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Minister, don’t waste money vandalising consumer protection

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.

Comments
Member

Trading Standards like most departments have too little numbers of staff to enforce, seems to be just paper exercise, we have these so called departments but no teeth like FSA etc.

Member

Getting back for a moment to the subject of this topic, I think we have seen plenty of evidence from professionals from local authority trading standards/consumer protection services [Trading Standards” and “TSO” are identified as such and there might be others] to realise that the government’s idea of throwing even more burdensome regulatory responsibilities onto them is a shocking proposition that would just be a licence for rogue trading, mountebanking, sharp practice of every kind, and dodgy dealing in everything from quasi/quack medical treatments to over-pricing by retailers. I strongly support Which?’s campaign and endorse wavechange’s call for more info on what action Which? imntends to take and what we can do to help [see 11/04/12].

Member
Trading Standards says:
26 April 2012

My experience of the Enterprise Act is that its unwieldy and a Court is VERY unlikely to authorise a court order to prevent a practice unless you have tons of evidences and can show serious wrongdoing.

I know of a case where a court refused to provide an order just because someone had claimed they had gone out of business and wouldn’t do it again. This was someone we could show had breached the CPUTR multiple times. The Court said that it would have been oppressive as the person had stopped trading.

Of course, there is now nothing to stop them starting up again and the farce continuing.

Member
TSO says:
2 May 2012

The Act itself isn’t unwieldy although it can seem like that when it gets buried under layers of process. Some cases involve a lot of investigation and evidence-gathering, but it’s much more simple where you just have a blatantly misleading advert and the trader refuses to change it.

The Act has a two-part process. Firstly, consultation. Ring the trader and ask them to stop, follow up with written advice and/or a face-to-face meeting.

Secondly, if this doesn’t work, apply for a Court order. Alternatively accept an undertaking if the trader offers an acceptable one at this stage.

Orders only require the trader to obey the law. You can’t get an order restricting legitimate activity at all. But it might be oppressive to try to get an order if the trader has stopped trading and is unlikely to carry on. Only time and hindsight will tell whether the Court made the right decision in your case.