Is this a new era of consumer protection or just more of the same?
Observers could be forgiven for thinking we have all been here before
The decision to merge the NCA with the Competition Authority is is not even the current Government’s policy – it was announced in a budget speech by the late Brian Lenihan almost five years ago.
While consumers were promised a “watchdog with real teeth” by Minister for Jobs Richard Bruton as he published details of the long-awaited Competition and Consumer Protection Bill yesterday, observers could be forgiven for thinking we have all been here before. And not that long ago.
In 2007 Irish consumer law was overhauled with a view to empowering people to insist on value for money and high standards of service, to challenge inappropriate commercial practices and to assert their statutory rights.
The National Consumer Agency (NCA) was set up and the Groceries Order was confined to the dustbin of history. Had it delivered on its promise, Bruton’s Bill would, most likely, have been unne cessary. But clearly it did not.
So what is different this time? The NCA is to merge with the Competition Authority but this is not a new policy. It is not even the current Government’s policy – it was announced in a budget speech by the late Brian Lenihan almost five years ago.
One area where consumers could have seen real change was in the grocery sector. Ahead of the Bill being published, there was much talk of a code of practice, either statutory or voluntary. This has been ruled out in favour of a system of regulations, backed by legislation.
But the nature of these regu- lations remains a mystery as they have yet to be drawn up. There is speculation they will target such practices as the unilateral changing of a supermarket chain’s contracts with suppliers and ban “hello money” to ensure prod- ucts are stocked on shelves.
Such changes would be welcome but the State’s leading retailers are too long in the game to not be able to figure out ways to put pressure on suppliers. In the absence of a transparent retail sector, it seems likely they will move swiftly to protect their bottom lines.
While a weary cynicism may be understandable, it is possible that a new era of consumer protection will be ushered in. But in the absence of a significant increase in funding for areas where consumers interact with businesses and a greater level of political will, meaningful change may be some way off.