Monday 31st March 2014
Competition Bill paves the way for a Irish consumer watchdog
Minister for Communications will have responsibility for adjudging if media mergers are in public interest
A substantial reform of consumer and competition laws will pave the way for a powerful new watchdog in the area, stiff rules to prevent “hello money” practices in supermarkets, and a new role for the Minister for Communications in deciding if media mergers are in the public interest.
Minister for Jobs Richard Bruton on Monday published the long-awaited Competition and Consumer Protection Bill.
One of three major elements in the Bill is the merging of the National Consumer Agency and the Competition Authority as part of what has been dubbed the Government’s “quango cull” programme.
While the savings of about €170,000 per annum are relatively nominal, Mr Bruton has asserted the new combined agency will be a “watchdog with real teeth”.
The new body will be headed by Isolde Goggin of the Competition Authority and will comprise between three and seven members, acting in a collegiate manner. The Bill provides for increased powers when investigating serious offences in such areas as cartels and price- fixing.
Among the new powers will be court orders compelling people with relevant information to provide information or answer questions; a more effective use of detention periods; and more efficient ways of ensuring documents are produced.
In relation to the grocery trade, Mr Bruton opted for a system of regulations backed by legislation.While the regulations have yet to be drawn up, the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation said yesterday they would be informed by the substantive points that will be made in the Dáil and Seanad during the debate on the legislation.
Media mergers is the third major area of the Bill. The proposed laws will incorporate the majority of the recommendations of the Advisory Group on Media Mergers (the Sreenan report). This new law will therefore contain a statutory definition of media plurality (referring both to ownership and content).
The transfer of the powers in relation to media mergers to the Minister for Communications will give the incumbent minister an oversight role over both broadcast and print media for the first time, as well as other new forms of media, including internet and social media.
However, the three-step test for a media merger will remain the same. The new Competition and Consumer Protection Commission will still determine if a merger has taken place and if it should be allowed go ahead on competition grounds.
Following the determination by the Commission, the Minister will then decide on whether it should be allowed go ahead on grounds of the public interest. He can request the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland to investigate the merger and report back to the Minister within 80 working days. The Minister will then make the ultimate decision.
There is also a new obligation on parties to a media merger to provide full information to the Minister on all circumstances that might impair media plurality in the State.
Penalties for Irish property tax late payments scramble as deadline hits near
Penalties from Revenue are on the way for anyone who fails to meet tonight’s property tax deadline.
The compliance rate is 88%, but a scramble is expected ahead of the midnight cut-off.
A total of €6m was collected in a 48-hour period over Friday and Saturday.
Homeowners have also been settling their household charge arrears, with some 2,000 payments totalling €4m made in the last couple of days alone.
Any property owner who ignores tonight’s deadline faces tough penalties, including the prospect of being taken to court.
“Customers have all day to pay,” a Revenue spokeswoman told the Herald.
“Interest will kick in immediately when the deadline is passed at midnight and will be followed by tougher penalties.”
According to Revenue, the compliance rate last year reached 93%, while 88% have settled their 2014 bills.
The surge in late payments has also been seen in relation to the household charge.
“In respect of arrears of the 2012 household charge, we’ve received 2,000 payments in the last couple of days and have collected €4m in total in arrears of the household charge since we took over its collection,” the spokeswoman added.
However, around 400,000 homeowners have yet to settle liabilities relating to the household charge, which was increased to €200 last year.
The bill, initially set at €100, will reach €213 by the end of April after interest is added.
People have been warned that if they fail to pay, they face the prospect of having the sum deducted from their wages or occupational pensions, with interest charged at a rate of 0.0219% per day. Enforcement action could follow.
The tough penalties will also focus on those who deliberately under-valued their home or falsely claimed an exemption.
More than 2,000 property owners have already admitted to under-declaring the value of their houses since November.
It was reported yesterday that Revenue significantly under-estimated the number of homeowners who would nominate their properties in the lowest valuation band of €100,000 or less. Some 413,000 homeowners chose this band – far more than the 246,000 Revenue predicted.
Liver disease is only one of Ireland’s top five killers on the increase
Liver disease is now the only one of Ireland’s top five killers that is showing an alarming level of increase.
The revelation came amid warnings that liver disease rates are on course to quadruple in Ireland between 1995 and 2015.
Experts fear the increase is linked to spiralling levels of obesity in Irish society, an increasingly fat-rich diet, heavy alcohol consumption and delays in seeking treatment.
Alarmingly, the greatest level of increase is among 15-to-34-year-olds, who historically have the lowest rates of liver disease.
Irish doctors now fear that the country will mirror Britain, where liver disease is now the only one of the top five ‘killers’ – stroke, cancer, heart disease, lung disease and liver disease – that is increasing year-on-year.
Mater Hospital liver expert Dr Stephen Stewart said he was shocked when he returned to Ireland in 2010, having worked overseas for a decade, at the increase in the number of liver disease cases.
“The biggest worry is that in Ireland, England and Scotland, mortality rates from cirrhosis of the liver are increasing at a significant rate, while in countries like France the mortality rate is falling steadily,” he said.
The Royal College of Physicians of Ireland (RCPI) warned that the Government must take action to tackle the problem.
The RCPI has proposed a range of measures including a minimum alcohol pricing strategy and tougher controls on the availability of alcohol.
Their call has been backed by Alcohol Action Ireland, which warned that Ireland faces a multi-million-euro future health crisis unless action is taken now.
Updated Hospital In-Patient Enquiry (HIPE) data on liver disease rates won’t be available until later this year – but previous data showed shocking increases of up to 300pc.
The highest increases were recorded in liver disease linked to excessive alcohol consumption, which, between 1995 and 2007, soared by a startling 190pc, from 28.3 people per 100,000 adults to 82.2 people per 100,000.
However, the overall increase in liver disease from all causes such as alcohol, diet and infection (hepatitis) was close to 300pc.
That study also found that liver disease rates among the youngest age groups recorded the greatest levels of increase.
Among 15-to-34-year-olds the rate of disease spiralled by 247pc, while among 35-to-49 year-olds, it rose by 224pc.
Experts are worried that with 18-to-29-year-olds now having Ireland’s highest weekly alcohol consumption rate, the Health Service Executive (HSE) faces an epidemic of liver diseases cases over the next 20 years.
15,776 Irish children waiting for speech and language problem assessment
Altogether,1639 children waited for more than a year for their initial assessment of speech and language problems.
There were 15,776 children last December who had been waiting for speech and language assessment across the country.
They were waiting months for an initial assessment from a HSE speech and language therapist.
Fianna Fáil’s Spokesperson on Disability, Mental Health and Special Needs Colm Keaveney (Above right picture) released the figures, which show that 1,639 children waited for more than a year for an initial assessment of speech and language problems.
HSE: Colm Keaveney described the figures as “further evidence that the HSE’s service for the basic assessment and treatment of children with disabilities is grossly inadequate”.
He said he believes the situation “makes a complete mockery of the whole concept of ‘early intervention”.
Not only are the waiting lists in Dublin much higher than other parts of the country, the figures actually mask the true extent of the problem as the HSE has in fact closed its Dublin waiting lists to all new applicants since June 2012.
He said he brought the figures to the attention of Health Minister Dr James Reilly a month and a half ago.
In February of this year, children’s charity Barnardos said that gaps in HSE early intervention supports for children with speech and language problems are putting their futures at risk.
Figures also released to Keaveney showed that there are a total of 58 early intervention teams dealing with 6,399 children across the country.
There are 11 HSE areas that have no teams at all.
How to protect Birds from a harsh & deadly spring
Ground nesting species such as the wood thrush (above left) are vulnerable to domesticated cats.
Spring is a deadly time for birds, according to George Fenwick, president of the American Bird Conservancy (ABC). He said scientists estimate that 300 million to 1 billion birds die each year from collisions with buildings, many during arduous migrations in unfamiliar environments.
Another 10 million die or so die annually from encounters with communication towers and wind turbines, and up to 6 million may die each day from attacks by cats left outdoors. These deaths occur year-round, but many occur during spring and fall migration, Fenwick said.
One in five Americans engage in bird watching,
The ABC provided some tips on how you can help save the birds this spring:
- Keep your cat indoors. This is best for your cat as well as for the birds, as indoor cats live an average of three to seven times longer. Cats are responsible for an estimated 2.4 billion bird deaths annually. In the spring, young birds or nestlings often end up on the ground, attracting the fatal attention of a nearby cat. Ground nesting species that are especially vulnerable include killdeer and wood thrush, but all baby birds, from ducks to warblers, will be on the ground for a critical period of time.
- Prevent birds from hitting your windows. You can reduce this problem at home by applying a variety of window treatments. For example, bird tape is a proven solution that is inexpensive and long-lasting. Birds most prone to fatal collisions at home windows or glass doors include the ruby-throated hummingbird and wood thrush.
- Eliminate pesticides from your yard. Even those pesticides that aren’t directly toxic to birds can pollute waterways and reduce insects that birds rely on for food. For rodent control, seal cracks, remove food sources, and use snap and electric traps rather than rodenticides, which can poison raptors such as hawks and owls and their young. Also, be sure not to garden with neonicotinoid-coated seeds, or neonics, which are lethal to songbirds as well as to bees and other invertebrates.
- Create habitat using native plants. When you garden with plants that evolved locally, you supply native insects and their larvae with food, which in turn are an irreplaceable food source provided by birds to their nestlings. Yards both large and small can benefit birds and other wildlife. Create a diverse landscape by planting native grasses, flowers and shrubs that attract birds. You will be rewarded by their beauty and song, and will have fewer insect pests as a result.
- Reduce your carbon footprint. While all forms of energy use impact birds, small individual actions can add up and make a difference. Use a hand-pushed or electric lawnmower, carpool, and use low-energy bulbs and Energy Star appliances. Less energy used means less habitat destroyed for energy production.
- Donate old bird-watching equipment. Binoculars and spotting scopes will be appreciated by local bird watching groups — they can get them to schools or biologists in other countries who may not have the resources they need. More people studying birds means more voices for bird conservation.
- Keep bird feeders and bird baths clean. If you feed the birds, make sure you aren’t accidentally allowing the spread of disease. Disinfect feeders and baths, and change water regularly or use a drip system to prevent mosquitoes from breeding.
- “Protecting and helping birds is not only the right thing to do,” Fenwick said, “it is also good for the economy and the future of our environment. Birds are invaluable as controllers of insect pests, as pollinators of crops, and as dispersers of native plant seeds. They also generate tremendous economic revenues through the pastimes of bird feeding and bird watching.”