If you’re plagued by nuisance calls or don’t think you’re paying a fair price for your energy, do you know who to turn to for help? From our research, we’ve found people in Scotland sometimes struggle to access the consumer advice that’s available to them, or know how to take action when they experience unexpected problems with a product or service. More help should be coming because in May this year Scotland got new powers over consumer advocacy and advice from Westminster.
But we have not yet heard how, exactly, these powers will be used to benefit Scottish consumers. The SNP’s 2016 manifesto committed to: “Legislate to create a unified consumer body, which will be given the powers to carry out research and representation and will use evidence, expertise and knowledge to stand up for consumers.”
In its September 2016 Programme for Government, ministers pledged to set out its plans for these new consumer powers later in the autumn. But there was no mention of the promised new consumer body.
We want the consumer policy statement to set out how these new powers will be used in practice with a powerful new consumer body that can press for changes that really address the consumer issues that affect Scottish people’s every day lives.
Our research shows that Scottish residents often experience similar problems to people in the rest of the UK, whether it is challenges with energy bills, poor bank service or slow broadband. However, there are many issues that are much more pronounced in Scotland, such as parcel delivery charges and public transport. And when we ran focus groups across Scotland last year on these issues, people told us that they wanted a much clearer path to tackle these problems.
This is where a new consumer body comes in. While there are lots of excellent consumer advice organisations right across Scotland, there is a clear need for a trusted body to ensure that people can get the best advice possible. A simplified one-stop shop for consumers would ensure people could be quickly pointed to right organisation.
It should also be a strong consumer advocate, free to challenge Government policy and regulators, whether in Holyrood or Westminster. This could be about ensuring that existing consumer laws are properly enforced, but it could also spot any gaps in legislation which need addressing. And it should ensure that the public can easily get redress when things go wrong, such as experiencing a long flight delay or falling victim to a scam.
To effectively act in this way, it will need the right powers. In recent years, Which? has used its own legal powers to issue super-complaints on issues as diverse as scams, rail delays and supermarket pricing. These powers should also be given to the new consumer body, so it can identify and take action on the big issues that Scottish consumers face.
Of course, Which? and other consumer groups in Scotland will continue to play an important role in campaigning, providing advice and highlighting problems. But with new powers comes a new responsibility and ministers should be ambitious when the consumer policy statement is published.
Exactly what the Scottish Government will decide remains to be seen but we do need concrete proposals. Which? is watching closely to see what plans are being put in place to improve the lives of Scotland’s consumers.
Vickie Sheriff, Which? Director of Campaigns and Communications