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.

 

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!

 

 

.