Rights legislation will also cover faulty digital content such as film and music downloads and online games, reports Jane Bradley
WHEN Susan Clark was asked by her builder to pay up- front for work being carried out to her house, she was sceptical, but agreed.
For the tradesman she hired – who she had previously used for other works to her renovation project house – claimed he was unable to buy materials without money from his customer.
But within days, she knew she had made a mistake. The main bathroom at her Edinburgh home was left half-finished as her builder drifted away from the project and became embroiled in financial wrangles with tradesmen he had hired over unpaid wages. And she was more than £3,000 out of pocket.
Now, a new draft Consumer Rights Bill has been launched which will bring in measures to help homeowners like Susan Clark – cracking down on rogue tradesmen and faulty goods – and clarifying rights around goods downloaded from the internet such as MP3s.
Launching the Bill earlier this week, consumer minister Jo Swinson encouraged consumers to record conversations with tradesmen on their mobile phones, to be used as evidence should something go wrong. The UK Government estimates that consumers currently spend more than 59 million hours a year dealing with goods and services problems.
“There is a growing movement to promote consumer rights, which we in the CAB service are right at the heart of,” says Citizens Advice Scotland spokeswoman Sarah Beattie-Smith.
“The key to this is empowerment, and giving people the information and the confidence they need to exercise their clout as consumers. So hopefully this bill will help do that, and we would urge everyone to note the power it gives them to stand up for their rights.
“Our message to people is that you don’t have to put up with poor treatment or exploitation. You can take action to get redress, and if you do you will be taken seriously.”
Building and consumer groups have claimed the tactic of recording phone calls is impractical and could drive a further gulf between tradespeople and customers.
“The government is right to want to increase protection for consumers against rogue traders and to ensure they are better informed about their rights,” says Brian Berry, chief executive of the Federation of Master Builders. “However, the idea that consumers will be willing and able to record verbal agreements on their iPhones is misplaced. The best way for consumers wanting to protect themselves when commissioning home improvement or repair work is to insist on a written contract. This simple requirement will weed out the cowboys from the professional builders.”
Other organisations representing tradesmen also disagree, claiming it could put the trader at a disadvantage: “Recording conversations with tradespeople is a good idea but only for those with the means and know-how to pass a copy to the trader; after all it’s only fair,” says Kevin Byrne of Checkatrade.com.
“This will ensure transparency on both sides in terms of the work agreed and time frame before it commences.”
But Clark insists that even if the new bill had been in force, it would be unlikely to help her situation, as she already has an email from the builder acknowledging he owes the family money – but has repeatedly missed meetings which he has agreed to attend to pay the cash owed and failed to make promised payments into her bank account.
“I don’t see we have any other option but to take him to court – whatever rules are in place, he seems like he is paying no attention and we need the law to enforce them,” she says.
“My husband was recovering from a cancer operation at the time that we hired him – I think if we’d been more on the ball we would never have given him the money up-front, but we had got to know him fairly well and trusted him. Now we’re left having to pursue legal action and we could do without the stress.”
In addition, the bill – which is currently in its draft format and is due to come into force later this year – creates a set of laws which allow consumers to get some money back after one failed repair of faulty goods (or suffering one faulty replacement) and demand that substandard services are redone – or failing that, get a reduction in price for substandard service.
It will also focus on digital problems, such as ensuring that the consumer can get a repair or a replacement of faulty digital content such as film and music downloads, online games and e-books.
Gamers will also be able to claim for games that do not work — even if they are free.
The new legislation also proposes a set 30-day time period for when consumers can return faulty goods and get a full refund.
Richard Lloyd, of consumer watchdog Which?, says: “The new Bill of Rights will bring consumer law into the 21st century at last, making it easier for everyone to know their rights and giving people more power to challenge bad practices.
There are many welcome measures in the bill, including reforming the law on unfair terms and conditions and giving consumers clear rights when digital downloads go wrong.”
Matthew Fell, CBI director for competitive markets, adds: “Consumer law should be fit for the digital age, but any changes must be properly scrutinised before they are put into practice.
“We will resist any efforts to introduce US-style class actions into consumer redress, which risks fuelling a litigation culture and making the UK a worse place to do business.”