It’s probably fair to say I am not a fan of this government, but that doesn’t mean to say I disagree with everything it’s doing, only about 99.9% of it. On the plus side, and it’s quite a tiny plus side, in amongst the headline draconian measures designed to curb immigration and win back UKIP voters to the coalition, was a draft consumer bill.
It’s hardly earth-shattering stuff, but is something of a miracle given the government’s determination to whittle away rights in other areas and make it almost impossible to enforce the ones we have left. Perhaps even more astonishing when the minister with the consumer brief, Jo Swinson, is also the equalities minister. Although, on second thoughts, this rather explains why equalities issues are being totally neglected by the government.
It can, of course, only be a good thing to strengthen and streamline consumer protection legislation. The draft bill has not yet been published, but will bring together consumer rights, currently split between eight pieces of legislation, and the over 60 pieces of legislation setting out trading standards’ powers to tackle breaches of consumer law. It will also update consumer laws to ensure digital goods and services are covered.
Ministers reckon it will save the economy around £4 billion over 10 years by providing better consumer protection, stronger enforcement powers and a greater understanding of consumer rights. In one respect, they are almost certainly right. Research published last year suggested consumers spent about 59 million hours trying to put right problems with goods and services. That’s a lot of hours not spending more money or making more widgets.
Bad consumer law can’t be good for economic growth and making it simpler will go some way to helping people understand their rights. But clarifying the law isn’t enough and on the whole we are not very good at educating people about their rights. In BBC 5 Live’s consumer programme last week a representative from the Trading Standards Institute highlighted recent research showing only 20% of staff in well-known high street stores understood basic consumer law. And these are the people who should know!
Equally, slapping signs all over the place informing consumers ‘this does not affect your statutory rights’ is as good as meaningless when most of us don’t have a clue what those rights are. It doesn’t matter if you bought something in a sale, it should still be fit for purpose or you should get your money back; and if you are aware the coat you’re buying has a button missing, this doesn’t mean you can’t bring it back if you get it home and find the lining is ripped. Rights without information are next to useless.
Somehow, with controversy swirling around much of the Queen’s speech, the government does seem to have done a rare thing, which is to unite consumer rights organisations, retailers and those responsible for enforcement in welcoming a government bill. I can only hope ministers don’t squander it by leaving the bill languishing on the sidelines while they attempt to dragoon doctors into becoming immigration officials.
Louise is a consumer champion and communications specialist. Before this, she ran a successful campaign for change in the legal sector (resulting in the Legal Services Act), worked in a law firm and at the Law Society. She is a trustee of the Public Law Project and cares about justice, fairness and cake.