Watchdog will name and shame rip-off firms
A NEW high-powered consumer watchdog will name and shame businesses ripping off or giving wrong information to customers and provide stronger protection to shoppers.
Far stiffer penalties will be brought in for price-fixing and breaches of competition law under the new regime.
As the January sales kick off today, the move will be a massive boost for consumers who have lacked a one-stop shop to tackle problems.
The new watchdog will have a bigger role in conducting price comparisons, information, advocacy and naming and shaming.
The merger of the existing National Consumer Agency and the Competition Authority next year will also deliver a better deal for the taxpayer as it will cut costs.
Jobs Minister Richard Bruton is currently finalising the legislation to set up the new body.
The minister believes bringing consumer protection and competition together will strengthen both areas and make the agency more "consumer focused".
The naming and shaming of businesses will occur in cases of misleading and prohibited commercial practices, such as
* Providing false, misleading or deceptive information.
* Competitor or product confusion in marketing or advertising.
* Withholding, omitting or concealing material information.
* Price display contraventions.
* Preventing the reading of prices.
Mr Bruton said the creation of the watchdog would strengthen the hand of the consumer "massively".
"It's a powerful enforcer for the consumer for the first time. It has the full powers to go after misleading descriptions, failure to price display, or the more serious things like price-fixing. It has the powerful tools to do that.
"There are all sorts of powers there, like compliance orders, prohibition orders but also really strong criminal offences. Making the market work for consumers - that is what it is about.
"You are bringing together the two dimensions, which were separate, so having all the competition as well as consumer compliance in the one agency," he said.
Mr Bruton said merging the existing bodies would mean bringing a wider array of skills together with much stronger enforcement powers.
"It also changes the outlook of a competition authority to be more consumer-focused, more about sorting things, rather than being very legalistic and just about cases. So I think you get a win-win from it.
"You still have all that enforcement which is very important, and that is ultimately what forces compliance, but you need to also apply those powers intelligently for consumers to get a good deal in the here and now," he said.
The minister said the two bodies would cover a vast array of offences.
"It goes right from the minor misdemeanour of failing to have a proper display or the price label you couldn't read through to price-fixing," he said.
Mr Bruton said the idea was to ensure businesses stick to the law - and know there will be repercussions if they don't.
"We can create a much better culture of compliance in the marketplace," he said.
In a boost for small business and shops, Mr Bruton is also moving to cut the red tape involved in getting licences.
Small business will be able to apply for all their annual licences using a one-stop-shop by the end of next year.
Under the new system, a business will just have to make one application, probably online, specifying what area it operates in and ticking boxes to say what type of licence it requires. The new process will replace the multiple form-filling that currently exists.
The Government is also looking at cutting the number of licences granted by depart-ments and state agencies.
A review of 159 licences for businesses, including those operating in manufacturing, food and drink, retail, hospitality, waste management, haulage and construction, found that at least a third could be cut through mergers of different responsibilities.
Mr Bruton believes it is necessary to reduce the burden on small businesses and enhance competitiveness.