Pindar’s Ode to Europe

EXPERIENCES IN EUROPE AS CONSUMER CHAMPION

Arnold Pindar writes:

Over the last 20 years my role has been to seek improvements to consumer protection through the consumer movement. I also continue to work on European and international standards. This personal work has obviously played a part in shaping with colleagues the preferences and policies of the NCF.

Since the referendum decision in June 2016, the NCF has held three “Brexit related” Consumer Congresses in May 2017, December 2017 and May 2018

We hoped that our discussions and conclusions might help inject a note of realism and relevance into the debate. Unfortunately the debate sadly appears to have become more rancorous and emotional. Nevertheless even at this late stage, I believe re-telling the facts of the impact of consumer representation might help reduce the temperature and introduce some semblance of the realities of making things better for consumers. The issues often will appear niggly and boring – actually they often are niggly and boring. But cumulatively they build markets that consumers trust and whose outputs they can enjoy with confidence.

Personal Perspectives

From 1977 I represented UK Government at European Commission and Council Working Parties developing Directives aimed at harmonising trade. More recently I have represented UK consumers in Europe, mainly through ANEC, the European Consumer Voice in Standardisation. Throughout the period I have also been involved with formal standardisation work through the British Standards Institution and the European and international standards organisations.

Harmonisation Directives

Going back to basics for a moment – when the UK joined the Common Market in 1973 there was a need to bring together national regulations to remove what is called “non-tariff barriers” to trade. Individual EEC member states had experience of accidents that harmed consumers and had developed legislation to reduce the chance of those accidents reoccurring resulting a hodge podge of national regulations that manufacturers/importers/exporters had to meet in order to sell their products in any particular Member State. Added to this, approved test methods differed between countries resulting in extra costs for businesses.

One Regulation, One Test

My job, as a representative of the UK Department of Trade and Industry (now BEIS), along with many others, was to bring together the differing regulations and to develop/confirm test methods that had the confidence of all member states. This reduced the costs for business in knowing that they only had one regulation and one test method to follow in order to sell their products throughout the common market.

Safer Products

The huge benefit for consumers was that by bringing regulations together, the safety of consumer products was enhanced. For example, if the UK had very good regulations on one aspect of safety, perhaps mechanical safety, and Germany had good regulations on another aspect, say chemical safety, putting the two strengths together resulted in very much safer products. Of course, safety would have improved over the years without these initiatives but the process accelerated consumer protection throughout the expanding European market.

Better Process

A second major advance took place in about 1984 when “the New Approach” was adopted in Europe. Up to then, detailed safety requirements and test methods had to be negotiated in Brussels by government representatives to be adopted in legislation. Progress was slow due to the legislative process. Any necessary changes to legislation due to new information e.g. an advance in test procedures, resulted in long delays in adapting legislation to technical progress. The New Approach placed essential requirements in legislation but allowed all the detailed requirements and test methods to be developed by European Standards System (through the European Standards Organisations, CEN, CENELEC and ETSI). This was particularly beneficial for consumers who have the right to be represented on standards technical committees but do not have direct representation at the legislative level.

Result: Better Consumer Protection

However, one example where we have had influence on legislation and on which I wrote a previous blog (April 2018) is that of cross border parcel deliveries where, presenting ANEC research data to the European Parliament, resulted in significant amendments being made to the draft Regulation to ensure that consumer protection measures were fully included.

Disappointments

Of course, there are also some disappointments. For a number of years, I have been trying to influence the European Commission to introduce legislation for fire safety in hotels and tourist accommodation. The Commission has been supportive in this endeavour but has failed to convince the politicians in a number of the Member States, including the United Kingdom, to support an initiative. Some years ago, the European Commission held meetings in the Members States to test views.

UK Fail

I attended the meeting in London and was disappointed to hear that the UK would not be supporting the initiative. The reason given was that we had appropriate legislation covering hotels and tourist accommodation in the UK. At the meeting I asked the UK Chairman if this meant that UK citizens were equally protected when travelling in other European countries. He did not reply but promptly closed the meeting.

EU Tries Hard

Without Member State support, the European Commission then did the best they could by inviting the European Hotel associations to develop a Charter and methodology for fire safety in hotels. This work progressed and I was member of a consumer panel providing consumer advice to the project. However, the trade bodies failed to agree on a Charter. I believe this was due to such a document being seen as quasi-law in some countries and hence, too restricting for the hotel trade to accept. They did make progress on the methodology but again this fell short of providing the assistance that many small to medium sized enterprises really needed.

EU has worked for consumers

So overall my experiences are that enhanced consumer protection has been achieved and is a success story for the European Union.  It started from a need to bring together the many non-tariff barriers to trade but is now focused on developing the European single market. There is still much for the EU to do for consumers, especially in harmonising the safety of services, but in spite of some disappointments and occasional setbacks working together across the EU has been very beneficial in the areas of which I have experience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why Aren’t We Bothered?

Too few consumers are registering their products when they purchase them.

Why not? After all, registering a product makes it possible for the manufacturer to get in touch if the item you have bought turns out to be faulty or unsafe. Typically, if an electrical product is recalled only 10-20% of these products are returned and/or repaired. This is because the manufacturer often has no way of contacting the purchasers of the items.

Researching Registration

The  Office for Product Safety and Standards (OPSS) has commissioned work with the aim of increasing the registration of products purchased by consumers. They have identified a number of reasons why consumers are reluctant to register their products and are now testing these initial findings in a wider survey. On 2 April 2019 OPSS hosted a product registration “co-creative” workshop at which qualitative initial findings were presented to an invited group of stakeholders and interested parties. This was followed by a facilitated activity to develop and optimise activities aimed at increasing rates of consumer registration. I attended as the NCF Chair with long experience of dealing with product safety issues.

No Surprises from Initial Findings

From a consumer perspective, there were no surprises from the initial findings but the research is a helpful contribution to understanding the reasons behind poor registration levels. OPSS plan to use the research to “nudge” consumers into registering more of their products and therefore the afternoon workshop used behavioural science techniques to identify effective interventions that encourage more people to register. Whilst I believe the initiative is worth doing, especially in the white goods sector, I also believe it is unlikely that the work will result in much more than a 5% increase in registration levels.

This work will now be taken ahead with a pilot project implementing some of the ideas that came from the workshop and prior research carried out since the New Year. While we wish the pilot project success, several of those at the workshop believe that a more long-term technical solution, probably registration at point of sale/delivery will be needed if product recalls are to result in returns of 80% or above. And these are the required levels if we are truly to ensure consumer protection.

 

 

 

SAFER OVER SIXTY-FIVE!

Did you know writes Arnold Pindar that the week commencing 19 November was “Electrical Fire Safety Week 2018 – “Safer over Sixty-Five”? Electrical Safety First (ESF) has developed guidance for older people and their relatives for electrical safety in the home. You can read about it on the BSI site.

ESF reports that around 350,000 people are seriously injured and 70 people are killed every year because of an electrical accident in the home. In addition, electricity causes more than 20,000 house fires a year.  Obviously older or vulnerable people can be more at risk because they may live in old or poor quality housing with old or possibly faulty appliances.

Confessions

Being over 65, I found a few things that I should be doing myself. I’m probably as guilty as anyone in not paying enough attention to any deterioration in the products, cabling and connections. Indeed, recently I trod on a four-socket extension cable and the socket box shattered, no doubt as the plasticiser in the plastic casing had been lost. Luckily it was not connected to the mains.

Guidance Highlights

The ESF guidance highlights the importance of checking all aspects of the electrics in  your home as well as giving advice on a number of matters including kitchen and bathroom safety, safety outdoors and recalled and counterfeit products.

Over the next two to three years, the National Consumer Federation is planning to focus on issues for consumer protection arising in “the home”. This Electrical Safety First initiative focuses on an important aspect of safety in the home.

 

Don’t blow up your buggy – new labelling for power supplies to electric cars

Europe has adopted a European Standard* that will ensure that in future the labelling of electric vehicle power supply is compatible right across Europe. The deployment of the new labels on electrical vehicles and power supply stations for electrical vehicles should be complete by February 2021.

NCF says “Cross border compatibility of labelling is essential for the United Kingdom and will be implemented within the United Kingdom, even though we are leaving the European Union. It will make it easier for users of electrical vehicles to know which connecting points are compatible with the vehicle. This is especially important for drivers travelling cross-border”.

Gentle reader – those pre-Brexit benefits keep rolling in.

*EN 17186 Identification of vehicles and infrastructures compatibility for consumer information on electric vehicle power supply. The new standard provides for harmonised compatibility labelling across Europe supporting implementation of Article 7 of Directive 2014/94/EU by EU Member States, using a similar approach to EN 16942:2016 ‘Fuel identifiers’.

Being Heard Post-Brexit – Keeping our Seat at ANEC

In my last blog writes Arnold Pindar I talked about the need for the major decisions on Brexit to be taken before our negotiators can finalise the myriad of details that remain to be addressed and how we needed to maintain our strong connections with the institutions that do this work.

Example

At a broad level, the UK government’s white paper on the future relationship between the UK and the EU suggests the UK intends to maintain “its robust programme of risk-based market surveillance to ensure that dangerous products do not reach consumers”. Hence, to ensure ongoing cooperation between the UK and the EU27, they are seeking access to systems such as the Rapid Alert System for consumer protection and unsafe products (RAPEX) and the Information and Communication System for Market Surveillance (ICSMS).  Fingers crossed, they will be successful in these aims.

Lower Profile Perhaps but still Valuable

I think we should also be concerned about other much lower profile but valuable areas of cooperation and support between EU Member States related to consumer protection. I want to come back to the point I made in that last blog where I mentioned the need for the UK consumer voice to be heard in ANEC, the European Consumer Voice in Standardisation, both at the policy and technical levels. We want:

  • agreement in principle for UK membership of ANEC to continue.
  • agreement on how UK membership will be funded post Brexit.

Who Pays for our Seat?

As ANEC is funded from the European public purse, it will not be possible for us to be represented on the General Assembly of ANEC unless funded from the UK. We at NCF certainly could not pay and I am pretty sure our colleague UK consumer organisations don’t have the money either so government/tax payers will have to fund that particular subscription. And they better hurry up and write that cheque.

ANEC Elections Looming

If there is no agreement at the top level to maintain the status quo in all EU institutions and operations post 29 March 2019 as part of a transition arrangement and we can’t or don’t renew our sub, we are out of ANEC. Their General Assembly (GA) is elected for four years and a new GA will be elected in May 2019, potentially without UK consumer organisations being eligible to vote and be represented.

ANEC is just one example of a valuable cooperation that benefits consumers right across Europe. I would like to know of other examples where there is a need to ensure that we do not lose the opportunity to continue to benefit from such cooperation as we leave the European Union – get in touch!

 

 

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BREXIT : COMPROMISE, FUDGE OR NO DEAL?

Months ago writes Arnold Pindar, I was told that the discussions on Brexit withdrawal would go right up to the wire and then agreement would be achieved between the EU 27 and the UK.

Having negotiated in Europe since 1977 this did not feel right to me. As a Department of Trade and Industry (now BEIS) civil servant, working at times almost weekly in Europe, negotiations have always developed from drafts of the planned Directive or Regulation, usually but not exclusively proposed by the European Commission. Although there were key issues of substance, the vast majority of the negotiations were at the detailed level. Hence, my unease how things would turn out.

However, I do remember when privatising a DTI information service where I, as the manager of the service was concerned about the details, my boss insisted that we deal only with the principles until we had a commitment from the company that was to take on the work.  He was right. Once we had agreement in principle, I was able to negotiate all the details to ensure that the service had the best chance of survival in the private sector.

Big Decisions First

Hence, I am coming around to the conclusion that it is essential to take the big decisions on Brexit before arguing the details. But my concerns are twofold:

  • Firstly, are we able to achieve a satisfactory top-level Brexit agreement that will maximise benefits and minimise losses?
  • Secondly, is it possible to handle the myriad of details without serious omissions and errors in a timely fashion as we leave the EU?

Understanding Cultural and Legal Differences

In negotiating internationally, it is necessary to understand the cultural and legal differences between our nation states. In the United Kingdom we look for compromise that as far as possible meets the needs of all interests. Taking the Germanic nations as an example, their culture looks on compromise as “fudge”. When you negotiate with Germany you need good data. If your data is superior to that supplied from the German side, they are more willing to accept your position than to come to a compromise agreement that has elements of both sets of data. Other European cultures then simply add to the complexity of negotiations from their cultural perspectives. (I am not qualified to comment on the added issues arising from the different legal structures in the nation states.) Therefore, there are immediate difficulties for these top-level negotiations between the 28 member states of the European Union.

Within the UK we have politicians and indeed the population as a whole holding very different views on a successful way forward on Brexit. Even at the top level, the issues are so highly technical and complex that decisions of principle are exceedingly difficult. This has resulted in huge difficulties for us to achieve the compromise solutions we normally favour to put forward to the EU27. So the danger of ‘no deal’ is a very real threat.

Consumer Catastrophe

Which? has just published a report Brexit no deal: A consumer catastrophe? I fully support their conclusion that:

“…a no deal situation would have severe consequences for consumers, even if comprehensive contingency planning could be achieved in time.”

I also support the Which? four tests which are essential for consumers in any exit deal. viz:

Which? four tests for a successful Brexit for consumers are whether it:

  • Limits the potential for price rises and increases in the cost of living.
  • Maintains or enhances the current high safety standards.
  • Maintains or enhances consumer choice of a high-quality range of products and services.
  • Supports consumers with a system that ensures their rights and access to redress.

It is, therefore, essential that the UK achieves a Brexit agreement. But will it be a UK understood compromise or a fudge? Whilst we define things differently to the Germanic nations, we in the UK do not like ‘fudge’ by our definition. For us the word represents an unsuccessful compromise where no one can live with the proposed solution. This appears to be where we are with the Chequers proposals. And yet to reach agreement in Brussels we are going to need to compromise further and potentially further fudge our position.

Mechanisms for Future Engagement

The second of Which?’s four tests highlights one specific point of detail resulting from the UK decision to leave the EU. Considerable trade will continue between the UK and the EU post Brexit and hence, businesses will need to meet EU laws and regulations to trade there. It makes no sense for safety regulations to diverge between the EU and the UK in the future. This results in non-tariff barriers to trade and additional costs for consumers. To maintain some influence on future safety and trade legislation it is essential that businesses maintain membership of EU trade bodies and that consumers maintain membership of EU consumer bodies including ANEC, the European Consumer Voice in Standardisation, where we have opportunities to influence related consumer law. As ANEC is fully funded from the public purse, the UK cannot continue in membership unless a mechanism for future engagement is agreed. My attempts to address this point with UK Government have resulted in silence or more recently a bland statement that our membership would be a good thing!

So are we looking at a situation where we have to negotiate a detailed set of regulations but no longer have the access to the institutions or processes necessary to negotiate the outcomes that consumers and industry need?

 

BUILDING TRUST IN ONLINE CONSUMER REVIEWS : AN NCF SUCCESS STORY!

The National Consumer Federation (NCF) was delighted to be present on 6 September 2018 when the British Standards Institution (BSI) launched the international standard BS ISO 20488:2018 Online Consumer Reviews – principles and requirements for their collection, moderation and publication.

Timely and Global

This standard is timely and being international, recognises that online purchases are often cross border, thus needing a global approach to standardisation. It is vital that there is a rapid take up of the standard and every encouragement should be given to scheme providers to meet the requirements and accept the guidance given by the standard.

NCF Showed the Way

In 2013 the NCF commissioned a report Trust schemes for consumers: What ’good’ looks like which established a benchmark for what ‘good’ looks like for consumers and demonstrated that none of the trust schemes we looked at met all of our six key recommendations. We then initiated a meeting held at BEIS, London to bring all the businesses and other stakeholders involved in customer feedback schemes together with BSI. Our recommendation from that meeting was that there should be a standard to ensure that consumers could trust the feedback provided by customer feedback schemes.

feefo Review

feefo has undertaken reviews of the consumers’ perspective of online reviews. Their research indicates just how quickly the use of online customer feedback has developed since our report. In their latest report 94% of consumers said that they check reviews when looking for a product or service. This is a substantial increase on the 75% found in their research last year. Conversely their research indicated that 89% of those surveyed said they were worried about fake reviews, which again is a big increase compared with the 75% who gave the same response last year.

Not just seen but believed

These worrries underline the need for early and wide adoption of this standard.  A couple of blogs ago we were talking about banks having to display in-branch their customer satisfaction ratings and how the way they collected their data underpinned the credibility of the ratings. This sort of information for consumers should not only be seen – it must be believed.

 

 

 

 

 

‘Cutting EU Ties’ – NCF shares concerns spelt out by Trading Standards

A new report from the guys at the sharp end looks at how cutting ties with the EU affects all of us and in particular the work of Local Trading Standards Officers who are in day to day contact with consumers and businesses.  The CTSI (Chartered Trading Standards Institute) points out that transposing EU law into UK law is only the start of maintaining consumer protection.

Rules without Resources – Ineffectual

Rules without resources for application, advice and enforcement are rendered ineffectual. Trading Standards departments face new work loads, yet their resources have more than halved since 2010. Key networks linked to the EU will be lost and many regulations require reciprocal agreements and action from the EU 27.

Real Jeopardy

CTSI identify as a key threat the present lack of clarity in what will be required and the time to implement whatever finally emerges.  Life outside the single market alters many relationships across e-commerce. Without agreement there could be critical losses of information exchange on issues such as unsafe products. The Government has committed to enhancing product safety and standards but CTSI says that without continued co-operation from EU27 (bad deal or no deal) ‘our product safety system is in real jeopardy’, including agriculture and food products. UK exports to the EU will need to demonstrate continued conformity EU standards. Any divergence from EU standards by the UK may prejudice such trade and place a significant burden on inspections of imports, again down to TSDs.

The 2/3 of UK travel abroad is to EU countries, enjoying a range of protections. Reciprocal health care, compensation for delays, cancellation and insolvency and phone roaming rights are key when looking at consumer protection in the future.

Consumer rights have no value unless they can be enforced, either by actions against traders in the UK or through consumers receiving redress.  UK needs to retain clear processes for resolving disputes across the EU.  Similar issues apply to weights and measures.

Opportunities in Future?

There are opportunities in no longer having to apply EU law, provided trade with the EU is not compromised. Some consumer law is over-complex.  Some lacks clarity or is multi-layered. But as we have said before, we need both to hang on to what we already have for starters and make a contribution to keeping standards high in the future.

Better Consumer Future North of the Tweed?

The Scottish Government have launched a consultation on the role and remit of a body they are calling Consumer Scotland.
The reasons quoted in the doc for the exercise are

Evidence has shown that, in specific markets, Scottish consumers behave differently and have different needs from consumers in the rest of the UK. The reasons for this have not yet been fully analysed or understood as there is not, currently, a rigorous on-going assessment of Scottish consumer harm. There is no dedicated mechanism delivering improved, targeted outcomes for Scottish consumers.

This consultation is seeking to gather views on the proposals for a new consumer body, called Consumer Scotland. This will be an investigatory body, tasked with carrying out a strategic review of consumer welfare to identify areas of harm that require in-depth inquiry to identify causes and recommend solutions.

If you are interested in responding you have until 28 September this year. Make this first job of the new term? As a source of inspiration for any comments you might have, Jeremy Mitchell has submitted his own thoughts circulated on the day he celebrated joining the infant Which? 60 years ago. His comments contain a very useful summary of the shape and structure of an independent consumer advocacy body that would make sure that the consumer voice is heard – a cause dear to NCF’s heart of course. These features will be familiar to our consumer readers – independence, a good and predictable (known three years in advance) level of funding, particular focus on vulnerable and more. One point Jeremy makes extremely strongly is that this new body will not be a forum for discussion between representatives of the consumer interest and business. Do you agree? Why not? Is this not a perfectly valid activity for a consumer organisation?

How Does Your Bank Rate?

 

Have you been and had a look round your branch for this vital consumer information ? I have not but then I have not set foot in a bank branch for many months now. However if you do then have a look for the customer service league tables. Are they lurking behind a pillar way back in the branch or proudly displayed as you come in? Ironically enough, you won’t see the winner displaying its info because First Direct does not have any branches. (Is there a clue there?)Two ‘Scottish’ banks Clydesdale and Royal Bank of Scotland come bottom. I had a look on the Barclays website and could not find the table anywhere – found the news about their Modern Slavery Statement. Good to know but not at the forefront of the retail customers’ routine day to day concerns.
Whatever you think of the individual rankings, I think this publication is a significant event when customer-based data and its importance is fully recognised. The institutions affected will have to learn how best to use this information for their own purposes and not just treat it as another poster in the branch. Many companies routinely display Trust Mark or similar ratings based on opinions volunteered by users. The bank league tables are based on a questionnaire sent to and answered by a random selection of current account and small business customers. More details about the survey and how it was done can be seen here

We welcome this becoming universal practice with robust and credible customer ratings for satisfaction and readiness to recommend routinely published in shops, on websites, where-ever. More please