Come on Scotland, if something is wrong, get complaining!

The Scottish Government recently published a long-awaited plan that outlines how they will use the new consumer powers that were devolved from Westminster to Holyrood in May to help improve the lives of people in Scotland.

Vickie Sheriff
Vickie Sheriff

It put on paper some very useful commitments and deadlines that will give Scots a little more certainty about how they will be helped and represented in future. Setting up a new consumer organisation is one of the key commitments. We look forward to seeing this followed through and expect it to be dynamic, well-resourced and a body that can press for changes that really tackle some of the issues that people face in Scotland.

What are the sorts of problems that need to be addressed? Well, Which? recently looked at how essential markets such as energy, home internet and banking are working for Scots. We also wanted to know the kind of challenges that people faced in these areas, and how they approached resolving the problems they encountered.

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In our Scottish Consumer Insight Report 2016, we discovered that most Scottish residents rarely switch between energy suppliers or banks and that many who do have problems with their services don’t complain or seek advice.

We found that in banking, eight out of ten (79 per cent) people had not switched their main current account in the last five years and that two thirds (68 per cent) had stayed with their home internet provider.

Just a quarter (23 per cent) of those surveyed had changed their energy supplier over the same period, with many people left stuck on the wrong tariff or not able to switch – an issue that has been identified as being worse in Scotland than the rest of the UK.

Many Scots encounter problems in these sectors too. For example, around four in ten (44 per cent) had a problem with their home internet connection in the last two years. As many people will know first hand, these difficulties are often related to intermittent connections or slow speeds. This can be a uniquely Scottish issue due to people living in rural areas where they simply don’t have access to anything other than one broadband provider.

We also wanted to know whether Scottish consumers actually took action to resolve a problem. Four in ten people (39 per cent) who suffered problems with their home internet providers took no action, with the figure at one in five (21 per cent) for energy companies and a third (32 per cent) for banks.

Worryingly, many of these people simply didn’t feel anything would be done if they complained, and so it’s little surprise that, when we asked what sectors people most mistrusted, the energy and banking industries were towards the bottom of the pile.

As part of our regular consumer insight tracker, we also monitor levels of people in financial difficulty across the UK. In Scotland, we found that a lot of people are still feeling the pinch. Eight out of the top 10 constituencies with the highest numbers of people in financial difficulty are in Glasgow, with one in Edinburgh (Northern and Leith). People in these urban areas are more likely to default on bills or housing, or make risky borrowing decisions than elsewhere in the country in order to make ends meet.

Our data also showed that people in Scotland tended to be more worried about consumer issues than those in the rest of the UK. The top concern for three quarters (74 per cent) of Scots was public spending cuts (compared to six in ten (62 per cent) in the rest of the UK), with worries about daily essentials like food, fuel and energy prices not far behind (and in greater proportions than the rest of the UK). Brexit also appears to cause a higher level of concern in Scotland (52 per cent) than in the rest of the UK (38 per cent).

The results of our report clearly illustrated the range of consumer concerns that many people in Scotland are feeling, and crucially how many people don’t go, or don’t know where to go, to get help or advice when they’ve got a problem. So we’ve called for the Scottish Government to take on the opportunity that their new consumer powers have presented, and to be ambitious in the way they are used to benefit consumers.

We hope that the recent plan from the Scottish Government will help ensure Scots are better served in key markets where they are poorly represented, and Which? will certainly play its part in making sure that the Scottish Government delivers on its plans as well as its deadlines.

Vickie Sheriff, Director of Campaigns and Communications at Which?