Tag Archives | useless quangos

New government, same old guff in the Dail

I use the excellent KildareStreet.com to keep in touch with what’s being said in the Dail that’s related to the area of interest for this website – i.e. consumer affairs. (I’ve written about the site a few times before – see here).

It was a regular question from members of the opposition during the last Dail to ask Fianna Fail / Green ministers when the National Consumer Agency and the Competition Authority merger was going to actually go ahead.

This merger was announced first in the 2009 budget (way back in October 2008), but nothing has been done to progress this merger since. I wrote about this previous, guessing that it’s a merger that wasn’t welcomed by the Competition Authority in particular.

As an example of the previous opposition questioning, back in October 2010, Joe McHugh TD (FG -Donegal NE) asked the following question:

To ask the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Innovation his views on the changes in the organisation structures and delivery of back office support which have been made since the announcement of the merger of the National Consumer Agency and the Competition Authority; the values of the savings made; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

The then Minister responsible, Batt O’Keefe TD didn’t answer the question directly, merely filling space and time with a non-statement.

We’ve now been treated to a new government and thankfully, a new opposition, yet we’re still getting the same questions asked, and not answered.

On the 20th of April, Willie O’Dea TD (FF – Limerick City) asked the following question of the Taoiseach:

When can we expect to see the consumer and competition Bill that will merge the Competition Authority and the National Consumer Agency?

To which, Enda Kenny responded (or not really):

I cannot give the Deputy an accurate answer. We do not yet have a date for the Bill’s introduction. I shall report its progress as it moves through the system.

I think it’s enormously disappointing how poor Fine Gael have been in Government since they’ve taken over. They had such a great opportunity (in so many ways) to show they were different from Fianna Fail, yet they’ve shown nothing to prove that they’re any different in any way.

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The National Consumer Agency don’t do rogue trader prosecutions…

That might sound like the start of a Carlsberg themed advert, but there is no punch line. The National Consumer Agency don’t. If I’m to read things correctly from a recent court case, only the Gardai do, properly at least.

I was particularly interested to read this story recently in the Irish Independent, Car dealer is jailed for ‘clocking’ UK imports.

Regular readers will be familiar with how the National Consumer Agency deals with those who sell clocked cars – they “work” with them, slap them on the wrists, and politely asks them not to do it again.

This story then, where someone is jailed looked like it was the first time, in any way, that the National Consumer Agency was getting tough on behalf of hard pressed consumers.

But I think, unfortunately, we don’t have the NCA to thank for this prosecution.

At least, after reading the story and checking the news section of the NCA website, it looks like our consumer protection agency had nothing to do with this prosecution, and that it was all down to the Gardai.

This version of the story seems to support my theory also – no mention of the NCA.

Interestingly, according to that article, the accused brought out this peach of a defense:

caveat emptor [let the buyer beware]

It looks like, then, that our statutory consumer protection organisation is seriously shown up by the Gardai and the courts on how to treat businesses that take advantage of Irish consumers. Obviously, if the NCA can claim a part in this action, I’m open to correction.

So why then do we need them?

If all they’re doing now is publishing “top tips” on the internet any more (a role I’m happy to take from them for free – they are using this site for inspiration already anyway) rather than prosecuting rogue traders (which the Gardai are having much more success at) then maybe they can be disbanded straight away for being a pointless, useless waste of money.

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Can someone tell Dan White at the Herald that the NCA is going away?

Dan White of the Evening Herald wrote yesterday evening about the fact that Ann Fitzgerald has declined to accept her bonus, thought to be €37,000 – 20% of her €186,000 salary. In his article, I can’t for life of me understand why this woman on the left was being given a bonus of €37,000, Mr. White channels ValueIreland in his commentary on the usefulness of the National Consumer Agency, headed by Ms. Fitzgerald.

Some of Mr. Whites comments are as follows:

With public anger at Ireland’s sky-high prices at boiling point, the Government had to be seen to be “doing something”.

That something was the NCA, a worthy talking shop which, apart from occasionally producing useful cross-border price comparison surveys, did nothing to address the problems it was supposed to solve.

He does go on to say that Eddie Hobbs “quit the NCA board in frustration a while back”. Strictly speaking, this is incorrect as Mr. Hobbs left the board because of his frustrations with Celia Larkin rather than the NCA itself. It should be remembered that despite this posturing from Mr. Hobbs, he did offer to rejoin the board if the then minister, Ms. Coughlan, reappointed him.

Back to Dan White, and his article.

Last year, Ann Fitzgerald was supposed to get a bonus of €25,000, prompting me to post the question – Value for Money – Ann Fitzgerald of the National Consumer Agency?

And here we are, a year or so later, and a couple of more shopping surveys in the bag, and Ms. Fitzgerald is deemed to be worth an extra €12,000 compared to last year in bonus payments.

At a time when people left right and centre are taking pay cuts, cessation of bonus payments, pension levies and any other manner of payment cuts, Ms. Fitzgerald is somehow deemed to be worth an extra €12,000.

Because she’s worth it I suppose.

Well, she is heading up an organisation deemed so important that it’s going to be merged into the Competition Authority soon enough rather than be left as a standalone entity. This was announced as part of a recent budget cull on quangos – one of the few to be culled.

Probably not a problem for Ms. Fitzgerald as I’m guessing that she’s going to be appointed it’s new head honcho since Bill Prasifka, formerly of the TCA, has moved to become the Financial Services Ombudsman.

Maybe someone should have told Dan White that the NCA is going away though – maybe he wouldn’t have written this final paragraph in his article:

While the Government has so far shrunk from grasping the nettle, it is surely only a matter of time before this Government or its successor tackles the enormous number of quangos, most of which seem to serve no other purpose than to consume tens of millions of taxpayers’ euro.

In any such quango cull the NCA would be a prime target. Now that the market has achieved what it was supposed to do, what is the point of the NCA?

While Fitzgerald’s decision may have bought the NCA some time, the questions about its role and usefulness remain unanswered. Far better to scrap not just the NCA but also all of the other quangos and their automatic “performance bonuses” as well.

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UK Government proposes a “Consumer Tsar” – do we need one too?

Recently, I asked the question here as to whether Irish consumers should expect a better level of consumer advocacy and protection than is currently provided by either the Consumers Association of Ireland, the National Consumer Agency or other consumer related agencies, quangos and other supposedly responsible organisations.

In the past few days, on a slightly related note, we’ve also seen a number of calls for retail or grocery ombudsman. Whether or not this would add to the protection provided to the consumer, or would just become another useless quango organisation set up to give the impression of something being done, but actually isn’t, remains to be seen. My two (initial) cents is that it’s a ridiculous idea based on what I’m seeing proposed at the moment but I’ll come back to that in the coming days.

Maybe the solution to all our consumer woes here in Ireland can be seen in the framework currently being proposed in the UK where there are moves afoot to provide what’s being called a “consumer tsar”?

According to an article in The Guardian, National consumer champion to help people get their money back , the British consumer will benefit from a proposal that:

A high-profile national “consumer champion” is to be appointed by the government to help people get their money back when things go wrong and fight for redress over personal finance problems such as unauthorised overdraft charges.

Whilest this proposal is amongst a raft of other consumer related legislation being proposed to help out the British consumer, this particular proposal interestingly came about:

After recognising the valuable role of newspapers’ own consumer champions in exposing bad practice by financial companies and publicising key issues of consumer concern, the government is to appoint a new “consumer advocate”.

A key feature of this proposal is that the consumer be educated to help them fight for their rights and to get their own money back. Though, as pointed out by the Guardian Money Blog, maybe it’s the businesses that are screwing the customers who need to be educated rather than the consumer.  As I’ve found with many of the e-mails I receive at ValueIreland.com, Irish consumers know their rights and what they’re entitled to in many cases, but they just struggle to get them from many businesses.

By the sounds of things, what’s being proposed in the UK is almost an institutionalisation of the BBC Watchdog programme – a high profile consumer advocate taking on big business on behalf of consumers.

Would this work in Ireland? In name at least, it does sound like the “Consumer Rights Enforcer” that was proposed some years ago by Fine Gael. (Though, upon reading that legislation proposed, that role proposed by FG was no more than the National Consumer Agency with a different name but appointed in a different way).

On the basis that, as I have opined many times here already, consumer advocacy and protection in Ireland needs to be completely shaken up in order to truly advance the cause of the Irish consumer, and not the vested interests supposedly protecting them, then maybe a well thought out position such as this could work here.

What do you think? Who could do this – Eddie Hobbs? Or based on the journalistic slant of the UK proposal, how about Charlie Weston? Or Conor Pope?

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National Consumer Agency – need more staff, or just need a clue?

The Annual report of the National Consumer Agency for 2008 was release recently. To cover up the fact that they’re not actually doing much at all to enforce consumer legislation, the mantra now is that they need more staff.

Would these staff actually enforce consumer legislation and prosecute offending businesses, or will they be doing more pointless grocery shopping around the country and up north?

Maybe they could work to improve the quality of staff they have working for them at the moment. One staff member in the NCA actually told a ValueIreland.com reader that they were not responsible for enforcing European consumer legislation and that their regulatory framework was limited to the 1980 Sale of Goods and Supply of Services Act.

Clueless muppets!

The role of the NCA is to enforce Irish consumer legislation (all of it, and not just the Sale of Goods act above) and any European consumer legislation transcribed into Irish law.

Maybe now we’ve actually found out why the fuckers* do nothing? They don’t actually know what they’re supposed to be doing in the first place.

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Pricing Legislation – The problem with Sale pricing

The short answer is, after a “reasonable period of time”. Yes, it’s as fuzzy and hazy and non-specific as that. Perfect for business to be able to manipulate to ensure that they’re never prosecuted by the organisation responsible for doing so, the National Consumer Agency.

Recently, ValueIreland.com received an e-mail from a reader as follows:

I was in Dunnes stores in Briarhill, Galway at the weekend to buy my usual bottle of wine. (04/04/09).  Torres white wine.  There was a 20% off or back on all wines and champagnes.  However on the Torres there was a sign for 20% off, i.e was 13.75 down to 10.79.  Now this is the problem, never ever have I paid out 13.75 for this bottle of wine it was always 10.49, and it scanned through the till at 10.49 not the apparent 10.79 that it was meant to be down to.  Now I admit it is a good 3 weeks since I had last bought a bottle of this wine but it stuck out in my head because this is the only brad of wine I ever buy

I would like to know how long the wine was selling at 13.75 for and is it against the law to just put the price up in order to claim there is 20% off.  I know this is not a huge amount of a difference but if this was happening on all wines I am sure it would add up.

Here was my response, plus some extra information I’ve brought together to illustrate the hoplessness of this whole situation.

The actual agency to follow up with if you want to make a complaint about pricing is the National Consumer Agency.

If you’re familiar with my website comments regarding the NCA, you’ll see however that I wouldn’t hold out much hope if you were to follow up with them.

The law states that goods must have been on sale for a “reasonable period” of time prior to the price reduction.

So, if you could find out what a “reasonable period” might be, then found that the store concerned didn’t have the wine at the higher price for this period of time, then they would have been acting in contravention of the relevant legislation.

The problem is, though, that this “reasonable period” of time has no actual definition, so I would expect it will be nearly impossible to get any satisfaction from the NCA on this.

The relevant legislation regarding sale prices is the 2007 Consumer Protection Act, section 43.6 (a) & (b), which states:

if the commercial practice involves a representation or creates an impression (whether in advertising, marketing or otherwise) that a product was previously offered at a different price or at a particular price, consideration shall be given to whether the product was previously offered openly and in good faith at that price and at the same place for a reasonable period of time before the representation was made

The key text here says “a reasonable period of time” which, as you can probably guess, could mean any period of time depending on who you ask. If you were to ask me, I’d say that such a fuzzy term in the legislation was actually intended to ensure that no business could be prosecuted.

In 2007, the NCA started a consultation on what might be defined as a “reasonable period”. This documentation for this consultation states:

The 28 day rule had been in place for almost 30 years and the requirement that an indication that products were ‘offered openly at the same place within the preceding 3 months for not less than 28 successive days’ has been accepted throughout the sector.

However, I can’t find any follow up to this consultation, so I guess it’s been forgotten about.

In its place, the NCA are now putting together “Draft Guidelines” on price discounts – details available here. This effort backtracks on the 28 day rule (maybe retail pressure groups had success in suppressing the consultation in 2007) and tries to come up with different rules for “reasonable period” depending on the products on sale.

Even if these “draft guidelines” are accepted, it’s worth remembering that they’re just guidelines and therefore would have no legal standing – so the only legislation in place is the original act stating “reasonable period”.

Which brings us back around to the fuzzy legislation that the National Consumer Agency will say that they can’t really follow up on to make prosecutions under the Act, even if they wanted to (which as we know, they don’t really want to anyway as that would mean work).

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Aileen O’Toole and the National Consumer Agency

In doing the research for this post, I was looking for links between Aileen O’Toole and her nominees to her IdeasCampaign Advisory Committe.

One piece of information I found at the same time was this little nugget that I suppose I should have been aware of previously.

In 2005, Aileen O’Toole was nominated by the then Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment Mary Harney as a member of the Consumer Strategy Group back.

The key recommendation of the Consumer Strategy Group was the formation of the National Consumer Agency.

Following the setting up of the National Consumer Agency, who do you think the online consultancy services contract for the newly set up agency went to?

Yep, you’ve guessed it, Amas and their managing director Aileen O’Toole.

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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.

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IdeasCampaign – Advisory Council Named

I’ve written a couple of times so far about how I’m not convinced about the IdeasCampaign that is being promoted by Amas and Aileen O’Toole.

Don’t get me wrong here – I’m all in favour of anything that can help this country out of the trouble it’s in at the moment. I’ve commented before that entrepreneurship in this country was in trouble during the Celtic Tiger once people realised it was easier to provide for their retirement by buying and renting property rather than setting up businesses and employing others as my own parents did in the 1980’s.

The IdeasCampaign today isn’t what it was announced as last week on PrimeTime on RTE. On that programme, we were told that Aileen O’Toole was almost assuming a “social entrepreneurship” role by promoting this as her own personal idea for the public to get involved in. This week, however, the IdeasCampaign is a public relations campaign being promoted by a public relations company – Amas.

We don’t know why the campaign has changed direction, or why lots of behind the scenes changes were made to the website have been made without any explanation – such changing the original terms and conditions.

My post here asks some of the key questions that I’d like to see the people behind the IdeasCampaign answer.

In my mind, the IdeasCampaign has nothing to do with the public apart from the expectation that us poor unfortunates should hand over our ideas for free to a group of high up connected business people who would make money off the back of those ideas, according to the original terms and conditions.

And to further enforce that belief, have you seen the Advisory Group that Aileen O’Toole has appointed to sift through the ideas and prepare a report that will ridiculously be presented straight to Cabinet. The usual suspects that Aileen O’Toole has brought together are:

Frank Gallagher – Property developer and drinking buddie of Bertie Ahern.

Moya Doherty – Multi-millionaire, though an unfortunate shareholder in Anglo Irish Bank

Alan Gray – Economist who’s company works for the government

Kieran McGowan – Associated of Aileen O’Toole through Business in the Community board membership

Tina Roche – Employee of Business in the Community, where Aileen O’Toole is board member

Ian McShane (no relation) – Aileen O’Tooles company Amas works for his company, and they’re connected through the JNIR

Dr. Don Thornhill – Board Member of Forfas, for whom Amas and Aileen O’Toole work (here)

That leaves Sean Gallagher of Dragons Den fame and Paul Rellis of Microsoft Ireland and American Chamber.

This is the “in crowd”. There’s nothing new or innovative here. These Advisory Council members, I guess, have always had direct access to the powers that be, but now they’re just doing it off the back of the ideas of the general public.

There are no members of the public on this Council. The members of the public who submitted their ideas have been completely forgotten now that their ideas have been collected and collated.

All I’m hearing when I see these names and hear about Advisory Councils providing strategic advice and shaping an action plan are the words “useless quango”.

I personally have no faith in this campaign. I sincerely hope that something good comes from it, but I’m not holding my breath.

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Irelands crap tourism promotion

I’ve received a few e-mails in the past couple of weeks about how useless people think Tourism Ireland are when it comes to how they promote Ireland across the world. This could be in response to one of the more popular posts on the site recently was this one about how Maurice Pratt got a nice cushy job with some tourism quango/committee.

I’m following up on one or two issues myself based on some information received – I’m not saying they’re another FAS, but then again, they don’t have the FAS budget.

One e-mail I can share with you, is went as follows:

Hi… I registered last week with tripadvisor.com and they kindly sent a freebie publication of 50 best holiday locations in the world as voted by their users.  No surprise then that Irealnd gets no mention whatsoever…  And this, at a time, when we’re collectively hoping that old reliables such a sTourism will sustain a part of the economy.
If you register with TripAdvisor, you’ll receive a copy.  i have no vested interest in any of this – just disappointed at Tourism Ireland and Failte Ireland spending €110m collectively to achieve very little.
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