Among the many harsh – and sometimes heartbreaking – lessons we've learned from the tracker mortgage scandal that continues to unfold in the corridors of power (and yes, we are talking about the banks here) is the fact that despite all the regulators and authorities set up over the past 30 years or so, it can still be hard for people to get redress.
There are bodies to regulate and police air travel, our financial institutions, our phones and our broadband. There is a low-cost court we can go to if things go badly wrong and ombudsmen who are there to adjudicate on matters of high finance and public bodies.
But when it really comes down to it, it's hard to find an authority willing to advocate on behalf of consumers in real time and in a way that makes a difference fast. The Financial Services Ombudsman and the Central Bank let down and helped in turn tens of thousands of people ripped off by the State's mortgage lenders in what has – accurately – been described as one of the greatest financial swindles in the history of the State.
And the level of correspondence we get every single week from consumers who have been given the runaround by retailer, mobile phone operators and airlines would suggest the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC), ComReg and the Commission for Aviation Regulation don't have the time or the teeth to fight in a meaningful way on behalf of individuals.
Our mailbox also makes it very clear – almost every single day – that people have no idea what the CCPC is or what it actually does.
Sometimes it seems the CCPC has no idea what it is for and the fact that in the last 10 years it has been the Office of the Director of Consumer Affairs, the National Consumer Agency and the CCPC has not helped its cause.
Last week, we got in touch with many of the key State agencies with a role to play in consumer protection and asked a couple of simple questions. We wanted to know what it is they do to help consumers and if they could point to the ways they have fought for the rights of Irish consumers over the past 12 years and some of the successes they have had in the past 12 months.
We also asked on social media what people thought of the consumer representation they had. The answers on the two channels were illuminating.
Competition and Consumer Protection Commission
The CCPC was set up to be a voice for Irish consumers and the first port of call for anyone in search of consumer-related information. It helps enforce consumer legislation to grow our understanding and awareness of the protections we have.
In its own words, it has a “dual mandate to enforce competition and consumer protection law in Ireland” and its mission “is to make markets work better for consumers and businesses”.
It is not, however, what many people think it is. It is not there to help you if you have a problem with your phone or your broadband or your tracker mortgage or your airline. It is hamstrung because it is not legally allowed to intervene on behalf of consumers or to make contact with companies that have transgressed unless the issue is widespread and pervasive. It can’t act in an advisory role for individual customers when it comes to trying to find better services in specific cases, and the sometimes useful price surveys it used to carry out are now so few and far between that Pricewatch can’t remember the last one it issued.
While it won’t actually help you if you have a problem, it is still worth logging complaints as that allows it join the dots in a more complete way to establish patterns of behaviour. It can act if a particular company or industry is engaged in a widespread practice that goes contrary to consumer law.
In response to our queries as to its recent achievements, it said the "first ever conviction in Ireland for bid-rigging was secured following an investigation by the CCPC into a cartel in the flooring sector".
It also said that thanks to it, the “first custodial sentence was handed down against a trader for misleading a consumer in the sale of a clocked car”.
In January, it investigated potential anti-competitive conduct by the Irish Property Owners Association (IPOA) following a press statement by the IPOA that suggested it was co-ordinating the business conduct of its members following the introduction of rent controls. The IPOA retracted its statement.
The CCPC is also investigating suspected anti-competitive price signalling and other pricing practices in the setting of car-insurance premiums and has held 44 witness summons hearings and obtained more than 1.24 million emails and documents from parties under investigation into potential price signalling in the motor sector. The CCPC also assisted the European Commission in an investigation into the motor-insurance sector
It stopped the importation of more than 200,000 unsafe fidget spinners and 700 unsafe Halloween products and it is investigating alleged anti-competitive practices in the provision of tickets and the operation of ticketing services for live events.
Contact: consumerconnect.ie; 1890-43243, 01-402 5555
The European Consumer Centre
The ECC is a Europe-wide organisation that engages directly with consumers and offers information and advice services on cross-border rights. Since it was set up 12 years ago, its centres across Europe have assisted more than 700,000 consumers.
Unlike the CCPC, it does fight on behalf of individual consumers and often wins fights that would otherwise be unwinnable because of language barriers or because consumers here have no idea where to turn when bad things happen to them elsewhere in the EU.
If an Irish consumer gets into difficulty with a retailer or service provider outside of this jurisdiction, the European Consumer Centre can help build a solid case, which it passes on to its counterpart in the relevant country to make contact with the trader. It has also published reports on topics such as air-passenger rights, commercial warranties, fraud in cross-border e-commerce and the availability of chargeback procedures across the EU.
Contact: www.eccireland.ie; 01-879 7620
The Central Bank
“Our vision is for a well-functioning, well-managed and well-regulated financial services system that safeguards stability and protects consumers,” was how the mail from the Central Bank to Pricewatch started.
And that is a fine vision to have for sure but try asking the tens of thousands of people who were harassed and bullied by Irish banks when they were forced off tracker mortgages what they think of the regulator’s vision and see what kind of answer you get.
The Central Bank has oversight of the whole financial system and so must share the blame for its failings. It also works under the "national consumer protection framework for financial services" alongside the CCPC and the FSO.
We were told that tracker examination “is a key priority for the Central Bank” and is the “largest, most complex and significant review undertaken to date in the context of our consumer protection mandate”.
The Central Bank also looks after the Central Credit Register, the new centralised system for collecting personal and credit information on loans.
It also issues updates warning consumers about unauthorised firms and has made “a number of proposals in a recent consultation paper in relation to mortgage switching to make it easier for consumers to switch their mortgages and avail of better rates following earlier research on the issue”.
It uses “market intelligence, our supervisory experience, consumer research and insights into consumer behaviour as well as feedback from key consumer protection bodies such as the CPCC and the FSO to continuously assess our consumer protection regulatory framework to ensure it is fit for purpose and working for consumers.”
If you have a problem with your mobile phone, your broadband or your landline, you go to ComReg. Then ComReg will send you back to your provider and only when you have exhausted a company’s internal complaint systems – which in itself can be incredibly exhausting – ComReg will help.
“ComReg offers a simple and informal dispute-resolution process whereby consumers who have contacted their service provider and whose complaint remains open after two weeks may contact the consumer line in order for ComReg to review the details of the consumer’s individual complaint and, if appropriate, intervene with the service provider to re-examine the issue,” a spokesman told us.
Under its new Complaints Handling Code of Practice, which becomes effective in January 2018, all service providers must make it easier for consumers to make a complaint and complaints must be acknowledged within two working days with specific details and responded to/resolved within 10 working days. It remains to be see how that works out.
It has also rolled out a new value comparison facility which helps people make better decisions when it comes to switching providers. More importantly, it has also initiated actions against Virgin Media, eircom, Three, Vodafone, Eir, Sky and others over their failures.
Contact: www.comreg.ie; 01-804 9668, 1890-229668
The Financial Services Ombudsman
The Financial Services Ombudsman investigates customer complaints in relation to the financial sector, including banks, building societies, credit unions, brokers, money lenders, hire-purchase providers, health insurance companies and retail credit firms and while it is not without its flaws – the process can be too slow, too legalistic and too intimidating for many of those who need it most – it has done the citizens of the State some service and had a pivotal role in uncovering the mismanagement of the accounts of almost 1,400 Permanent TSB mortgage holders, which ultimately exposed the tracker scandal. But it could have and should have done more.
When we asked what it had to boast about of late, a spokesman said that last year more than 1,800 complainants received some form of compensation, rectification or financial redress through the office. We were also told it had recently introduced a dedicated dispute-resolution service “to resolve disputes through mediation at an early stage and with the minimum formality necessary”.
As a result, the FSO “now undertakes more direct interactions with both consumers and providers to deliver a faster and more effective service. Mediation, by telephone and email and through meetings, is now the first and preferred option for resolving complaints. By engaging with the parties directly, and quickly, it is possible to achieve a timely and satisfactory resolution most of the time.”
More than 2,400 complaints were resolved through mediation in 2016. In addition to being more user friendly, mediation is also quicker: 56 per cent of those who successfully resolved their complaint through the dispute-resolution service had their complaints resolved in less than three months.
If the early interventions do not resolve the dispute, “the FSO has extensive powers to investigate and adjudicate complaints in a fair and impartial manner. This is a more formal and lengthy process. This is because all the evidence must be gathered and exchanged in accordance with fair procedures before the submissions are considered and a legally binding decision is issued to both parties.”
A total of 727 legally binding decisions were issued by the FSO in 2016. Out of this total, 101 complaints were upheld, 216 were partly upheld and 410 were not upheld.
The FSO can direct a financial-service provider to rectify the conduct complained of and award compensation of up to €250,000 where a complaint is upheld. However, compensation is not the only remedy available and it also has powers of rectification. Such rectification can be very significant as it can involve putting a person back to a position where they previously were before the complaint arose.
Contact: www.financialombudsman.ie; 01-662 0899
When we asked the Ombudsman exactly what it did we got a pleasingly concise answer.
"The Ombudsman, Peter Tyndall, examines complaints from people who feel they have been unfairly treated by certain providers of public services such as Government departments, local authorities, the HSE and publicly funded higher-education bodies. The Ombudsman can now also examine complaints about private nursing homes. The Ombudsman provides a free public service which is independent of government and impartial."
In 2016, the Ombudsman examined more than 3,000 individual complaints from the public and responded to more than 1,700 enquires. Apart from individual complaints, the Ombudsman also highlights systemic issues within public bodies to improve processes and procedures.
Among the areas dealt with in the past year or so are: issues in the State Examinations Commission’s RACE scheme (assistance to students doing State exams); procedural improvements in the DARE and HEAR schemes (including improving the online application process); issues in Tusla’s investigation procedures.
The office also takes complaints and provides assistance to the pubic outside its office in Dublin, in person in Cork, Limerick and Galway on a monthly basis.
The Consumer Association of Ireland
This is a voluntary organisation which represents Irish consumers in the public sphere in as much as it can, given a small budget and a small office. It can and does provide a voice for consumers on live issues and its spokesman Dermott Jewell is frequently heard on the airwaves arguing on behalf of consumers.
When we asked for some of its high points of the past year, it pointed to a range of submissions it had made to various regulatory and Government bodies covering things likes consumer protection, the radical overhaul of premium-rate numbers, the resale of tickets and the cost of car insurance in Ireland.
Contact: thecai.ie; 01-637 3961
Commission for Aviation Regulation
If you have problem with an airline, CAR can help – as it helped many people caught up in Ryanair’s mass series of flight cancellations in recent weeks. Under EC regulation 261/2004, people who are denied boarding or those who have had a flight cancelled or delayed are entitled to such things as compensation and assistance. The Commission for Aviation Regulation is designated as the State’s enforcement body to make sure airlines in this country do what they are supposed to.
Small Claims Court
“Court” sounds a bit terrifying , but it shouldn’t. The Small Claims Court is your friend. Any grievance against a retailer or service provider that has a financial worth of €2,000 or less can be pursued here and there is no need to involve a solicitor.
You can make a claim for goods or services bought from someone selling them as part of their normal business, although, if you bought a bed on the side of the road from a man you’ve just met, that will most likely not be covered.
You lodge a claim at Courts.ie or download an application form from the site. You give details of the claimant (you), the respondent (the business), the amount claimed and the details of your claim. You must complete an application and pay the €25 fee. Your claim is then processed by a District Court clerk.
The clerk informs the business of your claim, after which it has 15 days to respond. If it doesn’t, you win and the District Court makes an order in your favour. If it does dispute your claim, the court registrar negotiates with both parties to try to reach an agreement. The setting tends to be informal and private. The registrar asks both parties to outline their side of the story and tries to reach a deal. If this isn’t possible, a hearing before a District Court judge is arranged.