Tag Archive - National Consumer Agency (NCA)

ConsumerValue from the National Consumer Agency

A press release this morning has announced a new sub-section to the National Consumer Agency website called ConsumerValue.

According to the blurb on the website:

ConsumerValue aims to act as a single signpost directing you to resources informing consumers about how to seek the best deals.

At the moment, it looks like the site will be covering things like General consumer advice, Energy and fuel, Transport and travel, Insurance, and a few other topics. I haven’t had much of a look at the site so far, but it’ll be interesting to see what’s actually in there.

Silly Surveys Skirt Real Issues

Irish News of the World

February 15th, 2009

Diarmuid MacShane

Silly Surveys Skirt Real Issues

I see the National Consumer Agency are still carrying out farcical surveys. This month they told us about price differences between the big supermarkets and completed missed the real story – that everyone’s still RAISING prices.

From December 2007, until last month, Tesco, Dunnes Stores and SuperQuinn all jacked up their prices – Tesco by 4.9%, Dunnes by 3.5%, SuperQuinn by 2.8%.

At a time when demand and prices are generally falling in Ireland, our supermarkets are INCREASING their prices by nearly 5%.

All consumers really care about is the fact that grocery prices are going up everywhere – not the relative differences between each.

The truth is, a couple of grocery price sureys by the NCA every year aren’t having any impact on that rising trend. Get your act together.

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.

Don’t give companies free money if you don’t have to!

We’ve written many times that as much as possible you shouldn’t be giving companies interest free loans in the form of buying gift vouchers from them.

A couple of weeks ago we also pointed out the danger of the suggestion from the Consumers Association of Ireland Chairman that we start to avail of “lay away” facilities that might be provided by some retailers.

We also mentioned that you should think twice before getting involved in savings schemes facilitated by some retailers – particularly Christmas Clubs.

In all these scenarios, you’re basically giving your money to retailers in return for the promise that they’ll provide something at some date in the future. You’re basically providing them with an interest free loan until the time that they have to provide the good or service in the future.

And if that business were to close down in the meantime, you’re likely to lose all of your money. You’ll be know as an “unsecured creditor” – if the banks and other creditors and lenders get their money back, then you’d get yours. But that’d be very unlikely.

It’s good to see, though, that the National Consumer Agency are starting to get in on this – warning people of the dangers of deposits.

Why some businesses deserve to go out of business!

This post a couple of weeks ago on CheapEats.ie told us how Brasserie 66 were conning potential customers. Basically, they had a poster on their window all the time offering a 2-for-1 deal on Monday thru Thursday evenings.

But a reader of CheapEats.ie found out that this offer was really only on offer at the whim of the manager. If the manager decided the offer was on, a separate sandwich board would be placed outside.

So, if things looked like they might be quiet, the board would go out but if it looked like a busy night in town, then the offer was withheld.

This is a shocking way for a business to treat potential customers – or even regular customers who may return for the offer.

This is a definitely matter for the National Consumer Agency as what Brasserie 66 are doing is an offence under the Consumer Protection Act 2007. This act states that it is illegal for a business to make false or misleading claims about goods, services or prices. More details on NCA site here.

Latest National Consumer Agency Grocery Survey – the real story

In the light of much criticism for the pointless nature of carrying out grocery pricing surveys, the National Consumer Agency still proceeds with these farcical surveys.

This months one, as referred to by Conor Pope on Wednesday evening, has not a whole lot new to tell us. The headline points from the NCA press release tells us the following points:

* Price difference between multiples widens on basket of branded goods
* Gap between discounters and multiples narrows on own brand goods
* Aldi and Lidl price difference shrinking

Hidden down at the bottom of the press release is the detail of what the headline should be – Grocery Prices Increase across all main grocery stores:

Examining the period from December 2007 to January 2009, aggregate prices in separate baskets for Tesco, Dunnes and Superquinn all recorded an increase. Tesco recorded the largest increase (4.9%), Superquinn (2.8%) the smallest increase. Dunnes recorded an increase of 3.5%.

In a time when demand and prices are generally falling in Ireland, our supermarkets are upping their prices by up to nearly 5%. And the previous darlings of Ann Fitzgerald – Aldi and Lidl – are even at it when it comes to own brand products:

Over the period December 2007 to January 2009, separate baskets for Aldi, Lidl, Dunnes and Tesco all became more expensive. Tesco’s basket recorded the largest increase at 9.3%, Dunnes the smallest increase at 4.1%. Aldi recorded an increase of 4.2% and Lidl an increase of 4.7%.

Who cares, really, about the relative differences between supermarket pricing – all that consumers will really care about is the fact that grocery prices are universally increasing. And a couple of grocery price surveys by the NCA every year isn’t having any impact on that rising trend.

Stamp out this Greed

Irish News of the World

February 8th, 2009

Diarmuid MacShane

What happens when the price of my pint goes up after 11.30pm?

We’ve all noticed when we’re on a night out when suddenly the price of our pint goes from €5.50 to €6.30 or more after 11.30pm. But what can actually we do?

Short answer is not a whole lot unfortunately. You could go elsewhere, but so many pubs are doing this now, you might not be able to avoid this blatant rip off tactic.

If you’re really bothered, the best you can do is try to get your own back on the greedy landlords. Legally, pubs are obliged to display their prices so that they’re visible from the street, or immediately inside the door. If you notice that the price has changed during the night, you could check the price list to see if the prices match.

If the price of the pint is different to the price list, you can report the pub to the National Consumer Agency for breaching pricing regulations. Ridiculously though, fines for breaking these regulations can only go up to €300.

Value for Money – Ann Fitzgerald of the National Consumer Agency?

This article from Shane Phelan in the Irish Independent told us how the Chief Executive of the National Consumer Agency, Ms. Ann Fitzgerald, received a performance bonus of nearly €25,000 for her 2007 performance. That’s €25,000 over and above her near €187,000 salary.

Let’s just remind ourselves of the performance of the National Consumer Agency in 2007. As I highlighted back in November, the NCA received 2250 complaints from consumers that were specifically related to suspected breaches in legislation – there were 70,000 calls in total.

And what was the prosecution rate for these 2250 complaints – a mind numbing 1%. That’s 19 prosecutions out of 2250 consumer complaints.

Definitely getting value for money out of our NCA Chief Executive there.

Why this country will continue to struggle for a while more

This article was in the Irish Independent last week. It details how a Dell employee who will soon lose his job is about to lose his wedding reception deposit paid to the Castletroy Park Hotel because they’re closing down. This article from last weeks Sunday Times has a similar story related to Kinnitty Castle – it details a warning from the National Consumer Agency that couples planning on getting married could risk losing their deposits if hotels close down before the reception is held.

In the same way as we’ve warned against gift vouchers, savings clubs, Christmas Clubs and lay aways, giving deposits to businesses can be a risky proposition these days. In all these situations, you’re giving a business you’re money without actually getting something in return – at least for a while anyway. And in each of these situations, as an unsecured creditor, you’re likely to be the last person to get your money back – if at all.

However, that’s not the reason for my post. This statement at the end of the article is:

I’m working in Dell and still have a wedding to pay for.

This is from the main character of the story who confirmed that he was due to lose his job next January. The average wedding in Ireland costs upwards on €40,000. And the maximum payout, I understand, from Dell will be 1 year of salary. Around the same amount maybe?

Why the hell would you go ahead with paying for a wedding when you’re unlikely to have a job? I realise it’s what many couples would like, but if you’re future is uncertain, and you’re living somewhere that’s taking a huge hit on job losses recently, maybe there should be some second thoughts about spending the money?

But that’s not been the Irish way for the past number of years. We don’t care where the money comes from (ours or the banks) as long as we can spend it on exactly what we want, whenever we want.

This statement shows that that attitude isn’t changing all that quickly despite everything that’s happening at the moment.

Watchdog Woes – What’s the story with Consumer Representation?

Paul Cullen wrote an interesting piece yesterday morning in the Pricewatch column in the Irish Times about how Irish consumer are, or more particularly aren’t really, represented very well at the moment.

In talking about the Consumers Association of Ireland, the article says:

So the CAI is likely to stagger on, small, independent and hamstrung – which, you suspect, is just the way many powerful forces in society would like it.

And of the National Consumer Agency:

but has been less effective in countering the power of big corporations, such as fuel companies, food retailers and telecoms operators.

but the NCA has been criticised for not going for the jugular where traders commit offences

The article refers to the issues that I had with the Consumers Association back in November when I submitted my resignation. The article expands a little on the issues I had back then regarding the supposedly voluntary members of the CAI council making money through their multiple nominations to other government agencies. It also details a little more the extra cash that Dermott Jewell makes from his multiple external appointments which in my view have to take from his ability to effectively run what is already an ailing Association.

I guess that this is a little tongue in cheek, but the article speaks of ValueIreland.com as follows:

MacShane, who has effectively set himself up in opposition to the CAI through his website, ValueIreland.com, is critical of the organisation’s failure to make a bigger impact on public consciousness.

Oh well, I didn’t expect my master plan to be exposed in this way quite yet :-)

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