I talk with former CEO of Chartered Trading Standards Institute (CTSI), Leon Livermore, in a series of exclusive interviews. In the first one we discussed his achievements and challenges at CTSI.
Today we talk about his opinions on CTSI’s monitoring and approval of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR). We explore the difficulties with implementing what he would have liked and what he would like to see happen.
Leon Livermore was the CEO of the CTSI for almost 8 years, until March 2021.
I’ve met him a few times at various events and sort of got on! I say “sort of” because over the years I co-wrote two research reports on Alternative Dispute Resolution. (ADR). The first was Ombudsman Omnishambles: Serious unresolved issues affecting the operation of the ombudsman ADR system in the UK . The second was More Ombudsman Omnishambles: The UK ADR landscape 20 months on… These were were highly critical of the CTSI and of CAA in particular for their approval and monitoring of ADR schemes.
So, I thought it would be interesting to have a chat about his time at CTSI and challenge him on some of that ADR stuff too!
ADR – did Leon let the bad guys in? What happened about “Fit and Proper” people running schemes and more?
Leon was talking about the good guys and letting the bad guys in in some areas. Which led me straight into asking if he let them in! (The reports referred to a number of providers that could be considered “bad guys” and Leon was referring to some providers and also companies that were members of providers.)
In 2015 the ADR regulations came into force.
Fit and proper person test
Leon stated that the regulations came into force when the EU membership vote was coming and that everything was “We don’t gold plate regulations”. So the EU ADR regulations were transposed as they were. He hopes that with the Consumer Command Paper that is expected soon, that there is a chance to put some things right. The Ombudsman Omnishambles reports discussed the need for a “Fit and Proper” person test.
He acknowledged that there was an opportunity to put some robustness in and that there is certainly something around a “fit and proper” test that should now be undertaken. I challenged him on the CTSI not putting this test in place, particularly when we first called for this in February 2016. He said that “…if it had been us, we would have put a fit and proper test in, let’s be very clear on that.”
Auditing ADR providers
“Auditing to a standard that was put in place centrally” meant that the CTSI was not able to do anything about the implementing “fit and proper person” or do anything arbitrarily he says. He would like to see a fit and proper person test implemented for both the organisation and individual people involved.
Pushed on how much input the CTSI had on this, Leon said that they “tried to work with the civil servants there”. Political policy was to transpose and not add anything. Although other countries did, and the opportunity was missed. When directly asked who put a stop to introducing a “fit and proper person” test when civil servants seemed keen, Leon was very clear that it was Parliament. It just went straight for the transposition. The opportunity was missed. He hopes that the Consumer Command Paper will give the opportunity to correct some of the issues.
Future for the fit and proper person test
I also asked Leon what he would recommend if a provider that was already approved then failed the “fit and proper person” test. He replied “You can’t have an F&P test and then give authorisation to someone who isn’t fit and proper. But that needs to be balanced with an appropriate and graduated disciplinary process. So, the ultimate sanction would be revocation of approval and loss of “accreditation”. There would also need to build a safeguard of right of appeal. But you want to work through a process where you issue improvement notices etc.”
We observed here that it would make sense for both the ADR and Ombudsman systems to be working to the same standard to avoid any confusion for consumers.
Differing standards for ADR providers
We spoke about the Ombudsman Association expelling a provider and the CTSI keeping the provider approved. Leon agreed that the OA standards were higher than CTSI’s. Although he referred to this as not unusual (for trade bodies and other sectors to have slightly higher standards in their own sector than in the public sector) he didn’t think it was acceptable.
Ombudsman Association standards compared with CTSI
He strongly believes that the “Fit and Proper Person” test within ADR should align with the “Fit and Proper Person” tests used by the OA and within the Codes scheme. He thinks that the Command Paper is an opportunity to achieve this. He would say the standard should be open to consultation but the OA standard sits above the competent authority’s.
For the Command Paper he would say that the OA had to be the standard but that there should be one standard across all schemes. This should be open to challenge and be consulted on. “It happens to be in this case that the OA’s standards sit higher than the CTSI and so it should be that one which is the starting point.”
I pushed Leon on whether there would have been providers that weren’t approved had the standards he’d wanted been in place. He said that there would have been audits that highlighted that they were sitting beneath the standards but would have had to be given a chance to raise their game, for fairness.
However, he also said “There were people who were signed off that wouldn’t have complied with the higher standards definitely”. Pushed on that therefore meaning that they would not have been signed off he argued that they wouldn’t have been submitted in the same form.
“There certainly would have been providers we would have had to do some work with to get them to the higher standard and we would have hoped to get them there”, he added.
Did the CTSI have sufficient powers for the approval and monitoring of ADR providers?
When asked if he felt that the CTSI wasn’t given enough powers to approve and monitor bodies, Leon said that it was interesting and the first answer was “Yes” but that there was an advantage to not having those powers.
This advantage meant that they had to get things agreed by consensus. So, that this has given a better working relationship with CTSI and providers. But he still thinks that “fit and proper”, mandating certain sectors and using trade associations are used in the best way for consumers and conflicts of interest that aren’t swayed in favour of businesses are essential for making improvements.
Asked directly if CTSI was stopped from putting in higher standards for ADR, Leon was quite clear. “Yes, because we were auditing to someone else’s standards.”
He accepted that the Ombudsman Association had higher standards than the CTSI and although he says it is not unusual for a trade body to have higher standards than those that sit in the public sector, he also doesn’t think it is acceptable and hopes that the Command Paper will provide the opportunity to address some of the shortcomings.
Should ADR be mandatory?
Colleagues in the consumer world and I have been calling for ADR to be mandatory for years, so I asked Leon for his thoughts on this. Although he would like to see it mandatory across all sectors, he recognises that this is very unlikely to happen. He would, however, like to see it mandatory in the home improvement and motor sectors. His concern in those particular areas relates to the greater impact on people’s lives, so he would tend to prioritise the high value items.
More creatively, Leon wonders if we can work with all the sectors and bodies such as TrustMark to almost mandate ADR in the energy efficiency sector. This would work to drive up quality and consumer confidence. He sees this area as being one of the biggest challenges, and currently a “hidden” issue. It has to be Government policy driving it, he says, as consumer power will not achieve it.
Consumers and Vulnerability
Vulnerability plays a big part too, Leon believes. Almost anyone is vulnerable when they buy expensive items, such as a house, home improvement or car. These are the areas where there is an inbuilt vulnerability and Leon calls for a coherent Government strategy that emphasises their importance, so we cannot leave it to the market place.
With austerity coming, having to pay for the EU exit, Covid and an ageing population, businesses will cut corners having to make difficult choices.
“Where is the strategy?” Leon asks.
One of Leon’s biggest frustrations is the opportunity Government had with the EU exit in getting businesses and consumer groups in the same room to talk about what the issues are. He talks more about this in the video:
Did anyone really understand the ADR regulations?
I asked Leon if he thought consumers understood the ADR regulations and he said that he didn’t even think that the regulators and business understood them!
Regarding businesses, Leon talked about having to accept that the regulatory bodies would have to set their standards lower than they would want. This is because it would be better to have the businesses inside a scheme. Giving the example of the Property Ombudsman, he praised their work, saying that it included some businesses CTSI would never like but that it was better for them to be inside a scheme, so that their standards could be improved.
He noted that to only use enforcement at that bottom end is really expensive.
Not alone in raising concerns
Acknowledging that I was not alone in sending concerns to the CTSI, Leon said that there would be something to assess providers against if the standards are right. Not only would he like to get the standards for provider approval and monitoring right, he would also like to acquire the ability for people to challenge it.
He asks whether people like myself and Which? should have the ability to make a “super complaint”. This is so we can say that we don’t believe that a provider is giving good enough service. Which? amongst other consumer bodies already does have powers to make a super complaint in the consumer world. More about making a super complaint here. I think it unlikely that individual consumer champions will be given the same powers!
Are there too many ADR providers and what about that consumer portal?
Leon sees both sides but leans towards leaving it open to a number of providers to compete.
I challenged Leon on this, pointing out the confusion that consumers have already regarding ADR. It is made worse by the fact that some local Trading Standards cover ADR, they cover different sectors, others are sector based etc? A point covered in the reports. He agreed that it is confusing for consumers but suggests that Citizen’s Advice (CA) should be responsible for a portal that directs consumers to the different options available.
After pointing out that we suggested such a portal in our Ombudsman Omnishambles reports in 2015(!), I asked Leon what had happened to this? After firstly saying it was terrible that he found himself agreeing with me so much (hehehe) he blamed Government funding and policy.
However, he says that the only thing that is stopping this from happening now is organisations looking after what’s in their best interests and not the best interests of consumers. He feels quite strongly that the different providers, trade associations etc. are all competing and that they could all signpost to the one portal. Leon says CA has funding, it just needs the co-operation of providers and other organisations.
Next time in the interview series
Look out for the next episode where Leon and I talk about his criticisms of Government, what should be done and priorities for consumers.
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