REAL scheme faces fresh criticisms

The administrators of the Renewable Energy Assurance Ltd scheme (REAL) have been using an investigative journalist to carry out company audits and compliance checks on its behalf, according to ClickGreen.

Reports have emerged that experienced journalist Colin Meek has carried out “dozens” of company audits on behalf of the REAL scheme operators but admitted none of the firms were made aware of his media background.

The news comes after REAL admitted sending out 30 letters to consumers on behalf of the makers of the Channel Five TV programme, Cowboy Builders.

The messages, obtained by ClickGreen and written on the headed letter paper of Ricochet Productions, were sent out by REAL to consumers who had complained under the consumer code about the company Ricochet was investigating.

The letter explains: “We would like to find out more about the unfortunate experiences you have had with the solar panel company” and asks for the opportunity of a telephone interview.

A spokesperson for REAL confirmed the organisation had “made consumers aware that a programme was being made about consumer experiences in the microgeneration sector and that if consumers so wished they could contact the production company directly.” REAL adds that it had no further correspondence with Ricochet beyond these letters adding its “only contact with Ricochet Productions occurred briefly in January 2012 following a consumer complaint.”

And the news that REAL is accused of employing an investigative journalist to scrutinise company dealings will add further pressure on administrators as it faces a High Court showdown over allegations of incompetence and unfairness. REAL maintains that Mr Meek’s background in journalism has no bearing on his ability to perform his duties as a compliance auditor.

Speaking from his home near Ullapool in Scotland, married father Colin Meek told ClickGreen he was qualified to describe himself as a journalist because he undertook a media post-graduate course at Cardiff University and is a member of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ).

When asked what experience he had to perform sensitive audits on companies as part of the REAL scheme, he answered: “I worked as a consumer affairs specialist for Which?”

He added: “These issues are quite complicated and my background is in consultancy and research.

“I have carried out dozens of audits, I also carry out training courses for the NUJ to coach research techniques and with other media platforms.”

Despite claiming he was no longer a journalist, until last week Meek described himself as an “active journalist” on his personal website, he uses his Twitter account to describe himself as an “independent journalist” and his professional profile on a journalism website describes him as an “investigative journalist”.

When asked if he believed the audited companies were aware of his background as an investigative journalist, he replied: “It’s really none of my concern.

“I don’t work for any publication in the energy or renewable energy sector, my media work has nothing to do with that.

“Now if you don’t mind, I am not interested any more in this discussion – you need to speak with Virginia Graham, she is the chief executive.”

A spokesperson for REAL refuted any claim of a conflict of interest adding: “The services of the independent compliance auditors instructed by REAL are not required on a full time basis.

“Accordingly, most of the compliance auditors have other employment. Mr Meek is a freelance consultant who provides services to REAL as an independent compliance auditor. He also provides training courses in internet research, is a research consultant, volunteers as a mountain rescuer and is a journalist.

“He is a specialist in a number of areas including internet security, data protection, medicine, and consumer protection issues. Mr Meek is instructed by REAL as a compliance auditor and not as a journalist. He has also contributed to REAL’s online consumer protection training resource.

“Mr Meek, as with all of REAL’s independent compliance auditors, has agreed to keep confidential any information of which he may become aware as a result of the compliance audit he carries out on REAL’s behalf.”

Lawyers have expressed alarm that REAL has also worked with Ricochet Productions to “expose” its own member firms.

Acting on behalf of Crystal Windows and Doors, Prospect Law is concerned that REAL’s member’s rights are being compromised without member’s knowledge, there is also concern that the Codes sponsor REA and the OFT may not be aware. 

The OFT website confirms that as Code Sponsor it is the REA that is responsible both for administering and overseeing the Code.

A spokesperson from Prospect Law said: “Prospect is extremely concerned to discover that Ricochet is ‘working closely with REAL Assurance’ to make undercover programmes about REAL’s own Member firms.

“We cannot understand how REAL believes this conduct fits into the powers conferred on it by the OFT in its Consumer Code and we have written to both the OFT and REA to ask how long they have been aware, as regulator and sponsors of the REAL Code respectively, that this practice has been going on.

“If OFT and REA didn’t know about REAL’s cooperation with programme making about Member firms with Ricochet Productions, we’re urging them to urgently address the matter with REAL.”

The spokesman added: “REAL is required under its Code to operate in a fair and proper manner towards any of its Members which are involved in a complaints process – covert cooperation with TV companies making entertainment programmes about ‘rogue traders’ without telling Members that this is going on does not fit into REAL’s remit and constitutes a very serious breach of the REAL Code.

“We will be forcing answers to the questions we have now asked OFT and REA in order to establish how long these breaches have been going on and how many Member firms and their customers are affected.”

A recent letter from Ricochet Productions, passed from REAL to its members’ customers, said: “I work for a TV production company called Ricochet… we are working closely with Real Assurance, and they have kindly agreed to pass this letter on to you.”

Commenting on the accusations, John Oddi, MD, Crystal Windows and Doors, said: “Of course the solar industry needs to be held to account, good journalism is essential and we welcome best practice in the industry, but for a regulatory body to deceive its own members and act illegally in this way is totally unacceptable.

“Crystal is not one of the companies affected, as far as we are aware, but no one seems to be taking responsibility for what increasingly appears to be a cowboy regulator; this is of great concern to us as members and our consumers.

“The matter has now been reported to the Information Commissioner’s Office, the organisation governing data protection breaches.”

A REAL statement issuing a firm denial of any commercial involvement said: “REAL denies in the strongest terms that it has ever had any commercial involvement whatsoever with Ricochet Productions or has benefitted from the company in any way whatsoever. REAL’s only contact from Ricochet Productions was in January 2012 regarding a contact it had had directly with a consumer about a serious complaint.

“REAL devotes a large amount of time to resolving complaints. Since 2008 it has resolved over 1,000 consumer complaints.”