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Your cash, your rights, your ... Consumer champion

As we launch our brilliant new colunm designed to save you money and protect your interests, Marie Foy meets Antoinette McKeown, CEO of the Consumer Council for Northern Ireland

Living and working in what used to be one of the poorest boroughs in Britain made Antoinette McKeown realise what she wanted to do with her life — help people get a fair deal.

A year into her job as CEO of the Consumer Council for Northern Ireland, one of the most powerful voices speaking out for the local community here, Antoinette is as passionate as ever about her aims.

Antoinette first went to the tough inner London borough of Tower Hamlets London as a fresh-faced young graduate who had grown up in rural Co Armagh and gone to school in Newry. Although she didn’t follow the traditional route for someone interested in public service — she studied literature and politics at the University of Ulster at Jordanstown followed by a masters in Irish politics at Queen’s University — she had worked in various community groups from a young age, which helped her to get her first job as a community worker.

“There was a real sense of poverty and exclusion in Tower Hamlets — it was palpable. Around 67% of the population were from a black or other minority ethnic background. Walking down the street was a real shock to my senses. But it was also one of the loveliest places I have ever worked and lived in. And it confirmed for me that I wanted to continue my career in public services,” she reveals.

“I was very lucky. My role was to develop and bring new services to the borough in line with the new Children’s Act,” she says. That gave her the chance to meet people on the ground — “they had never been asked before what they needed in their local communities,” she recalls.

Her early experiences proved to be a sound basis for her future career and eventually, after seven years, she took up a post with PlayBoard in Belfast, which works for the rights of children to play. She later became its chief executive, liaising with the likes of Cherie Booth, and the group established 100 high quality play clubs across Northern Ireland.

Next, she became head of policy and public affairs with the Equal Opportunities Commission.

“It’s kind of no surprise that I came into the Consumer Council because I strongly believe when you are delivering a service the public are paying for, you have to listen to the views of the people,” says Antoinette, who lives in Co Antrim and has two sons, aged 13 and 10.

“The Council’s work is completely based on the needs and priorities the consumers tell us about. As well as giving out information, we are providing advice and help with complaints. We seek the views of consumers on a whole range of issues, and that shapes our priorities. This new series in the Belfast Telegraph is a real contribution which will empower people by helping them to realise what their rights are.”

A consumer like the rest of us, Antoinette has had her own private tussles with bureaucracy. One of the many areas the council is involved with is accessing forgotten bank accounts (within the first few months of the campaign the Council helped recover around £17,000). The project reminded Antoinette about an account she had forgotten about herself.

“I have spent over a year trying to track one belonging to my 13-year-old son which his grandfather opened when he was a baby. I have the account number, all the information, but despite that I have spent 13 months chasing it. I have found it almost impossible, I’m going round in circles. I’m still feeling the pain — it hasn’t been resolved despite my best efforts,” she admits. “I made the mistake of telling my son he had a bank account with £170 in it. I lent him the money and he immediately spent it.

“Since coming to the Council as a mum I have been much more careful ensuring my children take responsibility for managing their money. When I do give them a loan I tell them they have to pay me back, which I perhaps wouldn’t have done in the past, because there is a very serious issue here of teaching children how to manage money. That is a real challenge going forward.”

Antoinette is clear that the first and foremost role of the Council is as a watchdog, an independent challenge to service providers overseeing a range of services; from transport, water and education to financial affairs, energy and business. Plus, they have a statutory duty to protect general consumer interests, and make sure their rights and needs are being met.

This is partly done by giving consumers a voice, lobbying for change, and helping people complain when they need to.

Public expenditure cuts are a priority. “We recognise consumers in NI are going to have a considerable amount of pain given our heavier dependency on welfare and benefits, and having the highest levels of fuel poverty in western Europe. We pay an average £283 more on fuel than other areas of the UK,” Antoinette says.

“We also have the lowest levels of financial capability. We know that 25% of people here don’t seek any information before buying a financial product. It’s a priority to help people make the most of the money they have,” she adds.

“We have been working with economists to identify the impacts of cuts on people, and we are holding two major public events, one on September 16 at the Holiday Inn in Belfast, to give the public a chance to tell us directly what cuts are causing them the most pain. “

The results of this and other research will be presented to MLAs. “The Executive has the power to mitigate the deepest of the cuts or to make them worse according to the decisions it takes, and we will be fighting for the right ones.”

Antoinette and her team of 48 work tirelessly but she gets great satisfaction from her job. “I feel very privileged to lead the staff here. They are very good and very committed,” she says.

Among the most recent problems they’ve tackled have been pushing for free cash machines, particularly in deprived areas, giving prompt advice to travellers caught up in the ash cloud which disrupted flights and bringing home stranded holidaymakers, and working towards getting better deals for consumers in utilities.

“As a result of our intervention, NI Water had a priority service in place before the cold snap last winter when people had no running water for days, so the elderly and vulnerable people were seen to first. In a very tangible way we believe our work makes a difference.”

They even negotiated with NIE, who wanted to charge an elderly man £74,000 to bring electric to his home, and agreed a more sensible rate. His neighbours also benefited from the link up to the grid.

“We do have teeth,” Antoinette stresses. “We are continuing to scrutinise NI Water and have asked Minister Conor Murphy hard questions about a review of its contracts issuing practices.

“We have also taken on the banks. We have demonstrated we can make change happen. Without apology we will represent consumers and make sure they are getting a good deal. We are willing to work collaboratively but we are also prepared to intervene with our full statutory powers.

“I love my job,” says Antoinette. “I get to solve lots of problems and something different passes over my desk every day. It’s fantastic to be in a position where you can make a difference.”

With such a busy life, Antoinette has to make sure she sets aside just a little time for herself. She loves her Pilates class — “I have been doing it for 10 years. It helps me manage the impact of a car accident many years ago,” she reveals. “I also attend a boxing club to keep me fit and I enjoy that too.

“Despite the demands of the job, I make sure that one day a week, every week, I am standing in the playground being only a mum, collecting my son from school. That is hugely important to me.”

How the powerful watchdog is battling for you

The Consumer Council for NI has been in the vanguard of demands for action on:

  • Banks to review charges to customers and make refunds in excessive cases.
  • A public inquiry into the proposed runway extension at George Best Belfast City Airport. A date for the inquiry has yet to be set.
  • Alerting — in association with Trading Standards — the public to scams such as prize offers which involve phoning premium rate numbers.
  • Reclaiming millions of pounds from lost or dormant bank and building society accounts.
  • Reviews of high petrol and diesel prices in Northern Ireland.
  • Greater transparency in the work of NI Water and its procurement processes.
  • Reviews of winter fuel payments.
  • An investigation into why insurance premiums in Northern Ireland are the highest in the United Kingdom.
  • Refunds for holidaymakers stranded by the collapse of travel companies or because of volcanic ash disruption of flights.
  • More help for low income families to manage their money.

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