Martyn McLaughlin: Consumers face a risky future, no matter what Brexit brings

A new consumer watchdog is welcome, but it alone cannot protect the public, writes Martyn McLaughlin

Black Friday shoppers in Glasgow, but who will protect their rights post-Brexit?
Black Friday shoppers in Glasgow, but who will protect their rights post-Brexit?

Fifty years ago this week, a blow was struck for the little man who had been left with no option but to tear his hair out. Well, whatever hair he had left, that is.

One of the earliest complaints served under the Trade Descriptions Act was lodged against the manufacturer of a so-called “undetectable” toupée. According to one of its newest, and least satisfied customers, the wig was anything but. His grievance was duly upheld. Sadly, court records from the time do not state whether he hurled the offending hairpiece skywards in celebration.

Nowadays, the majority of the act’s provisions have been repealed or superseded, but you need only look at how it continues to be cited by disgruntled punters on online shopping forums to appreciate its impact on the consumer landscape.

The legislation swept away with the outmoded Merchandise Marks Act and was designed to protect the public, with fines and custodial sentences reserved for those shopkeepers who knowingly sold items with misleading labels or descriptions. In the first six months after its introduction, the Board of Trade brought prosecutions in 435 cases.

Some 50 years on, Brexit has ensured the issue of safeguarding the interests of consumers is once again subject to debate. In recent weeks, the UK government has published a series of draft amendments which, it says, will ensure British consumers will continue to enjoy nearly all the protections of their EU counterparts. But it has been reluctant to draw attention to some significant exceptions.

Shoppers on these shores, for example, will no longer be able to take grievances against EU-based traders to courts here, and the reciprocal arrangement which sees the UK and EU nations investigate consumer law breaches will come to an end.

In any case, the changes proposed are mere technical notices. If Prime Minister Theresa May cannot convince parliament to ratify her deal next month, as looks increasingly likely, such guarantees will not be worth the paper they are written on, especially if we end up careering headfirst towards a no deal Brexit. Under that scenario, there will remain the potential for a post-Brexit bonfire of regulations. And yet it is not only the spectre of Brexit that raised questions about how ordinary consumer are protected.

To little fanfare, the Scottish Government has been consulting on the creation of Consumer Scotland, a new national entity it describes as an “investigatory body”, focused on tackling issues where there is a “high level of consumer detriment”.

Unlike traditional consumer watchdogs, it says Consumer Scotland will focus on a small number of in-depth inquiries at any one time, with the aim of proposing solutions instead of simply flagging up risks.

There is no shortage of areas this new body could look into, such as discriminatory delivery charges suffered by shoppers in the Highlands and islands, or the unregulated legal services market.

Unsurprisingly, its proposed formation has been widely welcomed, with the Law Society of Scotland of the view that a “genuinely consumer-centric independent body” would empower ordinary people. Which, up to a point, is true. The dilemma facing Consumer Scotland is whether it will have the bite to match its bark. The definition of it as an investigatory body is disingenuous, given the limitations of recently devolved powers means it will have no enforcement abilities.

Instead, that responsibility will remain with frontline trading standards officers, which is something of a problem. The Society of Chief Officers of Trading Standards in Scotland points out that the effectiveness of enforcing consumer law is dependent on the necessary resources being available. Frankly, they are not.

The society points out that many local authority trading standards services are currently operating “at or below minimum levels”, and warns that any further reduction in their capacity will “seriously risk” the work being done to protect consumers.

It may sound like political gesturing in the hope of securing more funding, but if anything the society’s concerns are being underplayed. The number of trading standards officers across the country has fallen 23 per cent in the past six years, with budgets scythed by 12 per cent over the same period, according to Unison Scotland.

Given the responsibility for arresting, if not reversing, that decline rests with cash-strapped local authorities, do not expect the trend to stop any time soon. Indeed, privately, some of Scotland’s smaller councils believe the formation of Consumer Scotland is a chance to hive off their trading standards departments altogether and create a new national unit.

Such an arrangement, they claim, would be better placed to tackle big ticket problems involving cross-border and online trading, but the counter argument, which values local knowledge and intelligence, is hard to disagree with.

What is clear is that the status quo is leaving frontline officers ill equipped to protect the public by doing the kinds of things the Trade Descriptions Act brought into play all those years ago – checking items are are correctly labelled, described, priced, and come in the correct amounts.

And whatever the final outcome of Brexit, their workload looks set to increase substantially.

Until that problem is addressed, it feels hard to have one’s wig blown off by the bold promises of Consumer Scotland.