A cut too far : Coalition Government ‘turns its back’ on UK consumers as BBC reports Consumer Focus & OFT to be scrapped

10 Oct

Consumer Focus Scotland logoUK Consumers to be without a champion as BBC reports Consumer Focus to be scrapped. UK CONSUMERS will soon lose their greatest consumer champion according to BBC News who reported earlier today that Consumer Focus, the £6m-a-year publicly funded consumer champion for Scotland, England & Wales is to be scrapped as part of the Conservative/LibDem coalition UK Government’s soon-to-be-announced review of spending on public bodies. Also lining up to be axed in an approaching dawn firing squad is Consumer Direct & the OFT.

This is a bitter blow for consumers all across the UK, particularly in Scotland, where Consumer Focus Scotland, formed from the Scottish Consumer Council did important work for Scots consumer rights in many priority areas, especially those where few other voices or help existed for many fellow citizens trapped in our stagnant justice system as I have frequently covered over many years. As Consumer Focus Scotland receives much of its funding from London, it’s Glasgow based HQ faces an uncertain future, probably to be closed unless the Scottish Government take on the full funding cost which I cant see happening given the public service cuts being forced on us by London.

The work of the Scottish Consumer Council to quote one example out of many, has been instrumental in pushing for serious reforms to Scotland’s “Victorian” civil justice system by way of Lord Gill’s Civil Courts Review and also the SCC’s work promoting independent regulation of the legal profession. Without doubt I can say not only as a journalist but also as a law reform campaigner, the long road to reforms in the Scots justice system would not be as ‘advanced’ as they are now, had it not been for the invaluable work Consumer Focus Scotland has done for Scots consumers, albeit sometimes needing a little push here & there to keep up the pace.

Law Society of ScotlandLaw Society’s Rogue lawyers & many others will benefit from Consumer Focus being scrapped. Scrapping Consumer Focus – a national consumer champion which costs a lot less than politicians expenses, and the money thrown at shady unaccountable political ‘think-tanks’ (to mention one of a million other well deserving savings the country should be making), will ensure all the rogue traders, rip-off merchants, crooks, con artists, villains, fraudsters, & overcharging industries will have a field day, ripping off British consumers at will, all apparently at the behest of the Taxpayers Alliance, who BBC News reports “wrote to Business Secretary Vince Cable on 8 October calling for Consumer Focus to be abolished, says it duplicates work done by private organisations such as the Consumers’ Association.”

With all due respect Mr Cable, you would do well to refuse the Taxpayers Alliance on this one, and a few others too by the sounds of it.

Speaking on the BBC FOUR Radio’s Saturday MoneyBox programme, Matthew Sinclair Director of the Taxpayer’s Alliance said Consumer Focus was also too close to government to be fully effective. He said : “It does fulfil a function which is replicated in the private sector. It’s not representing consumers because it can’t speak against Government.”

Rubbish. Consumer Focus Scotland has done a terrific job for Scots consumers, as has Consumer Focus in England & Wales. Granted, Which? are a great organisation but they don’t have any statutory powers as Consumer Focus have, and there are currently no private bodies who will be fully able to take on the work of Consumer Focus Scotland. For a start, Citizens Advice (CAB) in Scotland certainly have no capability or stature to take on all of Consumer Focus Scotland’s work and in my recent experience on the McKenzie Friend campaign, I’d have to say CAB are just not up to the job.

It seems the Westminster coalition’s knives are certainly being sharpened for consumers as another target of the slash & cut review is, amazingly the Office of Fair Trading, who along with Consumer Focus & Which? have been instrumental in many consumer reforms – and had it not been for the three bodies working together in many cases, the lobbying powers of the various industries or professions ripping off consumers on a daily basis would have prevented many reforms I am now able to report on such as wider access to justice for all Scots.

BBC Radio 4’s MoneyBox is broadcast on Saturdays at 12 noon, and repeated on Sundays at 9pm. Download the podcast. The direct link to the audio file from the Saturday , 9 Oct 10 programme is here : Download 12MB (right click & “save target as”) You can listen to it in Windows Media Player or any mp3 player.

Alternatively you can listen to the audio clip below, featuring the Moneybox report on Consumer Focus and its possible closure by the UK Government : (click on image to listen)

I would recommend any consumer with an interest in what happens to their consumer rights, and the standards of service they receive from any industry or profession in the UK, downloads & listens to this programme, especially taking note of the zeal in which Mr Sinclair and the Taxpayers Alliance want to kill off what has been one of the best products of consumer protection in the United Kingdom since … well, ever.

You might represent some taxpayers on this one Mr Sinclair, but you don’t represent me.

If anyone feels like writing to Vince Cable MP, the Business Secretary, and support calls to retain Consumer Focus as one of our well deserved Consumer Champions, please email Mr Cable using the online correspondence form of his Department HERE or write to him at : Ministerial Correspondence Unit, Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, 1 Victoria Street, London SW1H 0ET.

If you value your consumer protection in this country, please write in to Mr Cable. I know I will be.

BBC News reports :

Consumer Focus faces axe in quango cull

By Paul Lewis
Presenter, Radio 4’s Money Box

Consumer Focus, the body set up by the last Government to represent consumers and challenge companies, will be scrapped, the BBC has learned.

Other consumer bodies facing abolition include the Office of Fair Trading and Consumer Direct. Their activities will be taken over by Citizens Advice and Trading Standards offices. The Government refused to confirm or deny the changes ahead of an imminent announcement on public bodies.

Speaking on Radio 4’s Money Box programme Consumer Focus chief executive Mike O’Connor, who warned his staff on Wednesday that their future was in doubt, would not confirm the move publicly. “Government has to take this decision and we wait to see what they have got to say.”

But he defended the value for money of his organisation. “We cost the taxpayer in our core grant about £6m a year. Just last week we won a return to consumers of over £70m from the energy companies. And three months ago through our super complaint we changed the ISA rules so savers will get an extra £15m a year.”

nPower has recently refunded £70m to 1.8 million customers who it had overcharged for gas in 2007. Banks will pay interest eight days earlier on ISAs that have been moved.

But the TaxPayers’ Alliance, which wrote to Business Secretary Vince Cable on 8 October calling for Consumer Focus to be abolished, says it duplicates work done by private organisations such as the Consumers’ Association.

Speaking on the programme its director Matthew Sinclair said Consumer Focus was also too close to government to be fully effective. “It does fulfil a function which is replicated in the private sector. It’s not representing consumers because it can’t speak against Government,” he said.

Mike O’Connor said that no other organisation had its powers or could be so effective. “The Consumers’ Association does not have the powers which we do. We have a vital power, we can make companies and regulators and government give us information so you may be asking people to do things but without the powers that we have.”

The BBC has also learned that Citizens Advice is being lined up to take over the activities of Consumer Direct, which offers free help over the phone to consumers who are victims of scams or want advice on their rights. The Office of Fair Trading, which took the long running but ultimately unsuccessful case over the banks’ overdraft charges, will be merged with the Competition Commission. The Government has discussed passing the OFT’s consumer activities – including court action – to trading standards departments in local authorities.

Mick McAteer, founder and Director of the Financial Inclusion Centre, told Money Box: “If you take away one of the main bodies whose tasks is to represent consumers I think you will undermine consumer protection.”

A Cabinet Office spokeswoman said the report on the future of hundreds of public bodies “is likely to happen in the next couple of weeks.” She would not comment on the claims that these consumer bodies would be scrapped or merged.

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Posted by on October 10, 2010 in Consumer Protection, Politics


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