Just before Parliament was prorogued, I caught a speech at the despatch box from the Shadow Womens & Equalities Minister, Dawn Butler MP.
She spoke of the sheer frustration she was experiencing, expecting that following the resignation of Amber Rudd, that she would be shadowing her 5th Minister in as many years. She complained about the changes of departmental responsibility which combined, made it very difficult to promote an agenda fit-for-purpose, promoting the needs of women and the general equality agenda. The implication of her intervention was that this was a government that did not care for equality and any notion was cracked by the open display of sexism and racism.
It minded me of the current parlous state of Consumer Protection in the UK.
Since 2010, the then coalition government and the now minority government have changed the landscape for Consumer Protection, by reducing enforcement possibilities for Consumers; they have done so behind the cover of austerity and the need to trim the public purse. The Brexit debate has revealed further, the inconsistency in Consumer Protection thinking and in fact, apart from the aerosol claim that nothing will change, the subtleties of Statutory Instruments demonstrate how much more is about to the cut on the altar of Brexit.
Enforcement is the key plank in any Consumer Protection policy but the austerity factor produced a much changed scene. Government reduced the funding for Trading Standards, one of the key components in enforcement of our European Rights. A good example is found in the Unfair Trading Regulations. This Regulation stemmed from the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive. All Member States were required to implement its provisions including on one important aspect, that the State has to provide for an agency or body to ensure that the law is enforced. Once the coalition government started on its austerity programme, it quickly realised that Consumer complaints, enabled by this Regulation did not go away. So rather than strengthen the resources of Trading Standards, they decided that they should enable Consumers to take their own private actions, under the Regulations, in court. Automatically, it relieved the 'pressure' on Trading Standards, who could direct their attentions to 'showcase' actions (few and far between), thus complying with the obligations of the Directive, but demonstrating that they were 'empowering' Consumers. The reality for Consumers is that it is a) difficult for Consumers to engage with Trading Standards and those that they can speak to, often tell them that they cannot help (sometimes encouraging them to go to the small claims court) b) Consumers are ill-equipped to deal with the complexity of Regulation and the arguments that need to be made and, c) Consumers cannot afford to pay for the services of a solicitor who will often have very little experience of dealing with Consumer matters.
Another example of the failing enforcement regime, is found within the application of air passenger rights. Since 2004, Consumers have been able to benefit from the pan-European range of rights, designed to rebalance the inequalities found in airline contracts. Enforcement is a major part of the 261/2004 Regulation, requiring member states to vigorously enforce its provisions. However, for UK Consumers, the experience of the 'Regulator' has been less than satisfactory, who ultimately encouraged Consumers toward an Arbitration scheme rather than primarily deal with and confront airlines 'interpretation' of the law. Brexit appears to have slightly refocussed the ‘Regulator’s’ position, with them somewhat weakly advising airlines on their duties and responsibilities, but a visit to any striking airline website simply extends the message that Consumers can contact them for alternate transport options; no real teeth there!
Consumer Protection was further weakened by the coalition government when they disbanded Consumer Objective initiatives, completely altering the Public Information Film system and failing to deliver a robust Ombudsman/Regulator system for Consumers. One example is in Pensions. Anyone complaining to the Pensions Regulator is told that they will not receive an update as to the complaint, there will be no final feedback and no information given on sanctions delivered; they do this behind a law that allows for no discourse with a Consumer Complainant. In the same way with the Pensions Ombudsman, complaints are easily made, but Consumers are disadvantaged by an agreed Industry/Regulator/Ombudsman process and practice, a process which is Arbitration-like but is one in which it is clear that there is little challenge made of Pension companies.
It all leads to the conclusion, that no matter what the Law or Regulation, Consumers have been dealt with a poor hand. Consumer Equality has no seat at the table; the landscape for Consumers is devoid of real meaningful support; a deliberate ploy in favour of Industry? One thing is certain, Consumers are facing the wild-west of enforcement when it comes to the management of their complaints and enforcement of their rights; they are on their own and all too few Consumer Campaigners & Commentators appear to highlight this serious deficit!
Over to you Parliament, when you return!