New consumer ombudsman service launched- but is it toothless?
Here at Bitterwallet we're a big fan of Ombudsmen- after all, it's a source of further redress if your complaint to the service or product provider hits a dead end. Now, a new service called the consumer ombudsman has launched whose remit seems to be practically anything you can buy.
You may have noticed a glut of new ombudsmen springing up recently- this is all down to impending rules from Europe mean that every sector must have a so-called "alternative dispute resolution body" that is officially approved to investigate complaints. This means that we need an ombudsman in every sector by October 2015. At the start of this year The Retail Ombudsman was launched to a deluge of complaints, but it was set up by a concerned individual. The Civil Aviation Authority is funding an aviation ombudsman that will be launched soon, and we have a number of others covering random things like furniture (the furniture ombudsman, obvs).
According to Ombudsman Services research, across all industry types, people made 66 million complaints to businesses about products and services last year, which works out at one complaint every 1.2 seconds. Npower was recently told to give people free energy after dragging their heels over Ombudsman complaints- customers were left waiting for up to 20 months over complaints, which mostly revolved around billing issues.
But while, until this year and the advent of the TRO, supermarket and online shoppers had nowhere to go other than small claims court, there are now concerns that people may be confused by multiple ombudsmen cropping up in any one sector. Retail complaints, for example, could now be dealt with by either the retail or consumer ombudsman.
"There's definitely a risk of confusion for consumers," said chief ombudsman Lewis Shand Smith, who overseeds the new consumer service, ading that "Britain is unique in telling the market to provide an ombudsman, rather than setting one up that's officially approved by the state." The new consumer ombudsman is backed by an official consumer organisation, the Trading Standards Institute, although its power has yet to be tested.
Mr Shand-Smith, naturally reckons that Ombudsman Services, which was contacted by 216,000 people last year, has the best resources, such as a call centre and in-house legal experts, to investigate consumer complaints. However, the new consumer ombudsman's decisions are not legally-binding on retailers and firms unless they agree to join. This is because it is not a public body, unlike the Financial Ombudsman, which was set up by parliament.
So far, no shops have publicly announced they are signed up.
Companies which sign up to the consumer ombudsman will have pay an annual subscription and a fee every time the ombudsman considers a complaint, which is at least £45 per customer. Or they could not join and not pay and disgruntled customers will not have so much scope to pursue complaints. It's a tricky one.