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?

How do you know who you can trust?

NCF has looked at how the internet has changed our approach to trust and the way we now make choices.

We started work on this by looking at ‘what good looks like’ Link from the consumer’s point of view. This paper analysed the issues arising from current practices where trust schemes use customer feedback. We have identified five key elements needed to support and maintain consumer trust in a trust scheme:

  • Creation and maintenance of a detailed code of practice for the operator of the scheme and those participating
  • Monitoring and assessment against the code
  • Complaints handling and escalation process available to consumers using the scheme
  • Consumer feedback and choice systems
  • Regular assessment of the trust scheme against the four preceding elements on behalf of consumers by the consumer movement.

Creating fairer regulation

The NCF has taken up the issue of fair and consistent consumer regulation.

Regulators such as Ofcom (for communications such as mobile phone services) and Ofgem (for energy, such as gas and electricity) exist to protect consumers in imperfect markets. But the understanding and interpretation of consumer issues across the recognised regulators is unclear and inconsistent. There is some evidence that businesses may pay more attention to the regulators’ requirements relevant to their business without the flexibility to meet true consumer needs. This can mean failure in fully addressing consumer disadvantage, discrimination and detriment.

The NCF supports the aims of ‘better regulation’ provided there is an effective legislative framework within which business and consumer needs are properly recognised and balanced.

Patients are consumers too….

The carer looked at me over the top of her glasses.  ‘I’m really sorry,’ she said ‘but we can’t help you.’  I looked at her in disbelief.  This was a private care agency, they had the capacity, I had the money, we needed help, what was the problem?
‘Your mother needs a proper assessment,’ she explained.  ‘She may have broken something.’  Something was indeed very wrong.  Over the last few days, Mum had deteriorated from being able to get up and down stairs – if slowly – to not being able to get out of bed without help.

I started with what I thought was the most sensible option, our GP.  Everyone in staff training.  ‘Call 111’ said the carer, ‘I’ll wait and speak to them.’  111 was duly called, the carer explained the problem and paramedics were next to arrive.  They diagnosed a broken pelvis.  ‘We could take her to hospital for an x-ray so at least you’d know what you’re up against, but there’s no cure…’

But I couldn’t move her and even private carers wouldn’t help without an assessment, so our next stop was Accident and Emergency.
A&E meant a corridor trolley wait, then, still on the trolley (no pillow, only a thin blanket), an overnight stay in a side bay and finally, the next d ay into an A&E annexe, which at least had a proper bed.

The next morning, I found Mum frail, dehydrated and incoherent, but nevertheless dosed up with morphine for the primary purpose of being able to ‘prove’ to the discharge co-ordinator that she could walk from her bed to the toilet and could therefore go home, avoiding the need for admission and a ‘proper assessment’ of her care needs.   One can only imagine the risk this posed – of making her fracture worse; of falling, or of creating further fractures.  I caught the eye of the nurse making up the bed next to Mum’s.  She rolled her eyes and whispered ‘it’s not right. I’ve told them, but…’

What can you do?  It’s a good question.  We’re told that it’s the fault variously of the GPs, the hospital management, and the patients who insist on coming to A&E but don’t need to be there.  It’s also said that we spend less than our European neighbours on healthcare, demand is rising, yet budgets are falling in real terms.

The Kings Fund has said that with NHS finances almost at breaking point, the system turns to deflection, delay, denial, selection, deterrence and dilution to cope, all of which impact on service users, or those who would use the service if only they could access it.
Mike Adamson, CEO of the Red Cross, was recently criticised for describing the NHS as a humanitarian crisis.  It may not be a war zone as such, but to the patients trapped inside and those who love them, it can sometimes feel like one.

The NHS may be free at the point of delivery but we all pay for it through our taxes.  Perhaps we do need to be paying more, but patients are consumers too and they deserve better.

Brexit : Transposition of laws – What’s the point if enforcement is weak?

The 5 December 2017 Consumer Congress focused on issues relating to market surveillance and enforcement, one of the principal messages from the April Consumer Congress and an often-overlooked element in the market place that is vital to the success of the market and to consumer trust. More specifically, as Baroness Judith Wilcox, President of the NCF, stated in her introduction, the objective was to drill down into the issues surrounding enforcement and market surveillance; to expose weaknesses and to celebrate successes; to recognise constraints, but to come up with innovative ways forward to ensure that good businesses thrive and poor performers either improve to become good businesses, or pay the price for their failures.

The Congress outputs are now being taken forward by the NCF Enforcement Alliance to ensure that consumer protection meets consumer expectations post Brexit.

NCF Enforcement Congress Report 5 December 2017

Best of Brexit for consumers – our messages to government (6th April 2017)

NCF Consumer Congress 2017 brought experts from around the UK together to explore what Brexit means for consumers. Our aim was to send a clear message to the government about the importance of consumer protection, and what needs to be done to maintain and enhance this. Brexit provides a unique opportunity to take a fresh look at consumer protection in the UK, to change the way that consumer issues are addressed, and bring positive benefits to consumers and the UK economy.

NCF Congress 2017 The Consumer Voice on Brexit summary report

The European Commission is asking the question “The Services Package: Is the EU on the right track?” As President of ANEC, the European Consumer Voice in Standardisation, I presented a consumer view to a policy dialogue at the European Policy Centre on 1 March 2017. Although this EU initiative on the delivery of services within the EU focusses mainly on barriers for professionals, it is possibly a step forward for consumers.  However, our primary concern is that there is still no legal framework to ensure the safety and fitness for purpose of EU services.

More and more service provision is cross-border, with most consumers believing the rules on safety are the same across the EU. Unfortunately they are not, so many service providers do not take the needs and expectations of consumers properly  into account.

Without a European legal framework for quality, safety and liability of services, European standards will not be able to provide a level playing field for businesses and consistent protection for consumers. With national regulations continuing to take precedence, the result will continue to be legal uncertainty as well as business and consumer detriment.

The need to avoid fragmentation and increased costs

EU framework legislation ensures the safety of consumer products across the EU. The standards that underpin the legislation ensure a level playing field for business and acceptable levels of safety and product performance for consumers, wherever they purchase their products within the EU.  No such comparable legislation exists for the safety of services, leading to legal uncertainty as well as to business and consumer detriment. Whilst consumers find the services situation unacceptable, we can be confident of two things: Firstly, consumers products complying with EU legislation and standards are generally safe across the EU, and secondly, that the European Commission is working to improve the safety of services, although Member States are slow to recognise the benefits to business and consumers from the harmonisation of rules.

How will Brexit affect this dynamic? To trade within the EU British products will need to meet the EU legal requirements and standards.  If the UK rules diverge from these requirements we shall no longer be able to sell into the EU without additional costs, and may end up with a series of different rules for different markets and further additional costs to meet these differing standards.  Applied to the consumer product sectors, divergence will add to UK business costs. This needs to be avoided.

In the services sectors where improvements can be expected within the EU, the UK will not have a seat at the EU table to influence legislative improvements as they develop. This could disadvantage UK businesses and add costs due to our lack of influence.

Recourse to international standards (ISO/IEC) will mitigate these costs to some extent but will not fully compensate for the loss of influence at European level.