studies by the Competition Authority into areas where there are potential problems that need to be addressed.
That brings me back to the amendment, which I do not support because I do not believe it is necessary. First, there is no restraint under paragraph (h) on the Competition Authority investigating a sector in which a public body is involved. It can investigate any sector without fear or favour and can analyse any sector that is regulated. The only aspect of which one must be aware is that a regulator is not an undertaking within the meaning of the Act and the authority cannot investigate a regulator for an offence. The authority has the power, however, to analyse the way in which a regulator is regulating a certain sector and state that in its view, the regulation of the sector is not a competitive approach.
We recognise there is an increasing fear the regulatory regime we have established over the years has too little focus on the need for competitiveness in the current particularly strained nature of the economy. Under the action plan for jobs, we are reviewing the operation of the regulators. The Competition Authority can analyse them at any time, but we are reviewing whether the regulators, as a class, are working to the correct criteria and whether our competitiveness, benchmarked against other players with which we must trade, is sufficiently important in their consideration. That work is being undertaken by Forfás. The Taoiseach, in particular, is interested to see whether we can sharpen the focus of our regulatory environment across the board by way of public policy. There is no constraint, however, on the ability of the Competition Authority to investigate any regulated sector, and it has done so. It has spoken about retail planning guidelines when everyone might not agree with its view. It has spoken about waste management and various professions. It has analysed these at quite considerable length.
Paragraph (j) raises the issue of whether the authority the capacity to publish. Section 30(1)(g) of the Competition Act 2002 gives the authority the function of carrying out such activities as it considers appropriate to inform the public about competition issues. In this context, the authority publishes its economic and legal reasoning concerning selected investigations it has decided to close, either because it has found no breach of the Competition Act or it has settled the case with the undertaking concerned. These publications are referred to as enforcement decisions. The authority selects investigations for its enforcement decisions that demonstrate its approach to a particular competition issue on which it has not previously offered an opinion, or where the investigation is in the public domain and the issue has been subject to such considerable public debate that the decision would be of public interest, or where the matters involved raise broad issues of interest or complexity. In the context of the proposed paragraph (j), I would refer the Senators to the authority's website, tca.ie, on which the authority publishes non-commercially sensitive findings on foot of enforcement actions and examinations it has carried out.
Senator Barrett and Senator Quinn propose, in paragraph (k), that the authority report to me annually on practices that limit or restrain competition such that they constitute a violation of Part 1 of the 2002 Act. A breach of section 4 or 5 is an offence which the authority can investigate and pursue in the courts, either as a criminal or a civil matter. The authority is independent in the performance of its functions and a requirement for it to report to me on breaches of the law and on proposed remedies is not in keeping with this statutory independence. The authority includes in its annual report details of past investigations, and I am of the view that this is the appropriate course of action for the authority.
As the Senators can see, the authority has powers to publish as it sees fit. That is unconstrained by the Minister, and that is appropriate. We need to do it in a way that protects the authority's power to investigate independently and not be answerable or give the impression it is under some obligation to the Minister in terms of what it does and its freedom to report independently. The existing balance is correctly struck.
I would share Senator Keane's views on subsection (2). The IMF, EU and ECB, which are operating a memorandum of understanding to the end of 2013, should not be enshrined in law in such a way. They are a party which is here because they are committing to fund and, as a consequence, the Government must be accountable to them. They put forward proposals and negotiate with Government about what is the next phase of activity in a programme, and that is as it should be. The Competition Authority has, correctly, an entire freedom to analyse anything it likes and I, as Minister, have the power to ask it to investigate an area about which I have concern, but it is not appropriate to give a new status in law. to an international body which is here as a result of temporary difficulties we are experiencing,
I applaud the sentiments behind the amendment. We need to become much more effective in managing and delivering competition in our economy. The process that will deliver for us involves acting on recommendations, giving strong enforcement powers, strengthening the Bill, as we are doing here, and commissioning reports where they are needed on sheltered sectors of the economy which need further action. While I commend the motivation of the Senators in tabling this amendment, I assure the House it is not the extent of the ability of the authority to analyse or to publish that acts a constraint on the delivery of more effective competition policy, rather it is many of the other issues. The battle must be won on many fronts to deliver effective competition.
I thank the Minister, as always, for his wisdom. There is exasperation about how slowly we are moving in this field. We will support the Minister's efforts to move things on. This is a sentiment expressed in an announcement by the International Monetary Fund this morning. On page 24 of the IMF agreement of December 2010, Ireland agreed to require the Competition Authority to lift restrictions in competition law which exclude certain sectors from the authority's scope and to identify processes to address these exclusions. More activity is needed in this area. The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, expressed this view in a speech to the Dáil on 5 November 2005 when he stated the performance of the Competition Authority and operation of the Competition Act had not been as effective as consumers were entitled to expect.
It does not indicate a sense of urgency when the annual report of the Competition Authority for 2011 refers to the issuing of one search warrant and four summonses. I regret to note that the position adopted by the authority in the health insurance case was against the consumer. It also acted as an ally of the Health Insurance Authority whose role, as far as I can ascertain, is purely to prevent competition. It also gave the nod on the issue of buses and was silent when the then Minister for Transport, Mr. Noel Dempsey, required a 41% increase in airport charges, a move that did serious damage to the country. I would like to have a much more alive and alert watchdog, one which barks when restrictive practices come to light. Unfortunately, such practices are inherent in the Irish economy.
The National Competitiveness Council, which I am pleased the Minister has given a role, offered the following advice:
In response to the Programme, however, Ireland should not undertake reform solely to satisfy the terms and conditions set out by the EU/IMF. Instead, we should seize the opportunity to continue to deliver structural reforms that can lead to long term prosperity, recognising that competition policy is good for Ireland – benefiting consumers and helping to restore Ireland's international reputation. Many sectors continue to engage in special pleading – seeking to maintain restrictions to competition and barriers to entry. The Council support the principle of enhancing competition in all sectors – this was reflected in much of the analysis in the Council's Costs of Doing Business in Ireland 2011 report.
This should be the agenda. A proposal was made that the Minister amalgamate the National Consumer Agency and the Competition Authority. I wonder if the National Competitiveness Council would not be a better fit to drive the kind of agenda about which the Minister has spoken. While I appreciate his determination, progress in these matters has been slower than we had hoped. We must be much more radical than we have been in this area and the Minister's radicalism will be supported on this side. Given the special pleading and regulatory capture reported by the National Competitiveness Council, it is vital that progress is faster.
All of the restrictive practices in electricity generation seem to be incorporated in the price of electricity. This issue was the subject of strong debate at the Kenmare conference two years ago. Who guards the guardians and who regulates the regulators? These are questions the Minister himself asked. Do the regulators get captured by the sector they regulate? Does the relationship become too cosy, as was the case with social partnership for some time? Driving competition will require great energy and force because our natural instinct is to prevent competition whenever we can. Efforts are also made to capture the regulators. The major change in the Dáil and Seanad at the most recent general election indicated we must move away from the type of economy we had and become internationally competitive. I assure the Minister of my support in all his endeavours in that regard. The fault I find with the Bill is that progress is not being made quickly enough. The purpose of the amendment is to speed up the process and, more important, encourage the Minister in his efforts in that regard.
I forgot to respond to Senator Kelly who, in fairness, raised issues which are unrelated to competition law. Revenue is, if one likes, the supreme monopoly. It will be a relief to people that we do not have two Revenue commissions in the State. The Senator raised a dilemma. If the Revenue Commissioners fail to intervene and allow a person to run up debts to the Revenue and others, their actions distort competition and expose people who are trading with the person in question to possible or even escalating losses. The Revenue Commissioners have a duty to collect money on behalf of the State and must be aware that they have primacy in any ultimate wind-up of a business. As their position will always be protected ahead of others, they must be careful to behave in a proper manner. If a business is experiencing a temporary problem, the Revenue will be approached and I am sure it will try to deal with the issue. However, if it were to show forbearance to a business in serious trading difficulties, it could result in others experiencing greater exposure to the business in question than should be permitted. Revenue must ensure fair play between different parties. While this is an area of expertise for the Minister for Finance, the issue the Senator raises is a genuine one.
I do not have sufficient knowledge of pricing practices in the mobile telephone business. However, it is the case that people buy packages that include a telephone, a billing system and the service offered by a specific provider. The telephone per se is merely a physical object and much of its value is determined when it is connected to a specific network. I do not know if this is an issue for investigation by the Competition Authority. The scenario described by the Senator differs considerably from a cartel, which is where a number of agents who should be competing in a market collude to drive up prices. While the Competition Authority is open to dealing with third party complaints, the issue to which the Senator refers is not a cartel.
On Senator Barrett's view that movement should be quicker, it needs to be recognised that the Government has introduced legislation to reform the legal and medical professions and strengthen the Competition Authority. We have also decided to strengthen its enforcement arm and the authority is also undertaking new studies in respect of areas of concern. Significant progress has been made in the course of a number of months. There is, therefore, a much greater level of activism around competition policy.
The Senator raised many public policy issues and asked whether we have a sufficiently competitive environment in areas such as health, bus transport and the energy sector. His question raises much wider issues than simply the powers of the Competition Authority. Progress is being made in this regard. We are reviewing the regulators to ascertain whether the framework within which they operate focuses sufficiently on competition and benchmarking prices against prices elsewhere. Even in this regard, it is necessary to strike a balance. For example, the focus on attracting new entrants to the electricity market probably did not bring down prices in the short term. In some cases, public policy issues arise which make an issue more complex than its competition dimension alone. I concur with the Senator, however, that it is important to ensure the competition dimension comes much more to the fore.
The Competition Authority has commented on waste management and asked whether we have a proper competitive environment in the waste sector. Its view is that changes are needed and its recommendations on the sector need to be taken seriously. While I am content that there is new momentum in this field, it does not mean all the castle walls are falling down before the Competition Authority. Achieving that outcome requires more persuasion. Moreover, it is necessary to balance interests in some of the sectors concerned, including, for instance, wind energy, because public policy issues may arise. While I do not propose to accept the amendment, I commend the Senators on introducing it.
The next Bill from my Department will provide for the merger of the National Consumer Agency and the Competition Authority. The National Competitiveness Council is different. It is serviced by Forfás and it acts in an advisory role across the whole of government. It deals not only with competition issues but also with labour market issues and all sorts of other issues. Its role is different from the regulation of the market, which is the consumer and competition dimension.
I thank the Minister for his sentiments. Dr. Fingleton estimated that restrictive practices were costing every household €2,500 per annum. The international ranking of Ireland for competition policy is 25th, which is way below OECD countries. I hope the Minister's reforms will reduce that €2,500 cost and move Ireland up the rankings. I wish him well in that regard. We have sought to provide assistance and to stress the importance of competition policy. The vested interests have had an undue say in policy. They are the producers rather than the consumers and the sheltered sector rather than the unsheltered sector. That is not the way forward for our economy and we wish the Minister well in his reform programme. I thank the Minister and the Senators who spoke on the Bill.
It has been very good to have the Minister in here and the interest he has taken in this Bill. The fact we proposed an amendment at this Stage recognises the work he has done. He has explained it very well and I really appreciate it.
I would also like to say that there is a competition tonight at 8 o'clock and he is the only Minister who is wearing green. I am delighted to see that.