Thank you for the pre-submitted questions to this year’s AGM.
We were unable to answer them all on the day, but as promised, we’ve responded to all Ordinary Members directly who didn’t have their question answered, and we’ve also published the answers here.
New Build Leaseholds
Questions: Why has Which? not taken action in relation to the scandal of unreasonable ground rent clauses in contracts for domestic leasehold properties?
When did Which? become concerned about this scandal, and when did any operation commence to attack the problem?
What action is Which? currently involved in?
Were Which? Mortgage Advisers and associates aware, and if not why is this the case?
Will Which? add its weight to the government consultation?
Will Which? press the government to ensure the leaseholder is able to purchase the freehold at a price stipulated/calculated in any new legislation?
Answer: We are aware of this procedure, and Editorial (Which? Money), Policy, Campaigns, Legal and Consumer Rights are working together on this issue. Which? produced an extensive guide over the summer and the Consumer Rights site will shortly be launching free content on the subject.
We have also been looking at this issue from a legal perspective and whether we can take action. This area is complicated given there is no collection redress regime for breaches of consumer (as opposed to competition) law and a myriad of potential defendants (solicitors and other parties).
We have been engaging with key stakeholders working on leasehold issues, including the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership, on where action including future campaigning action can be taken.
Recommended Conveyancing lawyers
Questions: Does the fact Which? recommends a single conveyancing firm and commission is earned for each completed transaction, not breach CA’s principles that a supplier of goods or services must not pay CA for being so recommended?
When will the appointment next be put out to open tender?
Answer: As part of our mission to tackle consumer detriment, we identified that conveyancing was a market with significant consumer detriment. Where Which? is not in a position to address that detriment itself, it may consider working with third parties.
Our Council has adopted a set of guiding principles that govern our commercial relationships with third parties. The principles ensure that our relationships are disclosed clearly and transparently to consumers, and govern the extent of due diligence and ongoing quality assurance performed in respect of each commercial relationship.
Prior to entering relationships, we will undertake a thorough due diligence and selection process to select the best provider and we regularly review our relationships and the service offered.
Which? Limited and Which? Financial Services Limited are permitted to use the Which? name and branding when carrying out their commercial activities. A condition to this is that ‘paid for advertising’ cannot be undertaken unless the specific prior approval of Council has been obtained. We do not consider our referral arrangements to be paid for advertising as the main purpose is to provide a service to our customers and address consumer detriment. Any commission or referral fee we receive is incidental and is ploughed back into funding our directly charitable activity. Consumers are clearly informed where Which? receives a referral fee/ commission.
With regard to the question on tendering for firms that are recommended by Which?. There is no date agreed to set up a tender process for the provision of conveyancing services at present. [as at Dec 2017]
Question: Can you continue to identify “who owns who” in the commercial and retail world (as in September 2017 issue) glasses, lens, frames etc.
Answer: We return to this topic on an ad-hoc basis, most recently covering healthcare, but previously tech brands (March 17 magazine), food brands (December 2015) and banks (May 2014). We intend to do further articles in this area in future as we know it is of great interest to members.
Question: Does Which? provide any facilities for Blind people or those with limited eyesight?
Answer: We are always looking at ways to make our magazines and websites more accessible for our members. For our members that are blind or partially sighted, we are looking to make the option of audio recording more readily available. We ensure that every month we supply RNIB with PDFs for Which?, Which? Travel and Which? Computing, who turn them into audio versions – these are available to download from the RNIB.
We have also previously responded to specific requests, for example, we converted our ‘Laptops made easy marketing guide’ to an audio recording for a member. This year our AGM was audio recorded and will be made available to members to listen to online after the event. We are currently looking into options for large print versions of Which? magazine to be made, and hope to be able to report back shortly on progress.
Question: What are the plans to provide online access for subscribers to reviews etc from these other publications?
Answer: Some of the content from the other publications is available on which.co.uk, although we currently only have a digital edition and online back archive of PDFs for Which? magazine. We are actively working on these at present and very much hope to be able to provide online access and digital editions for our other titles. We appreciate that readers of all our magazines would like to be able to access the content digitally, as well as in print.
Question: Over a period of 16 months my subscription to Which? Legal will have risen by 69%. If this were a commercial company I would expect Which? to deplore such a steep increase in charges over such a short space of time, but of course Which? Legal is wholly owned by the Consumers’ Association. I therefore confidently expect that this swingeing increase will go unremarked by our “campaigning” organisation.
How does the Consumers’ Association justify ownership of commercial ventures which it allows to act so blatantly in ways that are detrimental to consumers’ interests?
Answer: We appreciate the concern around these increases but, to provide some context, this increase from £9.75 to £13 in September 2015 is the first price rise to the service for over 14 years.
The price increases have been made in parallel with significant enhancements in the overall offer to members. These have included, over time, the addition of dedicated email services, motoring information and guidance on wills and probate. What we believe we have achieved for members is a very fair price for an extremely comprehensive service.
It is only through the success of our commercial ventures that Which? can continue to deliver on its varied and significant charitable and advocacy activity. Which? does not receive donations or money from the government and we do not fund-raise – only through healthy commercial activity can we continue to do what we do for consumers on an ongoing basis.
Question: In relation to resolution 12, how many Ordinary Members and how many subscribers would there be in each of the 15 regions of the UK? The proportion of these which are female for each region?
An alternative to random selection would be to hold elections for the positions. Has the Council considered this?
Answer: Resolution 12 asked Council to consider establishing a standing committee. Council has agreed to do this alongside its wider governance review but has not committed to recommending the establishment of the standing committee at this stage. It follows that the issues such as the proportion of members from each region and diversity of its make up have yet to be considered.
Question: What is the steering group mentioned in the first para on page 25 of the annual report? Who are the members? And what are the terms of reference?
Answer: It was an internal steering group made up of a mix of Council members and executives to act as a sounding board for the team undertaking governance and member proposition work.
Question: Would the trustees who sanctioned the present pay policy for the CEO consider their position.
Answer: The pay policy pre 1 July 2017 was developed by the previous Remuneration Committee and approved by the Council of Trustees, however, it has been reviewed as part of the detailed Remuneration Review that occurred in Jan-June 2017. The updated approach was communicated in this year’s Annual Review which has been supported and approved by the Remuneration Committee, Board and Council and is currently being implemented through FY 2017/18.
Policy on director conflict of interest
Question: What are the plans to make the Register of Directors’ Interests public and/or available to Members, in line with best practice in this area practised by other organisations?
Answer: We have a register of director’s interests which is closely managed. We maintain the register in accordance with best practice and have no current intention to make the full register of interests available to members. The financial statements for 2016/2017 confirmed that there were no material transactions between the Consumers Association and its Council members.
Third Party Relationships
Question: Can the Chairman or Chief Executive please provide a complete list of “third party relationships” over the last three years. Can the Chairman also please give consideration to regular and prominent publication of such details.
Answer: Where a third party arrangement exists, our website explains the nature of our relationship with the third party on the relevant page of our website. These relationships help us to provide additional services to members and consumers. We are committed to a clear disclosure policy.
Questions: Can the Chairman please explain the reason for the reduction in Consumer Research and the Policy for allocating the split of expenditure between these two items.
Answer: All disclosure is in line with applicable UK accounting standards and charity SORP requirements. A further breakdown of all group expenditure can be found in notes 2 and 3 of the financial statements.
Consumer research reflects spend incurred by CA on research activity. These costs incurred by Consumers’ Association (CA) are sold at cost to Which? Limited for use in its commercial activities – primarily within its magazines and digital services.
Promoting Consumer Interests reflects our net underlying charitable spend on behalf of all UK consumers, including campaigning, policy and the provision of free information and advice
Spend in Consumer Research (before the allocation of support costs) decreased compared to the previous year, largely reflecting efficiency savings, where we were able to do more (6% more products tested compared to the previous year) for less, focusing on the products/services that matter more to our customers. Bringing our survey management activity in-house helped us to reduce our costs year-on-year.
Question: Can the Chairman please provide a breakdown of Expenditure of Fundraising Trading and Income from Other Trading Activities, both by key activity (ie for each commercial business).
Answer: All costs of both Consumer Research and Promoting Consumer Interests are incurred by CA. The amount spent on Consumer Research is sold at cost to Which? Limited for use in its commercial activities. All disclosure in the financial statements is in line with relevant accounting standards and SORP requirements.
Question: What benchmarking is undertaken by both the Council and the Which? Limited Board to ensure that costs, revenues, and value provided to consumers are in line with other equivalent organisations – both nationally and internationally?
Answer: No formal benchmarking exercise in this area is undertaken. However, we continue to monitor activities and initiatives in other relevant organisations to ensure we provide better value and a more effective service to our customers.
Questions: I have noticed for some time now the increasing use by commercial organisations of Which? recommendations and Best Buys in their adverts.
When was the practice relaxed?
Was it voted on at an AGM? If so which one?
Are there still restrictions of such use, and if so what are they?
Do you encourage members to report such use of Which? recommendations? If so to where should the report be addressed?
Answer: Which? runs an Endorsement Scheme for Best Buy, Recommended Provider and Trusted Trader icons. There is a charge for companies to use the icons in their marketing materials. All profits raised from this scheme are ploughed back into Which?’s campaigning work.
The introduction and use of Best Buys is a commercial decision. Therefore, this does not require changes to our articles and so would not be voted on at the AGM.
Any organisation that has a Which? Best Buy license is issued with user regulations, which helps to guide their conduct. Our reputation is of the utmost importance to us and so we carefully monitor organisations using our logo for any inappropriate use. However, there may be occasions when we miss something, and therefore we do encourage, and are grateful to members remaining vigilant and ask they email the following address to report any malpractice concerns: Corporatequeries@which.co.uk
John Lewis Vouchers
Question: As Which? is promoted as independent and advertisement free, why does Council consider the awarding of a £50 John Lewis voucher to the ‘Letter of the month’ appropriate when it appears to amount to product placement?
Also, does CA pay for the vouchers at face value, or do they get a discount?
Answer: We have tested various vouchers and rewards in the past, but the John Lewis vouchers always get the best response from our audience. This is not a mechanism to promote John Lewis and it would not affect our ability to scrutinise them where appropriate. We pay for the vouchers and do not receive a preferential rate.
The letter of the month is a ‘thank you’ to the letter-writer selected – both for raising a point of particular interest and also to acknowledge that we normally need to call on them to be available for a portrait photo.
Question: Which? Decided in 2007 to institute Awards for good companies. Is it rather invidious that each year equally good companies exist but only one, in some convoluted system, is a winner.
Answer: We award the highly sought after Best Buy or Recommended Provider accolade to the products and services we identify as being the best in their respective markets. For the Which? Awards, we aim to go one step further by acknowledging the very best brands operating in their sectors. The analysis of those who we shortlist and then become winners pulls on all our data from across the year and often looks at how brands perform across multiple areas of product or service provision. Everyone shortlisted for a Which? Award deserves to be on that list – and, unlike many other awards, they cannot nominate themselves for consideration.
Questions: Why does Which? not garner more Press coverage and greater public interest by lampooning the worst products and services each year?
Answer: Our Best Buys, Recommended Providers and Which? Awards are all geared to enabling us to recommend the very best products and services people can choose from. However, we do not shy away from warning people against products we judge to perform poorly through our expert testing, consumer research and analysis – for instance, we have over 8,000 products reviews on which.co.uk and 5% of these are for Don’t Buys, which we also regularly publicise in our magazines and, where there are safety concerns, in PR. You might also have seen our Whirlpool campaign highlighting unsafe tumble dryers in peoples home and there will be more to come over the coming year that will shine a spotlight on unsafe products in peoples’ homes.