Contributions to the National Consumer Council
Bulletin No. 12 00-01-1998
Some 'news' contributions, by Christopher Long, commissioned by the National Consumer Council for its Bulletin No. 12.
Two decades of unprecedented change in Britain have brought many benefits. However, the privatisation, deregulation and technological advances which have improved life for most people have simultaneously produced a growing under-class of the 'excluded' people who cannot access these advantages.
We have a special responsibility to represent the needs of disadvantaged consumers. Elderly and disabled people and those on low incomes or with literacy problems are often in most need of access to information or justice and frequently those least able to obtain it.
One of Europe's most advanced new hospitals is to be built on the outskirts of Norwich. This is excellent news providing that prospective users have adequate public transport from the city centre and rural areas. Inadequate public transport to out-of-town shopping centres already leaves non-drivers, elderly and disabled people restricted to corner shops while many villages have no shops, buses or access to rail and coach stations.
As bank branches close, on-line banking is expanding and the government too plans to make more public information and bureaucratic form-filling available on the internet. Again this is welcome. But will those without computers of their own have access to on-line terminals, perhaps in public libraries, along with staff trained to help them?
People without bank accounts are already penalised, lacking access to affordable credit, unable to benefit from direct-debit discount schemes and only able to cash cheques at a premium. Poverty can actually make life more expensive.
The unemployed often lack the very IT skills, transport and credit which would help them to get jobs.
However, without accompanying access to justice all consumer policies fail. Legal aid should reach those who need it while small claims courts, voluntary mediation and court-annexed arbitration schemes could provide affordable alternatives to the courts.
The government, agencies and utilities must address the needs of the excluded since an underclass impedes economic growth, deprives the government of revenue and increases social security expenditure: but above all in the interests of justice and fairness to all consumers.
Sickness, unemployment, separation or bereavement can hit any of us, often leading to financial hardship or debt. Banks often pile on the misery by appropriating savings, levying additional charges or refusing to freeze interest payments just when their co-operation is most needed. Our report, In the Bank's Bad Books found banks refusing to co-operate with debt counsellors, using intimidation to enforce repayments and offering tactless or inflexible responses to hardship.
Inflexibility towards over-indebted customers, even extends to previously reliable customers for whom banks happily arranged credit. Instead of seeing prosperity and hardship as naturally occurring phases in most people's lives, we found banks too ready to impose punitive short-term solutions often leaving customers with greater and unnecessary long-term problems. Those with literacy or other difficulties may be worst affected.
After failing the requirements of their own 1994 code of practice, we await the response of banks to the tougher targets of the 1997 revision. Meanwhile, we believe unreasonable charges should be banned, all banks made to comply with the code as a condition of their FSA licences with penalties for failure and that branches and staff need special training in debt management and powers to freeze interest.
For the EU to be relevant to its citizens, the interests of consumers must be at the heart of all its affairs. Gratifyingly, the UK government saw reform of the Common Agricultural Policy as urgent and long overdue. We now await its fulfilment since the distortions it creates in food prices is unfair to all consumers.
Additionally all EU institutions must improve consumer liaison and show how this has been integrated into their policy-making, along with issuing consumer impact statements. But none of this will be worthwhile without firm and equal enforcement across all member states. Some specific areas needing urgent action are: consumer guarantees, commercial communications, food safety and tobacco advertising.
We have warned the government that an integrated transport policy based on discouraging car use will not succeed. Instead, inducements such as developing good quality, reasonably priced public transport and safe routes for pedestrians and cyclists will allow drivers to reduce car journeys with local authorities empowered to plan and co-ordinate public transport after consulting consumers.
Different parts of the country vary greatly and cars will remain essential in rural areas where public transport will always be limited. This increases the importance of giving drivers opportunities to reduce environmental damage by introducing compulsory minimum standards for environmental impact and fuel efficiency, combined with a labelling scheme that grades cars according to emissions and other impacts.
Fiscal incentives, through tax rebates, Road Tax or VAT, should be used to encourage drivers and fleet operators to buy vehicles which are less environmentally damaging. Any extra revenue raised should be applied to making walking and cycling safer, more attractive and central to transport policy.
Advertising and promotional campaigns are spreading through the nation's classrooms and playgrounds. We recognise that cash-strapped schools will inevitably form partnerships with companies keen to reach the hearts and minds of children. Most school staff, governors and parents, however, oppose harmful or inappropriate marketing campaigns in schools and need guidance to prevent commercial exploitation. Our Sponsorship in Schools guide to good practice, formulated by both industry and schools, had a warm reception from most quarters. What a pity that the DfEE has not yet endorsed it.
The new Broadcasting Act will attempt to define national sports events which should be available to all viewers rather than subscribers alone. We have told the BBC that while key events such as Wimbledon and Cup Finals are easy to identify, more research or a Citizen's Jury is needed to test the significance of sports such as cycling or cricket. Regional events like the Great Northern Run and the London Marathon may, like the Paralympics, deserve 'national' viewing status too.
We welcomed much of the government's consultation paper Opening Up Quangos, especially in recognising the need for greater public accountability, a more open recruitment policy and a public right to information.
We were surprised these aims didn't extend to local spending bodies such as the police, schools and education bodies. Furthermore, all efforts must concentrate on achieving openness and accountability rather than the procedures involved in doing so. Some of these procedural requirements may lead to confusion, duplication of effort and unnecessary added cost to smaller NDPBs not least us!
The mortgage minefield should become less hazardous for house buyers when the Council of Mortgage Lenders (CML) sets up a voluntary register of mortgage intermediaries this May. CML members say they won't lend through brokers who don't sign up to the code while house buyers should see greater disclosure of what is on offer and of brokers' vested interests. We welcome this first step towards a code of standards, encouraging the same best selling practice as agreed for direct lenders last year, and hope the CML will put adequate resources into monitoring and enforcement. Eventually compliance must become mandatory.
Victims of unscrupulous traders may no longer have to fight on their own. In line with a European directive, Consumer Affairs minister Nigel Griffiths is proposing to allow consumer groups to act on behalf of individuals where the terms of a contract are obscure, change agreed prices or deny consumers their legal rights. Having pressed for this for years we'll make our representations to the minister.
The 100 million the government plans to invest in a food standards agency, reporting to health ministers, will be well spent if it restores public faith in food. Sensibly the agency's 'plough to plate' responsibilities include nutrition. Our main concern is an unclear reference to the 'joint role' intended for MAFF with its vested interest in sponsoring the agricultural industry.
Problems with incompatible computer systems are blamed for delaying the introducing a competitive domestic electricity market nationwide. Due for launch this April, the scheme will now start in selected areas in September and all consumers should have a choice of supplier by June 1999. These problems do not surprise us...
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