Government hushes up critical consumer and trading standards reports

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) has recently released two reports: “Consumer Empowerment Survey Report” and “The Impact of Local Authority Trading Standards in Challenging Times“. Neither report was given any press announcement or further comment from BIS ministers or other staff.

Consumer Empowerment Survey Report
This 95 page research study, carried out by GfK NOP Social Research, was designed to gain a better understanding of the attitudes of groups of consumers, and to build a stronger picture about their characteristics and engagement levels: particularly those consumers in vulnerable situations and/or on low incomes.

This report was finalised on the 15th March but not released by government until the 18th March. This was Budget Day. The report was given no press release or other coverage.

The report states that “…the market also requires empowered, active and informed consumers in order to flourish. Only then will the full benefits of competition – which include lower prices, greater innovation, efficiency and growth – be unlocked.

There is strong evidence that many consumers do not engage fully in their transactions;….. Whatever the barrier, it is the least engaged groups of consumers that are likely to miss out on the best deals, overpay for basic services, or even get ripped off”.

The report found that 57% of those surveyed said they felt very confident about making complaints post-purchase, but that only 32% were confident that the law would protect them.

A recent survey showed that fewer than 45% of people in the UK use their consumer rights and that only 7% said they know their legal rights well and use them regularly.

I’m not surprised by these findings of course, People frequently ask me about their legal rights, sometimes having heard of the Sale and Supply of Goods Act and may even know that items have to be of satisfactory quality, fit for purpose and last a reasonable length of time. But they have no idea how long “a reasonable length of time” is, or if they are entitled to a full refund or just a repair for example.

All these surveys and evidence show that a minority of the public know and assert their legal rights. People also cite time and effort as factors too. It takes more time and effort than it should, often because companies fob off the customer, so even the customers who have a passing knowledge of the Law don’t get the redress they are legally owed. Evidenced last week, when someone on Twitter was having trouble with a certain electrical goods retailer and their line on refund, repairs and replacement policy. When I joined in the conversation to help, the retailer blocked me! But Go to AO.com that’s what I say. Price match and if something goes wrong they deal with it properly and don’t try and fob you off. High praise indeed from me, yes!

The Impact of Local Authority Trading Standards in Challenging Times
The second report, “The Impact of Local Authority Trading Standards in Challenging Times” is dated February 2015, is 145 pages long has 6 recommendations and was released on the 20th March, again with little to no coverage.

The report explored the impact of budget cuts to local trading standards and tested the efficiency of services across the country. It said that changes had led to “a relatively weak, and probably diminishing, profile of trading standards, both within the public eye and within the local authority context.”

The loss of skills, knowledge expertise and the diminishing of these services in protecting consumers can only mean one thing. Increase in bad practice and decrease in protection for the consumer. The report even talks about staff who, in their own time carry out investigations because they feel it so important. Yet again the government relying on people’s good well to provide good services because decent people feel they have to do the extra. If they were treated better perhaps they would do more because they wanted rather than felt they had to. Bet that sounds familiar to NHS staff.

Timings 
It is incredible that the government commissions, at great expense these two reports and then appears to ignore them. One shows how little people know about their consumer rights and the other discusses the impact of cuts in Trading Standards, the reduction in inspections and support for the consumer with increasing bad practices in companies as Trading Standards struggles to undertake the necessary proactive work.

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2 Responses to Government hushes up critical consumer and trading standards reports

  1. Leon Livermore says:

    For me there are 3 separate questions.

    The first is on relating to resources. I will always argue for more resources, especially given that failure to provide effective Trading Standards Services often end up costing consumers, businesses and government more than any apparent saving from cuts. However we need to accept that we are in times of austerity and need to make the best use of our resources, which brings me on to my next point.

    DO we have the right structures in place to maximise the impact of every pound we spend. the success of the National Trading Standards, under Lord Harris’s chair has shown what impact properly targeted activity can have. Our workforce survey not only showed the reduction in numbers but the post code lottery of Local Authority delivery. I’m a great believer in the local democratic mandate but much of TS work has impact beyond their boundaries. So whilst we have a mechanism to deliver national priorities clearly more than 200 individual TS departments is not fit for purpose.

    My final point is one of leadership and ownership. Heads of TS generally no longer sit at a high enough level to exercise proper influence over local leaders, no matter how good those heads are. Central government works in policy silos, so no one there takes full responsibility for TS, not matter how laudable the individual departments efforts are. Locally, councils are primarily concerned with what happens within their boundaries – so no one at that level takes full responsibility for the system as a whole. This lack of ownership means that we are often caught between central government saying its a local decision and local government saying that central government doesn’t given them enough money! Whilst I don’t envy the decisions that politicians have to make surely we need to get past this rhetoric and create an effective plan for consumer (and business) protection before its too late

    Be interested to hear what others think

    Leon

    CEO Trading Standards Institute

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