Earlier this year we reported on the average €18,000 a month the National Consumer Agency is spending on PR with Q4 PR.
There are NCA staff who are unhappy the agency is spending so much on PR especially at a time when it has low staff numbers and those staff are no longer encouraged to do field inspections. Instead of carrying out inspections the NCA sends retailers and others letters warning them to comply with regulations.
Under consumer legislation the NCA can prosecute retailers for not complying with price display rules or selling unsafe products.
The NCA is also responsible for implementing the European rapid alert system — RAPEX — for unsafe products which have to be removed from the market. Since 2004 the number of notifications issued though the system in Europe has increased from 468 to 1,993 in 2009. The number of recalls initiated by Ireland has dropped from 32 in 2007 to 20 last year.
A Freedom of Information document released last week showed that up to March 19 this year the NCA hadn't carried out a single field inspection anywhere throughout Ireland. Since then one survey has been carried out and one more is in progress.
The savings in travel and expenses have been small enough. The NCA paid around €100,000 in travel and expenses to staff in 2007 and 2008 when it was carrying out about 1,000 inspections a year nation-wide. Total expenses dropped to €46,518 last year when there were 626 inspections while just €651 has been paid out this year.
The NCA said the fall off in field inspections was due to it "refocusing" its resources.
“Our approach to enforcement of consumer protection legislation has been developing to reflect the increased powers and enforcement tools available under the Consumer Protection Act, 2007,” said an NCA statement.
“Our enforcement efforts are concentrated on those areas where there is the greatest potential for consumer loss or detriment, while not losing sight of other areas which impact on consumers’ welfare," it continued.
“The Agency has significantly restructured and refocused its activities in recent years and continues to develop its approach to enforcement. Historically, our predecessor, the Office of the Director of Consumer Affairs (ODCA), devoted considerable resources to the enforcement of price display and misleading pricing breaches. Every single pricing complaint was followed up with a physical visit. This was not necessarily the most effective use of scarce resources.”
The NCA said it continued to take price-display breaches “very seriously” but it now dealt with complaints on a “risk basis” using a combination of written procedures and follow-up visits.
The NCA insisted it had an “extensive programme of inspection activity” planned for the rest of 2010.
The consumer agency has an approved headcount for 80 staff but it currently employs just 43. Its planned decentralisation to Cork has been cancelled and the government has said it plans to merge the NCA with the Competition Authority
Most of the NCA staff are on secondment from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation. Plans to recruit permanent staff for the agency were put on hold in 2008 dut to government cutbacks.
For the moment the NCA carries on as an under-resourced quango without much bite.