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Rights, wrongs and remedies

DianneHayter.jpgDianne Hayter on the government’s Consumer Rights Bill, its many absences and deep flaws

Today sees the government’s Consumer Rights Bill gets its Lords Second Reading. But despite having a great title, the Bill is a disappointment and largely a consolidating measure rather than one that increases consumer rights. In short, it needs some real substance

There are some welcome improvements, particularly on the right to return faulty goods, along with clarity on repairs and speedy refunds. There is also possible redress for breaches of competition law and, in theory at least, consumer law. With the latter however, dependent on Trading Standards, the offices of which have been cut to Lilliput proportions, it might turn out to be a right in need of enforcement. And as internet shopping continues to grow, it is surely perverse of Ministers not to extend existing consumer rights to the digital world – something recommended by the Commons Select Committee. 

A major problem with the Bill is not what’s in it, but what isn’t. Labour’s priorities are for consumer rights to cover information, representation and redress. But the government has barely addressed these. It also proposes nothing on a range of consumer detriment issues; such as secondary ticketing, rights of tenants, double-charging by letting or estate agents, rip-off logbook loans, copycat web-sites and bills by post; or those twin scourges of consumer complaints – nuisance calls and unwanted texts. The Bill also gives no guaranteed advocacy to assist consumers to challenge poor service or shoddy goods. And it only requires services to be provided with ‘reasonable care and skill’, regardless of the actual quality or outcome.

At Committee stage in the Commons, and under pressure from Labour, the government finally accepted that the Bill would cover public services where the user or recipient paid for some or all of the service. Something that might cover tuition fees, social care costs and Personal Independence Payments. 

Despite the biggest problem with the Bill being its lack of meaningful content, there is one preposterous provision that is included which we will seek to amend. This is that, with certain exceptions, Trading Standards Officers have to give 48 hours’ written notice of inspections. Perfect timing to dispose of counterfeit or mislabelled goods; as well as extra work for hard-pressed local government officers. No justification has been provided by Ministers for this new requirement – in stark contrast to the new policy of unannounced visits by Ofsted. I really do wonder whether this government is on the side of the public or of the misbehaving trader. 

Labour’s view is that every consumer should be able to demand: “the quality I pay for, at a price I understand, delivered at the date agreed, and a remedy when things go wrong”. That is what we will seek to get from our scrutiny of these proposals – to make it truly a Consumers Right Bill.

Baroness Dianne Hayter of Kentish Town is a Shadow Consumer Affairs Minister in the House of Lords

Published 1st July 2014

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