Monday 20 November 2017

Two-year wait for regulator sparks fears of bin charges 'free-for-all'

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Cormac McQuinn and Paul Melia

It will take at least two years to establish a waste regulator to protect householders from being ripped-off by bin companies.

This is despite the consumer watchdog warning the Government it had concerns about a lack of competition in some areas, and reports that families were being hit with unfair hikes in advance of a changeover to a pay-by-use system next September.

The Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC) has said it has been contacted 835 times in relation to waste companies since 2015, which are a mixture of queries and complaints. Some 42 contacts over the past five years related to pricing.

Tánaiste and Enterprise Minister Frances Fitzgerald said the CCPC had raised concerns about compliance with both "competition and consumer protection legislation".

In response to a parliamentary question, she added that the watchdog had found "insufficient evidence" to mount a formal investigation around anti-competitive practices in the sector.

The ban on flat-fee charges, due to be introduced in September, has led to calls from Fianna Fáil and the other Opposition parties to establish a regulator on a formal footing. Social Democrats TD Róisín Shortall said that the waste collection industry was a "free-for-all", adding there was "little or no regulation".

This had fuelled a "huge amount of concern" among consumers as to what the new regime would mean and raised fears they would be "left at the mercy of some of the waste companies" which would use the changeover as an "opportunity to engage in price gouging", she said.

The industry has rejected the charge, saying that operators who hike prices beyond reasonable levels would lose customers.

But the CCPC has been asked to report on the operation of the household waste collection market, and to monitor prices. A group is expected to be established as early as next week, made up of experts with experience of monitoring markets, the CCPC, a representative of a charity such as St Vincent de Paul, and civil servants.

It will be tasked with monitoring prices on a monthly basis, and will report in December. After that, the Government will decide if a regulator will be established with statutory powers to oversee the sector.

But this would take at least two years, sources said.

"You could get the primary legislation done, and through the houses, then you have to establish the regulator, staff it up and get the powers to it," one said. "Getting primary legislation done and then establishing a regulator will take time. It's likely to be two years."

The pay-by-use system is being introduced amid growing concerns about a lack of landfill capacity to safely dispose of household waste. While recycling rates are high, and we are expected to meet onerous EU targets, there is concern some households are refusing to segregate waste in areas where flat-fee charges apply. Some operators, including Panda, have said they will begin levying households which contaminate waste, for example by putting black bin waste into recycling bins.

Environment Minister Denis Naughten has said the report would inform waste policy, and "provide an evidence base to establish a regulator to prevent price gouging".

"It's a difficult one to do," a source said. "The CCPC will be part of it, and they have good experience of getting prices from companies. The National Waste Permit Collection Office, which licences operators, said it had revoked 590 permits since 2012. Some were cancelled because the business had closed, but in other cases the holder did not meet the necessary criteria."

Read more: Too busy to follow the bin charges story closely? Here's what you need to know 

Read more: Flat-fee bin charges to be banned in bid to increase recycling rates 

Irish Independent

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