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Watchdog pockets €25,000 perk

THE head of the consumer watchdog has been paid a performance-related bonus of almost €25,000, even though shoppers continue to have to pay rip-off prices for many goods.

National Consumer Agency (NCA) chief executive Ann Fitzgerald received a €24,300 payment on top of her €186,891 salary, documents obtained by the Irish Independent under Freedom of Information reveal.

Details of the additional payment were revealed just a week after an NCA survey found that Irish consumers are paying a mark-up of 51pc on certain clothing, household and electronic goods compared to UK prices.

Despite queries from the Irish Independent, Ms Fitzgerald refused to say last night whether she thought the bonus payment was appropriate in the current economic climate.

She also refused to state whether she would accept another bonus if offered one in the coming year.

In a statement, the NCA said the bonus was paid last year in recognition of work done in 2007. The agency said the bonus payment was approved by its remuneration committee after an assessment of Ms Fitzgerald's performance.

Under the terms of her contract, Ms Fitzgerald can be awarded a performance related payment of up to 20pc of her salary. If she had been given the full amount last year, her bonus would have been over €37,000.

NCA chairman -- and former Marks & Spencer chief executive -- Steve Costello, told last October's board meeting that the remuneration committee believed Ms Fitzgerald had "performed well in difficult circumstances".

Difficulties

According to the minutes of board meetings from the past year, the NCA has experienced major staffing difficulties since it was established in May 2007.

Some 21 staff left the agency during 2007 and uncertainty over decentralisation had an adverse impact on staff recruitment.

The Department of Finance insisted replacements be taken from a decentralisation panel without them having to go though an interview process. However, the NCA board insisted an interview process was essential.

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Board meeting notes also reveal that the NCA opted not to prosecute a number of car dealers found to be selling clocked cars. Instead, they were asked for formal undertakings not to clock cars again.

John Shine, NCA director of commercial practices, believed that prosecutions could be protracted.

He also told board members the agency was considering initiating legal action against a number of airlines in connection with the non-refundability of fees and charges.

Much of the agency's activities last year were focused on raising awareness of its existence and of consumer rights.

The most high profile members of the board are celebrity financial adviser Eddie Hobbs and Celia Larkin, ex-partner of former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.

Eleven board members received almost €207,000 in fees and expenses last year.

Two board members, Mr Hobbs and Bill Prasifka, who is also the chairman of the Competition Authority, declined to claim any travel or subsistence expenses.

The NCA had a budget of €10m in 2008. This has been slashed to €9m for this year.

The Government plans to amalgamate the agency with the Competition Authority as part of cutbacks.


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