|Putting consumers first? |
The penny drops at last and the National Consumer Agency (NCA) is to launch a price comparison site, having become a symbol of the rip-off Ireland tiger, it was to tame. "A long threatening comes at last," my mother used to say and she didn't find that line in James Joyce's Ulysses! The agency of high spending and little consequence has got some back teeth, as it faces the prospect of amalgamation with the Competition Authority, or maybe not. When it comes to change in these matters, it's best to not expect much.
The Irish Times reports today that the NCA has written to the Republic’s big retailers with a view to establishing a grocery database containing real-time price information which consumers could use to make accurate comparisons on the cost of a basket of goods.
The newspaper says the agency is "anxious" to provide consumers with more timely information on supermarket pricing than the costly biannual surveys it publishes and is exploring the possibility of setting up a price comparison website which retailers would be required to update regularly.
Tesco Ireland last night gave its provisional backing to the plan with chief executive Tony Keohane calling on all grocery retailers to co-operate.
The NCA had its genesis in the establishment of the Consumer Strategy Group in March 2004, under the chairmanship of Ann Fitzgerald who was Chief Executive of the Irish Association of Investment Managers - - a small industry group.
It was a time when the issue of "rip-off Ireland" was getting a lot of attention.
More than five years later, the National Consumer Agency is run by Ann Fitzgerald and like many of the quangos, that have been spawned in the past decade, it has a questionable impact.
It appears to get involved in issues only after they have raised publicly elsewhere.
Its biggest failure is that it until now, it did not view the web as an effective tool in providing consumers with comparative price information, on key goods and services.
Finfacts does more than toss grenades from the sidelines and said in its submission to the Consumer Strategy Group in 2004 that:"The one dramatic measure to both empower the consumer and promote competition would be to set up a national web service providing consumers with comparative prices of key products and services, in principal urban centres."
With a board of 14 managing a staff of about 25, the agency became a byword for public waste.
It spent €200,000 on a contract with a public relations firm to mainly issue press releases and the head of a public body with the remit to ensure that consumers were getting value for money, could also earn more than €200,000 annually excluding pension costs - - eclipsing the earnings of the chairman of the US Federal Reserve.
Is it any wonder, that the country is broke?
So at last the penny has dropped but as our recent examples of rip-off taxpayer scams show, public sector computer projects are a bonanza for insiders. So, it would be foolish to expect value for money in the NCA project as the agency has been a burden on the taxpayer so far but a boon for the insiders.
SEE: The Waste Land - - Bord Snip, Irish Public Spending Transparency and the motto "Never do anything for the first time"