For All Manifestos: Put Consumers At the Heart of Policy

What would you like to see from the next Government? Here are some initial thoughts from Exec Committee member Pete Eiseneggar. Feel free to tell us your own pet priorities.

Consumer Minister

With consumer expenditure at 66% of the UK GDP and the public consuming up to a further 20% of the GDP in public services, any new government needs to place consumers at the heart of domestic policy with a Consumer  Minister cabinet post.

Strengthened Enforcement of Strong Laws NB New Technologies and net Zero Carbon

Consumer protection law, regulation and enforcement must be maintained and also strengthened especially where new technologies impact consumers and where consumers are involved in  meeting the net zero carbon challenge.

Back to the Early 21st Century

Consumer protection is ineffective without strong  enforcement  and the resourcing of enforcement agencies should be restored to the enforcement resource allocation proportions of the early 21st century for high, medium and low risk goods and services providers.

SIGN UP FOR OUR 23 JANUARY CONSUMER CONGRESS: FOCUS ON HOME ENERGY

UK Consumer Voice still heard in Brussels

NCF Chair Arnold Pindar represented European consumers at a meeting of the European Economic and Social Committee in Brussels on 5 November 2019. He attended as past President of ANEC, the European Consumer Voice in Standardisation and welcomed the progress that has been made particularly in ensuring that consumers participate effectively in the European Standardisation System (ESS), and to discuss where further progress is needed to improve inclusivity.

Participation in Standards Needs Resources

Consumers have always been able to take part in standardisation activities if they have the resources to do so. Very few countries are able to support consumer participation in standardisation activities and most rely on ANEC to champion consumer interests for them. Fortunately in the United Kingdom, the British Standards Institution has a Consumer and Public Interest Network that coordinates and funds expenses to allow consumers to take part in many of the working groups developing standards primarily for consumer protection.

The Right of Opinion

Even so, it is not possible for consumers to be represented in every committee that includes issues of consumer interest. Hence a major advance in the European Standardisation System has been the recent introduction of a “right of opinion”. This allows ANEC and European organisations representing environmental and trade unions to ask committees at key stages in the development process to look again at their drafts to ensure they (in ANEC’s case) fully protect consumers.

ETSI Refusal – NCF says ‘Think Again’

The two main European Standards Organisations, CEN (general standardisation) and CENELEC (electro-technical standards) have agreed with this additional process. However, the third Europe-wide standards organisation ETSI (Telecommunications Standards), although it has adopted some measures to improve inclusiveness of these weaker stakeholders, has refused to implement this “right of opinion”. NCF calls on ETSI to think again.

Internationally Inclusive?

Another concern Arnold raised at the meeting is that more and more European standards are developed or revised at international level. He questioned who should take responsibility for ensuring the European standards, adopted internationally comply with the European Standardisation Regulation (1025/2012), particularly as regards to inclusiveness of all stakeholders’ interests?

Reforming Consumer Advocacy in Telecoms

A MUCH NEEDED CHANGE

The NCF welcomes action to make a much needed change in the current consumer advocacy arrangements in the telecommunications sector.

NCF agrees with the remit proposed in the consultation paper and supports appointing the Citizens Advice to assume the consumer advocacy role.

CO-OPERATION WITH CONSUMERS AND CONSUMER ORGANISATIONS

However, it should be noted that the advocate will need to access a diversity of analysis by external consumers/consumer organisations who may be, on occasion, better placed to initiate investigations and conduct research. A co-operative approach can lead the way on particular issues and make a strong contribution to better regulation. NCF for one is ready to work with Citizens Advice and the Advocate and looks forward to making continuing contributions to their work.

Research into the consumer experience will be vital.  A number of recent initiatives taken by Ofcom are listed in the DCMS Consultation.  The advocate will have a role in signposting these (and similar) initiatives for consumers, monitoring their impact on the consumer experience and suggesting improvements where necessary.

FUNDING

The scale of activity could be similar to that involving energy and could be funded in the same way as existing work in relation to energy. While the scale of activity could be similar to that involving energy, we should recognise that compared to energy, telecoms involves more complex consumer/supplier relationships, often with multiple suppliers.  Advocacy in these markets could be more rather than less costly.

National Consumer Body for Scotland? Yes please and why not UK as well?

The Scottish government was consulting – till 11th September – on a Bill to  establish Consumer Scotland as a body that will identify consumer harm  as  a  starting  point  only.  Its  primary  goal  will  be  to  develop  and  advocate  for  practical solutions. To do this, it will have four key functions:

  • to provide strategic   oversight   of   the   consumer   landscape   to   develop   a   full understanding of how markets work for consumers in Scotland and ensure resources are targeted to tackle harm;
  • to conduct in-depth investigations into areas where harm in Scotland is most acute and recommend solutions;
  • to facilitate access to a consumer advice system that meets individual consumer needs and aggregates collective data to support prevention work; and
  • to comment on Scottish Government policy with significant impact on consumers, and support public authorities in Scotland to comply with a statutory consumer duty.

Jeremy Mitchell has submitted a particularly cogent set of comments for the consultation endorsing the creation of such a body. Jeremy makes the point with which we wholly agree that while other organisations such as Which?, Citizens Advice Scotland and the Trading Standards service all work for the consumer interest ”none of these organisations has an over-arching responsibility for safeguarding and promoting the interests of consumers in Scotland, Consumer Scotland’s primary function.”

And of course this is equally true of other parts of the UK – we mourn still the dismantling of an effective structure for consumer representation in England and Wales and it follows, the UK as a whole. This is not a bout of  predictable nostalgia about how much better things were in the past but an issue that will be on the agenda post-Brexit with a whole load of consumer protection legislation to be incorporated into UK law – most of which is reserved to Westminster. Readers will know that with  existing EU-based legislation being incorporated into UK law as foreseen in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, the UK government will start reviewing of this legislation to see which legal instruments it considers should be amended or abolished. Mitchell points out “The great bulk of UK-wide consumer protection legislation will fall within this category of EU-retained law and will therefore come under scrutiny. There is a clear danger that the legislative structure of consumer protection throughout the UK will be seriously eroded. It is crucially important that the interests of consumers in Scotland should be identified and represented in this process.”

Hear! Hear! And of course not just in Scotland – who will do this job firstly in England and then bring together the views expressed on behalf of all consumers in the UK – the same body or a different one? The NCF will have our say but the job is too big for us to tackle with our present resources. Bring back a UK forum for the consumer interest is a view we will putting very strongly to the powers that be. Can we help form a consumer coalition to speak for all UK consumers?

Enforcement Budgets Halved

A letter in The Times of 20 August 2019 reveals that budgets and staff of enforcement agencies has declined on average by 50% over the last ten years. The NCF has been banging this drum for a while now and are happy to sign the letter and join this campaign. Consumers do not see the full benefit of laws and regulations to protect them if there is inadequate enforcement. Our Consumer Congress in December 2017 was already drawing attention to the reduction of resource – since 2009 trading standards teams have lost more than half of their full-time equivalent staff.

The Congress report listed a number of actions to be taken. We have set up an enforcement group to focus on this theme. A key action of the group has been to propose a revision of the BEIS Regulators’ Code (2014), the aim being to achieve a better balance between the interests of the Regulators, the regulated and consumers than is achieved by the current Code. In replying to the submission, Consumer Minister, Kelly Tolhurst MP, said:

“Good regulation, as promoted by the Code, supports business productivity, innovation and growth whilst maintaining clear, risk-based, protection for consumers. lt is important that the Code remains relevant and practical and I welcome the National Consumer Federation’s thoughtful views.”

Consumers need action urgently to strengthen UK enforcement and regulatory bodies who will have to take over/back tasks done at EU level. We are currently awaiting a response from the Officials in the Department’s Office of Product Safety and Standards (OPSS) on the points we raised in our submission.

There is an element of double jeopardy with reports of consumers left to their own devices to get redress with more and more representing themselves (badly) in legal actions. The justice system has seen cuts in legal aid and rising pressure on county courts and the small claims process. In the cybercrime context, The Times has reported poor practice at the Action Fraud office revealing that call handlers mocked fraud victims as ‘morons’, ‘psychos’ and ‘screwballs’ and were trained to mislead them into believing they were talking to police officers.

Effective enforcement agencies and regulators are needed more than ever and the NCF is happy to echo and support the campaign launched by Unchecked.uk:

“As a country we believe in fair play, common standards, and everyone playing by the same rules – but the truth is, the people we rely on to enforce those rules are being hamstrung. Today, we have launched Unchecked.uk to show that vital protections can no longer be taken for granted.”

The NCF, will do all we can to make sure that consumers enjoy the protections that they need and have worked for.

 

 

 

Local roots and consumer victories

 

Consumer groups have been around for a great many years.  After the Consumers’ Association, publishers of Which? started up its national operation in 1959, they sponsored the development of local consumer groups, starting in 1963.  The National Federation of Consumer Groups (NFCG) proved to be very successful initially, with a total of nearly 100 local groups, but shrank over the years, to be succeeded by the National Consumer Federation (NCF) in 2001.

This article, which is based on interviews with early participants, documentation from consumer group journals and press releases, offers an interesting overview of the development and changes the local consumer movement has undergone over the last 60 years.

What Did They Do?

Author Monica Shelley writes ‘Groups have nagged and publicised, surveyed and commented and ferreted into the dark corners of commerce and public service.   They have taken the cause of the consumer visibly into the local public arena, publicising their activities through inventively designed local consumer weeks and through effective use of local media…  [winning] local victories of a kind that rarely hit the headlines of the nation’s newspapers but which have improved the quality of, and reduced the irritations in the lives of ordinary people.

These are all still worth doing even if the times and the technologies have changed the way people get together to fight their battles.

Speaking Up for the Consumer

Are you responsible for representing the consumer viewpoint on a group or committee? Have you ever wondered about the best way to do that? Originally written for Citizens’ Advice, NCF have produced Speaking Up which provides structured suggestions for putting your consumer point across.

Based  on realistic case studies

There are sections on such useful themes as being effective in meetings, listening, discussing and decision making, ensuring that you are efficient at representation, and dealing with difficult people. It includes activities based on realistic case studies.

If you think that Speaking Up might be useful to you, then take a look here.

Starting a Grassroots Group

Grassroot consumer groups are where the NCF started.  Several years ago there were dozens of local consumer groups who got together to campaign and improve local shops and facilities.  Through affiliation to the NCF local concerns were funneled up to national level and informed NCF consumer congresses and campaigning.

Most of these consumer groups work online now and have developed to represent single issue or single company online fora.  But there may still be local issues that prompt people to get together, either to pool information or to campaign for change.

Although written in 2011, the NCF Grassroots Guide sets out some of the practical steps a local group might want to think about when it’s starting out.

If you have experiences which would be useful to others – examples of successful campaigns or particularly good use of social media – then tell us about them.

Check the Guide out in our library under the main heading About NCF.

Online Harm – the NCF response to the consultation

We are giving digital issues in the home a lot of our attention and welcomed the chance to respond to the consultation on Online Harm.

We particularly wanted to emphasise in our response the importance of staying on top of what is a very fast moving area and so recommend an effective and strong Market Monitoring and Enforcement Policy. Secondly this is a moment for drawing down all our national and international resources in the standard making arena.

We see Parliament having a vital role to play in backing up the monitoring and enforcement regime. They can review and scrutinise the regulator – whose role would be much more effective if enhanced as we suggest in our latest recommendations to beef up the BEIS regulator code.

The Library pages on the website are where you will find our views and recommendations on a variety of consumer issues.

Benefit vs Risk in the new digital world

The Consumer and Public Interest Network (CPIN) of the BSI has adopted Digital as one of its 5 priority areas:

  • Safety
  • Vulnerability
  • Digital
  • Services
  • Sustainability

The major issues clustered around “the complex nature of digital ecosystems” with their capacity for great benefit and great harm are addressed in three  brochures available here. Artificial Intelligence as a CPIN representative quoted in the Human Factor brochure points out, raises practical and ethical issues for which we have no template. In a very fast moving market how can consumers and the laws and regulations that protect them keep up?

Vulnerability

The risks are multiplied in the case of vulnerable consumers. Physical, cognitive or personal circumstances can be exploited by hackers and scammers. The brochure focusing on Vulnerability makes the point that we can all fall into the vulnerable category if things go wrong unexpectedly – it is not a condition reserved for your granny. Flexibility and access are key here – with service providers being easily contactable and willing to suit process to the individual situation.

The Value of Standards

Standards can play a central role in developing products and services that inspire confidence and trust in consumers. The speed of development and innovation is such that traditional methods of checking goods and services after they have come onto the market are not effective. The consumer interest has to be built into the product from its inception and the work described in the Digital brochure “Privacy By Design” is a new dimension to standard-making that tackles this.

Consumer Principles Live On

It is comforting to note that even in this environment of rapid change that the traditional consumer principles which first saw the light of day back in the 60’s – the Kennedy era in the US – still are a template to inspire and guide consumer representatives. A modern tweak is the addition of sustainability to the originals

  • Access
  • Safety
  • Information
  • Choice
  • Redress .

Future Work with our Friends and Allies

The National Consumer Federation will continue to work with CPIN and BSI and our other friends and allies in the consumer movement to apply these principles in the work that we do. Watch this space for announcement of our next Congress towards the end of the year exploring these and other consumer issues of the day.