Consumer watchdog: ‘It doesn’t help that a lot of the work we do isn’t sexy’

The National Consumer Agency might not be able to bring a rogue trader to heel easily, but the body’s chief executive, Karen O’Leary, says it’s a nimble organisation that can achieve real results

Karen O’Leary of the National Consumer Agency

Karen O’Leary of the National Consumer Agency

Mon, Jan 6, 2014, 01:00

The biggest problems the National Consumer Agency (NCA) faces is that it can’t do what most people think it does.

The agency, which has been charged with protecting Irish consumers for more than six years, is not some class of souped-up Joe Duffy Show, able to right a wrong with a single phone call. And it does not have the statutory authority to bring rogue traders to heel whenever it wishes.

While it is understaffed and underfunded, it still plays a key role in highlighting the rights consumers have and ways they can save money. Its multiple shopping surveys have exposed the rip-off prices some retailers and service providers have charged us and although it could do more to name and shame the guiltiest parties at least it is doing something.

Its chief executive, Karen O’Leary, has been in her job for less than a year and is keenly aware of some of her agency’s limitations. “We are the voice of consumers, but it doesn’t help that a lot of the work we do isn’t sexy or newsworthy,” she says.

“Consumers are interested in what we do mainly when they have a problem and they need help. If someone has an issue which is very specific, then it can be frustrating for them when we are not in a position to intervene. If someone rings us with a complaint about a broken washing machine and how it is being handled by a retailer, we have no enforcement powers. In that case our role is to provide them with information,” she explains.

Information provision is a big part of its job: the agency handled about 55,000 calls and email contacts last year as well as conducting multiple surveys and managing websites aimed at empowering consumers to make better choices.

But when can the NCA actually help people in real time? “When it goes beyond a single issue and turns into a practice,” says O’Leary. All told, about 5 per cent of the calls made to the agency are flagged by its staff on the basis that they highlight issues that are potentially widespread across a particular sector or retailer.

She cites a recent case involving Xtra- vision. It was forced into a climbdown last November after a row broke out over its refusal to sell the Xbox One games console unless customers also bought an additional computer game at a cost of at least €50. People who placed orders for the console were furious, and, after a social media storm blew up, the NCA intervened.

Enforcement route
“When it came to Xtra-vision we had two choices,” O’Leary explains. “We could have gone down the enforcement route or tried to get them to fix it there and then, before Christmas. It would not have been very helpful to anyone if we had taken the enforcement route because we would still have been talking about it well into the new year, so instead we went to them and expressed our view: that their

insistence that people buy games before they could get the console was either misleading because the company had changed the goalposts, or else it was a simple breach of contract.”

The company reversed its position, expressing regret at “any upset or inconvenience that may have been caused to customers”.

The NCA hasn’t been with us for very long. In 2005 the then government commissioned a Consumer Strategy Report as unease mounted at the cavalier manner in which service providers and retailers were treating their customers. The report made for grim reading. It found that Irish consumers were lazy, ripped off, unwilling to complain and confused. We knew little about our rights and found the legislative protections complex and confusing. There was also an absence of consumer advocacy. The well-meaning Office of the Director of Consumer Affairs did little more than launch a few prosecutions against individual retailers and publicans it found guilty of overcharging each year.

So the government established the NCA and gave it new powers of investigation and enforcement. Its chief executive was Ann Fitzgerald, and not long after taking office she criticised the State for its failure to consult with, inform or advocate on behalf of the consumer, and described the power of vested interests in preventing consumers getting a fair deal as “frightening”. The NCA worked out that the cost to the economy of passive consumers and bad services was €840 million a year.

Compared to that, the cost of funding the NCA was a pittance. It gets an annual grant of €5.2 million from the Department of Enterprise and a €2.8 million levy charged to the financial services industry for its personal finance information and education functions.

The agency could probably do with more cash. It was still finding its feet when the economy imploded. Plans to relocate to Cork were shelved, and the ban on public sector recruitment meant its growth was stymied. In 2008 it was proposed that it merge with the Competition Authority, a process that has moved at a glacial pace ever since.

O’Leary replaced Fitzgerald last spring, and she quickly realised that the agency faced “huge challenges”, but she wants to highlight positives. “One of the problems for the NCA was that when the downturn hit we were in start-up mode and never got to full size, but that made people tougher and smarter.” She says another plus is that NCA staff were never embedded or institutionalised, and so could respond faster to a changed environment

Merger with Competition Authority
The NCA has been set to merge with the Competition Authority for five years,

but that has yet to materialise. “Everything got pushed down the list when the troika came, so it hasn’t happened yet,” says O’Leary. She hopes the move will gather pace early this year.

While funding was a problem for the NCA from the start, as the recession deepened it had to find ways to cut back. In recent months it has had to scale back on the amount of TV adverts. “That is starting to hit awareness levels,” says O’Leary.

And an absence of awareness is one of the great weaknesses Irish consumers have. “Sometimes people are not very good at complaining and in many cases the person answering the phone [at a company] is possibly the least well- informed person in the organisation and on the lowest wages,” says O’Leary .

Over recent years the NCA has charted big changes in thinking. We are now more thrifty, willing to complain and better money managers. The passivity that was once our hallmark has gone. “Because of the shock of the crash, I don’t think people will go back to where they were. We are talking about a generation of much more conscious spenders who will not allow themselves to get into problems with debt and will not overspend.”

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