Watchdog unleashed: how to give the new consumer body teeth

The promised Competition and Consumer Protection Commission should have powers to truly improve the lot of consumers. Here are eight suggestions

Mon, Mar 31, 2014, 14:37

On the surface, Irish consumers appear to be well-served by representative groups, with a National Consumer Agency, a Consumers’ Association and a European Consumer Centre all charged with looking after our best interests. There is also a Small Claims Court, a Financial Services Ombudsman, a communications watchdog – and Joe Duffy.

These powers often disappoint, however, and many consumers who contact Pricewatch do so because they feel they have been let down by the groups, which are funded – at a cost of many millions of euro – by the taxpayer.

To be fair, these groups are often not to blame for their own failings, as they are hamstrung by legislation or funding problems and rendered toothless by politicians.

But maybe a new dawn is breaking. The Minister for Enterprise, Richard Bruton, is putting the finishing touches to a Consumer and Competition Act, which will merge the National Consumer Agency and the Competition Authority, albeit more than four years after it was first outlined as a key element of Government policy.

We have been assured the new body will have real powers. While the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC) might sound like a relic of Cold War Europe, we have been promised it will be a strong consumer watchdog with sharp teeth. It will carry out criminal investigations and prosecute price-fixing cartels, will issue on-the-spot fines to retailers who fail to display the correct prices, and will name and shame those who fail to comply with consumer law.

Forgive us for raising a sceptical eyebrow, but we have been here before. It is less than seven years since the National Consumer Agency was set up, and consumers were promised a retailing Robocop that would right wrongs and bring recalcitrant retailers to heel. It never happened.

But rather than cast aspersions, let us cast ideas. Here are a few things the Minister could do to make a revamped consumer agency better.

FIGHT THE POWER

One of the most frequent complaints we get about consumer agencies is that they can’t or won’t investigate and resolve complaints in an expeditious manner on behalf of individual consumers. So let’s change that. If The Irish Times – or Joe Duffy or Ray D’Arcy – can contact Vodafone or Sky TV or Tesco when they let people down or mess them around, why can’t a consumer body with funding of almost €10 million a year do the same? Our dream consumer body – let’s call it the Crack Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC) so Bruton won’t have to change his acronym – would have people employed specifically to contact businesses on behalf of consumers. And they should be doing it every day.

SAY THEIR NAME

Can we let you in on a little secret? Newspapers, radio stations and television programmes can bring big business to heel not because of any magical powers we possess, but because big businesses hate being publicly identified as useless. So the new consumer agency should identify companies who let consumers down. And they should out them every week. It is simple to do. You get the complaint, you call the alleged rogue trader and give them a chance to resolve the situation, and then you highlight what they have done – or not done – to improve the consumer’s lot. If the CCPC needs any numbers of repeat offenders, we would be happy to supply them. We have them on speed dial.

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