Agency can make the consumer a force to be reckoned with

 

OPINION:Legislation grants the NCA the power to act across a range of issues on consumers' behalf, writes Ann Fitzgerald 

MICHAEL CASEY, in his article in The Irish Timeson Wednesday, allowed his frustration with aspects of Dublin Bus's service to distort his perceptions of the National Consumer Agency (NCA) and its work.

He was dissatisfied with the agency's response when he complained about Dublin Bus services. He wrote that new consumer legislation and the agency were a "charade".

The Consumer Protection Act, enacted in May 2007, is the most comprehensive and far-reaching consumer legislation ever introduced in Ireland and has set out a platform to give Irish consumers a real voice.

Under the Act, the agency has been given the power to enforce legislation and advocate and act on behalf of consumers across a range of issues - one of which is to prosecute traders who are deliberately engaged in misleading commercial practices.

Numerous areas of consumer detriment exist in Irish society and the agency must prioritise those areas that affect consumers most.

Since coming on to the statute books just over a year ago, the agency has engaged in a wide range of issues that impact on consumers in a variety of sectors. We are not afraid of challenging the status quo in any sector, monopoly or otherwise. Not least the grocery sector where, through comprehensive surveys by the agency, the issue of the lack of real competition between our largest supermarkets has been highlighted and consumers have been given information that is enabling them to drive competition by voting with their wallets and their feet.

We identified the very real problems faced by many people who are now living in apartments and multi-unit developments where there is a management company. Instead of waiting for legislation to come through to govern the sector, the agency drew together the stakeholders in the area to put in place measures and guidelines to help and inform consumers of their rights and responsibilities when purchasing an apartment, which have been very well-received by consumers.

We have also set up a range of information resources for consumers. Our website, consumerconnect.ie, attracted over a quarter of a million visits and our call centre has dealt with close to 100,000 queries in the last year. We are making use of our extensive enforcement powers to ensure that business in Ireland complies with the law and gives consumers a fair deal.

We plan to continue driving competition in the retail sector by keeping consumers informed on where they can get the best value. This will not be limited to groceries; it will encompass different sectors including clothing, electronics and DIY and will also highlight the differences in prices in the Republic and the North. Later this year, we will publish a comprehensive report on the extent to which the rights of consumers who are buying newly-built homes or doing construction work in the home are protected.

Casey's assertion that the law as interpreted by the agency safeguards monopolies is as disappointing as it is wrongheaded. Our activities over the past number of years have demonstrated that the agency is not afraid to take on vested interests and challenge well-established industries and beliefs where we believe they lead to consumer detriment.

In the past year alone, we have taken on the airline industry on how it advertises its prices; we have a particular focus on the illegal practice of car-clocking; we secured redress for consumers from a range of companies, including MCD, Aer Lingus and Habitat, and worked with the leisure industry to revise their contracts to make them fairer and more user-friendly - and all this is just a tiny snapshot of the work the agency engages in on a daily basis.

Furthermore, the agency is not afraid to tackle State bodies as evidenced by our position on the NRA's proposals for e-tolling, some of which we believed were anti-consumer and accordingly challenged.

It is a shame that Casey has failed to recognise the very broad and diverse activities that the agency is engaged in on a daily basis.

Our actions are not arbitrary. Rather the campaigns we engage in are based on extensive research to identify areas of consumer detriment affecting large numbers of people and it is these areas that we tackle.

Casey's assertion that the agency should take on Dublin Bus for buses that run late goes back to a fundamental argument that the agency has made - that the Department of Transport should not be both regulator and owner of public transport and that competition in public transport is needed, driving innovation and a better service for consumers.

The Consumer Protection Act is a good thing for consumers. It allows the agency to advocate, inform, prosecute and ultimately act on behalf of consumers. For too long, the Irish consumer had no voice. The Consumer Protection Act heralded a new environment where the balance of power will shift to the consumer, who now has a strong voice through the agency.

No longer is the consumer forced to be a passive bystander. Instead, we are working towards a world where the consumer will be a force to be reckoned with.

Ann Fitzgerald is chief executive of the National Consumer Agency