Plenty of politicians’ promises, but what about these ideas to help consumers?

Pricewatch: Fancy a consumer watchdog with more bite, free off-peak public transport or safer cycling?

By taking  meaningful steps towards making education genuinely free, a future education minister would almost guarantee that his or her  name would be remembered for decades

By taking meaningful steps towards making education genuinely free, a future education minister would almost guarantee that his or her name would be remembered for decades

 

Election manifestos have been coming thick and fast over recent days, and politicians have been falling over themselves to make promises that they say will make Ireland a better place for us all. Promises are great and all, but in this election – as in all elections – there are question marks over what can be delivered and what will be delivered.

With that in mind, Pricewatch put on its thinking cap and tried to come up with some ideas that might make the lives of consumers better without costing us all billions of euro that we don’t really have.

1. A consumer body with sharp teeth

While the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC), which came into being more than five years ago, has a role to play in protecting consumers and has had some successes, we can’t help but wonder if more could be done to fight the consumers’ corner.

One of the most frequent complaints we get on this page about the consumer watchdog is that it can’t or won’t investigate and resolve complaints in an expeditious manner on behalf of individual consumers.

People ring the CCPC looking for help only to be told that there is nothing it can do. Then they contact us.

The CCPC looks at big-picture things but will not help an individual out if they have been let down by a service provider or a retailer or a bloke who promised to make your garden look amazing only to turn it into a muddy wasteland.

In fact there is no organisation – either State or privately funded – that is dedicated to fighting your corner.

So let’s change that. And let’s change it fast. If The Irish Times or the Ray Darcy Show or Joe Duffy can contact a big retailer or mobile phone operator when they let people down or mess them around and make sure they make amends, why can’t a consumer body funded by the State?

Can Pricewatch let you in on a little secret? The page is able to make businesses help people they have let down in minutes not because we are particularly brilliant but because big businesses hate being publicly identified as useless. So let’s allow the new consumer watchdog to identify companies who let consumers down.

And let it 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. You present both sides of the story, and let the public decide whether or not the business is one they can trust.

Our dream consumer body would have people employed specifically to contact businesses on behalf of consumers. They could operate a bit like the food watchdog, a body which appears to have no problem shutting down shops and restaurants – even for a couple of hours – and then highlighting all the gross and sometimes minor ways such places have let their diners down.

Of course there is no point in going to all the effort to fix people’s problems if you can’t boast about it, so our new watchdog 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 new consumer organisation would also use the internet to reach out to people. It would blog, tweet and use Facebook and Instagram to fix people’s problems and empower people.

2. Free at last

One of the simplest things a new government could do to make the lives of all – or at least many – citizens of the State better would be to make public transport free. Obviously there are financial constraints at play here, so how about if it started by making all off-peak public transport free and free at all times for children? Imagine if you could travel on buses and trains at no cost between the hours of 10am and 5pm between Monday and Friday and then all day at weekends.

Such a move would encourage more people to leave their cars at home if they were popping into town for a bit of a wander. It would also incentivise some commuters who travel at peak times to delay their journeys by a few minutes each day to save themselves a few bob – or in fact more than €1,000 a year. This would have the added benefit of reducing the overcrowding on public transport without the need to introduce more services and more carriages on trains.

It could all be implemented a lot faster than Bus Connects or Metro North. Oh, and while this probably doesn’t matter a jot to politicians, any moves in this direction would also be wildly popular and something that we would be talking about 50 years from now.

And while we are on the topic of transport, maybe the next minister for transport could introduced a system to allow all commuters pay their bus, train or tram fare by tapping their credit or debit card? The Leap card is pretty good but not everyone has one, and if we could get rid of the need to have the “exact change” when using public transport then more people could get on a bus on a whim, and our world would be a slightly better place.

3. Honour education promises made years ago

We all know that education in Ireland is supposed to be free, but as a result of generations of governmental inaction and ineptitude and under-resourcing and simply not caring enough about it, sending children to school has ended up anything but free.

Nearly 55 years ago the then minister for education Donogh O’Malley announced that education for all the State’s children at no cost was to become a constitutional obligation. That was brilliant. It never really happened, and since then Irish parents have collectively spent more than €20 billion on educating their young as O’Malley’s vision of free schooling quickly got lost in the mists of time.

According to multiple surveys over many years, Irish parents are spending close to €1,000 per year on a child’s primary education, and around €1,500 on secondary education. It really doesn’t have to be like this.

Irish schools – or most of them, at any rate – operate with a bizarre independence, and even though they are almost entirely funded by the taxpayer they are mostly controlled by boards of management who call the shots. The Department of Education can encourage schools to make changes, but under the rules as they stand it has to stop short of imposing changes.

By ceding control of the schools to boards of management years back it meant the State did not have to deal with staffing issues – other than paying wages – or ongoing maintenance and the other fiddly (but incredible important) issues that our schools have to manage

The children’s charity Barnardos has estimated that it would cost about €20 million to provide free books for all children in primary school. While that may sound like a lot in the context of annual government spending, it is peanuts.

Various education ministers have wrung their hands about the issue, most recently Richard Bruton. When he was in the hot seat a couple of years back he sent a so-called circular to all schools calling on authorities to adopt “principles of cost-effective practice”. Among the measures schools were asked to introduce were generic uniforms; mandatory book-rental schemes; a ban on workbooks; iron-on or sew-on crests; and the provision of lists of all items parents would have to buy for their children with indications of the likely costs at the best value stores.

Of course they could ignore his circular if they so chose and many did which means it has not made a whole lot of difference to the costs faced by parents.

Let’s pick just one thing. If schoolbook rental schemes were mandatory across all schools, parents could save a fortune. It is so simple. At the beginning of the school year parents would pay a rental fee to the school and the child would get their text books for free. At the end of the year if the books are returned unblemished, much of the fee would be returned. It is cheap and easy, and would save parents hundreds of millions of euro over the next few years,

However, it needs the State to step in and manage the scheme like it does in Northern Ireland. The best thing is the savings would just keep coming for ever.

Earlier this month the outgoing Minister for Education Joe McHugh said his department had taken the first step towards providing free schoolbooks at primary level with a €1 million pilot project which will benefit more than 15,000 pupils in more than 100 disadvantaged primary schools.

Not a lot done, a lot more to do, then.

Oh, and again this probably won’t make much difference to any politicians seeking high office.Yet by taking some meaningful steps towards making education genuinely free, a future education minister would almost guarantee that his or her name would be remembered and would still be appearing in print for decades after they die in much the same way as O’Malley’s is.

4. On your bike

There is a short stretch of O’Connell Street in Dublin that typifies all that is wrong with successive governments’ approach to cycling. On the Clery’s side of the country’s main thoroughfare – from Abbey Street to O’Connell Bridge – there is a cycle lane that is cut off from car traffic by a series of fluorescent plastic poles. After about 30m the somewhat safe zone suddenly ends.

For around four glorious seconds a city cyclist is allowed to feel just a bit more secure. For the rest of the time they have to compete for road with buses, cabs and cars. It is tokenism at its worst, and by any measure it is simply absurd.

When it comes to cycling it is not the only thing that is absurd, mind you. It has now taken more than six years for the powers that be to work out how to run a safe cycle lane down the north quays from Heuston Station to the East Link bridge. Lads, it’s a straight line. There is no need to tie yourself up in knots over it? And there is certainly no need to draw up convoluted plans that try to reroute traffic through recently built apartment blocks. Yes, they actually did that.

So, maybe the future powers that be could invest some money in sensible solutions that would make cycling safer and as a result more popular. Here’s an idea for starters. Rather than having cycling lanes that can be easily invaded by cars why not separate the small bit of road given to bikes and the big bit of road given to cars with a concrete “ardmadillo” – a slightly elevated thing that stops cars weaving where they have no right to weave. Pricewatch can’t imagine such a step would take too long or cost too much.

Oh, and when it comes to cycling there is some other simple things that could be done.

The Fianna Fáil/Green Party coalition that came before the two successive Fine Gael-led ones did not exactly cover itself in glory when it came to managing the finances of the country. And, yes, we are being kind here. Yet one thing that administration did leave us with was the cycle-to-work tax incentive scheme.

It covers bicycles and accessories up to a maximum of €1,000. You probably know how it works. Your employer buys the bike stuff and you pay for it, tax-free, over 12 months. It effectively knocks about 40 per cent off the price. But why not make it better? Why not incentivise more people to cycle by giving them twice the tax break.

And while we are on the topic of better, cheaper and more environmentally friendly commuting, can we please legalise e-scooters? Impose restrictions on them for sure and punish those who use them recklessly by confiscating their little machines forever, but for heaven’s sake do something more than commission reports that never see the light of day.

5. Save our shops

Over recent years shops that have served generations of Irish people have closed at a pace which only seems to be accelerating. When they close people mourn their passing despite the fact that they may not have visited those shops and spent money there even once in the last decade.

Many closures are as a result of the migration of much of our spending online, and there isn’t a whole lot the political class can do to stop that. But if we want to protect indigenous retailers and keep small shops open in communities big and small across the country then we have to do more than wring our hands and express sadness when they close.

Maybe grants could be made available to local retailers to develop online presences of their own or modernise their stores? Maybe rates and ludicrous upward-only rent reviews could be challenged?

Maybe we could take a leaf out of our continental cousins’ retail playbook. Some parts of the EU, including France, Germany and Luxembourg, restrict when shops can go into sale. Strictly-imposed rules mean shops can only offer discounted stock for four weeks in January and four weeks during the summer. The rules protect smaller retailers who struggle to compete with the internet and big multinational fast-fashion chains that can buy in bulk and offer deep discounts almost year round if allowed to better lure people through their doors.

6. And there’s more . . . a whole lot more

Maybe the next government could look at ways to give parents more of a break when it comes to childcare costs that can easily top more than two grand a month for two young children?

Maybe we could see more parks in urban spaces to improve the quality of life of people living in apartments around our towns and cities? Such a move might encourage higher density city living – the like of which is common across Europe – which would reduce congestion on our roads, and maybe cut the endless commuting times many people have to endure five days a week. It would also serve to lessen our reliance on cars, and go some small way towards reducing our carbon footprint.

Oh, and perhaps more could be done to tackling the motor insurance sector which has been getting away with making customers pay through the nose for years.

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