Saturday, December 12, 2009

Watch out for snake oil salesmen online!

I came down with a bit of a lung infection during the week and in the course of doing some online research on my ailment, it struck me how many companies are advertising drugs of one sort or another on the web. I never even thought about buying drugs online, seems a bit mad and unsafe to do so. I suppose it should have struck me because my junk email account is full of spam emails selling Viagra.

You can buy non-prescription drugs online, but many of these are available in shops/pharmacies and are generally occasional purchases, so I imagine the online trade in these is minimal. It is of course illegal to buy prescription drugs online for many good reasons. However it would appear that many people do it. Apart from the dangers of self diagnosis, you don't really know what you are getting. You could be paying good money for flour or starch or something a lot more dangerous. If you are not sure about the status of a particular drug, such as whether it is prescription or non-prespription, best to check the Irish Medicine Boards website where they have a database of authorised drugs on sale in Ireland.

Beware the online snake oil salesmen!

I see the Revenue Commissioners intercepted 3,000 items which contained 393,067 prescription pills in 2008 which were purchased over the web. Across the EU the number of sales is staggering, according to the EU Commission over 34 million fake tablets were intercepted in 2 months.

It would appear the market for so called "embarrassment drugs" such as Viagra is high. Many people are still too embarrassed to talk to their doctor about some conditions. This issue needs to be tackled on 2 levels. On the prevention side there is merit I think in a public awareness campaign advising people of the dangers involved. In these times of economic stringency, hard to expect Government to pay for this. It would appear to be the sort of thing that pharmacutical companies cound fund, it would be in their interests to reduce this trade. On the supply side greater efforts need to be taken by public health and enforcement agencies to track down and close down these online snake oil salesmen.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Bleak Houses?

The good news for many in the private rented sector is that prices are now back at 1999 levels. There is a lot of supply and those in the market can pick and chose. It is likely though that the tax on non-principled private residences aka second homes will be increased in the Budget tomorrow. A lot of landlords have numerous properties, so they may try and pass this cost onto the tenants. Also the Commission on Taxation recommended the abolition of the rent relief for tenants, it may not be awful lot, but for many on tight budgets was a help.

Hopefully conditions are better now!

However for many people and families on low incomes and on social welfare, the cost of renting has bizarrely gone up, despite the fact that they can least afford it. People in this category get state support in the form of rent supplement, 91,600 or 24% more than last year based on recent figures from the Department of Social and Family Affairs. Changes in the last Budget, mean that not only have tenants to pay more as part of their contribution to the rent, many also have had to top up the "official" state payment as this was also reduced in the Budget and landlords expect tenants to make up the difference. I fully understand why the Government cut their contribution, rental costs were coming down across the economy, so why not in this sector as well. However in many cases the landlord didn't accept the cut and turned to the tenant to make up the difference. You might wonder why in the current market people just don't up sticks and leave rather than pay above the market rate. I am sure in some cases people have, but not all landlords will accept tenants on rent supplement for a variety of reasons, so there is no guarantee that they will get alternative accommodation.

Also some people and families on rent supplement live in sub-standard accommodation. Earlier this year the Government to their credit did introduce higher standards for private rented sector accommodation and last week they brought in further improvements. However many of the new provisions do not apply to existing rental properties until 2013. Some landlords will meet the criteria and treat people properly, however some will try and avoid their legal obligations. That is where the local authorities come in, they are supposed to inspect rental properties in their areas. Some have a great record, over 50% of registered properties, however 17 out of the 34 local authorities inspect less than 5% (see table 37) of properties to check that they meet the current minimum standards. So the chances of dodgy landlords being caught are slim.

Organisations like Threshold do an excellent job in supporting tenants on a very limited budget, however the local authorities need to do more and carry out more inspections (at least 20%) to ensure that tenants get decent living conditions for the millions which is being spent by the state for these properties.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Traffic Lights...the right road for food labelling.

There is a big battle going on in Brussels these days that gets scant attention in the national press, but which will have major implications for consumers and their health for years to come.

In January 2008, the EU Commission introduced a proposal for a new directive to reform how food is labelled across the EU. The proposed rules will require manufacturers to put nutritional information for 6 nutrients (energy, fat, saturated fat, carbohydrates, sugar and salt) on the front of packaging.

New regulations are badly needed. Just this week the Food Safety Authority published a report on consumers experiences and preferences when it comes to food labelling. Almost 50% always or usually look at the labels, mostly to check nutritional, calorie content and ingredients. I have to be honest and say that I am among the 50% that doesn't do this very often, either because the print is very small or because the information is very technical and of little use. However I will make a New Years resolution....3 weeks early to start from now on! Although I am a sucker for the foods, such as biscuits labelled as "low fat". I know I am kidding myself into thinking chocolate biscuits are not fattening!

The research showed that 87% felt that nutritional information was very important or important and 81% of consumers want information on the health impact of alcohol on labels. Of most relevance to the debate raging in the EU institutions at the moment, they asked people about whether they preferred the Guideline Daily Amount (GDA) system or Traffic Light system for nutritional information. Here the response is a little confusing as they presented 4 options, but overall 39% preferred the traffic light system. However the suggestions that any new regulations could be a mixture of both was voted down by Irish consumers. The report does appear to show that consumers are taking more notice of the nutritional information on the packaging than before.

The traffic light system was developed by the Food Satefy Agency in the UK and would require manufacturers to put a red (high), yellow (medium) and green (low) symbol on the packaging depending on the levels of salt, fat and sugar in the product. The GDA system was developed by the Food Industry and consists of symbols with percentages of fat, sugar etc in the product based on the average daily amount for an adult.

I like traffic lights...unless they are red of course!

BEUC and other consumer and health advocates want the traffic light system for fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt because it is much clearer than the percentages GDA model. Of course the food manufacturers and processors are against this because no company wants to have red light symbols on their packaging. However the best way around this of course is for them to reduce the amount of salt, sugar and fat in their products. So not only will the traffic light system help inform consumers as to the levels of these substances, it will also force manufacturers to change the contents of their products which will be good for everyones health.

This is an important debate and issue. Several reports and studies have shown that consumers are not aware of the levels of fat, sugar and salt in many of the products they eat. The Dispatches Show on Channel 4 did an excellent programme on breakfast cereals recently. When they poured the equivalent of what the children were consuming in sugar into a bowl (300grams) a week, its easier to understand why we have an epidemic of obesity.

Therefore it is important that the EU Commission and all involved in the development of these new food labelling regulations make sure that the health needs of consumers are put before the interests and profits of the food industry. In particular our elected representatives in Brussels, our MEPs have an important role to play, lets hope they take the traffic light approach on this particular road.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Breaking for the Border!

Today the CSO published a major report on the extent of cross border shopping. They calculate that shoppers here spent about €435m in Northern Ireland between June 2008 and June 2009. They provide details of the numbers of households travelling north, the regions they are from, the amount they are spending and what they are buying.

Given all the hullabaloo about cross border shopping, it is good that we have independent and extensive data on which to make conclusions and of course to enable the Government to make the right decisions in response to what they see as a problem. I accept that cross border shopping is costing the State revenue, which of course pays for public services. However cross border shopping is a world wide phenomenon and as even the CSO and Revenue report in February noted it was not a new phenomenon here. I would argue that cross border shopping is actually a good thing for our economy as a whole in the long term, because it will force retailers to adjust their prices to retain customers fleeing to the North to escape high prices. That will be good for consumers and competitiveness.

Lithuanians crossing the border to shop in Poland.

The first thing that struck me was the large difference between what the CSO estimate is spent in the North by shoppers and what other reports have estimated. While the data from the CSO and Nielsen is at one on the numbers of households travelling North at around 16%, they differ a lot on the other aspects. CSO says that the spending was in the region of €435m, whereas others such as InterTrade Ireland claim that the overall cost to the Republic's economy as a whole will be in the region of €810m this year. Obviously spending and cost to the economy are not the same thing, but both figures cannot be correct. Much of the spending is on food which is VAT exempt, so the loss to the State is on increased profits and knock on employment taxes, but surely an expenditure of €435m, the vast majority of which is on groceries cannot stretch to €810m? ABFI are interpreting the Nielsen figures as representing a loss of €400m in taxes and excise for the State. Again I don't know the basis for these figures, but they seem very high based on the CSO data.

People and commentators can believe what they want, I have to say I have more faith in the CSO data because the Quarterly National Household Survey is based on interviews with 39,000 households. Also, the CSO does not have an agenda, unlike the drinks and retail industries who have been fleecing consumers for years and are now getting a pay-back for the price pain inflicted on consumers here.

We are led to believe that the key driver of cross border shopping is the price of alcohol. The conventional wisdom is that shoppers endure the trip and long queues to stock up on vast amounts of alcohol. I have no doubt some people do go North to buy alcohol, but is it the key reason? The drinks industry in the shape of ABFI would like you to believe it is. Of course, this also suits the retailers as it deflects attention away from the high cost of groceries. They want the Government to cut excise on alcohol by 20% in the Budget. However the actual data from CSO would appear to undermine that argument. It shows that ;

  • 80% bought groceries on their most recent trip, while only 44% bought alcohol.
  • Of the average household spend on cross border shopping of €286, only €32 or 11% was spent on alcohol, not the vast sums we are lead to believe.
  • Consumers from the border region are the key group where business is being lost, they are more likely to travel to Northern Ireland to shop and more regularly-41% of border households compared to national average of 16%.
  • They are also frequent cross border shoppers, 5.9 trips on average in the last year compared to the 1.1 trips national average.
  • Border shoppers are primarily going North to buy groceries, they had the lowest spend on alcohol and the 2nd highest spend on groceries.

This suggests in my view that even if the Government reduces excise on alcohol, it will have limited impact on cross border shopping. The key driver is the high cost of groceries. So if excise on alcohol is reduced, we could end up with a scenario where the State will lose further revenue and cross border shopping will continue. If the Government want people to spend more here and travel North less, then they need to address the price of food and groceries. The idea that reducing excise on alcohol is the magic bullet to stop the flow of cross border shopping is misguided.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Not there yet...but getting there??

Today December 3rd the EU Rail Passenger Rights Regulations comes into force....well sort of. The new regulations give rail passengers new rights similar to those which apply for air travel. Train passengers will be entitled to compensation in cases where they are delayed, for example a 25% refund if the delay is between 60 and 119 minutes and a 50% refund if the delay is at least 120 minutes. There are a number of measures which are aimed at assisting people with disabilities and passengers with limited mobility. Also rail operators are required to set up formal complaints mechanisms and each member state is supposed to have a National Enforcement Body to monitor implementation of the regulation.

In theory its great that rail passengers finally have more rights, especially when they are messed around by operators. Indeed the European Commission gets all excited telling us about the brave new world for rail passengers and about how they "will from now on enjoy new rights that will protect them and their belongings when they travel by train anywhere within the European Union". Well not quite. I was aware from briefings by the European Passenger Federation that many member states were seeking derogations (nice word for a get out card!) from the regulations. In particular many member states wanted these regulations to apply solely to international traains and not domestic ones. It seems there was a bun-fight over this in 2007 and the compromise reached between the member states, Commission and Parliament was that it would apply to domestic trains, however member states could seek derogations of up to 15 years for domestic trains. The reality for Irish consumers is that these regulations are of little use if they don't apply to domestic journeys, except when travelling to Belfast or on a cross border train journey on the continent.

New Irish Rail zig-zag route....I am getting dizzy thinking about it :-)

Anyway I contacted the Department of Transport and yes the Irish Government has exempted domestic inter-city trains "pending conclusion of discussions with Irish Rail regarding issues of its implementation on Irish Rail inter-city services." That in effect means as far as I know that the regulations only apply to the Dublin-Belfast line, although I stand to be corrected, perhaps that is exempted as well. The Department did inform me that some of the regulations do apply to all rail services immediately (Articles 9, 11, 12, 19, 20(1) and26) , however apart from making provision for passengers with disabilities all the other regulations coming into force are very basic things that Irish Rail are doing anyway and won't make all that much difference.

I will try and get some more clarity on this issue in the coming weeks. It would appear unfair that the Government expects airlines to implement the EU regulations on air passenger rights, but absolves Irish Rail from their responsibilities to rail passengers. Hopefully these exemptions are short term and we won't have to wait 15 years for these the old Irish Rail advert goes...."We are not there yet....but we are getting there"...well I hope so.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Its Christmas, so its time for carols, holly, mince pies and vouchers

As Christmas approaches the annual present hunt begins. For many of us the prospect of traipsing around shops through the scrum of bargain hunters trying to find the perfect present for loved ones is a version of hell. That is why the gift voucher is a source of salvation.

However as consumer groups and advocates point out every year, vouchers can come with hidden strings attached which can leave a sour taste in the mouth of the recipient. The most common problem is the expiry date, some of the vouchers expire within 6 to 12 months. Under existing laws, the retailer has the power to decide the expiry date and in theory could make it one week! The other problem of course is that with so many businesses failing, will the shop or retailer be around when the recipient wants to spend the voucher in a few months?

So while they can solve lots of dilemmas, I would encourage people check the details of the voucher before they buy it, especially the expiry date.

There may be some vouchers which you will never redeem...I get dizzy on a ladder so no skydive vouchers for me....please!

Interesting to see that Senator Brendan Ryan of the Labour Party is bringing forward legislation to change the law which would mean all vouchers would have a lifespan of 5 years. It won't pass, but at least it might encourage the Government to do something in time for next year....maybe not, but we live in hope!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Hair today, gone tomorrow!

As someone who is follicly challenged, I was interested to see the Advertising Standards Authority in the UK ruled against an advert by Advanced Hair Studio which claimed that their laser therapy had been approved and could reduce or stop hair loss and/or grow new hair. I have been combing the web and it seems that while this laser treatment has been "cleared" by the Food and Drugs Administration in the US, it has not been approved. Advanced Hair Studio appear to be scratching their heads at the decision.

I don't know the ins and outs of this, but I do remember a really long (must have been 3-4 minutes) ad for them on TV3 a few months ago. They had a list of sports stars lined up to endorse the product and it seems life would come to an end when your full head of hair disappears!

The bald facts?

The serious angle to this is that it is important that consumers are not sold false promises on these types of products. I am not saying that these AHS treatments don't work, I don't know if they do or not. What I do know is that it is vital that claims being made in advertising such as this can be substantiated. Unfortunately in Ireland, like the UK advertising is self regulated, so unless someone complains the advert won't be reviewed or looked at. And even if judged to be misleading it will be withdrawn many months later, when consumers may well have bought the product or service. And since there are no penalties, it can be worth the risk to run an advert that sails close to the wind. In Ireland we need legislation and an independent body to protect consumers from misleading advertising.

Monday, November 30, 2009

A tale of two taxis

Taxi drivers as a profession are not the most popular. They are probably up there with politicians, bankers and tax collectors. However I have come across quite a few decent taxi drivers in my time. However I have also come across obnoxious, ignorant taxi drivers who expect consumers to put up with dirty, smelly taxis, who expect you to direct them to your destination and who never carry any change. And don't start me with printed receipts...."oh the machine is broken"....and "do you have a pen I will write one out for you" As a native, I generally don't have to worry about being taken on the scenic route, but when abroad there are times when you know you are being taken for a ride in more ways than one!

Some in the taxi business will say the problems here are a result of the liberalisation of the trade, and the fact that part timers and unsuitable people have started to drive taxis. However as someone who remembers the bad old day when taxis were like hens teeth, we can never go back to the way things were. I remember waiting at a taxi rank in Dublin for about 3 hours one dark and cold November night in 1999. Quantity and quality should not be mutually exclusive.

Anyhow in recent weeks I have experienced both ends of the spectrum. I encountered a taxi driver who was polite, who didn't need directions, who took me via the shortest route, who had change and who printed off a receipt. And he didn't insist on talking ad nausem and telling me his opinions on what was wrong with the world!

Then 2 weeks ago on the way home from the airport, I encountered another kind of taxi driver. Car was clean and he didn't need directions to Ashbourne. Great I thought, its almost midnight and I can sit back and relax after a long flight. However when we left the first roundabout out of the airport, I noticed that he was taking the motorway and I asked him why he wasn't taking normal way to Ashbourne via the old airport road and Kilshane Cross. He tried to brush it off and I assumed he was taking another shortcut further up the road. However further into the journey I realised he was taking me the long way home to Ashbourne. I questioned him again and then he became angry and told me if I didn't like the way he was going he would drop me back at the airport. He also told me amazingly that the other road which is used by tens of thousands of vehicles everyday and which I almost everyone else from Ashbourne and beyond uses to get to the airport was dangerous.

Thankfully my experience didn't come to this!

I was annoyed but didn't see the point in having a blazing row. To be honest was also concerned that he just might stop and leave me stranded on the M50. So I politely told him I was unhappy and would be reporting my complaint to the taxi regulator. The rest of the journey home was not too pleasant and a very silent one. On arrival home I got my receipt and paid up.

Sometimes we get mad and do nothing. I have had bad experiences with taxis before, but haven't complained. Life is too short. But this was too much for me. I have since made my complaint to the Commission for Taxi Regulation and have got a acknowledgement. While their complaint form is online, you cannot submit the complaint online, instead you have to type it up and post it off. Hopefully they will move to an online system to make it easier for consumers to complain in the future.

As far as I am concerned, the driver added about 4km to my journey and probably about €4-€5 to the fare. However more concerning for me was his aggressive behaviour, which was totally unacceptable and unnerving. I look forward to hearing from the regulator in due course and will keep you posted!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Not the mighty Quinn!

Despite all the spin from the Irish Government, the appointment of Maire Geoghegan Quinn as Research and Innovation Commissioner is a third tier appointment far removed from the plum post we got with McCreevy as Internal Market Commissioner in 2004. The disappointing appointment is probably a reflection of the fact that McCreevy has not done well in Brussels and that Ms Geoghegan Quinn despite being a formidable Minister in the 1980s and 1990s has not been a front line politician for over 13 years.

The new Commission is a reflection also of the changed environment. The appointments of Barnier, Almunia, Oettinger and Rehn as Internal Market, Competition, Energy and Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioners respectively is a repudiation of Le Monde Anglo-Saxon and the free market approach that dominated the first Barroso Commission epitomised by Champagne Charlie. It is good to see that consumer rights are more pronounced in the statements from Barroso prior to his re-appointment in September 2009.

What does the EU do for consumers anyway?

From a consumer prospective, we have a new Commissioner Mr John Dalli from Malta. In the last Commission the Health and Consumers portfolios were divided from 2007 when Bulgaria and Romania joined, however he takes up the post with the two parts of the job reunited. He has a hard act to follow coming after Ms Kuneva who was very active on consumer issues during her mandate. I know quite a few people from Malta and they were all very pleasant, friendly and practical people. And of course like Ireland, Malta was part of the British Empire, so their political and legal system has many similarities with Ireland and the UK. In relation to the draft Consumer Rights Directive he may be more amenable than Kuneva who appeared determined to bring in changes that would not always be good for consumers.

Apart from the appointment of Commissioners and their portfolios, Barroso made a number of changes to the portfolios. For example BEUC have been calling for a number of years for the units in the EU Commission dealing with pharmaceutical products and cosmetics to be moved from the Enterprise and Industry Directorate to the Health and Consumer Directorate. The good news is that Barroso has finally agreed to do this.

I wish Commissioner Dalli well in the new role.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Upsetting the apple tart!

I was listening to our former leader Bertie Ahern on the radio last week plugging his new autobiography. Bertie was always a great man for what the experts call a malatropism, in laypersons terms getting his words and meanings mangled. One of the famous lines a few years ago was his exhortation to us that we shouldn't "upset the apple tart". Although some of us thought there was method in his malatropism!

Anyhow in the course of his interview with Pat Kenny he was asked about mistakes he made during this tenure. He was slow to admit any, except....and I drew my breath, at last some real insights....but no his only real mistake was the establishment of the Financial Regulator. He said that if he had the choice again he would never have removed the regulation of the banks from the Central Bank and that basically the Financial Regulator was too focused on "the consumer" because of all the overcharging scandals and ignored its prudential superivsion role. Now that comment I must say really did upset my applet tart for the rest of the day!

This was a line being spun by the Irish Bankers Federation during the summer as well, that the Financial Regulator was too busy on consumer issues and producing the "I don't know what a tracker mortgage is " adverts to notice that the banks were heading for the abyss. Now that is such a load of baloney. Of course that is a convenient because it allows the Government, the banks, the developers and sections of the media off the hook.

Now that is what I call a bank digout!

The demise of the Irish banking system resulted from a combination of factors, such as a very strong pro-construction policy by Government with tax reliefs for developers and investors, the insistence by the banks, stockbrokers, etc for "light touch" regulation which meant that the financial regulator got lots of meaningless data, but not any really useful information, the dependence of the banks on inter-bank funds, low interest rates and a flood of cheap credit money being shovelled out to consumers. On top of that you had a phalanx of economists and commentators in the banks and stockbroking firms and egged on by some politicians and sections of the media who added fuel to an already overheated market by telling us all to buy before it was too late and lashing out at anyone who questioned what was going on.

And given all that it is amazing, yet not surprising that some would try and say the edifice came crashing down because Pat Neary and co were too busy writing a consumer protection code and making adverts. While I welcomed the increase focus on consumer issues in the early years, progress has been very slow. No one could argue that Ireland is some sort of utopia for financial consumers! Ask anyone who is in debt, ask anyone who got bad advice, ask anyone who got ripped off, ask people who is struggling to find the next instalment of their loan or mortgage payment.

Yes mistakes were made in the establishment of the Financial Regulator, primarily the failure to put in strong people who would stand up to Government and the vested interests and their insistence on "light touch" regulation which hampered the ability of the institution to have any idea what was going on! And even when they did they appeared very slow to use the powers they did have.

Churchill once said "Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it." Therefore if we don't conduct a proper enquiry into how the banking crisis occured then we could be back in the same place within a generation. The Public Accounts Committee indicated that they would discuss the establishment of such an enquiry in September, but I am not sure what has happened to that. It may have been delayed by NAMA, but it does need to happen.

However as Bertie would say lets not be throwing red herrings and white elephants into the mix by blaming the banking crisis on the consumer. They are central players alright but only as the people who will pay for the sins of others.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

It takes time to do things now!

The Tánaiste Mary Coughlan was right to call for greater competition and for action to tackle the high costs and prices charged in the services and non-traded sector by doctors, dentists, lawyers, etc at the MacGill Summer School. Essentially she was challenging the professionals and their representative bodies to put their shoulder to the wheel in terms of increasing competitiveness. Now many of them would say they have suffered a lot from the downturn, in particular professionals such as architects, solicitors and estate agents where job losses and business closures have been high. But we also know many of them did very well in the last 15 years too.

Over the last decade the Competition Authority have produced a range of reports entitled "market studies" looking at certain professions and making a number of recommendations. These were quite lengthy and detailed reports, costly no doubt that exposed anti-competitive and restrictive practices in the professions which increased costs for consumers. In areas such as the legal, medical and dental professions, entry to training was controlled by the representative bodies keeping numbers down and increasing costs. The reports recommended a range of actions directed to the representative bodies, Government and statutory bodies.

In 2007 the Competition Authority as part of a submission to Government did an analysis of progress on their reports and they found little progress was made on most of the recommendations. (The table is on pages 57-58 of this report) Indeed in fairness to most of the representative bodies, they had a least moved on some of the recommendations. In fact it was Government Departments who had the worst record and had largely failed to move on most of the proposals. Perhaps some of the Departments disagree with the proposals, however we don't know.

Classic..."It takes time to do things now"!

Therefore while I agree with the diagnosis of the Tánaiste I disagree with her on the cure. We do not need another report in 6 months time, that is perhaps what the civil service would like. Consumers and taxpayers need action now to reduce costs and charges and that can be achieved now by Government moving to implement many of the recommendations in these reports.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Mr. Doorley goes to Washington

Yes its been a while since I posted. May and early June were mad busy and then I was away on holidays after that, so only now getting into the swing of things again. In mid June I had the pleasure of visiting Washington D.C. (had a short sojourn in NYC). I have grown up on US politics and American civil war history so lots to see and do. The Lincoln memorial and Capitol Hill were particular treats.

In advance of my trip I decided to email the Consumer Federation of America, (CFA) just to see if they would be willing to spare me an hour to discuss consumer issues in the US. Many thanks to Mark Silbergeld, Director of International Issues at the CFA for not only sparing 3 hours to share information on consumer issues, but for inviting me to the 39th Annual Awards of the CFA. It was a very impressive, well attended and enjoyable evening.

Interestingly while I was there one of the major announcements from Obama was the establishment of a new Consumer Financial Protection Agency (CFPA). Of course unlike here where the executive controls the legislature and most Government proposals are implemented in full, Obama will have to negotiate with Congress to get this through. Predictably industry groups in the US blasted the plan. However it was good to see senior politicians over there such as Senator Chris Todd taking a strong consumer position. We could do with more politicians here taking such a strong line to promote and enhance consumer protection.

Senator Dodd tells it as it is....where are the Irish Senator Dodds?

While Obama was setting out his stall in the US, the Irish Government was revealing how it planned to reform the regulation of our financial services sector. Well in truth, it wasn't all that revealing in that it only filled in some of the blanks left over from Cowen's Ard Fheis speech and the April Budget announcement. I welcome the fact that the original suggestion that the consumer information and education role would be merged with the Financial Ombudsman has been ditched and that these functions will be transferred to the NCA. There was a danger that the good work and integrity of the Financial Ombudsman would be undermined by these structural changes. If there was a hint that the Ombudsman was engaged in advocacy, the office could be accused of bias and all decisions could be challenged and overturned. The transfer of these functions to the NCA seems like a good fit and to be cost effective, but the FR had a good track record in the area of information and price surveys, so the NCA needs to maintain that work.

The core issues remain unresolved. Where will consumer protection reside? Who will be responsible for implementation and monitoring of the consumer protection code? Who will conduct the consumer related inspections? Who will take the enforcement proceedings?

There is a danger that we focus solely on institutional reform or on the issue of a rules vs a principle based appraoch. I believe what we really need is cultural change. Essentially we need effective enforcement. We need a regulator who is willing to take on the big players and vested interests and who isn't afraid to institute and pursue legal action.

I have heard a lot of claptrap in recent months on this issue, the most baseless, yet dangerous was the assertion that the Financial Regulator failed because " it was preoccupied with it's consumer mandate". Of course it suits some interests to spin this because the logical conclusion of that argument is to downgrade the consumer protection mandate in the new structure. That would be totally unacceptable and I don't think Government would be that foolish.

My biggest problem with proceeedings has been the lack of a plan or a strategy and the failure by the Department of Finance to engage in consultation on the new regulatory regime. I appreciate that the Minister and the senior department officials are dealing with a myriad of other urgent and serious issues, but we cannot afford to mess this up again. We need more than press releases and speeches, the very least we need is a White Paper setting out the options. Perhaps there is one in the bowels of Merrion Street. However from where I am it appears very disjointed and ad hoc. Let's hope I am mistaken.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Sterling efforts are paying off!!

Ever since sterling started to weaken in early 2008, there have been lots of stories about the huge differences in the price of groceries, clothes, electronic goods etc between here and the UK, but especially Northern Ireland. Initially we were told by retailers that it would take 3-6 months before the currency fluctuations would reach the shop floor. Of course that didn't happen!

The laws of the market dictate that retailers will charge what they think the buyer will pay. Perhaps during the boom people were willing to flash the cash, of course that has changed now for many people. In particular what really cheeses off people is the fact that products had a sterling price displayed which when compared to the equivalent in euros was much cheaper.

The constant commentary and criticism won't go away and more importantly the flood of consumers across the border will cost retailers in the long run, both in terms of business and reputation. Tesco admitted as much this week. And the state coffers are suffering too, the Revenue Commissioners estimate it could be costing up to €700m. It has taken a while but I think retailers are beginning to respond, they have too. Tesco started the ball rolling last month, but we have a long way to go.

Fresh beef for sale in Ballinrobe...a very moooving story!

The focus has also shifted to other products and services, and in recent weeks I was contacted by a few people about the major difference between the sterling and euro prices of the same accommodation, at the resorts on and in France. When I checked earlier this week there was a significant difference in the prices available on the two sites. Aideen Sheehan did an excellent piece on it in the Independent during the week, hopefully the exposure of the price differential will lead to a review of the Irish prices! I also think that the continued attention on what is referred to as "the Paddy Tax" will force retailers and businesses throughout the economy to focus on delivering more value and drive down prices further.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Valueireland.....get your facts right!

The emergence of a number of consumer advocates and related websites and blogs has been great in recent years. The more information that people can access the better in my view and as a consumer advocate myself I am all in favour of competition. With their websites and blogs people like Brendan Burgess and Damien Mulley are providing a great service to consumers on financial and technology/communications issues respectively. Likewise Conor Pope (Irish Times) and Tina Leonard (Smart Consumer-Irish Indo and RTE) have emerged as really good contributors on issues affecting Irish consumers by putting information in the public domain. And Charlie Weston's War on the banks has done more for mortgage holders than the rest put together. And of course there are excellent websites such as Thrifty pages and Cheapeats which provide practical information to assist people to save money and get a better deal in these less affluent times. Into that mix I would have to add which was set up by Diarmuid McShane, which does provide information and advice as well as indulging in some "commentary".

Now anyone reading Diarmuid's blog would know that he is not a fan of the Consumers' Association which I chair. In fact he goes out of his way to criticise or to find fault with almost everything that the CAI does. He used to be a member of our Council, but lets say we had our differences and to make a long story boring he resigned. He has given his side of the story to the reasons why, in fact ad nauseum on his blog, but there are two sides to every story. I could give my views, however to be frank I think 99% of you would be saying cop yourself on and write about something that is of interest to me and consumers in general, and you would be right!

Its a free country so if he wants to lash CAI everyday, then so be it, nothing worse than being talked about than not being talked about as they say. Indeed some people have asked me what is his strange obsession with CAI, only he can answer that. I just think its a waste of time and energy to be so negative when he could be using the space to be of better use to consumers. There have been times when I have disagreed or found fault with aspects of what other consumer advocates have said, but I have refrained because I believe that it does not serve consumer interests for us to be bickering. That only serves the interests of those who want to see consumer rights undermined and diminished. For that reason, I haven't responded to his attacks.

Is Mortgage Interest Relief a bailout....I say...No, No, No.

However Diarmuid's latest salvo against me and CAI is not only incorrect, but would if unchallenged be very bad news for mortgage holders. He claims that I am advocating for a "bail out" for mortgage holders on a fixed rate. He says;

Referring to banks being bailed out and using that as a precedence for bailing out home owners, as advocated by Mr. Doorley, is an extremely dangerous suggestion and hints that we proceed down the road of two wrongs making a right when it comes to the dire financial affairs that we’re in at the moment.

Of course I never said that. This is the article where I was quoted. The context was the decision by Government in the Budget to abolish mortgage interest relief on mortgages of 7 years or more. This will have a major impact on the over 250,000 people who took out fixed rate mortgages between 1997 and 2002 for example. While some may have switched to a variable rate, many wouldn't have.

Fact number 1.
The Government stated that the reason for the abolition of Mortgage Interest Relief (MIR) for these mortgage holders was that interest rates and repayments had come down in the last 6 months. Yes that's true for people on tracker and some variable interest rates, but not true for people on fixed rate mortgages, they are paying the same as they were in October 2008!

Fact number 2
I stand over my view that by abolishing MIR for fixed rate mortgage holders that the Government are abandoning people lumbered with large repayments. MIR has been a long standing support which Governments gave to assist people who buy houses to live in! The vast majority of the people on fixed mortgages who have been in contact with me, don't expect that they can switch to a variable rate at will and with no cost. They know they are in a contract with upsides and downsides. However they rightly don't understand how a Government can find €7bn to re-capitalise banks, while cutting supports which cost less than 2% of that or €128m to homeowners who didn't cause this mess.

Fact number 3
I have never stated or even "hinted" that people in fixed rate mortgages should be "bailed out" as Mr. McShane refers to it and be able to switch to a variable rate at no cost. I do think there are huge question marks over the penalty fees being requested and being charged by banks for people who switch and I would like to see independent oversight of that.

Fact number 4
I have questioned the actions of some banks and will continue to do so who have been very slow to pass on ECB rate cuts to people on variable rate mortgages. I don't think that the financial services fraternity have quite understood that the rules of the game have changed. The taxpayer and consumer have bailed them out for their reckless and feckless behaviour, so when the ECB cuts interest rates to assist consumers and business and stimulate the economy, the idea that they can gobble up the benefit must be challenged.

The assertion that MIR is akin to a bailout is also dangerous, because the Government is considering its future and has asked the Commission on Taxation to examine it. We all know that the first few years of a mortgage are the hardest and many people on all types of mortgages have factored in the MIR. Over 235,000 people took out fixed rate mortgages between 2003 and the end of the third quarter last year. If the Government did abolish MIR for first time buyers, then many would be in severe difficulty. That must be prevented at all costs. That is why suggestions or assertions that MIR is some kind of bailout would be manna from heaven for those who would like to see it abolished.

So hopefully Mr. McShane will set the record straight.... and perhaps tell us where he stands on mortgage interest relief as well, which is the really important issue here which we all should be working together on to retain.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Going Dutch?

Here we go again. Despite talk of strong regulation and effective enforcement, last week saw the same old softly softly approach to regulation that got us into the current sorry mess. Davy Stockbrokers were found to have breached rules governing the sale of perpetual bonds to credit unions. The Irish Stock Exchange issued a carefully worded statement, which confirmed that Davys had breached stock market rules, but there was no mention of resignations or fines. This deal has been a disaster for the credit unions, it is estimated that they have lost about 100m euro. Davys have only offered 35m in compensation, so ultimately it will be the credit unions members who will suffer with higher loan repayments charges and reduced or no dividends on their shares to meet the massive losses.

These are the same Davys stockbrokers who in league with two other stockbroking firms called for a cut to social welfare. I would say that senior figures in Government must have been fuming because whatever hope there was of a rate cut before the stockbrokers intervened, there was no hope after this, as the credibility of these people is so low. They have projected deflation of 3% this year, so they say social welfare should be cut by 3%. I wouldn't put too much faith into their projections since they have been wrong so many times. I think Fintan O'Toole summed it up perfectly.

Beware the sweet talking Stockbrokers!!!

There has been a lot of talk about the need for radical reform of financial services regulation. A lot of the focus has been on the model. We have heard of the Canadian model of regulation and now the Dutch model is being mentioned. Yes we can learn from other countries, but focusing on models completely misses the main point. The key problem in Ireland was not the model of regulation, but the culture. The financial regulator was not willing to take strong decisive action against reckless and feckless behaviour by banks and bankers. They issued warnings about 100% mortgages, but did nothing to stop them being issued. They also had powers which it would appear they were reluctant to use. The light touch approach was more like the soft touch approach.

I met an official from the Australian regulator a few years ago. He told me how in Australia the regulator there regularly takes CEOs and senior officials to court for breaking the law and rules. When I spoke with him in 2006, they had jailed 17 people in the Financial Services sector. In doing so they sent a very strong message that they wouldn't tolerate any behaviour which puts consumer, the economy and their overall reputation at risk.

The Government does appear to be serious about a radical reform of financial services legislation. I am just concerned that they rushing into changes for the sake of change that may create more problems that they will solve. For example, I am worried about the proposal to separate the consumer protection function out from the new Central Banking Commission. They plan to create a Financial Services Consumer Agency by merging the existing consumer directorate of the Financial Regulator and the Office of the Financial Services Ombudsman. In my view prudential supervision and consumer protection are intertwined and having two agencies will just confuse the consumer and industry.

Apart from the structure, we need to recruit people of international standing with no connections with the industry here, who will take no prisoners and can withstand the financial lobby and act in the public and consumers interest. And while the focus has rightly been on the banks, I think it is also high time we had a shakeup of how the stockbroking companies are regulated.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Weston on target again!

Last autumn Charlie Weston in the Irish Indo doggedly pursued and exposed the banks for their failure to pass on the ECB rate cuts to hard pressed consumers. Eventually Charlie managed to shame most of the banks into treating their customers in a fair manner, which was the least we could expect given the bank guarantee scheme, otherwise known as the "no banker left behind" scheme.

Well Charlie is at it again, by highlighting the shameful failure of the banks to pass on the savings from the 5 cuts in the ECB rate to consumers on credit cards, personal loans and overdrafts. Financial institutions are also increasing charges and fees and on top of that they are reducing the rate paid to savers.

Irish banks as responsive as Carol to needs of consumers!

Basically the banks are making ordinary consumers pay for the sins of the golden circle and their feckless and reckless lending practices. This needs to be exposed and the Government needs to call in the bankers and tell them this is not acceptable. The impending regulatory reform of the financial services sector should serve as an opportunity to recast the banking system here so that we have banks that serve the needs of consumers, business and long term sustainable growth and not a small elite and short term profiteering.

Fair play to Charlie for exposing this rip-off. We need to keep a focus on this to shame the banks into treating consumers fairly.

The weight of opinion is growing for a ban on junk food advertising

Happy St. Patrick's Day as I write here in Scotland, where it is just another day at the office, where I am over for a 2 day meeting. So while most of the population was gearing up for St.Patrick's day, not too many were aware that last Sunday March 15th was World Consumer Rights Day. No great surprise I suppose, but it does give consumer advocates an opportunity to raise issues of importance nationally and globally.

Campaign video from our Italian counterparts

Consumers International co-ordinated the theme and events for the day. For the second year in a row they decided to focus on the campaign to restrict junk food advertising to children and young people, which is leading to such a huge health and social problem all over the world. This is part of their ongoing excellent "Junk Food Generation" campaign.

We have a major problem in Ireland, it is estimated that over 330,000 children are obese. The Government set up a Taskforce on Obesity which reported in 2005. It set out a course of action, however like many strategies published in recent years it largely lies gathering dust.

We once again took the opportunity again this year to link up with the Children's Rights Alliance Their CEO Jillian Van Turnhout is not only an excellent advocate for children, but also a good friend of many years. Last March we called for action to be taken to protect children from aggressive and pervasive junk food advertising, in the form of a ban of adverts before 9pm.

We were delighted that the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Eamon Ryan included section 42 of the Broadcasting Bill 2008 to restrict the advertising of foods which are high in salt, sugar and fat to children. The Bill is making its way through the Oireachtas and should be passed by the summer, however in our view it is vital that once it is passed that the new proposed Broadcasting Authority moves quickly to regulate junk food advertising.

As expected there has been an outcry from sections of the junk food and advertising industries to date. No doubt they will propose industry developed and managed "voluntary" codes which won't be worth the paper they are written on and even if breached there will be no meaningful penalties. However the reality is that the Goverment has to put the current and future health and well being of thousands of children before commercial interests. I think a long battle lies ahead, but one worth fighting!

Friday, February 6, 2009

Sharing the pain equally? Fat chance!

Blogging had to take a back seat these last few weeks. I represent NYCI at the social partnership talks and the negotiations on a plan to address the perilous state of our public finances were quite intense up until last Tuesday. The rather snappily titled (not) document "Draft Framework for a Pact for Stabilisation, Social Solidarity and Economic Renewal" was concentrating all our minds. The public perception may be that the talks collapsed completely, however while the Government and the Trade Unions failed to agree on the issue of the pensions levy, this document has been agreed and will be important in the coming months and years.

Some of the discussions at the talks were interesting, people expressing anger at how the bankers, builders, stockbrokers etc who got us into this mess were getting away Scot free. There is an expectation at the few dozen people who contributed greatly to the rapid descent in our economy must pay the price. People talked about a criminal assets bureau for the financial sector. One story was recounted about how Sean Fitzpatrick was asked to leave a pub, because the owner didn't want his sort around the place. I am not surprised, people are losing their jobs, their homes, dreams and sanity and these guys get millions in payoffs and can retire to the golf course. Indeed it was galling to read Rossa White over in the very smug Davy's stockbrokers lecturing us on how to deal with the crisis, when he and his kind have talked up the housing market and contributed so much to our current problems. And as for their analysis, they can keep it, they have been so wrong so often, they have the credibility of used car salesmen. As recently as March 2006, the so called "analysts" were telling us the boom would last for another 15 years.

Exclusive recording of the Cabinet meeting!

I see the Times in London came up with a list of the 10 people most responsible for the credit crunch. Would be interesting to do a similar exercise here on the ten people responsible for the near collapse of the banking system. Sean Fitzpatrick and Pat Neary may be obvious choices, but they are not solely to blame, there are many people still holding powerful positions in this state who have a lot to answer for as well.

There was an interesting story in the Sunday Tribune last week that didn't get much coverage. It dealt with contracts for difference (CFD) and how they played such a crucial role in the collapse of Anglo Irish and the reputational damage to our financial service sector here. It is alleged that through CFDs Sean Quinn and his family built up a huge stake, almost 25% in Anglo Irish Bank, unknown to many investors. Slowly though international investors got wind of what was happening and confidence in the bank and shares began to collapse. As the article states here, both the Financial Regulator and Irish Stock Exchange come out badly from this fiasco. But will there be any real change so that the lessons learned cannot be repeated?

There is a really interesting section in the article on how a 1% tax could have prevented the problems at Anglo Irish, but how the powerful Dublin stockbrokers scuppered that;

"It could have been different. In March 2006, the Revenue Commissioners, responding to a query about a tax treatment from a Dublin broker issued guidance that tax-free CFDs should be taxed at the 1% that applied to traditional share purchases. All hell broke lose. "It was like a tsunami had hit," recalls a tax expert with close knowledge of what happened at the time. "The brokers kicked up a storm," he said.The storm confirmed the importance of the CFD trades to the profits of the main Dublin stockbrokers, despite the fact that the Irish stock exchange was being dangerously speculated on. Within days, the then finance minister, Brian Cowen, bowed to pressure and pledged to amend the Finance Bill to maintain the tax-free status of CFD trading. The 1% stamp duty levy would continue to be levied only on traditional purchases of shares"

I am sure the files on the correspondence between the main stockbrokers and the Department of Finance would make for interesting reading. But will we see radical change at the Financial Regulator and will the Irish Stock Exchange investigate what went on here to avoid a repeat, which has done so much damage to our financial services sector and has contributed greatly to our economic and public finance woes? I am also concerned at the lack of apparent urgency or sense we need a radical overhaul of the financial services regulatory system. In the Dáil this week the Minister said this in a response to a question on reform;

Financial Services Regulation.
"Deputy Joan Burton
asked the Minister for Finance the measures and actions he will take to examine the reasons behind the regulatory failure in the financial services sector here to determine the changes that are required; if he will give a commitment to engage a broad range of stakeholders, such as academics, consumer representatives and social partners; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

Minister for Finance (Deputy Brian Lenihan): Any change to the regulatory framework in Ireland must have regard to EU and international developments. In relation to the EU, there are a number of proposals being developed for adoption this year, including improvements to the Capital Requirements Directive to further strengthen the existing banking prudential framework. Furthermore, the role and mandates of national regulators has been the subject of in-depth consideration by the Ecofin Council. Common reporting standards for financial institutions will enable greater EU wide consistency in supervision. An initial report on this matter is due to be submitted to the Spring European Council and any reform of our Financial Regulator’s structures will be consistent with EU developments. Arising from recent events, there are a number of reviews underway within the Financial Regulator with a view to identifying any shortcomings in the Financial Regulator’s strategic regulatory approach, its structures and its capacity to respond. I await with interest the outcomes of these reviews and will be working with the Regulatory Authority to bring about improvements in our system of financial regulation. Stakeholders will have an involvement in this process through the independent statutory Consultative Panels which will be making an important input to the review process. I will bring proposals to Government if, arising from these reviews, I consider that a change in legislation is required. As the Deputy will also appreciate, under the Credit Institutions (Financial Support) Scheme, the oversight of the banks concerned has already been greatly intensified.

This response is a bit alarming, as if nothing much has happened and some tweaking may be required! For my sins I have been re-appointed to the Financial Regulator's Consumer Consultative Panel. I am proud of the work the last panel did on the Consumer Protection Code, which was an advance for consumers. My view is that the Financial Regulator failed not because it did not have the powers to act, but because it was too timid and unwilling to act against the big players, something which I stated publicly in December 2007. The financial services sector in Dublin was a small cosy club, where the top bankers, stockbrokers, audit firms, government officials and central bank regulators were and those still standing are still very chummy. No one will rock the boat!

I would hope that the Consumer Panel will have some input and influence on reforms, but what we really need is a broader public debate and discussion about the role of banks and the financial services sector. We need the sector to return to basic banking and to serve the needs of the economy and our society and not be the slave of the equity analysts! On top of trying to protect consumers rights in the areas of mortgage repossession and attempts by banks to pass on their mistakes in higher charges and fees, I will be following up on some of the issues raised here and looking in particular at the how we can make the system work for consumers and citizens.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Layaway, the cure for our plastic pain?

Yesterday, January 19th was officially the most depressing day of the year, when it seems the bad weather, long forgotten new year resolutions and the post Christmas bills all catch up with us. To be honest the bill I hate most is my credit card bill. January seems so far away when you are shopping before Christmas. Yes I try to reduce the cost of it, but sometimes I need it to tide me over or I have to withdraw cash where these sneaky charges kick always galls me even if I have to pay a few euro in charges and fees. Two years ago I was involved in a NYCI campaign to address some of the worst anti-consumer features of credit cards. Last year I got a commitment from the Financial Regulator that some of these issues would be dealt with in the review of the Financial Regulator's Consumer Protection Code in 2009. Given all that has happened in the financial sector in recent days, months and weeks, a revolution in regulation is required, not a review.

Well back to my bill, I got a shock when it arrived as I was charged a €7.50 over limit fee. How could this be, I don't remember having to pay this before. Anyhow I called my bank Permanent TSB and asked where did this come from. I was informed that this new fee was announced in a press release in October (couldn't find that) and of course if I had read the new terms and conditions line by line, would have seen details on page 6, how silly of me!

Bank charges and fees have been a major issue in the UK. Some of the banks there charge unfair and exorbitant fees and the issue has been through the courts where the banks have been taken to task and many consumers are getting redress. The Office for Fair Trading there has investigated these charges known as default charges and called for reductions. The only reason we have been spared such an onslaught is that many of the fees and charges (not credit card fees it would appear) are governed by Section 149 of the Consumer Credit Act which I wrote about previously Anyhow my bank told me that the fee was to cover their costs because it cost them moeny when I went over the limit, which of course is balderdash.

Firstly I told them a limit is a limit, if I exceed my credit card limit, then the payment should be refused. I am certainly not one to be embarrassed if my credit card is refused. Secondly it doesn't cost the bank anything, in fact they are charging me interest on the larger amount, so in fact they are having their cake and eating it. Getting a nice fee of €7.50 plus interest on the bigger balance. A few years ago banks were actively encouraging people to increase their limits, sending them letters and calling them. This was banned by the regulator, now they have found a new way around this. Charge an over limit fee and madden us all into increasing our limit to avoid it.

Against the background of my rage at this fee and credit cards in general, I came across this interesting article in the Economist on layaway. Its referred to as a lay-by in the UK, Australia and New Zealand. Basically a return to old and perhaps more sensible times when if you wanted to buy a suite of furniture, you paid for it in instalments and only when you had fully paid for it you collected it. As this blogger recounts I do remember something like this from childhood, but until recent times seemed quite quaint. So instead of walking in, flashing the plastic and a buy now pay later mentality, you are forced to budget so that you can afford your weekly or monthly payments. Sounds like hire purchase, but its not. HP is usually used for large purchases like a car, you get possession of the goods straight away and payments are spread over 2-5 years. For people on lower or stretched incomes (which includes a lot of people now) layaway could be perfect for purchases such as clothes, furniture, white goods etc.

Layaway explained!

Basically you decide what you want to buy, pay a deposit and then pay a weekly or monthly instalment, perhaps over 3-6 months. In other jurisdictions there is a service fee and you would have to factor that into the overall cost. In these times when retailers suddenly collapse, consumers may be wary of paying instalments over a number of months without possession of the goods. And what if you can't pay or if you change your mind. These are all things that need to be clarified before you decide to go down this route. Of course you first have to find a retailer who offers this facility. I could only find one. But I imagine in this straightened times that some retailers would do anything to make sales, while many consumers want to better control and manage their costs, so it just might take off. My only advice is that if it is offered, check all the fine print! But certainly an idea for the times.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Northern Exposure is good for the Republic's consumers and economy

There has been a lot of bellyaching from business interests and some politicians about consumers heading to Northern Ireland to access cheaper prices and save money. Brian Lenihan pleaded with consumers to shop at home because by shopping in the North the state was losing revenue needed for investment in schools and hospitals. Firstly I will take Brian Lenihan more seriously on taxation when the massive tax loopholes which allow the super rich to pay little or no tax are closed off. In 2006 we learned that "between the 1999 tax year and 2003, a sizeable number of multimillionaires - 184 to be exact - declared incomes of more than €1m a year and paid no income tax at all." That's not to mention the approximately 3,050 tax exiles who live here for less than 182 days and pay no tax at all. Secondly individual and family incomes are under huge pressure from the high inflation, particularly in food costs over the last 2-3 years. On top of that people's incomes are being squeezed and indeed some being decimated as the result of job losses. The Government mantra was "shop around" and therefore any rationale or sane person would avail of the cheaper grocery prices in the North to help makes ends meet.

Of course the retail and business sectors have been trying to suggest that the Northern shopping phenomenon is all a media creation. The reality here is that if consumers went to Newry or Lurgan and didn't get value or found that the prices were not all that different they would just stop going. The fact that there are still travelling in large numbers indicates people are saving money and getting good value. Of course we had all the usual suspects blaming the high labour costs, rental costs, and any other costs they could think of. I heard a guy on Q102 in November justifying the difference in prices based on the back of an envelope exercise where he had compared rent costs in Dublin and Belfast and also labour costs. Somehow he appeared to think that this rip-off could be explained away on the basis of a few phone calls without any detailed or proper analysis of a whole range of underlying costs. Indeed he like none of the these apologists mention the lower corporation tax and the lower social insurance contributions employers pay here. Neither do they mention the strengthening euro which should be translating into cheaper prices.

Well finally some light was shed on this issue when before Christmas when Forfas published a report which clearly demonstrated that the price differential was not justified. They found that at most the price differential should be in the region of 5% not the between 16% to 31% difference found in independent studies of grocery prices. The Forfas report was based on information provided directly from retailers and most importantly showed that the cost of the goods is the key factor affecting resale prices, its states "the cost of buying goods for resale is the single biggest cost incurred by retailers and accounts for three-quarters to four-fifths of their total costs". So at last clear and independent evidence that labour, utility and rental costs cannot be used to explain away the huge price differences, the reality is that retailers were making significant margins and profits. I suppose the market will always charge what it thinks the consumer will pay and perhaps during the boom years enough (not all) people were willing to pay high prices.

However I think a lot of retailers and businesses were slow to respond to the changing economic circumstances that many consumers found themselves in early last year. They were killing off the golden goose they plucked so easily for a decade. And as a result people began to buy less, switch to the discounters and more recently go North.

Falling through the floor-hopefully prices will follow!

Obviously there are short term benefits for consumers in terms of saving money by heading North. However there are medium and long term benefits as well, not only for the consumer, but for our economy and society as a whole. Having such strong competition available cross border will force retailers and businesses here to reduce their prices and offer better value and service. We saw that to a certain extent over Christmas and New Year with the major reductions in some stores. I believe if retailers here are to regain and retain customers and market share they will have to cut prices.

We are always told that one of the greatest benefits of the EU is the single market and indeed the EU Consumer Policy actually promotes cross border competition stating "the potential therefore exists for deeper EU-wide retail markets. Opening up cross-border retail markets is the key to unlocking the potential of the retail internal market. As cross-border shopping develops as a credible alternative to national markets, consumers both have greater choice and national markets are subject to greater competition."

So contrary to what some politicians and retailers say this "Northern exposure" is actually a good thing. Yes we will lose some tax revenue in the short term, but in the long term for our society and economy, it has positive aspects because it will keep and hopefully force prices down and reduce the cost of living for all and make us more competitive.