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Bitter blow for Scots & access to justice reforms as Tory-LibDem coalition scraps Scottish consumer champion Consumer Focus Scotland

14 Oct

Consumer Focus Scotland logoScots consumer champion Consumer Focus Scotland axed by London Government. SCOTS CONSUMERS suffered a bitter blow today at the hands of the Westminster Conservative-LibDem coalition Government as it was announced Consumer Focus Scotland and its parent organisation Consumer Focus are being scrapped as part of the ‘savings drive’ to abolish ‘quangos’ which has so far only affected 200 out of 900 ‘Quasi-Autonomous Non-Governmental Organisations’ & other statutory bodies reviewed for closure, with at least 380 apparently being retained.

The announcement of the spending cuts caused the Cabinet Office’s website to temporarily crash, however the list of publicly funded bodies is now available HERE (pdf). The entry for Consumer Focus reads : “No longer an NDPB – Government will consider the outcome of ongoing sectoral reviews and consult early next year on proposals to abolish Consumer Focus and transfer its function to Citizens Advice.”. The Taxpayers Alliance are left to gloat now their demand Consumer Focus be axed, has come true.

Douglas-SinclairDouglas Sinclair, Chairman of Consumer Focus Scotland. Responding to the announcement by the UK Government today, Douglas Sinclair, Chair of Consumer Focus Scotland, said : “Consumer Focus, and Consumer Focus Scotland have achieved a huge amount for consumers. In the last few months alone Consumer Focus has obtained a £70 million pound energy bill refund for consumers across the UK and in Scotland the passage of the Legal Services (Scotland) Bill has meant the culmination of Consumer Focus Scotland’s campaign to widen choice and protection for users of legal services, and we played a key role in the establishment of the Post Office Challenge Fund.”

Mr Sinclair continued : “The UK Government has decided to transfer at least some of our functions to Citizens Advice and Citizens Advice Scotland. I am immensely proud of what we have achieved. The issue now is not who does the work but that the work is done at a time when consumers are facing difficult economic circumstances, especially those who are vulnerable and whom we have a particular duty to protect.”

“What matters now is that the transfer happens in a way that works in consumers’ interests. We will be working with the UK and Scottish Government to do this in the best possible way in the interest of consumers in Scotland. The expertise and knowledge that has enabled us to fight for consumers must not be lost. Changes must not be at the expense of the public’s rights and needs – which organisations like Consumer Focus Scotland were created to protect.”

The Office of Fair Trading (OFT) is also being scrapped, its competition functions merged with the Competition Commission along with a transfer of its consumer and enforcement functions. High-profile consumer right challenges in the future will be mounted by underfunded local trading standards officers – I don’t think so.

BBC News reported on the quango cuts saying Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude had told MPs money would be saved by axing the quangos, saying the main reason for the cull had always been to improve accountability, by having decisions taken by ministers and local authorities where possible.

Consumer group Which?, who will remain as one of the few remaining consumer protection organisations said today the shakeup of the consumer landscape with the scrapping of Consumer Focus must not leave consumers exposed.

Peter Vicary SmithWhich? CEO Peter Vicary-Smith. Which? Chief Executive, Peter Vicary-Smith commenting on the axing of Consumer Focus & other consumer bodies said : “It’s vital that front line advice and enforcement services are maintained, so we’re pleased that Trading Standards and Citizens’ Advice have survived the cull. Which? is talking to the Government about how it can help with providing extra support to consumers in the new regime and continue to do so without taking Government money.”

He continued : “These changes also raise questions about moving responsibility for national enforcement to dedicated individual Trading Standards authorities. How will a local Trading Standards have the resources or the expertise to take on national companies such as the big banks, the airlines and the supermarkets?

“The merger of the Competition Commission offers the opportunity to strengthen competition regulation in the UK, but this will only happen if the new body is given the resources it needs to match its task and police markets effectively.”

Perth based law reform campaigner Stewart MacKenzie, author of Petition 1247 – the McKenzie Friend petition which brought about one of the most significant changes in Scots courts for decades and won him the Which? Consumer Champion award for 2010 condemned today’s decision to scrap Consumer Focus Scotland.

Mr MacKenzie said : “’Consumer Focus have done incredible, important work since they were formed 2 years ago, as did their predecessor, the Scottish Consumer Council over many, many years. This is a shattering blow and I can only hope there is a route yet available which may be able to stop this happening and that is why I’ve asked my msp John Swinney to get the First Minister involved in this matter.”

The Scottish Government were asked for comment on today’s blow against Scots consumers. Their statement will appear here if one is issued.

This is of course, a bad day for Scots. No matter how this disgraceful decision is spun, Consumer protection in Scotland will suffer with the loss of Consumer Focus Scotland. Good people and a lot of valuable experience centralised in a well respected national coherent body have been thrown out under the guise of saving money, when in reality it will cost consumers in Scotland and across the country, dearly.

The plan by the Westminster Government, apparently, is to hand over Consumer Focus Scotland’s duties to Citizens Advice Scotland and the many uncoordinated local Trading Standards teams scattered across the regions who themselves are now subject to huge cuts in local authority spending. From experience in dealing with CAB/CAS & local Trading Standards outfits in Scotland, these organisations will have to up their game considerably if they are to match the effective, coordinated campaigning by the Scottish Consumer Council and its successor, Consumer Focus Scotland who served all of us in Scotland so very well over many years.

From the beginnings of my dealings with the Scottish Consumer Council in the mid 1990’s, during its leadership by Derdrie Hutton, DBE, to its current form as Consumer Focus Scotland, I can safely say they have always been a beneficial & much-listened-to voice for change, in the many areas of consumer interest & protection in Scotland, especially those issues on which I report including civil justice reform, regulation of the legal profession & access to justice.

Sadly in 2010, I am now reporting this much valued voice and effort on the part of Scots consumers is to be lost in this very anti-consumer move by the coalition Government in London.

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