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The government’s complaints overhaul must make enforcement a priority

Law and enforcement

A review of protections in consumer markets has been announced, looking at new technologies, enforcement and consumer protection. We want stronger and more effective enforcement, do you agree?

The Modernising Consumer Markets Green Paper sets out the government’s three principles for responding to the challenges and opportunities of modern consumer markets:

  1. 1. Competition is central  –  the government has a role in ensuring that consumers are active in the marketplace and that firms compete to provide the best goods and services for the lowest price
  2. 2. New tech that works in favour of the customer – we should all benefit from new technology and new business models, with competition and regulation working for us
  3. 3. Redress for when things go wrong – we should be able to resolve our consumer disputes and get redress, all with effective enforcement in cases of harm.

Consumer enforcement in the UK

The government had said that it’s considering strengthening national enforcement of consumer rights while maintaining strong levels of consumer protection at a local level.

While we welcome any new steps that ensure that we all get a better deal in vital areas like financial services, energy and telecoms, it will only make a difference if action can be taken against companies that break the rules.

Any new or existing consumer law isn’t worth the paper it’s printed if it can’t be enforced. We all need to be empowered to put things right when they go wrong, and at the centre of that is a strong route to enforcement for all consumers.

We want the government to use these reforms to overhaul our consumer enforcement system so that, as we leave the EU, we can ensure people are supported by high levels of rights and protection – with greater access than ever before to quality, affordable products and services.

Enforcement problems

We hear of lots of instances where enforcement action hasn’t been taken when we believe it should have been.

For example, a lot of enforcement action falls at the feet of an already stretched local Trading Standards teams who, despite a lack of funding and personnel, are expected to enforce 263 different pieces of legislation for different government departments.

The government has recognised that more can be done to help us all access to high-quality dispute resolution services and to avoid costly court hearings.

It says it will help consumers enforce their rights by improving consumers’ awareness, access and experience of alternative dispute resolution and in particular strengthen advocacy arrangements in the telecoms sector.

At present figuring out when, how and what Alternative Dispute Resolution scheme you should use can prove to be a stiff mountain to climb for many of us.

Your views

A consultation on the green paper will run for 12 weeks.

What changes do you think are needed to improve the current complaints and redress system? Have you had a problem with escalating a consumer rights problem?

Comments

What I would like to see is enforcement rather than consumers having to fight for their rights or even go to court. Twice recently I have had to argue with retailers who wanted me to deal with the manufacturer when goods had failed after a year but within the guarantee period. This is such a common scenario that enforcement action should be taken against the companies.

Whether it’s existing problems or new technology we need enforcement and it does not help that successive governments have run down the Trading Standards to a point that it is difficult for consumers to get help.

Thanks for a very relevant Convo, Adam.

In principle dealing with retailers seems quite straightforward. Just a pity that the law seems not to be enforced and delinquent retailers appropriately penalised. Maybe if they, and their staff, were properly dealt with, and consumers better informed, things might improve and our rights automatically granted? Scope for some hard work and a campaign?

I wonder why the Whirlpool problem was not partly dealt with using this route?

Retailers’ responsibilities:
Your responsibilities for the goods you sell
You are responsible for the goods you sell and if a customer returns an item they purchased from you that is faulty (it does not conform to contract) because it
• does not match the description
• is not of satisfactory quality
• is not fit for purpose,
you (not the manufacturer or supplier) are legally obliged to resolve the matter with the customer at any time for up to six years from the date of purchase, or in Scotland for up to five years from the discovery of the problem.
Any refund, repair or replacement you arrange with your customer relating to faulty goods must not cause them too much inconvenience and you will have to pay for other costs, for example, collection or delivery.

Complying with the law
You cannot remove a customer’s legal rights, for example by displaying a notice saying ‘we do not give refunds under any circumstances’ or ‘credit notes only in the case of faulty items’.
It is also against the law to mislead consumers about their legal rights – this could lead to a criminal prosecution under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008.

Surely if the government is serious, the obvious first step is bring Trading Standards up to scratch at local level (“while maintaining strong levels of consumer protection at a local level.” it says in the intro) together with a similar National Trading Standards that deals with all national issues, not just ones they nominate. These need to be geared up to deal with, and respond to, individual consumers issues on many complaints and direct them to appropriate bodies that deal with those outside their remit. The government will not address this problem with words; it needs resources.

Many consumers may not know how to deal with a complaint, or indeed even know if they have a valid complaint. Maybe this is something Which? could capitalise on. Produce a book(let) giving consumer’s rights under different categories, who to approach in the first instance, and how to follow up if there is no initial success. Maybe also, like Which?Legal they could offer individual help on a pay per complaint basis.

However, as a consumers’ champion I would like to see Which? much more active in dealing with delinquent organisations and commercial companies that do not deal properly with consumers, to try to put a stop to bad practice. Currys, amazon, Ryanair, Sony, VW, Whirlpool all spring to mind where consumers have suffered significant detriment in considerable numbers but Which? has not been effective.

There are so many “box movers” out there selling direct to the public, and – with a tacit acceptance of this – so many manufacturers out there who actually take on the duty that should strictly be performed by the retailers.

And of course we encourage it by buying from box makers rather than true local retail outlets.

They are still retailers of course and should be made to meet their obligations, particularly under the consumer rights Act. Something Which? should be using its muscle to ensure. Consumers need to be educated to learn their rights, and that they are with the retailer.

Absolutely. However, sometimes the path of least resistance is beneficial to the consumer. Not always – and the short cut takes nothing away from said obligations.

The link provided by Adam relating to the green paper and current consultation refers to improving the system of alternative dispute resolution. ADR is not something that I recall featuring much in the advice on the Which? website other than in relation to Trusted Traders and I don’t remember examples of legal cases demonstrating how we could use ADR if available rather than the small claims court.

It would be interesting to learn more about ADR, especially how it compares with going to court.

Thanks Adam. I’m fortunate in not having even thought of taking legal action against a company. I suspect that many of us would be prepared to seek ADR including using an ombudsman but going to court could be rather intimidating.

It seems fairly easy to see which areas are covered by ombudsman services – financial, furniture, etc. but I suppose that it would be necessary to ask if a company uses ADR or other mediation service.

80sMusicFan says:
22 October 2020

I once met a local shop manager who was overtly proud that “Trading Standards TRY to get us but they haven’t managed to yet”.
I got my refund (showed evidence).
Hostility to the customer is the hallmark of an overly-competitive, abusive market where
retailer (i.e. the dominant power in any sale, unless the buyer is a rich individual large organisation which most of the market isn’t) chooses to abuse. Almost as if that’s the default in human nature, thus laws under the UK Government whose “first duty is protecting the people” (- Theresa May) ought to have predicted this need to protect from day one. Thus if they don’t, or make enforcement too hard, smack of intentional enablement of abusive business models so incompetent management can get paid – i.e. thick rich entitled people can run these businesses instead of needing to be intelligent and market-adaptive, i.e. true free market competition and thus a genuinely-healthy economy.
Here was me learning about so-called Meritocracy in the Civil Service and Military being a movement that was being pushed back in the 18th century. Looks like we’ve not progressed far enough, comprehensively-enough, doesn’t it?
Now flash-forward to 2020 and how corrupt the current Tory Government are. Shameless lack of merit being promoted – ability to wage war by lying is ALL to these people. Same as the low-level shop manager’s attitude and an economic DRAIN, not gain for Britain. Arguably this is Thatcherism’s rotten fruit. Speaking of which “Only when the last [ecosystem] is poisoned… will they realise that you can’t eat money.” Thatcher was a food scientist working on artificial foodstuffs, by trade.

don crawford says:
17 January 2021

hmm, from the start, it has always been about the politics. the only remedy left for consumers, boycott overpriced goods. ps, shopping at my local T supermarket, many shelves empty. yet, some folk mentioned the new A, had full shelves. we have to assume that all food imported, has to pass through the same checks.

A nasty shock awaits UK purchasers who buy from EU sellers on platforms like Amazon & eBay (sometimes without even realising where the goods are coming from). From 1 January, purchases costing >£15 will be liable to Import VAT and/or Customs Duty, as they currently are when coming from non-EU countries. Worse, the courier imposes a hefty handling fee on top for collecting it (£8 in the case of Royal Mail; more with some courier companies), which for small purchases could easily be more than the tax or duty due.
(I did point this out before the referendum, but me comments were rubbished as ‘Project Fear’)

I’ve been trying to point this out as well. Oh well, we still have time for the Pfeffel to pull an amazing deal out of his hat.

Is the secret to purchase from companies selling in the UK?

I’ve always done that if I could.

I thought the VAT -free loophole was closed years ago? I remember ink cartridges “coming from” Jersey, in separate single deliveries that avoided VAT. Import duty on most stuff is very low. But carrier charges is an interesting worry.

I’m all for buying UK stuff. Maybe Brexit will wake manufacturers up to take advantage of a new trading environment? Let’s hope we don’t have such a level playing field that prevents government support, although France, Germany and others seem to find ways round the “rules”.

john says:
17 January 2021

just had to pay UPS £41.75 for a replacement watch which failed to work on as a christmas present.
Government charge £30.25 Brokerage charge £11.50 Vat 0 . My advice ask for your money back

Mike says:
25 January 2021

Not sure why the website has taken me to this conversation as I wanted to comment on the ‘How will Brexit change our consumer rights?’ article?! But anyway that article is simply wrong in places. At one point it says… “Royal Mail says: ‘For items under £135 (with the exception of gifts), VAT will be collected directly when you buy the goods online.” …but that depends on the retailer and whether they are UK VAT registered. If they are not then they can’t legally apply tax at the checkout regardless of sale value.

Peter says:
11 March 2021

Beware. Even some of the U.K. looking online sites which prices everything in GBP and states FREE shipment informs you after you’ve received the items that you need to pay large amounts of import tax. Just bought two pairs of jeans from ReplayJeans rather than go to one of their U.K. stores and I’ve just received a tax bill for £115!! Replay are refusing to budge on this and so are FedEx!