Citizens Advice helpline flying flag for consumers

WHEN a woman living in the West of Scotland sat down on her leather sofa one morning, she felt a sharp pain. A screw had pushed through the expensive fabric, ripping it and ruining her expensive furniture.

When the woman phoned the retailer to complain, she was told that the fault was the manufacturer’s responsibility and that she was outwith the warranty. She turned to the Citizens Advice Service consumer helpline (08454 04 05 06) for assistance.

Within days, her case was ­resolved and she was back in pocket by £1,700.

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This was just one of the 53,000 Scottish and near 210,000 UK-wide issues dealt with in the past year by the new helpline – and, bizarrely, one of 859 complaints about leather furniture from Scottish consumers – more than double the rest of the UK. The average leather furniture problem costs Scots around £1,600 – with costs for one disgruntled customer running as high as £14,000.

The helpline – which also dealt with almost 4,000 complaints about second-hand cars, a further 1,222 problems relating to upholstered furniture and more than 1,000 issues relating to laptops and tablets over the past 12 months – is a new feature for Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS), which took over the ­service from the Office of Fair Trading a year ago.

Since last April, umbrella group CAS and its network of bureaux has taken on a host of additional responsibilities from other agencies in a consolidation move designed to streamline Scotland’s consumer landscape, creating a one-stop shop for ­consumer issues.

Now, a year on from the first implementation of the reforms, the new consumer landscape in Scotland is taking shape.

“When the government first announced that we’d be taking on this role of ‘consumer champions’, I know some members were concerned about what it might mean. But now the process is under way, I think people can see that this is not in fact ‘new’ work,” says CAS chief executive Margaret Lynch.

“And nor does it compromise our basic advice services. Indeed, we are helping the same people as we always have. It’s just that we are now being recognised for the sort of consumer advice we have always given.”

Last month, a £1.5 million cash injection was administered to the CAB by the UK government, marking the latest stage in the transfer of consumer roles to the CAB service, which formally took over “consumer advocacy and education” from Consumer Focus and the Office of Fair Trading on 1 April.

Consumer Focus Scotland – a government quango – is now defunct in all of its functions but the regulated utilities – post, water and energy. A new body, called the Regulated Industries Unit (RIU) – which is ultimately to be renamed, once a new name is devised – has been formed out of Consumer Focus Scotland and, subject to decisions in parliament, will transfer from the public sector to Citizens Advice Scotland in April next year.

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The Extra Help Unit – a UK-wide service based in Glasgow – is also due to be transferred from Consumer Focus to the Citizens Advice Service in 2014 when it will continue to offer help to vulnerable gas and electricity customers who are at risk of being disconnected.

One of the first moves occ­urred when the Consumer Direct call centre was transferred from the OFT to CAS, in April last year, becoming the Citizens Advice Consumer Helpline.

Lynch adds: “Whether it’s high fuel bills, or payday loans or unfair delivery charges, we are becoming identified in the public mind as the organisation that not only gives advice but stops consumers being taken advantage of in the first place.

“The only difference now is we’re able to do this work in a more formal way, and are being recognised for it – including by governments, and those who fund us.”

The helpline, based in Stornoway, employs more than 40 people – including Pauline Mac­Leod, a former IT worker, who has found the queries which come across her desk to be wide-ranging and varied.

“Consumer issues don’t discriminate – they go right across the human spectrum,” she said. “On any given day we’ll deal with problems as diverse as bad workmanship and scams to faulty balloons and meerkats. You need a sense of humour, as well as a rapport with the people that you serve.”

She added: “Although some laws are ancient, legislation changes all the time. Keeping up with changes is part of the job. ”

Citizens Advice Scotland’s consumer helpline has recorded some unusual complaints (statistics are kept, but all inquiries are dealt with in total confidence). They include:

91 cases about cakes or confectionery

23 cases about modelling and talent agencies

882 cases about toiletries and cosmetics - including 11 about wigs and 12 about nail parlours

49 cases about lawnmowers

34 cases about linoleum

55 about microwaves