Smart Meters: Could Try Harder?

Just as a Fitbit does not of itself make you fit, we are now learning that smart meters, those devices that are supposed to give consumers a live display of how much gas and electricity they are using, do not automatically make you smart or indeed save you energy.

A Minister and his Meter

Now that even Mike O’Brien, the minister who introduced them has admitted to ditching his own as he ‘hardly ever looks at it’ one has to ask: Why and how were they introduced, and do the benefits live up to the claims?

The National Consumer Federation has argued for years that ‘real world’ experience is often discounted when product and service regulations are being discussed.  Also, as the Grenfell enquiry is showing, too many technical ‘experts’, too much Panglossian thinking, too little common sense, is leading to costly and sometimes dangerous mistakes.  Without a strong, independent, consumer voice at decision-making level, it’s the ordinary person who loses out.

Life’s Too Short and Savings Too Small?

Mike O’Brien is typical of consumers who have more important things to do with their time than to constantly check the smart meter and analyse whether a saving has been made. In the consumer world we know that change only happens when we have the knowledge and tools to improve, not just knowing what’s wrong.  Like the Fitbit, the smart meter doesn’t help us use less power, it only shows us what our usage actually is.

We don’t need a smart meter to tell us that we need to switch lights off when we leave the room and a smart meter won’t stop us putting the kettle on when we want a cup of tea.  No wonder EU reports have indicated that savings from smart meters are quite small, European national reports putting them at between 0.6% and a maximum 4%.

Unlike other European countries where network providers run the schemes, the UK has put the top six energy companies in charge of the roll-out, spending £11billion pounds of public (our) money on a programme that is already over budget and behind schedule.  A move which has been described in an independent BEIS review as ‘a mistake with profound consequences.’  These are the very companies who have a commercial interest in maximising, not minimising, power usage.  The consumer voice in this decision-making is rarely and barely heard.

Verdict Now

On present performance our smart meter roll-out would not score too highly from a consumer point of view.  We are already paying the bill well before we seen the benefits (if any). So mid- term report card:  Could try harder?

Watch This Space

Stand by for a report from Colin Adamson who is getting his installed on September 17th. This is the second go since the last time the installers missed their own appointment. Stay in all day and nobody turns up! How was it for you?

 

These blogs reflect the views of members of the National Consumer Federation on consumer issues of the day . The views expressed are not the settled policy of NCF. Comments are welcomed. They will be moderated before posting.

 

 

 

Cross Border Parcel Deliveries

On 12 April 2018 the European Council adopted rules on cross border parcel deliveries to boost e-commerce. During the drafting of the legislation, on behalf of ANEC (The European Consumer Voice in Standardisation), I provided the European Parliament with evidence of:

  • The lack of transparency around pricing
  • Damage to goods in transit
  • Problems relating to third party courier services
  • Poor communication
  • Irresponsible delivery

I later assisted the European Parliament in drafting amendments to the legislation to include these consumer requirements and ANEC helped the Parliament to maintain these amendments through to the adopted legislation against opposition from the European Commission.

These rules will greatly benefit consumers and increase consumer confidence in cross border purchases, especially but not only, in e-commerce transactions. They will provide information about different delivery options and delivery tariffs will be published on a website, which will help users choose the best rates. Increased transparency should help create competitive pressure. The new rules are expected to be of particular benefit to consumers and small retailers, who do not have the bargaining power to negotiate better rates.

This is an important success for consumers where we have influenced draft European legislation to ensure that consumer protection measures are adopted that would otherwise not have been included in the Regulation. Consumers should also be grateful to Lucy Anderson MEP, rapporteur for the legislation at the European Parliament, for championing our consumer interests and maintaining that support against opposition during the passage of the legislation through EU adoption procedures.

Brexit Postscript
This blog demonstrates that ANEC provides an effective mechanism for consumers to influence European legislation that is related to the organisation’s primary role of providing a consumer voice in European Standardisation. From the United Kingdom perspective, European Standards will continue to be important for UK consumers and British businesses in providing a high level of consumer protection, especially where businesses are exporting to the EU. UK consumer organisations are very keen to ensure that we maintain membership of ANEC and continue to have an influential role in the development of European Standardisation and related legislation.

Arnold Pindar
Chairman,
National Consumer Federation

Is Lift and Shift Enough?

Margot James an ex-Minister for consumer rights (how fast they come and go) got it about right when she said ‘when we leave the EU we will be leaving a system of consumer rights and protection..which sits very well with the needs of consumers in the United Kingdom.’ The House of Lords European Union Committee took her up on this to ask the question whether this will be the case post-Brexit? The Government says yes pointing to what was then called the Great Repeal Bill which “will preserve the relevant EU (consumer protection) law ….It will help ensure that UK consumers’ rights continue to be robust after we have left the EU”. This is the ‘Lift and Shift’ approach whereby we just take into our law a good and effective body of EU law that protects consumers well.

Good and Better

The UK can claim credit for helping create this body of law. Indeed in many cases UK law has gone beyond what was agreed at EU level. In some cases we were ahead of the game with laws we already enjoyed here inspiring later EU action. One simple example of ‘better in Britain’ quoted by Pete Moorey Head of Campaigns at Which? was that in Britain we can reject a product for up to 30 days if there is something wrong with it. Under that Directive at EU level, that is limited to 14 days”. As an example of how UK experience and expertise influenced EU law, Lewis Shand Smith the chief Exec of Ombudsman Services referred to what the report calls the ‘specific UK influence over the creation of the legislation introducing Alternative Dispute Resolution for consumer disputes”. Again, a proposed Directive on digital content draws heavily on the Consumer Rights Act passed here in 2015.

So that’s alright then?

Not really. The issue that worries consumer organisations and others like the Trading Standards people and national regulators like the Competition and Markets Authority is the maintenance of the infrastructure that unites and informs consumer protection action across all the markets of the EU. One example quoted of successful European-wide co-operation was the agreement by five leading EU car rental companies to introduce four improvements in their service addressing consumer problems like whether you need that extra (and bloody expensive) insurance. Standards organisations although standing outside the formal structures of the EU, aim to harmonise standards and so reduce non-tariff barriers to trade across the 34 member countries so we must keep a seat at that table. It would be a very good idea to maintain consumer safety and stay part of the food safety regulator as well as medicines and aviation agencies.

Is your NEB stuck at the border?

How do we stay up to date and in line with new regulatory ideas and actions after we leave the EU? What happens when UK standards conforming to the European ones clash with those of another trading partner eg the elephant on the block the USA with its chlorinated chickens and hormone-fed beef. What happens when our wonderfully named NEB (national enforcement body) e.g the CMA can no longer rely on the cross-border enforcement system established under the Consumer Protection Cooperation (CPC) Regulation?

No Guarantee

The Minister told the Committee that “the Government was keen to assure everybody that there will be no dilution (of consumer protection rights) on account of our leaving the EU.” The question that goes unanswered is how can we maintain access to the mechanisms that make it happen across the whole EU? Nothing is ‘absolutely guaranteeable’ (the Minister’s words) when it comes to the new reciprocal relationships. The bodies who need those relationships to develop policy and enforce the law are feeling the pinch with resources being squeezed already. How hard is life going to be post-Brexit? Certainly as the Financial Conduct Authority said, it will “involve some very hard choices”.

“Brexit: will consumers be protected?” by the European Union Committee of the House of Lords published 19 December 2017.  HL Paper 51

 

Brexit and Food Standards

Besides a backbone of food safety laws, the EU has some useful systems in place which help to keep our food safe. For example, the European Food Safety Authority advises on risk, there is a rapid alert process for sharing information on food problems and also some shared monitoring of food. For example, EU member states commit to check samples of many staples for pesticide residues.

If the UK remains part of these processes and continues to apply very similar food standards legislation, the challenge will come if the UK negotiates trade deals outside the EU. Other countries and trade blocks have built up their own legislation and systems, which may differ from ours in important respects. We would not want to see our standards weakened.

In 2000 I worked with consumer organisations, the UK government and EU Commission to establish the Transatlantic Consumers Dialogue. The idea was to give consumer organisations on both sides of the Atlantic a say in any EU-US trade negotiations. The TACD is still going strong and sets out some helpful principles for food in trade deals, for example:

  • Leave responsibility for food issues with food rather than trade experts
  • Keep and be guided by the precautionary principle (which leads us to err on the safe side)
  • Maintain monitoring, inspection and testing

It is even more vital now that consumer voices continue to be heard on UK food standards and trade issues. Besides consumer organisations and networks like the TACD being active, individual consumer representatives sit on many government committees. These committees are likely to have an increased role as more decisions are taken in the UK rather than the EU. NCF will be watching how the committee landscape develops, calling for full consumer representation, and offering networking opportunities to consumer members.

Ann Davison

Ann is a member of NCF’s food group and its communication committee. Ann established the Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue. She was awarded UK Woman of Europe 2000.

How does an EHIC work and do I need one now that we are leaving the EU?

What is an EHIC and how does it work?

The European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) is free and entitles you to free or reduced-cost medical treatment throughout the EU plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, Switzerland and Norway.  In effect, you will be treated as a resident of the country you are visiting.  Be aware that the EHIC applies only to treatment in state hospitals and you may still have to pay something towards the cost of treatment if the condition is serious, so it is important that you also have travel insurance with medical benefits.  Some insurers may even reduce or waive your excess if you have an EHIC.  In some countries, you may have to pay for treatment up-front and reclaim the cost upon your return to the UK.  Visit the NHS Choices website to find out what your EHIC covers in each participating country.

What should I do about an EHIC now?

It is likely to be some time before Britain exits the EU (in all likelihood, at least two years after Article 50 is triggered).  Until then (and perhaps for some time afterwards) EHICs will still be valid. If you plan to holiday in Europe and do not have an EHIC, then get one.  An EHIC has five-year validity, is available free of charge via the NHS website www.nhs.uk/ehic and normally takes no more than seven days to process. (Beware of any websites purporting to facilitate the provision of EHICs for a fee).  If you already have an EHIC card, make sure that it is up to date. An EHIC has a five-year validity and you can find the expiry date on the bottom right of the card.

In new Brexit trade deals will we end up paying more or less for our imported goods and services?

There are arguments over how protectionist the current EU trade deals are outside the EU so that goods coming in from outside the EU are much more expensive than they need be. The EU say that the average tariff they put on in trade deals comes to between 2% and 3%. However a few goods like diary are heavily protected not just by the EU but generally by most countries.

It seems from EU tariff data that Brazilian potatoes have a 10% tariff while milk is a complex set of figures relating to fat content and organic or non-organic milk, sizes of containers and more. Some tariffs are not percentages but a cost in Euros per 100 kg.

Does it matter if a few items have a high import tariff if the average is decently low?

30 Years On…

Yes, its actually thirty years since I chaired the Consumer Congress in Liverpool.  This was attended by over 300 delegates from a tremendous variety of organisations, addressed by Michael Howard, Minister of State for Corporate and Consumer Affairs, among others, and organised round six well- attended and lively workshops, plus nine fringe meetings. The final event was a debate between Edwina Currie, Michael Meacher and Charles Kennedy, representing the three main political parties of the time, which was broadcast as a BBC Radio 4 You and Yours programme.

So what has changed since then? What are the differences between 1987 and 2017 and what issues do they have in common?  I guess the answer, rather disappointingly, is that many of the subjects debated and discussed so forcibly in 1987 are still unresolved.  Workshop titles included Community care: a consumer view (concluding among other issues that more liaison is urgently required between the NHS, social services, local housing authorities, voluntary organisations, para-medical staff and GPs)

Credit: access or excess? (misleading advertisements were among the many problematic issues highlighted)

Rented housing: improving standards, improving choice (led by Shelter, who provided much evidence of problem areas, and recommended active Tenant Participation Advisory Services)

Access to information: participation in decision making (covered personal files, food and local government)

Getting about: problems and solutions in public transport (accessibility was a big issue).

Obviously, some changes have taken place in some of these problem areas….but much remains to be done. Let’s hope that Consumer Congress 2017 can make real progress, particularly within the framework of the changes which Brexit will undoubtedly bring about.

Driving consumer empowerment forward with the NCF

TrustMark, the only government-endorsed ‘find a tradesperson’ scheme in the UK, has been working with the National Consumer Federation (NCF) over the past few months to develop their name branding, website and taking a part in the organisation of congress in April. I’ve been involved in the new ‘look and feel’, and will be implementing a marketing campaign to give the NCF a fresh approach with what we hope to be far-reaching outcomes for consumers.

Working with the NCF to date has been a pleasure for us. The organisation has up until now developed some fantastic initiatives for consumers, but it’s been a struggle to build the brand identity and grow it. With our two organisations now working together, there are now greater industry expertise behind the NCF and we can use new ways of promoting them to the public.

In our industry, the drive to strengthen consumer protection and empowerment is never over. TrustMark get complaints day in day out from consumers who have been ripped off by firms pretending to be TrustMark Registered, displaying our logo when they aren’t a member of our organisation. As much as we try to safeguard against this and warn consumers to check the firm is registered with us before hiring them, we know that it can never be completely eradicated.

But what we can do is promote greater awareness of what goes on and protect reputable trades who are given a bad name by rogues. Partnering with the NCF gives us another channel to educate consumers, and allows us to promote our joint aims of protecting them against unfair practices in society.

We are really excited to continue our work with the NCF in future, and expand on it to tackle our joint aims and drive better consumer protection.

Follow the NCF on twitter: @NCFvoice

If you are interested in finding out more about the work that TrustMark do or hiring a TrustMark registered tradesperson, please visit www.trustmark.org.uk

Brexit and the price of tea

Since announcing our intention to leave the European Union the pound has lost 15% against the euro, is at a three decade low against the dollar, and is predicted to reach parity with the euro by the time we leave the EU in 2019.  The Bank of England has warned of increasing inflation risks, Heineken is putting 6p on the price of a pint, Apple has increased prices by 20%, toy makers are predicting price rises of 15% and there is pressure on the price of a wide range of food.  But what impact has it had on our very British obsession, the price of a cup of tea?

A quick ‘survey’ on food outlets in and around Birmingham revealed the following:

A tea in Sainsbury’s is now £1.10, up from £1.00; in Morrisons it’s now £1.05 as opposed to £1.00, Costa have pushed the price of a small latte from £2.25 to £2.35.  But the worst offender is Joe’s Coffee House who has raised their prices from £1.00 to £2.00 for a takeaway tea.

So how much should you pay for a cardboard cup, plastic lid, tea bag, hot water and a splash or milk and sugar?

At Birmingham’s New Street Station, the commuter can choose from Starbucks at £1.85, Pret £1.70, Muffin Break £1.85, and Joe’s at £2.00 – or they can walk an extra few yards outside the station to McDonalds and grab one for 99p, or cheaper still if you use their loyalty card.

Customer surveys like this are what local consumer groups used to do in the days before we used the internet to shop around.  At their height there were over 100 local groups meeting together to compare what was on offer to the consumer, all supported by the National Consumers Federation (then called the National Federation of Consumer Groups) which acted as their umbrella and made representations to government.

The National Consumers Federation now thinks it’s time to resurrect the consumer voice.  They’re calling a Consumer Congress to talk about the impact of Brexit on consumers and inviting anyone with an interest in all matters consumer – anyone who buys or is the end user of goods or services for their own use – to get involved.  Visit the NCF website or contact us to sign up.  Or if you want to start a local or a virtual consumer interest group, NCF will add their weight to yours.

Why are trade agreements important to consumers?

The NCF is considering the effect changes in trade agreements from the UK within the EU to the UK by itself could impact consumers.

  • Within the EU all the disparate safety laws and standards have been brought into a single system of laws and standards – One rule and one test applicable right across the EU meaning that consumers have consistently high levels of safety wherever you shop in the EU. This also saves businesses and hence consumers the costs of lots of different safety standards to be met and means that businesses can compete more fairly.
  • The EU also provides a high level of consumer protection (complaints, dispute resolution, returned items etc.) by taking the best attributes of the many different national laws and standards and bringing them into a single legislative framework that consumers can depend on wherever they are in Europe.

The EU as the world’s largest economic block currently ensures that trade deals with others meet these standards and regulation.

When we go it alone in negotiations we won’t have that size on our side as we are the 9th largest economy in the world and the key deals will be with those larger than ourselves.  The USA is over 6 times larger than the UK and China is 4 times larger than the UK.

So in any new trade deals do we risk accepting standards that are worse than our own for our kids, our pensioners and ourselves?