Protecting the vultures

On July 13th last I wrote about the many excuses given by the Financial Services Ombudsman, Joe Meade, to avoid identifying the greedy vultures that infest the Irish financial sector. Joe added one more excuse today on RTEs News at One (5th item).

The latest case involved an 86 year old farmer. The man had just sold his farm for €1.4 million and was advised by his bank to invest in two long term insurance bonds. The capital was guaranteed provided they were kept in for four and six years.

The man died seven months later by which time the bonds had dropped by €50,000. Joe told the bank that it was inappropriate to sell these bonds and directed that the €50,000 be refunded.

Hilariously, Joe appealed to the banks to look into their hearts and review all accounts to see if they are appropriate.

When asked why he won’t name the low life bank, Joe said he didn’t have legal coverage.

Let’s remind ourselves of the extensive legal powers that Joe does have. He has the power of entry and seizure, he can require employees to provide information under oath, he can enter premises and demand documents and the High Court is the only external party that can overturn his decisions – but yet, according to Joe, he doesn’t have the simple legal power to name the vultures. The obvious question is – Was this a deliberate omission when the legislation was being drawn up?

Bizarrely, Joe justified his stance by reference to a recent High Court decision that went against him on a matter completely unrelated to the ripping off of the elderly.

So what hope does Joe offer the many vulnerable customers out there that his office is allegedly protecting?

Well, he wants to start a public debate on the matter. Just think about that suggestion, a public debate on whether the financial vultures that prey on the elderly should be named and shamed.

Joe then suggests that perhaps the Minister for Finance and the Dail could pass legislation on the matter. Let’s see; public debate and then action by a Government minister and the Dail, give it about ten maybe fifteen years. Meanwhile, the greedy vultures continue to enjoy the great benefits of state protection.

The reality is that, from a consumer point of view, the Financial Services Ombudsman is a useless organisation. It operates on the same basis as the equally useless Financial Regulator.

When the financial vultures are caught picking over the bones of a customer’s account they are merely required to pay back their ill gotten gains. No police, no fines, no names.

Death bus letter

I received a very nice letter from Noel Brett, CEO of the Road Safety Authority today in response to a recent post (The post was emailed to the RSA).

The letter outlined how the RSA responded to the complaint of a bus driver recklessly driving his vehicle with his elbows as he counted his takings. The complainant, Mr. Murphy, was also (rightly) commended for his actions but there was no hint that the RSA would be taking any follow up action to ensure that the driver is made accountable.

What are the chances that the safety of passengers will be protected by making this dangerous driver accountable? About the same, I would say, as getting a straight answer from Bertie Ahern.

Death bus

“Would you be happy to have your spouse, mother, father, children or constituent travel on an expressway bus being driven by someone who counts his cash takings with both hands as the bus speeds through the countryside at 80kph?”

This was the question a Mr. Bill Murphy asked every TD in the country after he witnessed a bus driver steering his vehicle at speed with his elbows. (Today with Pat Kenny, Thursday)

Mr. Murphy put the question to TDs after heroically trying every other avenue in an attempt to have this bus driver brought to account. Here’s a brief outline of his efforts.

7TH June: (Date of incident) Sent comment form to Bus Eireann. No reply.

End of June: Sent copy to Road Safety Authority. Received letter from Noel Brett, CEO of RSA indicating that he had written to Bus Eireann asking them to deal with Mr. Murphy’s complaint.

6TH July: Received letter from Marketing, Sales and External Communications Department (Phew!) saying that comments were sent to Cork and they would be in touch.

Received letter from Cork saying that their chief inspector would interview the driver. A month has passed and the driver hasn’t even been interviewed? (How many people could have died in that month due to this dangerous practice?)

7TH August: (Two months after the incident). Sent copy of all correspondence to Mr. Tim Hayes, CEO Bus Eireann and Noel Brett of RSA. Received acknowledgement from RSA – Silence from Bus Eireann.

Travelled personally to Dail Eireann to deliver the above question to TDs.

Let’s deal with the bus driver first. There is no way to be nice about this dangerous idiot. He should be fired immediately, charged with dangerous driving and banned for life from being in charge of a vehicle where he would be responsible for the lives of dozens of people.

The management personnel in Bus Eireann should also be fired for failing to protect the safety of commuters.

A bit harsh? Bring to mind television pictures of mangled bodies being removed from wrecked buses.

Amazingly, Pat Kenny expressed sympathy for the driver claiming that perhaps all Bus Eireann drivers drive with their elbows and this man was ‘unfortunate’ in being singled out.

Mr. Murphy is to be congratulated, not just for his efforts to save lives, but also for his persistence against a wall of uncaring bureaucracy.

Never ending quangos

For decades Irish consumers have been ripped off by rogue businesses because of inadequate protection from the State.

In 2005, in an alleged effort to protect consumers, the National Consumer Agency was set up. Unfortunately, its powers were limited to issuing press releases and highlighting rip offs.

This situation could only have arisen through gross incompetence on the part of civil servants responsible for its establishment, or, it was a deliberate policy to create a toothless tiger.

Two years later, after ‘rip off Ireland’ had become part of our culture, the NCA was (apparently) given;

“Real teeth allowing it to go after the bad guys, investigate suspected offences and refer cases to the DPP.”

(Prime Time).

It was made clear on the same programme that tackling sharp practices in the construction industry would be top of the agenda for the newly empowered NCA. Acting executive chairwoman, Ann Fitzgerald, made her position crystal clear.

“We are been given huge powers and we as a board are not afraid to use them and we will use them.” “Businesses who treat consumers unfairly will be brought to court.”

So called management companies represent one of the greatest rip offs for Irish consumers. Many of these companies are nothing less than ruthless mafia style operations preying on (mostly young) struggling home owners (See analysis here).

When asked about this situation Ms. Fitzgerald said;

“We have set up a forum to address all these issues without needing legislation because the legislation is going to take two or three years and I don’t want to see the half a million people involved left hanging for two or three years.”

Well, here’s news for that half a million people that Ms. Fitzgerald doesn’t want to see left hanging’.

‘Get used to being a victim of these vultures because protection is further away than ever.’

Last Sunday’s Irish Independent reports that yet another quango is being set up with the alleged aim of ‘protecting’ property owners.

So, just when it seemed, after years of waiting; that property owners might get real protection by a regulatory body backed up by tough legislation, the Government decides to start the whole process again.

At this point we can dismiss the NCA as a serious organisation. It’s just the latest in a long line of useless organisation that cannot or will not take real action to protect consumers.

But what about this new government quango with the clumsy title; National Property Services Regulatory Authority (NPSRA)

The first thing that can be said with absolute certainty is that it too will be a completely useless organisation. After all, its principal mission will be to regulate a business closely associated with the government favoured construction industry.

But as an exercise in observing how things are done in our Republic it will be interesting to monitor its progress.

The report tells us that the Law Reform Commission, the Office of the Director for Corporate Enforcement and our old friend the National Consumer Agency have all delivered reports on the property services sector.

Last December the Government approved the drafting of legislation to establish the new regulator. We can safely say, therefore, that it will be many years before the new quango has any real power.

But let’s be generous and predict that NPSRA will be in a position to act in the interest of property owners in, say, five years time. What will happen then? Yes, you’ve guessed. Another quango will be initiated and the whole process will begin again.

In the meantime the NCA has established a “multi-unit development stakeholder forum” (Where do they get these titles). Hilariously, they believe that the ruthless sharks in the management companies sector will actually agree to a voluntary code of practice.

Decade after decade, quango after quango, report after report; promise after promise. There is only one consistent reality – Consumers are still being ripped off.

Ms. Fitzgerald should take herself back on Prime Time, apologise to Irish consumers for giving them false hope and, with her entire board, resign forthwith.

A corrupt and secretive financial market

According to the Irish Financial Regulator one of its main tasks is to –

Help consumers to make informed decisions on their financial affairs in a safe and fair market.

This promise has a hollow ring to it in light of the latest rip off by an Irish bank.

Rip offs by Irish financial institutions have become so common now that when news of the latest ‘overcharging’ by Ulster Bank (2nd item) was reported yesterday, the regulator didn’t even bother to make comment.

Over the last 15/20 years Irish banks have ‘overcharged’ their customers (victims) by a massive €167 million. Only a fool would believe that these activities are all down to ‘error’ rather than deliberate and well organised scams.

Despite this, not a single bank has ever been punished by the Financial Regulator. Not a single bank official has ever been questioned by the police never mind actually charged with criminal behaviour.

Michael Kilcoyne of the Consumers Association of Ireland suggested that there should be a fine of several million Euro imposed on these organisations. (RTE News, 3rd item) He is obviously unaware that the regulator already has the power to impose a fine of up to €5 million on errant financial institutions. But even this pathetic fine, which equates to about two days profits for the larger banks, has never been imposed by the regulator.

Not only does the regulator refuse to punish banks, it also affords them valuable protection through a policy of total secrecy regarding their many dodgy activities.

Consumers rely solely on the media or whistleblowers for information to help them make informed decisions on their financial affairs in a corrupt and secretive financial market.

Hiding out in Bertie's bunker

There was a long line of angry people on Liveline (Wed/Thu) complaining about being ripped off by a company called New Look Windows. Many of the callers desperately wondered what they could do, who they could turn to for help.

Well, if they’re really optimistic they could try the National Consumer Agency. Speaking on Time Prime last March its executive chairwoman, Ann Fitzgerald said (in a Clint Eastwood, make my day punk, tone).

“We are been given huge powers and we as a board are not afraid to use them and we will use them.” “Business’ who treat consumers unfairly will be brought to court.”

I say optimistically, because when the NCA was faced with its first challenge, the Barbra Streisand concert debacle, it promptly handed over investigation of the disaster to the organisers of the concert, to investigate themselves.

So where is the NCA when these desperate Liveline callers need help? Probably snowed under reading those promised weekly reports from the Streisand investigation committee or perhaps they’re hiding out in that reinforced bombproof bunker with Bertie.

Feck off

It’s interesting to compare the different responses to water shortages in Galway and
Gloucestershire.

In the UK, where the water shortage was caused by natural events, citizens have been supplied with free bottled water backed up with bulk water tankers.

In Galway, where the water shortage was caused by political incompetence, citizens have to pay for their bottled water and when they demanded bulk water tankers, the politicians told them to feck off – and they did.

(Un)rattled cages

The very serious problems that arose at the Barbra Streisand concert last Saturday night were, according to the promoters MCD, caused by the weather, traffic and the fans themselves. No blame whatsoever, it would seem, lies with MCD.

Consumers, many of whom paid up to €500 for a seat, think otherwise. They believe they have been ripped off big time by the debacle.

Initially, MCD just ignored all the complaints but as consumer anger turned up the heat MCD opted for the ultimate cop out, they formed a committee.

Led by former Garda commissioner Pat Byrne, this committee is expected to deal with the issue ‘effectively and efficiently’ and report – next September – when the heat is off.

Dermot Jewell of the Consumers Association said this committee will take so long it is a further insult to fans (Irish Independent).

But there is an even more serious question here. Why is MCD allowed to set up its own committee to investigate complaints against itself? Where is the National Consumer Agency?

Last March the NCA was given wide ranging powers, with real teeth to go after the bad guys, investigate suspected offences and refer cases to the DPP (Prime Time). Speaking on the same Prime Time programme, the NCAs executive chairwoman, Ann Fitzgerald pulled no punches in her determination to protect the consumer.

“Now there is a recognition that the consumers time has come.” We are been given huge powers and we as a board are not afraid to use them and we will use them.” “Business’ who treat consumers unfairly will be brought to court.”

In the Irish Times (Sub. required) she is quoted as saying “We’re direct and we’re prepared to rattle cages.”

Sadly, like the Financial Regulator, the Financial Ombudsman and the multitude of other so called regulatory/enforcement agencies in Ireland, the NCA is totally ineffective when it comes to protecting consumers interests.

Unlike the Consumers Association who rightly see this self appointed committee as an insult to consumers the NCA has actually welcomed its formation and are happy with a mere once a week update on its progress.

In a further abdication of its duty to protect consumers the NCA has advised complainants to contact MCD first before (bothering) NCA.

“Consumers time has come?” “Rogue businesses brought to court?” Cages rattled? – I don’t think so.