State must do more to look out for Irish consumers
Published 06/04/2014 | 02:30
WE have a dismal record at protecting consumers in this country. The Central Bank stands accused of prioritising the interests of the banks over the protection of consumers.
The system during the boom, when the Central Bank was split into a prudential supervisor and a financial regulator, was abandoned in 2010 because of its manifest failure to act in the interests of consumers, never mind avoid the banks imploding.
The financial services ombudsman regime finds in favour of banks, insurance companies and credit card operators in seven out of 10 cases.
That is little short of extraordinary given the unprecedented financial collapse in this country.
Ombudsman Bill Prasifka says he is hamstrung by the legislation underpinning his office, but others argue he could do more to be on the side of consumers.
Paul Joyce of the Free Legal Aid Centres (FLAC) produced an academic study last month excoriating the Central Bank and the ombudsman's office, accusing the two institutions of being pro-provider rather than acting to protect the rights of consumers.
Householders have been repeatedly told by the Government, Department of Finance and the regulators that all was to change in light of the downturn, and institutions of the State charged with consumer protection would live up to their mandates.
All of this came to mind when we were told last week that a new "powerful" consumer watchdog was to be put in place.
Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation Minister Richard Bruton promised the "watchdog with real teeth" when launching legislation to merge the National Consumer Agency with the Competition Authority.
He said a bill he was introducing would provide for increased powers for investigating serious anti-consumer offences in such areas as cartels and price-fixing.
We have been here before. We were promised a souped-up consumer champion when the National Consumer Agency was set up in 2007. Little was delivered.
The real problem is that the State is the biggest enemy of the consumer.
The enormous burden of fixing the broken economy has been borne by households.
The State has heaped costs on ordinary people in areas such as health insurance, property taxes, higher valued added taxes, pensions levies, transports costs, education, third-level fees, insurance levies, and more. And then there are water charges to come.
All of these changes are attacks on householders – and a real consumer protection agency would make a stand against this financial onslaught.
It is too easy to claim that cartels in business are the problem. But the State is the real problem.
Creating a new quango will change nothing.
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