Opinion – Rick Hill, Chair Of The Consumer Council On Future Consumer Representation Arrangements In Northern Ireland
The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) consultation on the future of consumer representation in Northern Ireland has now closed and as readers will expect, the Consumer Council has submitted an in depth response. However, what has been really encouraging is that so many others took time to set out their reasons why consumer representation in Northern Ireland should be strengthened - not diminished or dismantled.
~~Of the 300+ responses received by DETI we have been very grateful to receive copies of some lengthy and detailed submissions from a wide range of organisations and individuals - from Manufacturing Northern Ireland to David Stubbs, an expert in policy and economics, the Law Society, Age Sector Platform and Lord Whitty, a former GB minister at DEFRA with responsibility for sustainable energy. They have made for heartening reading – many express the view that the current model of consumer representation in Northern Ireland is the right one.
Currently our integrated organisation has policy, consumer complaints and education functions all working together to support and inform each other. Following up on one consumer’s complaint can lead us to lobby and campaign for improvements for all. Delivering consumer education campaigns empowers consumers and ensures they understand their rights. Some consultation responses that have been shared with us have pointed out the envy with which this integrated model of consumer representation is held in GB; others have advised caution and that a full impact assessment needs to be carried out before any major changes are introduced.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t continuously look for ways to improve and develop the way we represent consumers, and we do. We’ve also had some good feedback in that regard during this process for us to consider.
Some responses to the consultation have advocated strengthening the Consumer Council’s information gathering powers, in line with those held by Consumer Futures in GB. This would mean companies could be compelled to share more information with us than they currently have to. Our own submission also highlighted this recommendation, together with other proposals, such as ensuring we proactively identify future issues and concerns for consumers. Policy decisions, especially on energy, finance, transport and water are taken with a long term view so it is essential the consumer impact is considered over the long term.
The Consumer Council’s latest Cost of Living research from December 2013 has revealed that almost half (49 per cent) of consumers are worried about their ability to make ends meet currently, with 56 per cent worried about their ability to make ends meet in the future. While other recent surveys have indicated an improvement in consumer confidence, there is a definite lag before consumers see this translated to their household budget or pocket. As people continue to struggle, particularly with energy and food costs, Northern Ireland needs the Consumer Council, a steadfast and independent organisation with highly experienced staff dedicated to representing the needs of all NI consumers and businesses at local, regional, national and European levels.
For almost 30 years the Consumer Council has continuously adapted to respond to consumers’ changing needs. We now look forward to working with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment to ensure that NI consumers continue to be protected and have the best possible representation.
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