Consumer watchdog pleads for more staff to end crisis
THE country's consumer watchdog is struggling to cope with just half the number of staff it was promised.
National Consumer Agency (NCA) chairman Stephen Costello has warned the Government that chronic staff shortages are creating relentless pressure in the agency.
He said the issue was so serious it could lead to health and safety problems for workers.
The underperforming agency has been left with just 47 staff even though it was initially mandated for 80 when set up three years ago.
Despite concerns raised at the time, the NCA was subsequently mandated by the Department of Finance to employ a total of just 52 staff. But five of these jobs remain unfilled.
Because of the public sector recruitment embargo, any new jobs have to be filled by staff redeployed from other government bodies.
The NCA recently faced criticism after it emerged that just six prosecutions were taken last year despite thousands of complaints from consumers.
Mr Costello's comments were made to Tanaiste Mary Coughlan in a hard-hitting letter, seen by the Irish Independent.
In the letter, Mr Costello, a former chief executive of Marks & Spencer in Ireland, warned that the agency's staff situation was "unsustainable".
He said the NCA had "achieved a considerable deal" despite having "extremely limited resources".
But he warned: "There is a fine balance between healthy pressure on staff and a relentless level of pressure which is unfair on individual staff members and will inevitably give rise to health and safety problems.
"The NCA is now very much at the negative end of these balancing issues."
Uncertainty over decentralisation -- the NCA had been due to move to Cork before plans were put on hold -- has also made it difficult to attract staff.
Former NCA board member and consumer champion Eddie Hobbs said the agency had been hamstrung since its inception by staffing issues.
He said the latest row showed the Government was not really interested in protecting consumers.
Mr Hobbs also said the agency was being "held back" by having to report to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation.
"Ideally, the NCA should be independent and should stand apart from government. It should have its own budget and be able to recruit staff from outside the civil service," he said.
The agency's annual report for 2009 showed that it took just 96 enforcement actions in the entire year, despite receiving 65,000 queries and complaints.
Labour consumer affairs spokesman Brendan Ryan said it was "hardly credible that there were fewer than 100 instances of misleading pricing displays, misleading advertising, car clocking or watering down of drink in 2009".
NCA board meeting records show that the staffing issue has been of major concern for some time.
Board members have also expressed concern at the impact on morale.
In April of last year, the board was told that the previously sanctioned staffing level of 80 had been withdrawn by the Department of Finance. By October 2009, the number of staff had fallen to 42.
In a statement, the Department of Enterprise said staffing in all public agencies must be considered in the context of overall public sector numbers and pressure on public finances.
Mr Costello declined to comment when contacted by the Irish Independent.