Belfast Telegraph

Friday 31 October 2014

Arlene Foster denies trying to gag Consumer Council watchdog by launching review

'Is this really not about silencing the Consumer Council and, by extension, the consumer voice?'

Green Party leader Steven Agnew
Green Party leader Steven Agnew

The appointment of a retired civil servant to head up a probe into the future of the Consumer Council has been called into question.

Green Party leader Steven Agnew said a more independent individual should have been given the role of conducting the review.

The North Down MLA said the fact that no other candidates were considered for the job gave credence to the fear that Stormont Minister Arlene Foster wants to shut the Consumer Council down.

The industry minister confirmed that senior civil servant Paul Simpson was appointed under a 'direct award contact' and he was the only person considered.

Mr Agnew said: "The fear is the department is seeking to bring about the conclusion which it wants, which is to shut up a body which has had the audacity to be critical of government policy.

"The attitude from the Department of Trade and Industry seems to be why should we fund a body which is going to be critical of us.

"The Consumer Council was set up to act in the interests of consumers. The report which DETI brought out appears to ask why should the Consumer Council be carrying out independent research – which is of course exactly what it should be doing," he said.

In a written Assembly answer, Mrs Foster said she appointed Mr Simpson "on the basis of the breadth of his experience gained in a number of departments in a wide range of policy, finance and governance roles, and in recognition of the skills and experience he would bring to the review in relation to the effective use of public funds, and the delivery of ministerial and statutory objectives".

A £20,000 independent review of the council commissioned a year ago concluded that it may be too expensive and no longer essential to consumers.

When she launched a three-month public consultation last month, Mrs Foster rejected SDLP claims that the demise of the current council is a fait accompli.

But the DUP minister's decision to put a number of options out to consultation – including the status quo – also flies in the face of the recommendation of the Stormont committee monitoring her department which said: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it".

SDLP chair of the committee Patsy McGlone asked for reassurances that the consultation is not a charade.

His party colleague Fearghal McKinney asked: "Is this really not about silencing the Consumer Council and, by extension, the consumer voice?"

The minister replied: "It is absolutely not about that."

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