Helen Dewdney is The Complaining Cow blogger and author of How to Complain: The Essential Consumer Guide to Getting Refunds, Redress and Results! Together with Marcus Williamson - editor of ceoemail.com – Helen wrote the report ‘Ombudsman Omnishambles - Serious unresolved issues affecting the operation of the ombudsman ADR system in the UK’. Here she talks to Cabinet Maker about her findings.
You’re a self-confessed ‘complainer,’ how did you end up spending your time fighting for consumer rights?
It is important to distinguish between moaning and complaining effectively. Complaining effectively means getting redress where it is due. For many years I have complained for friends and family when they had been fobbed off by companies.
I started The Complaining Cow blog as a hobby, sharing stories of gaining redress and soon after wrote about my experiences winning in court against Tesco. This developed further, providing advice and guidance on consumer rights.
I published my first book on how to complain in August 2014, which remains an Amazon bestseller. Over the last couple of years I have been asked to do more media work on consumer rights.
There are a number of ombudsman schemes in place to resolve complaints for consumers. Your recent report, Ombudsman Omnishambles, in collaboration with Marcus Williamson, examines the processes by which new ombudsmen are approved and overseen. Could you tell us a bit about what motivated you to produce this?
Working in consumer rights I was interested in the ADR directive and firstly the delay in implementation. When I spoke with Marcus Williamson we discovered some issues and sent out a press release in July 2015.
From that time we saw an increase in ombudsman issues. We continued to research as we felt that the potential for consumer confusion was high and thought we should publicise the issue because no one else would!
How did you go about the background research?
The unregulated ombudsman area is relatively new and its inception and growth are well documented in information from the Chartered Trading Standards Institute (CTSI), Ombudsman Association (OA) and Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).
It is clear that those organisations have not carried out background checks on these new entrants to the sector. It was a shock to us to find that the communications director of one ombudsman is a convicted criminal and that the same ombudsman’s chief had run a company which failed, owing money to HMRC. This basic background information is freely available from Companies House.
The EU ADR Directive is cited in your report as having boosted growth in the ADR sector since its implementation in October 2015. What has the impact of a greater number of dispute resolution services been on the consumer?
The growth of the sector and poor regulation has led to confusion for consumers.
Some retailers are signposting to ombudsmen but not members of the scheme. This could lead to consumers wasting their time because the retailer will not abide by an ombudsman’s decision. Regulatory bodies do not currently monitor this, so it’s an issue that could worsen.
The doubling up of ADR providers in the unregulated areas is also unhelpful to both consumers and retailers.
In terms of new entrants to the arena, the report suggests that they are primarily private limited companies with commercial objectives. It could be argued that any dispute resolution service where members pay joining or annual fees would be viewed as such. What do you define as the main point of difference between new entrants and the pre-existing ombudsman schemes?
The report looked at the “non-regulated” sector only. In both sectors members have to pay fees. In the government-regulated areas is not possible to make a profit from the service being provided. The new entrants are commercial companies whose objective is to make money for their owners.
It is now essential that the Government provides more rigorous oversight to resolve and prevent further recurrence of the issues described in our report.
The new ombudsman services emerging since the implementation of the EU ADR Directive have experienced a ‘light touch’ approach to appointment and policing, according to the report. Looking at the furniture industry in particular, as an ‘unregulated’ sector, its competent body is the Chartered Trading Standards Institute (CTSI). This institute’s approval process is in line with the Alternative Dispute Resolution for Consumer Disputes (Competent Authorities and Information) Regulations 2015, and Amendment Regulations 2015. Would you say the terms are not strict enough, and if so, why?
I do not think the terms are strict enough and we made recommendations about this in the report. In particular, a “fit and proper person” test MUST be introduced for all ADR employees to ensure that they do not have a criminal record and/or a background of financial problems.
The report states that there is currently no ‘ombudsman of ombudsmen’. This being the case, what happens if the consumer is dissatisfied with the actions or behaviour of an ADR provider?
The only option available to the consumer in this case would be to then go to the Small Claims Court. This has to change.
So, could you or I feasibly set up an ombudsman?
Yes, although we would be subject to the guidelines outlined in the report but it is how well those are interpreted and audited by the competent bodies that is of vital importance to the future success or failure of the ADR system.
A number of proposed solutions were provided in the report, which was submitted to the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) in response to its call for evidence on helping consumers get a better deal. Could you tell our readers a bit more detail?
In brief, we recommended: a single consumer web portal for ADR to ensure clarity for consumers and a review of approval, monitoring and enforcement of ADR regulation, including a “fit and proper” person test.
Have you yet received any response from BIS to your findings?
It has requested a meeting with us for further discussion of the report.
And what about CTSI and the Ombudsman Association? Have you had any further response from either of them since the report was published?
The initial response from the OA is included in the report. We have had no further contact from the CTSI. An email from the OA dated 22 June 2016 states that their system of re-validation will restart in autumn.
The report is available to view by visiting: http://CEOemail.com/ombudsman-omnishambles.pdf