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
Richard Bruton is putting the finishing touches to an Act that will merge the National Consumer Agency and the Competition Authority, albeit more than four years after it was outlined as a key element of Government policy. Photograph: Alan Betson
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.
PRINT AND BE DAMNED
There is no point in going to all the effort to fix people’s problems if you can’t boast about it, so the CCPC should have a monthly magazine filled with interesting features on how to save money, independent and exhaustive product reviews, stories of how companies have got it wrong and got it right. In addition to the magazine, the CCPC would also use the internet to reach out to people. It would blog, tweet and use Facebook to fix people’s problems and empower people.
SHINE A LIGHT
To their credit, organisations such as the National Consumer Agency and the Competition Authority of Ireland and the European Consumer Centre do publish some interesting surveys, but we want to see more of them. And we want them to be better. We want to be able to go to the CCPC to find out where to get the cheapest televisions and the best-value vacuum cleaners, and we want to see more supermarket price comparisons. Irish people spend more money in supermarkets than in almost anywhere else, with only mortgage payments taking a bigger chunk out of most households’ budgets. So let’s focus on them.
The NCA used to do regular grocery price comparisons in which they would compare a basket of 60 or so items. What was most striking was not the price differences but the price similarities, and if nothing else they revealed the staggering amount of price-matching that was going on. The industry hated these comparisons. Now if Aldi, Dunnes, Tesco, Lidl and SuperValu all hate what you are doing, then you must be doing something right. The NCA stopped these surveys suddenly and unexpectedly. We want them back.
KNOWLEDGE IS POWER
We consumers are often wrong, and we often imagine we have rights we don’t have. The CCPC would publish clear, unambiguous guides on all our consumer rights using all platforms available. We would have easy-to-read guides at the point of sale in all major retailers and our website would be clear, uncluttered, easy to navigate and jam-packed with useful information that would empower and inform consumers.
STAND UP FOR OUR RIGHTS
Our souped-up consumer group would not just represent us in the corridors of power and provide us with all the information and about our rights, it would also be on our side when things got really tough. It would have agents to represent consumers at the Small Claims Court and at hearings held by the Financial Services Ombudsman, it would help us draft correspondence with banks and it would advocate and intercede on our behalf with all the regulators in the land. It would also talk us off the ledge when we are clearly in the wrong and save us the hassle of waging wars we can never win.
POWER TO THE PEOPLE
Not long ago, Pricewatch spoke to the head of the Consumers’ Association of Ireland Dermott Jewell and he expressed surprise there wasn’t a surge in membership of the organisation after the bubble burst. That needs to change and the responsibility for bringing about that change rests with all consumers. If consumers are to have real power we have to flex our muscle. But we’re not great at doing that and we need help. The CCPC would work from the off to build a strong grass-roots organisation that could lobby for influence and seek out better value.
The One Big Switch campaign was started in January and over the course of 12 weeks, got 40,000 people to sign up and used their collective bargaining power to get €80 off the annual cost of electricity for its members. The CCPC would do that for all utilities and for car insurance and health insurance and even groceries. Imagine the collective buying power half a million pumped-up consumers would have? The supermarkets would be paying us to walk through their doors.
NO FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES
Too often quangos look out for quangos or are afraid to step on other people’s toes. The CCPC shouldn’t be like that and it should ruthlessly hold all other State- sponsored consumer groups to account and ensure they represent the best interests of consumers.
WHAT YOU WANT: READERS HAVE THEIR SAY
Last week we asked people on Twitter what they would like to see the CCPC do . Here are some of the responses :
l Remove ridiculous fees for reserving a seat on airplanes leaving this tiny island, especially for wee families. @ladypickett
l Put reliable, honest ppl in charge! @spidermonkeytwo
l Force all vendors selling to the public to include all unavoidable charges and taxes in the first price quoted. @coylemj
l No vested interests can have a say. @TheresaDaly1
l Raise levels of consumer awareness at 2nd/3rd level education so people feel more empowered to take action and protect themselves @peterjlynch86
l Search the world for an honest person. @daly_margaret
l To stop phone operators duping customers into extended contracts. Ban contracts of over six months. @ciaran69
l Marathon bar and Opal Fruits and red Bounty bars reintroduced with immediate effect. @bigjoe_dub
l The ability to issue large, meaningful fines to companies. Also, significant legislative input. @CiaranTannam