Northern Ireland people 'too conservative' to complain in restaurants, says consumer council chief French
Northern Ireland Consumer Council (NICC) boss John French (41) tells Claire McNeilly about overhauling its image, working with world leaders at the G8... and the most recent complaint he himself made as a customer.
Q. Tell us about yourself.
A. I'm from Durham, England, but I live in east Belfast. I moved to Northern Ireland in 2009, although I've been coming here for 20 years having met my wife Christine (38) in my fourth year at the University of Dundee. She's from Dervock. She is a teacher turned homemaker. We have three children: Daniel (9), Matthew (8) and Emily (6). When we started our family we wanted to be here to be close to the family network.
Q. What do you consider your biggest achievement as Northern Ireland Consumer Council (NICC) boss?
A. I've only been there a year and a half, but we're trying to change the Consumer Council. We've got a new corporate plan and a new forward work programme. We're trying to work in partnership with other organisations such as Citizens Advice Northern Ireland, Advice NI and the Law Society, to see how the four organisations can work together to bring a joined-up approach to consumer protection and consumer rights and whether we can share data.
Q. What are the main issues for consumers in Northern Ireland?
A. We've done a lot of research into this and the main issues are around disposable income. Asda would estimate that disposable income in Northern Ireland is just over £100, which is £100 less than our counterparts in Great Britain. People have concerns around their energy, the cost of day-to-day living etc, and we try to empower consumers to get the best deal.
Q. Give us some examples of the organisation's biggest successes for consumers.
A. Last week a staff member saved Derry City Council £93,000 by making sure their water bill was correct. We've also recently worked with Northern Ireland supporters who were trying to get over to the Euros for the Wales game and they were flying via Belfast to Gatwick and the easyJet flight was cancelled. We managed to help supporters get £7,000 to 8,000 back in compensation.
Q. The NICC was almost axed in 2013 by the then Enterprise Minister (now First Minister) Arlene Foster. Do you harbour any fears for its future?
A. No, not if we can prove we're making a real difference to consumers in Northern Ireland, and we must constantly be doing that. We can't rest on our laurels. We have to be proving ourselves every day.
Q. How could consumers be given a louder voice in Northern Ireland?
A. That's what we're trying to do; it's our main remit to safeguard and promote the interests of consumers. We're trying to build partnerships - such as with Citizens Advice NI - to join those voices up and join that intelligence together. There's a lot of good work that's being done out there, but it's trying to bring the patches together. We work strongly with Trading Standards, with the regulators, both the Utility Regulator and Ofcom, and we've got good relationships with Translink and the airports and ferry companies.
Q. What does/can the Consumer Council actually do to help consumers apart from give advice?
A We try to give advice via free-to-use material. We've just set up our own switching website for consumers to go online and work out the best deals. I did it myself a fortnight ago and saved £104 by changing my energy provider. We give protection - we're the complaints body for water, energy and post - and we managed to give back just under £900,000 to consumers last year by helping them solve their problems. We also advocate on behalf of consumers - when government or regulators are coming up with policies we try and ensure they are consumer-focused and have consumers at the heart of their policies, such as ticketing, in Translink's case.
Q. Do you think public transport (Translink) in Northern Ireland is up to speed?
A. If you look at Great Britain and the Republic overall Translink is doing a good job. The quality of the buses and trains is good. It has changed a lot. They have put a lot of work into it. We're working closely with its boss Chris Conway and he's very keen to see that consumer ethic brought into the centre of the organisation. We're very keen to see the use of public transport in Northern Ireland and we're very keen to work with Translink to make sure people get the right ticketing options. I use the bus every day and I know myself that just trying to work out which ticket I should be buying isn't easy.
Q. What's your view on Northern Ireland not having a rail link to the airports?
A. It's down to cost and ultimately the consumer pays for it. It's going back to providing value for money. Everyone would love a rail link, but it's whether it makes sense to Northern Ireland in terms of cost.
Q. Why do you think Northern Ireland people accept shoddy service in cafes, restaurants and shops?
A. It's their conservative nature and conservative background. It's down to confidence as well, and knowing your rights. For me the size of the purchase makes the difference. If I was buying a sandwich and someone was rude I would probably live with it, but if I was buying a TV I would be more likely to complain.
Q. How do you think the public sees the Consumer Council and the work your organisation does?
A. We've got a long way to go. We need to get out there. Part of the ongoing reorganisation involves putting more resources into people to go out into the community and deliver events or communications. We've also had companies agree that we can give training sessions at lunchtime and explain to staff - including Phoenix Natural Gas, Dale Farm and Moy Park.
Q. How does NICC differ from an organisation like Citizens' Advice?
A. We help in their training. We're part of their advisor training course. We help write modules for their handbook, which is on their website, but we also then have our statutory role for complaints. CAB advisors can only get an issue so far, then we can help them take it that extra mile. It's complementing each other and realising where each organisation has its strengths and trying to get the best overall for the consumer.
Q. Is there a difference between how NICC currently operates and your personal vision for how it should function to best represent consumers?
A. Yes. I want us more in the community, making more of a difference. I want people to feel empowered. We recognise that we don't know everything, other organisations have skills and it's about trying to bring the skills of all the organisations together so that the consumer gets the most informed decision. We're not in for a beauty parade, we're not here for egos, we're just trying to get practical measures for consumers to get the best possible deal. I want an organisation that's positive for Northern Ireland, that's making a real difference and we need to be out in the communities more and, hopefully, as we reorganise and re-focus that'll be a bigger part of it.
Q. How does the Consumer Council attempt to raise awareness among young people?
A. We've developed a guided consumer badge with the Girls Guides Association, which explains their rights under the new Consumer Rights Act 2015 to help them know their rights and make the correct decisions. Finance Minister Simon Hamilton presented the first troop of 11 girls (out of 2,700 to be targeted) with the badges last Thursday. We're also in early negotiations with the Scouts. We work with universities through Freshers Fairs and we've done previous work with Youth Action and we have a partnership with CEA about the sustainability of consumer choices.
Q. The NICC aims to help consumers to switch suppliers and save money. Can you give us an example of what an average household would save by changing an electricity provider, for example?
A. About £120 for the average three bedroom semi-detached property, but obviously people can save more than that if they use more. I switched provider and saved myself £104 on the year, so there are savings to be made. Different companies offer different things. Some offer a straight saving on your unit of electricity, but others offer £50 incentives to switch, so if you're a low user it might be better to get the £50 joining fee. It's about finding out what's best for you.
Q. What does the future hold for the Consumer Council? Are there any big changes in the pipeline?
A. I want us to be a positive organisation for good in Northern Ireland. We need an evidence base, so we're going to recruit an economist. We have our overarching duty to safeguard the interests of consumers. We have our four additional specific areas of water, energy, transport and post and then we have our educational role. The hope is that through the economist we can then start seeing where there are issues statistically. The model is to work in partnership with other organisations, to empower consumers so they make the right choices themselves; for example, to switch energy provider or bank accounts.
Q. What did you do before you became head of NICC on July 1, 2015?
A. I did an accountancy degree. I was a diplomat in the Foreign Office from 2002 until 2008. I worked on evacuations after 9/11, moving staff from the Middle East, India and Pakistan back to the UK. I also worked on arms exports and the G8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland. As part of my job I was posted to Vienna for a year and a half, which meant travelling a lot. It was fantastic fun. When we moved to Northern Ireland I was head of energy at the Consumer Council for two-and-a-half years, then I worked for Northern Ireland Electricity for six months and I was a director at Firmus Gas for the last three years.
Q. What has been your most interesting job so far?
A. Working at the G8 and getting to meet world leaders. It was a great experience. George Bush really impressed me. After the July 7 bombings in London he stood out in terms of his leadership role and how he supported Tony Blair. As for Blair, he just brings something to the room. Whether you like him or not, he has a charisma and a presence that's impressive.
Q. Tell us about a complaint you've made recently - and did you reveal that you're the Consumer Council boss when you were making it?
A. I was at a restaurant in London two weeks ago and I complained about the level of service and its cleanliness. The managing director rang me back - but he doesn't know who I am.