Thursday, 31 January 2019
Consumer Protection (Gift Vouchers) Bill 2018: Committee and Remaining Stages
The Minister is more than welcome. I wish to make some general comments that might be useful or helpful. I congratulate the Minister on this important Bill. Until now, the consumer holding, and the business offering, a gift voucher had no clarity about the stopgaps and their respective responsibilities and entitlements. This area falls under various consumer and EU legislative measures and we are awaiting an EU directive to stabilise the matter further, but I appreciate the Minister's initiative. She has taken the bull by the horns and decided to do something here and now. I agree with that.
A couple of issues are worth mentioning. Consumer protection is a particular issue for receivers or liquidators of companies, particularly companies in the retail sector. There could be a couple of hundred or a few thousand gift vouchers in circulation, yet there is no proper record of them. It is often the case that businesses do not keep a full record of whom the salesperson gave a gift voucher to or, if part of it has been cashed in, how much remains outstanding. In a receivership or liquidation, it is difficult to analyse these aspects and establish the true liability. In some cases, the receiver or liquidator will actually have to advertise in newspapers asking any member of the public who has unused gift vouchers to make a claim. In most instances, those claims will be reasonable, realistic, true and fair. However, in some instances that might not be the case, putting the receiver or liquidator in a predicament. I know of at least one case in which the liquidator had to get the support of the courts to close the books.
The consumer is an unsecured creditor, which means that he or she is down the line. I was about to say "last in line", but consumers are second last in line. The last is the owner of the business, which is always the case. When a retail store in Dublin closed its doors a number of years ago, the liquidator from what was then Ernst & Young discovered that a trust fund had been put aside for holders of gift vouchers. That money for voucher holders was protected to some degree. Greater robustness would help support consumers better and facilitate professional practitioners working in this area to codify or allocate particular costs to vouchers.
I do not have much time to get into the related issue of regulated and unregulated, but I support the five-year period. If someone redeems part of a voucher or tops it up, does the five-year period start again? The answer seems to be "No", so it is good to know that.
I would like to make a few more comments, but I will leave it at that. I thank the Minister.
I thank Members for their support for the Bill. As I stated on Second Stage last week, the Bill deals with an issue of considerable importance for consumers and businesses. Most of us have given or received a gift voucher at some stage. A great many retailers and service providers in all parts of the country issue vouchers and view them as an important element of their business. Therefore, it is vital that consumers who buy or receive vouchers are adequately protected from unfair practices.
The Bill provides a number of necessary protections in a fair and balanced way. Although no amendments have been tabled by Senators, a number made some interesting points during our debates last week and today. I have invited Senators to make me aware of unfair practices relating to gift vouchers that are not addressed in the Bill. I take Senator Ó Céidigh's point about what happens in the event of a company going into receivership or liquidation. While I do not believe I can address it in this Bill, I will examine the matter. I want to extend the expiry date for gift vouchers to a minimum of five years, but I would still urge consumers to cash those gift vouchers instead of holding onto them. They should use them. There are no guarantees that the company will still be in business when someone wants to use a voucher. That is the risk of not cashing vouchers. If I can introduce further amendments that protect the best interests of consumers, I will consider doing so.
I thank Members for their co-operation and look forward to bringing the Bill through the Dáil.