Consumer Council in fight for survival
The Consumer Council has begun a robust fightback following a scathing report that has threatened its future in Northern Ireland.
Its strident counter-offensive comes after it emerged that it could be axed and replaced by an independent body outside government.
With annual running costs of £2.5m, the Simpson Report concluded the watchdog may be too expensive to run and no longer essential to consumers.
Consequently, Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster has launched a consultation on three options: whether it should remain in existence, an independent body created, or the council scrapped.
However, Consumer Council chairman Rick Hill hit back and accused the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) of inaccuracies, omissions and unbalanced comments on a range of issues. "The Consumer Council's top priority is providing the best possible representation and support for consumers," Mr Hill said.
"We will submit our views and recommendations as part of the consultation process, but given that the consultation document is in the public domain, we felt it was important to note inaccuracies, omissions and to provide some balance to comments without context."
The consumer champion has sent a 16-page paper to DETI, seen by the Belfast Telegraph, summarising what it sees as major issues over the consultation material and key areas of concern.
A DETI spokeswoman said Mrs Foster is seeking the views of stakeholders and consumers before coming to a decision on the best model for future consumer representation.
The three-month consultation, due to end in January, could result in the Consumer Council being scrapped.
In such a scenario, its responsibilities would be transferred to another body, such as the Citizens Advice Bureau, as an internal report has suggested.
In the paper, now with DETI, the watchdog rebuffs the findings of the Simpson Report.
Supporters of the Consumer Council – which represents the public on transport, water and energy issues – have said they are surprised that its future hangs in the balance, as it is seen as being effective at holding Stormont to account.
Interim chief executive Aodhan O'Donnell said that last year, the council put £300,000 back in to consumers' pockets through complaints work alone which, he stressed, was "only the tip of the iceberg".
'Inaccuracies, omissions, imbalance'... what the council says is wrong with the department's document
By Claire McNeilly
The Consumer Council denies claims in the material that it is slow on occasion to clear complaints. It points to its overall customer satisfaction rate (including how quickly complaints are dealt with) of 97.39% and 97.72% in 2011-12 and 2012-13 respectively. It believes this is in an inaccuracy.
The Consumer Council also disputes claims that it focuses on front line advice and complaints. It says the report shows a disregard for its role in a Northern Ireland context and the benefit it brings in terms of integrating the research, advocacy and education functions. "The Simpson Report simply refers to the GB landscape changes and the consultation document fails to put forward any assessment of their impact, cost-effectiveness or transferability to Northern Ireland," the response says. It believes this to be an omission.
The Consumer Council argues that "there is no acknowledgement of any potential bias from stakeholders who will have been faced with specific complaints and concerns from the Consumer Council on behalf of consumers about their service or product". It said it was wrong to focus on stakeholders within the water, energy and transport industries and not ask customers themselves. The council believes this is an omission.
The Consumer Council says the documentation suggests that stakeholders felt it needed to ensure its views were "underpinned by a strong, defensible evidence base. It argues that the actual research undertaken by the Consumer Council was ignored. It adds that had they examined this, they would have found that over 20 pieces of quantitative research and over 100 consumer panels were undertaken in 2012-13 alone. The council feels this is unbalanced.
The Consumer Council also disputes the assertion that it lacks technical competence "without any supporting information or evidence". It says that the documentation makes no reference to the Consumer Council's extensive role in matters such as price control processes, licence reviews, tariff reviews and consultation responses which often require in-depth insight. It feels this is unbalanced.
The Consumer Council also responds to claims that it sets itself a number of targets to be achieved. "It would be worth noting that all plans are produced through a process which includes consumer engagement and public consultation. These plans are also approved by DETI," it says. The response believes this is an omission.