Prices and Promises

SEVEN months after the Dail passed tough truth-in-advertising legislation creating a consumer affairs office, a director has not yet been appointed and no action has been taken against offenders of that law.
Members of Fine Gael and the Consumers Association have charged the government with "a lack of committment" to the Consumer Information Act, under which the office is established.

The Act became law February 22, 1978, three years after it was first introduced, .. but the £10,000 a year civil service position in the Department of Industry, Commmerce, and Energy wasn't advertised until August 16. It may be four more months before the Director for the Office of Connsumer Affairs reports to work.

No one in the Department was willing to explain the time lapse and, in fact, the only official comment was that the appointment was "proceeding with all posssible speed."

The charge against the government was made by Fine Gael Secretary Peter Prenndergast, TD Paddy O'Toole, and Joan Morrison, former chairperson of the Connsumers Association and member of the National Consumer Advisory Council. O'Toole, who is also a member of NCAC and who saw the Act through committee, said, "I was given to understand by (Minister for State Maire Geoghan) Quinn that a director would be appointed immediately and no way would there be a six month delay."

Prendergast said that the time between the bill's passage and the appearance of the advertisement for the post was "excepptionally long."

The Consumer Information Act makes it an offence for a seller to give a misleadding description of his goods or services. A piece of dishware advertised as unbreakkable must, within reason, be indestructtable. A coat said to be reduced from £50 to £30 must have sold at some time for £50.

The director of a consumer affairs has the power under the law to enforce the Act's regulations by prosecuting offenders for fines up to £10,000 or by imprisionnment.

So far, no one has been prosecuted under the law, although the commerce division has received complaints and investigated some of them, said Catherine Hallahan, an executive in the commerce division who handles the complaints.

The Act widens the definition of false description that existed under the Merrchandise Marks Act and includes advertissing descriptions under the law.

Even before the Consumer Information Act became law, the commerce division had received complaints about misleading trade descriptions but only some were illegal under the Merchandise Marks Act.

Most of the recent callers to the commmerce division were not aware of the new Act when they made complaints about misleading trade descriptions. It is part of the director's job to educate the public, presumably by publishing informative booklets, about their newly-acquired connsumer rights.

There have been recent advertisements in national newspapers which would have been likely candidates for investigation if the office of consumer affairs was operatting. One such advertisement was for Superquinns supermarket. It displayed a large number of food items and said they would be sold at cost. The ad neither gave the original nor the cost price Not only did the ad not provide sufficient informaation to the consumer as required under the Act, but if the goods were not at cost price in all of the store's branches, action could also be taken.

While there is no official explanation for the delay in appointing a consumer affairs director, O'Toole said he thought certain grey areas of the Act were responsible for holding things up.

The Act brings the existing price inspectors and weights and measures inspectors under the consumer affairs director. A problem arises because the weights and measures inspectors are often members of the gardai and part of the Department of Justice. ":Would they be put back on normal garda duty?" asked O'Toole.

O'Toole said he disagreed with the director becoming a civil servant. "A nonnindependent is part of the machine, under the control of the department headed by politicians. He loses credibility."

Prendergast said that he thought it would be difficult for a civil servant to prosecute semi-state and state institutions.

"All this should have been clarified before. The duties of the office should have been spelled out in detail," O'Toole said.

O'Toole and Prendergast noted that no money had been allocated for consumer affairs in the budget estimate published in January. They then speculated that the government is not prepared to allocate money this year. A supplementary budget estimate, which is not unusual, must be approved by the Dail before the office can get going.

When Cathleen Gannon, a commerce division employee was asked how much money wouid be available to the consumer affairs office, she replied that it was "classsified information."

Morrison said Irish consumers are worst off in the EEC except for the Italians. The British government, she added, passed legislation similar to the Consumer Information Act in 1968.

The Consumer Association is not pleased by the reception of the Consumer Information Act. Wednesday, October 14, it holds a meeting in Sligo during which Maire Geoghan Quinn from the Departtment of Industry, Commerce, and Energy, will speak. The Association will be questioning her on why there has been such a long delay implementing the Act.