From horsemeat to Ryanair’s rethink: an eventful year for consumers

Store closures, property tax, banking charges, Michael O’Leary’s act of contrition, two Ulster Bank system failures, the arrears crisis: consumers had plenty to keep them exercised in 2013

Mon, Dec 30, 2013, 01:00

JANUARY


l The year started with confirmation, of sorts, of something sensible people have known since cars first took to the roads: men reckon they’re better drivers than women, even though they’re three times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash. The AA surveyed thousands of its members and found that 30 per cent of men described their driving as “well above average”, compared with 17 per cent of women.
l Another survey reported that Aldi was the most loved supermarket in Ireland, with 43 per cent of its customers telling Checkout magazine there was “nowhere else they would prefer to shop”.
l The loyalty of health-insurance customers was tested when the VHI rolled out a 6 per cent price increase, its fifth hike in two years.
l HMV closed its stores as it sought court protection from creditors. About 300 staff lost their jobs, while thousands of consumers were left with worthless vouchers. Later in the year, some of the shops would re-open and the company would start honouring some of the vouchers.
l And then there were the horses. In the middle of the month, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland announced it had found traces of horse DNA in frozen “beef” burgers being sold by Tesco and Aldi. The burgers were made at plants in the Republic.



FEBRUARY

l Findus confirmed some of its products contained horse DNA. Then Ikea withdrew its meatballs. Companies from Poland, Romania, Cyprus, France and the Netherlands were all implicated.
l Laya increased the cost of its health insurance by up to 16.5 per cent, blaming Government policy for driving premiums higher.
l Ulster Bank apologised to more than a thousand customers facing shortfalls on their mortgage repayments of up to €30,000 after it failed to put them on the correct mortgage repayment schedules for as long as four years.
l CSO figures showed property prices in Dublin increasing in January but falling elsewhere.


MARCH

l Sales of frozen burgers fell by 42 per cent across the State’s leading supermarkets. Sales of famine potatoes soared, however, as the Lumper variety, not seen here for 170 years, appeared on the shelves of M&S after being recultivated.
l Weeks before the Insolvency Service of Ireland was due to begin operating, scare stories appeared about how much money people would be expected to live on if they became insolvent. Cars would have to be sold, private health insurance abandoned and Sky Sports cancelled. There were hints that childcare would not be allowed under the new regime.
l The National Consumer Agency appointed Karen O’Leary as chief executive. Soon afterwards, she released a report suggesting consumers were being charged up to three times more for identical prescription drugs in some pharmacies than in others. The NCA found a pharmacy in Wexford was charging more than €49 for an anti-reflux drug that could be bought in Dublin for just over €16.
l The Government announced the budget was being brought forward to October 15th.


APRIL

l A small island-hopping airline in Samoa became the first in the world to start charging passengers based on their weight.
l The minimum-income guidelines for people entering the State’s new insolvency process were published. A single adult with no car was allowed expenditure of €898.96 over any mortgage or rent payments. An allowance of €204.88 was made for each child of primary school-going age.



MAY

l The European Central Bank cut its interest rate by a quarter point to a record low of 0.5 per cent, knocking about €50 off the average tracker mortgage holder’s repayments. Variable rate mortgage holders were not so lucky.
l The Revenue Commissioners said the owners of more than 1.53 million homes filed property tax returns, a compliance rate of more than 80 per cent.



JUNE

l Bank of Ireland increased its charges again and was criticised for not making allowances for visually impaired people under its new fee structure. Under the rules, current account holders were charged 40 cent each time they engage in any transaction over the counter in a Bank of Ireland branch.
l The mortgage arrears crisis worsened. Some 12.3 per cent of mortgages were in arrears of more than 90 days in the first quarter.
l Red C has tracked consumer sentiment since 2008, and its June missive found that three-quarters of those polled believed the economy would not get worse over the next six months, while a third said economic circumstances would improve by the end of the year.
l A call was made for schools to be banned from insisting students wear expensive crested uniforms. An Oireachtas committee also called for workbooks to be outlawed and voluntary contributions “greatly discouraged, if not completely prohibited”.
l Three Mobile announced it was buying O2 for close to a billion euro. Within minutes, its network suffered a major collapse, leaving hundreds of thousands of customers unable to make calls, send text messages or access data. It blamed a third-party provider for the outage.
l AIB joined Bank of Ireland in upping its charges.
l A much-anticipated code of conduct on mortgage arrears was published by the Central Bank, making big changes to the existing code. A limit of three unsolicited contacts a month was removed and replaced with a requirement that lenders ensure communications are “proportionate and not excessive”. For the first time, banks were allowed make unsolicited visits to the home of a borrower in arrears.



JULY

l An Allsop Space property auction in Dublin’s Shelbourne Hotel was cancelled following a protest staged by a number of groups angry at the sale of family homes repossessed by banks, even though Allsop does not sell repossessed family homes. A high point of the day came when a protester evoked the memory of “Constant Markievicz”, a “man” who had given his life for Irish freedom in the nearby St Stephen’s Green.
l Clery’s closed after it incurred “significant water damage” during heavy rainfall and thunderstorms.



AUGUST

l It emerged that Irish mobile phone users are asked to pay five times more to make domestic phone calls than people living in the Baltic region. The European Commission described the price discrepancy as inexplicable.
l The curtain fell on Superquinn after Supervalu announced its plan to rebrand all the former’s outlets under its own name. Many people were concerned the move would spell the end of the Superquinn sausage, but Supervalu was at pains to reassure worried customers that the sausage survive. This newspaper revealed that the Superquinn sausage had not been made by Superquinn for almost a decade, but by the Larry Goodman-owned ABP Meats.



SEPTEMBER

l Almost half of consumers have never bothered comparing prices to see if they can get utilities such as gas and electricity for less by switching service providers, the NCA reported. It found that supermarket shoppers were most likely to switch allegiances to save money, but a “surprising” number of people are reluctant to switch despite the fact they could save more than €1,000 a year across a range of services.
l The Minister for Finance Michael Noonan defended the new Insolvency Service of Ireland’s public register, which will identify everyone who uses it. He was speaking as the service started accepting debt applications. Then it had to deny claims that insolvent hospital consultants, accountants or solicitors would be allowed to retain ownership of “trophy homes” they can’t afford because of their professional status. It issued the statement after accountant Jim Stafford went on Morning Ireland and said Personal Insolvency Practitioners would be given leeway to assess the “type of house that might be needed for a professional person . . . as opposed to a house that’s needed by someone who is in the PAYE sector”. He subsequently said he had been clumsy with his choice of words.
l Fairy Liquid’s bold claims about lasting much longer than its rivals was proved to be more than just a fairy tale. Persil complained to the Advertising Standards Authority over Fairy’s persistent claims that its washing-up liquid lasted twice as long as its main rival. Scientists then proved the claim was true.
l Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary admitted the customer-care culture at his airline was – possibly – “abrupt”. Speaking at the company’s agm he said the airline would “try to eliminate things that unnecessarily piss people off” and would stop fining customers whose carry-on baggage exceeds minimum sizes by a matter of millimetres. “A lot of those customer services elements don’t cost a lot of money,” he told gathered shareholders. “It’s something we are committed to addressing over the coming year.”



OCTOBER

l Excise duty on a standard bottle of wine increased by 50 cent in the Budget. It followed a €1 hike in the previous budget. Michael Noonan’s budget also targeted the young and unemployed, the pregnant, the elderly and the recently bereaved.
l An Oireachtas committee said it wanted to stop major retailers using the Republic as a secret “honey pot” by forcing them to reveal how much money they made here. The Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine also proposed a ban on below-cost selling of staples such as bread and milk and said that supermarket chains which “bully” suppliers should face heavy penalties.
l The Government outlined measures it planned to take to tackle alcohol abuse. It said it would introduced a minimum pricing system and restrict in-store displays, although it went back on a commitment to include a prohibition on alcohol companies sponsoring sporting events.
l Revenue was inundated with queries after almost one million letters were issued giving payment deadlines for the 2014 Local Property Tax. Confusion reigned as people struggled with different deadlines depending on payment methods. Those who chose to pay with a credit or debit card had payment deducted immediately due to “the nature of banking and credit card systems”.


NOVEMBER

l More than 1.5 million people had personal information compromised by a security breach at Loyaltybuild, a Co Clare- based company which manages customer loyalty schemes across Europe. Supervalu and Axa Insurance were the worst hit companies in the Republic.
l It emerged that thousands of homeowners were due refunds on their local property tax due to an unclear clause in the legislation. It was originally intended to give an exemption to some first-time buyers on second-hand houses up to 2016, but read literally, it appeared as if the exemption benefitted all buyers and not just first-timers.
l In a late-night sitting, the High Court, as a “matter of urgency”, agreed to the transfer of all the loans and savings of Newbridge Credit Union to Permanent TSB. The regulator said the credit union’s lending practices differed from what was typical of the sector, with loan sizes that were many times the average.
l WalMart came under fire after a store in Ohio launched a campaign looking for food donations for its own employees in order to help them enjoy Thanksgiving. Walmart is the biggest retailer in the world with recorded profits of $15.7 billion last year.
l Clerys reopened for the first time since it was swamped by the great deluge during the summer.
l Xtra-vision was forced into a climbdown 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 widely anticipated console were angry when it became clear that the retailer would only honour their “pre-orders” if they also bought games. After a social media storm blew up, the company reversed its position and expressed regret at “any upset or inconvenience that may have been caused to customers”.
l One in four people entering insolvency negotiations with creditors have voluntary surrendered their homes, Grant Thornton Debt Solutions said.
l Property prices continued to climb and, according to the CSO, there was a nationwide increase of more than 6 per cent recorded. Dublin property prices saw a bounce of 15 per cent over the 12 months to the end of October.
l The numbers in mortgage arrears fell, and while the decrease was less than 1 per cent it marked the first time an upward trend had been reversed since the property market collapsed.



DECEMBER

l More than €5 million worth of smartphones were stolen from people who have been careless with their handsets since last Christmas, figures from the Garda revealed. The numbers of phone thefts has climbed dramatically since 2011 and more than 1,000 people are now falling victim to the crime every month.
l Ulster Bank was forced to apologise again after thousands of its customers were left without access to funds following a serious system breakdown, which also affected its parent bank in the UK. The problem was fixed within 12 hours but the following day the head of Ulster Bank’s parent bank RBS, Ross McEwan, admitted it had underinvested in its systems for decades and went on to issue an apology for the “unacceptable” crash. “I will be outlining plans in the New Year for making RBS the bank that our customers and the UK need it to be. This will include an outline of where we intend to invest for the future.”
l It emerged that less than half of 1 per cent of those in mortgage arrears had used an independent financial advice service set up by the Government last year to tackle the crisis. Under the system, lenders were told to pay €250 to a professional of a borrower’s choice to cover the cost of advice. Just 200 invoices had been sent to lenders by accountants since the service began in June.

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