Supporters rally behind Consumer Council after review is ordered
The Consumer Council is an essential organisation that Northern Ireland cannot do without, its supporters have claimed.
Their comments come after it emerged that the watchdog could be axed and replaced by an independent body outside government.
With annual running costs of £2.5m, the results of an independent review concluded that it may be too expensive and that it is no longer essential to consumers.
Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster has launched a three-month consultation – due to end in January – on three options.
These include whether the council should remain in existence, an independent body should be created, or the council should be abolished.
If it was scrapped, then its responsibilities would be transferred to another body, such as the Citizens Advice Bureau, as an internal report has suggested.
Supporters of the Consumer Council are surprised as the body is seen as doing a good job of holding Stormont to account.
There has been huge support for the organisation – which represents the public on transport, water and energy issues – amid fears of its demise.
Community outreach worker Oliver McCaffrey said people in the Roslea area of Co Fermanagh suffered from interruptions to their water supply for 10 years until the consumer champion stepped in.
"The Consumer Council is an essential part of Northern Ireland society and I definitely don't think it should be abolished," he said.
"We tried everybody, including NI Water and politicians, but we didn't get anywhere until we got the Consumer Council on board."
Energy brokering manager at Bryson Energy, Raymond Gormley voiced his support for the service provided by the watchdog, which is funded by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI).
"It is the voice for the consumer in Northern Ireland and I don't think it should be scrapped and I don't think its powers should be transferred to another organisation," he said.
"The people who work in the various departments at the Consumer Council are experts in their fields and they provide an essential service to consumers across the province."
National Energy Action NI director Pat Austin said its role as an independent body was vital.
"As a fuel poverty charity we have always worked hand-in-hand with the Consumer Council and it's essential to have an organisation with its expertise that can provide support for charities like ours," said Ms Austin.
Interim chief executive Aodhan O'Donnell said the council's top priority is providing the best possible representation and support for consumers.
"Last year we put £300,000 back into consumers' pockets through our complaints work alone, but that's only the tip of the iceberg," he said.
"That figure doesn't take into account the money consumers save as a result of Consumer Council intervention in energy and water pricing reviews, or the money saved by those who use our petrol, diesel, gas, electricity and online price comparison tables to ensure they were getting the best deal.
"And it's not just about money saved. Our role is also about making sure consumers get a fair deal and good customer service, and that they are equipped to do something about it if they don't.
"We do all of this – integrated consumer complaints, policy and education work – with a relatively modest budget of £2.5m, which really does give consumers value for money."
A DETI spokeswoman said the independent review commissioned in 2012 recognised that the Consumer Council – established in 1985 – has been effective as an organisation but it concluded that it may be no longer be the most cost-effective mechanism for delivering consumer representation in Northern Ireland.
"The Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment has considered the review findings but wants to seek the views of stakeholders and consumers before coming to a decision on the best model for future consumer representation," she said.
"No decisions have been taken."