The Road to Consumer Scotland is Paved with Good Intentions

by ScotsLawBlog on August 9, 2020

By Alison Wainwright of Dipitus – copywriting, editing and proofreading services. 

The Scottish Government has recently launched a long-awaited consultation on the remit of the proposed new body Consumer Scotland.

Currently the only part of the UK to have dedicated and eponymous consumer bodies is Northern Ireland after the UK-wide National Consumer Council was abolished in 2014.  That Council was branded “Consumer Focus” and came into being in 2008 through the merger of the existing National Consumer Council (a company limited by guarantee) and the consumer councils for gas and electricity and postal services under The Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Act 2007 (the 2007 Act).  Its purpose was to represent consumers, research consumer issues and keep consumers informed.  It did not act for individual consumers except in respect of disconnections, vulnerable consumers, or where the subject matter was of general relevance. Individual complaints were handled separately by Consumer Direct and individual redress schemes.

After two years of operation, the UK Government’s 2010 Spending Review diverted the funding for the Consumer Direct helpline to Citizens Advice.  In 2014 the Council, now renamed “Consumer Futures”, was abolished altogether and its remit transferred to Citizens Advice, Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS), and the General Consumer Council for Northern Ireland (GCCNI).

Against this landscape, in November 2015 the Working Group on Consumer and Competition Policy for Scotland proposed that Consumer Scotland be created to take on the statutory functions held by CAS o deliver consumer advocacy, represent consumers, and provide access to advice and redress services.  The Group recommended that Consumer Scotland should have similar information-gathering powers and rights to refer failing markets to regulators as the GCCNI.

However, the remit for Consumer Scotland as currently under consultation falls far short of the Working Group’s comprehensive proposals.  Consumer Scotland will only investigate complex issues causing serious harm or harm to a large quantity of consumers.  It won’t have any advocacy role at all; CAS will continue to advise individuals through its consumer service call centres and provide evidence to Consumer Scotland where consumer disadvantage becomes consumer harm.  And unlike the 2007 Act, Consumer Scotland won’t have a remit to keep consumers informed.

It goes without saying that Consumer Scotland would focus on specifically Scottish issues to avoid duplicating the work of other organisations, such as carrying out reviews of the unregulated legal services market in Scotland and high postal delivery charges to remote areas.

But the intention is for Consumer Scotland to have a restricted remit beyond geography, only investigating complex issues that cause serious harm, or harm to a large quantity of consumers.

Consumer Scotland won’t have any advocacy role at all; CAS will continue to advise individual consumers through its consumer service call centres, and gather evidence for working groups, consultations, and to alert Consumer Scotland (and other relevant bodies) where consumer disadvantage becomes consumer harm.

Unlike the 2007 Act, Consumer Scotland won’t have a remit to keep consumers informed:

“Unlike a traditional consumer advocacy organisation, it will focus on proposing specific solutions rather than highlighting the existence of harm.”

Buried halfway through the consultation paper is the Government’s acknowledgement that “our proposals for Consumer Scotland will not address” all of the points in the Working Group’s original vision, and that work will be needed to ensure the role of Consumer Scotland is “clearly demarcated” from CAS.

The GCCNI is perhaps what the Working Group was hoping to emulate.  It is more of a one-stop consumer shop, providing advocacy to all consumers and businesses, holding investigatory powers for complaints about energy, water, transport and postal services, and undertaking research on consumer matters.  However, this is a separate organisation, Consumerline, for general consumer advice and for individual complaints against traders.  As with the proposals for Scotland, it’s not clear what the difference between the two Northern Irish bodies is.

One wonders if creating a new Scottish body with such a restricted remit will doom it to go the way of the National Consumer Council before it.  There is certainly the potential for confusion for businesses and consumers over which of the two organisations they should turn to for advice and assistance.  Questions may justifiably be asked about what Consumer Scotland is for if it doesn’t do what it says on the tin.

The section headed “Collaboration and complementarity” contains the somewhat pessimistic sentiment that  “even a dedicated public body will struggle to truly represent consumer outcomes”.  The Scottish Government seems to be admitting defeat before Consumer Scotland has even been defined.

Perhaps the consultation results will change the remit?  Interested parties should give their views by 28 September 2018 and monitor the results.

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