FOR a company which started out almost 200 years ago with the proud boast that it offered ‘tours for the people’, the more recent history of failed travel firm Thomas Cook tells a sorry tale of dropping holidaymakers right in the middle of the briny.
What a timely reminder that what this country really needs is not another set of self-serving politicians, but a committed, independent, utterly dedicated and official consumer champion.
Not a lip-service ‘consumer tsar’ appointed for mutual kudos or an over-paid celebrity lacking any understanding of legal processes, but an active figurehead who could set in place a wide-ranging system of redress and create a process by which consumers could seek compensation in a clear and accountable manner.
The current ragbag of ombudsmen and under-funded advice services needs bringing together under one big consumer-friendly umbrella.
And what about the so-called public services which so often fail those who shell out thousands for the privilege of using them? Rail and bus companies, I’m looking at you.
Yes, I know that there are complaints procedures which customers can take when they find trains cancelled and buses so overcrowded they regularly fail to stop, but how strong are the teeth? The Dispute Resolution Ombudsman, an independent body which holds train companies to account, says that just 28 per cent of people who made a complaint to such a company in 2017/18 were satisfied with the outcome.
Why doesn’t the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson and the Business Secretary, Andrea Leadsom, face facts and accept that, in the face of the coming storm, they could do worse than appoint a safe pair of hands to ensure that tax-paying members of the public (and potential general election voters) are treated fairly.
If Dame Esther Rantzen, the redoubtable upholder of consumer rights who presented BBC1’s That’s Life programme for more than two decades can’t be persuaded to reprise her role, may I suggest an equally redoubtable Yorkshirewoman, Brenda, Baroness Hale of Richmond?
If she can bring Boris Johnson to heel in the Supreme Court, surely she can head up a body with justice at its heart? And she has to retire next year.
After all, without wishing to cast an even grimmer light over this already-gloomy autumn, Thomas Cook wasn’t the first and it won’t be the last major consumer-facing company to go under.
Impending Brexit hangs over the landscape like a pall, but any private company steadily accruing a mountain of debt, desperately attempting to expand this way and that and refusing to accept changing customer behaviour, is vulnerable.
What started on the High Street, with the decline of major names such as BHS, House of Fraser and Debenhams, will spread as consumers prioritise what little disposable income they have and the climate for borrowing will turn ever-chillier.
Some Thomas Cook customers – an estimated 100,000 who paid by direct debit – will receive refunds for cancelled holidays within days, but it’s reported that 265,000 others who paid by other means may face a wait of up to 60 days (or two months) to have their outlay reimbursed.
The Civil Aviation Authority is launching a new information and refunds service on its website today, but that’s a full two weeks after the 178-year-old firm went into administration, stranding 150,000 customers abroad until Operation Matterhorn, the biggest UK peacetime rescue mission ever, kicked in.
It’s been an anxious fortnight for a young family I know. With three children under 10, money is tight and they have scrimped and saved for months to go to Spain on a modest holiday this coming half term. These are not the kind of people who can shrug off £2,000 or so of their hard-earned wages and book another trip whilst they wait for the refund to appear.
And their children don’t understand why the holiday they have looked forward to and bought new clothes for now isn’t happening. It looks like it’s going to be two months before they see their money again. I’m sorry, but how can this be right?
If they had known when they booked their holiday that their method of payment would impact so directly on their recourse to a refund, they would have thought twice. This is just one family, but there are thousands in the same boat – on a very choppy ocean.
Never was a firm hand on the tiller more needed to protect them from the sharks.