Who YOU gonna call? Aid hard to track

Irish News of the World

February 15th, 2009

Diarmuid MacShane

Somebody should do something – but who you gonna call?

As a consumer, you’ve found that you have a problem with a business that you’re dealing with. They’re not helping you out, or they’re ignoring your calls, but you’ve still a problem with their product or service.

But who can help you out?

Since 1998, 200 different government quangos and regulatory organisations were set up with the aim, supposedly, of helping consumers with problems that they may have with product and service providers. There are those that would say that they were just set up so that the government could avoid having to do any actual work themselves – we have nearly 1000 quangos in total today.

As an example, there’s the National Consumer Agency, the Financial Regulator, Commission for Communications Regulation (ComReg), the Commission for Energy Regulation, the Food Safety Authority, the Financial Services Ombudsman, the Office of Director of Corporate Enforcement and the National Property Services Regulatory Authority.

These all sound very grand and important, but when we have problems, which ones can help us get things sorted?

I’ve been very critical in the past on ValueIreland.com of many of these organisations because of the difficulty many consumers are finding in actually getting any help from these organisations. In fact, despite all those that exist, in many cases consumers are being left helpless. However, here’s where you can go with problems that you might have:

If you have a problem with any financial institution that you have dealings with, you are supposed to go through their full complaints procedure. If you still have a problem at the end of that, you need to speak to the Financial Services Ombudsman. http://www.financialombudsman.ie/ If your complaint is related to your pension, the Pensions Ombudsman is there for you. http://www.pensionsombudsman.ie/

So where does the Financial Regulator fit in? They are responsible for overseeing the financial industry in Ireland, supposedly, and will not accept complaints from consumers. The “consumer” arm of the regulator is only an information providing service. http://www.itsyourmoney.ie

Say you have problems with your mobile, land line or broadband, then again, you must first go through the complaints procedure of the company you have the problem with. If you still don’t get satisfaction, you should escalate your complaint to ComReg. Your should remember though, that ComReg will only deal with issues related to “electronic communications services” – meaning you can complain about your mobile network service, but not handset problems, or about your broadband service but not your TV signal even though they may come through the same wires.

What happens if you have a problem with the management company or the managing agent in your apartment block? This is a very murky area at the moment with the National Consumer Agency, the Office of Director of Corporate Enforcement and the National Property Services Regulatory Authority all getting involved.

The National Property Services Regulatory Authority has no powers at the moment, so you can pretty much forget about them. The National Consumer Agency produce booklets and have created a website, but they have no legislation to enforce, so you can ignore them here also.

When it comes to management agents – the companies hired by management companies to look after estates and apartment blocks – there is no actual legislation in place to control how they operate. So, if your management agent isn’t cutting the grass, is neglecting to maintain buildings, or they’re charging more than you think is fair for management fees, there’s not much you can do apart from follow up directly with the agents themselves.

The Office of Director of Corporate Enforcement can help you out if your management company isn’t following company law – for example not publishing accounts each year, or failing to hold an AGM. However, based on my own experience, they’ll treat you like a child for making the complaint, and then won’t do very much at all.

What about electricity and gas suppliers? The Commission for Energy Regulations aim is to make sure that electricity and gas suppliers give their customers a reliable and quality service at a fair and reasonable price.  The main impact that the CER have on our consumer lives is their decisions to raise or decrease the prices we’re charged.

If you want to complain about your electricity or gas supplier, you can escalate your complaint to the CER only if you’ve gone through the companies own complaint procedures first.

And now to my friends in the National Consumer Agency who are responsible for the implementation of over 60 different pieces of legislation aimed at protecting consumers. These regulations cover advertising, unfair commercial practices, consumer information rules, food and other product labelling requirements, product safety laws and rules regarding the pricing of items and the display of prices.

The NCA are also responsible for overseeing the key consumer legislation which governs a lot of our day to day purchasing – the Sale of Good and Supply of Services Act – the law which gives us the “repair, replace or refund” rules of thumb.

You can contact the NCA through their website – http://www.irishconsumer.ie. The only thing to remember is that though they received 70,000 calls in 2007, with 2500 complaints that could have led to prosecutions for breaking the law, they only followed through on 1% of those complaints.

Many of the organisations described above will not get involved in specific contractual difficulties between a business and a consumer – and unfortunately these are the areas where we end up having most of our problems. We pay someone for something and they don’t provide the product or service to the standard that we expect.

That leaves us with probably one of the most effective weapons for consumers – The Small Claims Court. This is a service provided by District Court offices designed to handle consumer claims cheaply without involving a solicitor. This service is only for the “consumer” who has bought a good or service for private use from someone selling them in the course of their business. Claims can only be for up to €2000 in value.

Finally, some of the most common queries received at ValueIreland.com read like “who regulates the price of petrol”, or “who can I complain to about sterling to euro exchange rates”? The answer here is no one. We in Ireland don’t have price controls in place for these types of goods and services. Basically business can charge what they want so it’s down to us to be the regulators – if we don’t like the prices, we shouldn’t buy the products.

You’ll have noticed that I haven’t mentioned my old friends in the Consumers Association of Ireland. The CAI is a pressure group that occasionally provides a helpline for consumers, however they have no statutory powers and therefore can’t actually do anything for you.

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