Law enforcement by committee will leave consumers exposed to rip offs and scams

Which? is warning that consumers will be left vulnerable to rip offs and scams due to ill-conceived and under-resourced changes announced by the Government today.

On the day when the Deputy Prime Minister announces help for hard-pressed energy consumers, Consumer Minister Norman Lamb has announced proposals that abolish the consumer energy watchdog, Consumer Focus and pile more pressure on already over-stretched and under-resourced local trading standards officers and Citizens Advice service.

Under changes announced today as part of the Government’s Consumer Landscape Review, local trading standards, more used to tackling street markets and rogue plumbers, will be required to do the majority of consumer law enforcement work and will be expected take on powerful national and international companies, putting considerable extra strain on local authority Trading Standards services at a time when councils are slashing their budgets and trading standards officers are being made redundant across the country.

This chaotic and costly reorganisation will see the Office of Fair Trading (OFT), which recently had success taking on the budget airlines over ‘rip-off’ card surcharges, downgraded and merged with the Competition Commission.

The government claims that the new quango, the National Trading Standards Board, is to receive “increased funding of £10.5m” for its work however this is money is simply redirected current OFT enforcement money. The National Audit Office report found that enforcement spending is set to fall from the current £247m, to around £140m by 2014.

The government-funded watchdog, Consumer Focus, is also to be scrapped and its work challenging the government, powerful regulators like Ofgem and big businesses on behalf of consumers, will be handed over to the Citizens Advice which is already struggling to cope with the growing numbers of people seeking help on welfare benefits, housing and immigration problems.

Which? chief executive, Peter Vicary-Smith, says:

“This is a shockingly ill-conceived and under-resourced plan from the Government that looks set to vandalise a system of consumer protection that is admired worldwide at a time when people most need protection.

“Today the Government is giving with one hand and taking with the other. They seem intent on wasting millions of taxpayer pounds restructuring quangos and piling pressure on those who are already overstretched on the frontline. Giving OFT responsibilities to local Trading Standards officers and the Citizens Advice is like asking GPs to carry out heart surgery.

“The Government knows that failing to enforce consumer law already costs the British public over £6bn a year but they seem determined to abandon consumers to increasingly sophisticated rip offs despite the harm this does to the economy.

“The new Consumer Minister, Norman Lamb, has clearly been sold some dodgy advice himself. Rather than focusing on costly reorganisations, we want to see real action to show the Minister is taking his new role of protecting the nation’s consumers seriously.”

Notes to Editor

1. In 2011 the National Audit Office published a report which showed:

  • £6.6bn – estimated annual consumer detriment from unfair trading
  • £42m – benefit to consumers from the OFT consumer protection enforcement work
  • 45,200 – average number of people per Trading Standards Officer in the United Kingdom
  • Annual funding for the 197 Trading Standards Services in Great Britain is expected to reduce from £213m to around £140m by 2014

Press Release: