NCA and consumer legislation nothing more than a charade

 

The law, as interpreted by the National Consumer Agency, completely safeguards monopolies, writes MICHAEL CASEY

THERE IS A tendency in this country to bring in what looks like state-of-the-art legislation and to set up lots of institutions with statutory underpinning. The outsider observing Ireland Inc might well conclude that we have quite sophisticated and comprehensive institutions, legislation and governance. There is only one thing wrong with this view. Fundamentally there is no desire to change anything.

The laws and institutions look good on paper but there is no real intention to implement the purported reforms. It is all part of our peculiar approach to governance by spin. It's like the old Hollywood recipe for success: If you can feign sincerity you've got it made.

Like many others, I welcomed the introduction of what looked like up-to-date consumer legislation and the establishment of the new National Consumer Agency, which, despite political appointees, seemed like a body that meant to do business.

Like thousands of other commuters I had suffered the tender mercies of Dublin Bus, a State monopoly which treats passengers (aka consumers) with indifference. One bus route attracted so many complaints that, instead of trying to improve the service, Dublin Bus scrapped the route entirely. Not infrequently, buses leave early so as to avoid picking up any passengers. Individual acts of kindness are shown to older people, but in general the bus service is way below what is needed in a modern economy.

The new consumer legislation seemed to provide reassurance that bus users could at last do something to effect improvements in the service. On many routes buses are often less than half as frequent as the timetable indicates - ie passengers have to wait over twice as long on average as they should. On some routes the lateness factor is far worse.

The new legislation offered some prospect of getting Dublin Bus to bring out a timetable which was not a work of fiction. This was because the legislation outlawed descriptions of services, including timetabling, which bore no relationship to the actual services provided.

Urged on by fellow sufferers, I brought a case to the NCA about huge discrepancies between bus timetables and actual arrivals. This was after several recent experiences of waiting in pouring rain at bus-stops for buses which time after time failed to arrive even within 20 minutes of the appointed time.

To make matters worse, the State has given a huge national asset free gratis to this transport monopoly - ie about half of the road space in Dublin for its exclusive use. Has the provision of bus lanes made any difference to the service provided by Dublin Bus? Little or none. It merely reinforces its monopoly power by forcing more private cars off the road without providing a reasonable alternative.

For about four months the NCA tried to pass the buck. It said that the matter was one for the Department of Transport. The department said it would be happy to pass on the complaint to Dublin Bus. I pointed out that I had already contacted Dublin Bus without success.

The department admitted that, in that case, there was nothing it could do since Dublin Bus is an autonomous body. (Incidentally, this is always the answer you get from any Government department - you're referred to the semi-State body in question, which is described as autonomous. This means that the Minister can't be held responsible for any mistakes the semi-State body might make.)

I went back to the NCA and asked it again why Dublin Bus was beyond its remit. If it really believed that, didn't it mean that all of our 800 public bodies were outside the remit of the NCA? How could this be since it was clearly intended that the new consumer legislation was to be fully comprehensive?

I finally got the answer I most feared. The new and much-hyped consumer legislation and the NCA are a charade.

Section 43 of the Consumer Protection Act 2007 defines a misleading commercial practice as one which would be likely "to cause the average consumer to make a transactional decision that the average consumer would not otherwise make".

The NCA then goes on to say: "As the average consumer would not stop using the Dublin Bus service because the bus does not arrive on time, this would not be considered a breach of the Act." This is quite extraordinary.

I'm not sure that the NCA's interpretation of the Act is correct but if it is, it is bizarre. What it is saying is that Dublin Bus can do what it likes because the average consumer has no alternative. He or she cannot make any other "transactional decision".

It is impossible. And why is that? Because Dublin Bus is a monopoly. There are no alternatives for consumers. As a monopoly, Dublin Bus has complete carte blanche to continue treating passengers with indifference and all the other State monopolies have the same divine right.

The much-vaunted consumer legislation and the much-heralded NCA have absolutely no bearing on the matter. In fact the law, as interpreted by the NCA, completely safeguards monopolies in this country. This proves, if proof were needed, that consumer rights do not exist - and there's no point in asking Ministers to intervene since they accept no responsibility in these matters.

Then, in a final desperate attempt to pass the buck, the NCA states: "As I'm sure you understand, consumer issues are wide- ranging and there are many departments and public bodies that assume some responsibility in area (sic) of consumer affairs."

Out of the mouths of babes. In my innocence I had thought the NCA was now the main agency, deliberately set up to look after the interests of consumers. Not a bit of it; fragmentation and duplication and buck- passing are all still alive and well in the public sector.

No doubt the NCA will intervene in some cases, especially those which attract media attention, especially those involving the frail and the elderly. No doubt the NCA will publish a nice glossy annual report, but like many other public bodies, there is little committed effort to make significant improvements.

The oft-repeated advice to consumers to "shop around" is banal and irritating. Mary O'Rourke is right: how can hard-working women with young children shop around?

In any case, we don't need costly institutions to give us advice our grandmothers used to give us for free. It seems as if taxpayers' money will continue to be spent without achieving any return.

• Dr Michael Casey is a former senior official with the Central Bank and a former member of the board of the International Monetary Fund.