The consumer minister, Norman Lamb, has proposed a chaotic reorganisation of the ‘consumer landscape’. This will waste money and could leave consumers vulnerable to rip-offs and scams.
We’re living in pretty tough times, and anyone who regularly struggles to pay for bills and essentials will understand how important it is that we’re all protected from the dodgy deals and misleading sales tactics that can hit our wallets pretty hard.
That’s why I want to highlight the proposed changes to the consumer landscape – a shockingly ill-conceived plan that could end up vandalising a system of consumer protection that is admired worldwide at a time when people need it most.
What does the reorganisation involve?
Well, this chaotic and costly reorganisation will see the Office of Fair Trading (OFT), which recently had success taking on the budget airlines over ‘rip-off’ card surcharges, downgraded and merged with the Competition Commission.
The government claims that the new quango, the National Trading Standards Board, is to receive ’increased funding of £10.5m’ for its work. However, this money is simply redirected current OFT enforcement money. The National Audit Office report found that enforcement spending is set to fall from the current £247m, to around £140m by 2014.
We shouldn’t burden trading standards officers
The suggestions put forward by the consumer minister mean that local trading standards officers, more used to tackling street markets and rogue plumbers, will be required to do the majority of consumer law enforcement work.
This puts considerable extra strain on local authority Trading Standards services at a time when councils are slashing their budgets and trading standards officers are being made redundant across the country.
Not only that, but it expects far too much of the officers themselves – they will be expected to take on powerful national and international companies. But this is nonsense – giving OFT responsibilities to local Trading Standards officers and the Citizens Advice is like asking GPs to carry out heart surgery.
Consumer Focus on the scrapheap
On top of plans to pass on the OFT’s responsibilities to Trading Standards, the minister also recommends getting rid of the government funded watchdog, Consumer Focus.
Consumer Focus challenges businesses, the government and regulators like Ofgem on key consumer issues. However, Norman Lamb would like to hand its responsibilities over to Citizens Advice – which is already struggling to cope with the growing numbers of people seeking help on welfare benefits, housing and immigration problems.
So what can we do about this? I want the minister to understand that UK consumers deserve better than this. Failing to enforce consumer law already costs the British public over £6bn a year – rather than focusing on costly reorganisations, we want to see real action to show the minister is taking his new role of protecting the nation’s consumers seriously.