Dianne Hayter on why the mismanaged abolition of the NCC leaves consumers without a public champion
In May 2010, the Coalition government made much of its promise of a bonfire of the quangos, without thinking why or how to go about doing this. The result, in many cases, has been a mess. And tonight in the Lords we will see a clear example of how the process has been mismanaged, with a debate on the abolition of both the National Consumer Council (NCC) and the Office of Fair Trading (OFT).
Much of the remit of the latter body has gone to the new Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), with some to HMRC, some to the Trading Standards Institute (TSI), and other bits to the National Trading Standards Board (NTSB). Meanwhile, the responsibility for overseeing Estate Agents Redress goes to Powys County Council in mid-Wales.
Yes, you read that right – 25,000 estate agents across England and Wales, and the two Ombudsmen Services, coming under the jurisdiction of a Welsh local authority. At the same time, the NCC’s work will go to Citizens Advice (CA), Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) and the TSI – with overall coordination to the Consumer Protection Partnership (CPP). Hardly clarity for the consumer. And hardly straightforward accountability, given the mixture of charity, independent, statutory and elected organisations involved.
In the case of estate agency, Powys CC (which of course is an elected body) will for this also be answerable to the Business Department, the NTSB (in its role as coordinator), and to the TSI for its grant. To add insult to injury, the new parallel requirement (following a Labour Lords win last year) for Letting Agents to have a similar requirement as Estate Agents to belong to an Ombudsman Scheme will not be handled by Powys CC but quite separately – via the Department for Communities and Local Government. This despite the fact that most Estate Agents are also Letting Agents, and that it will be the same two Ombudsman Schemes handling complaints against both.
All of this reflects a real lack of concern for consumers on the part of the Coalition. None of these bodies are answerable to consumers, or have consumer representatives automatically on their Boards. The system was not designed with consumers in mind, but driven by the ideological desire to reduce the number of public bodies, even though the outcome will see more involved. Ministers leapt into a simplistic policy decision without looking at what it entailed and where it would lead.
Labour’s motion in the Lords this evening is to Regret this sorry tale – even while, given the Act, we can’t stop the inevitable. We therefore wish the successor bodies well, for the sake of every consumer. But especially for the vulnerable as they, in addition to facing a major cost of living crisis, are the most likely to be ripped off by providers once there is no strong consumer champion working on their behalf.
Baroness Dianne Hayter of Kentish Town is a member of the Shadow Business and Cabinet Office teams in the Lords. She tweets @HayteratLords
Published 4th March 2014