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Isherwood: Putting consumers first in Wales

Speech to the Welsh Consumer Council.

"The language of business today is all about 'putting the customer first' - and this language is now also increasingly common in both the voluntary and statutory sectors.

An effective and successful organisation is one which recognises that customer care and customer service are paramount - and that only by accurately identifying and servicing a customer's needs will that organisation grow and prosper.

However, in the real world in which we all live, the world of rampant consumerism, it is essential that when their needs have not been met, when they have been mis-sold, over-charged, exploited or forgotten, consumers have an independent voice, advocacy and redress.

This is especially so when they themselves are in a vulnerable or isolated position which is open to exploitation or discrimination.

And even when issues are not devolved, both the National Assembly and the Welsh Assembly Government can -and should - still seek to exert influence, raise awareness and work to achieve positive change for consumers in Wales.

Perhaps the most immediate policy challenge lies with the Department of Trade and Industry's proposals to strengthen and streamline consumer advocacy and the UK Government's Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Bill.

In the joint response to the consultation on this by the National Consumer Council, Scottish Consumer Council and Welsh Consumer Council, you rightly say that 'consumer advocacy - promoting the interests of consumers by improving the design and implementation of policy - can make a significant contribution to both the welfare of consumers and to UK competitiveness'.

It is vital that 'Consumer Voice' - which would bring together the National Consumer Council and other sectoral consumer bodies, energywatch and Postwatch, into a unified consumer advocacy body - should have the correct level and mix of operational elements and be funded on a secure and sustainable basis.

This is particularly so if the new organisation is going to be effective at Wales and Scotland as well as UK levels.

The proposals to reform Consumer representation will divide responsibility for advice, redress and advocacy between Consumer Direct, ombudsman schemes and the new 'Consumer Voice'.

While this recognises that each function has a distinct role in the consumer landscape, we must also be mindful of concerns raised by both Postwatch Wales and Energywatch in Wales.

Energywatch do welcome the creation of a new consumer body which will strengthen consumer advocacy.

However, there remain some outstanding issues which need to be resolved.

I am a member of the Assembly All Party Energywatch group and as part of the consultation process I wrote to the DTI on their behalf to highlight concerns about Consumer Direct.

Under the proposals, consumers will contact Consumer Direct with initial complaints and take those which cannot be resolved to the ombudsman.

Clearly this should work well for "switched on" consumers with simple consumer issues, but may fail to effectively represent those with more complex issues who need extra support through what can be a difficult and confusing process.

These 'stranded consumers' cannot wait 12 weeks for referral to an ombudsman.

At present there is no mechanism to deal with these consumers unless they are immediately vulnerable, and there is a possibility that they will go to AMs/MPs and the local CAB, putting pressure on their resources.

In this context, it should be noted that last year Energywatch in Wales handled 3,800 complaints - equivalent to 315 new complaints a month - and achieved £358,000 in compensation for dissatisfied energy consumers.

They have, in fact, had an increase in enquiries from consumers seeking advice and help but not needing to pursue a complaint against an energy supplier.

As Energywatch also states:

Consumer Direct and Consumer Voice must have adequate additional resources to cope with the 500,000 consumer calls energywatch handles every year.

Regulators should oblige service providers to have a formalised complaint handling service.

The definition of vulnerable consumers for whom Consumer Voice has specific responsibility must not be too prescriptive and should include small businesses.

Now that Consumer Voice will respond directly to some consumers with urgent problems, the new system, with three bodies, must be easily accessible and easy to understand.

AND Consumer Voice must be prepared 'to get its hands dirty' - improving company performance, securing effective regulation and seeking continued improvements in markets.

Policy priorities which Welsh Conservatives share with Energywatch include:

A Review of fuel poverty strategy in Wales.

A sustainable microgeneration strategy that will benefit the fuel poor and those communities off the gas network.

An enquiry into why electricity prices in Wales are 10% above the GB average.

And action to help low income energy consumers.

I recently laid down an amendment in the Assembly which was passed with al-party support.

This 'required the Welsh Assembly Government to support research into the causes of excess winter deaths in Wales so that the Home Energy Efficiency Scheme can be further developed to address these'.

In my capacity as Welsh Conservative Spokesperson for Social Justice, Post Watch Cymru has also raised a number of concerns with me about the Government's proposals - and I wrote to the DTI on their behalf in July.

They highlight the immature postal market in which Royal Mail still controls 97% of deliveries to the UK's 25 million homes.

Postwatch believes that regulation alone cannot be expected to serve customer interests.

In this respect, postal services are fundamentally different from financial services or electronic communications, where there is such extensive and effective competition that regulation can be more 'light touch' and consumer representation can be lesser resourced.

Likewise, the availability of local access to Post Office services is an issue that goes beyond being resolved by competition or regulation.

Postwatch believes the sectoral expertise that has been built up by bodies focused on specific markets and industries is essential to maintaining and improving the regulatory regimes that have been established to protect and promote the interests of consumers of utility services.

Postwatch believes that its regional reach has enabled it to represent successfully local interests about issues such as Post Office closures.

Post Offices are commercial enterprises, but they also provide a critical social network in many communities which is particularly vulnerable to Government Policy.

During the first 7 years of devolution, 298 Post Offices and sub Post Offices closed in Wales, depriving people of vital services and hitting the most vulnerable hardest.

We must prioritise new revenue generating services for Post Offices which secure the long-term future of the Post Office network - and Conservatives have, for example, developed the idea, in partnership with local government, of providing council services through 'Council Counters' in Post Offices.

Postwatch's Regional Committee structure allows it to interact with local representatives and consumers.

It also, very importantly, allows Postwatch to act as Postcomm's eyes and ears in the various UK nations and regions.

Postcomm is entirely London based and has no regional structures. Therefore it has used Postwatch's regional contacts extensively to help it understand consumer issues and to formulate policy proposals. If Postwatch's regional structure was not there to support Postcomm's regional needs, it is possible that Postcomm would have to establish a network of its own.

Postwatch has set about reviewing how it's regional structure could be improved.

Whilst it remains of the view that its regional coverage is about right, it does recognise that the associated support structure could be organised and managed differently to become more cost effective without losing the benefits.

A New unified consumer advocacy body should therefore retain both national/regional involvement and the sectoral expertise and knowledge needed to deal with all complaints across a wide spectra of interest.

In this context, we welcome the requirement for Consumer Voice to have Scottish and Welsh Committees, to maintain offices in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland for postal issues, to consult with devolved Ministers and to present annual reports to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly.

Conservatives at Westminster and Assembly level have broadly welcomed the "Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Bill".

However, as the Welsh Consumer Council has stated 'the Bill should include plans for a fully devolved consumer advocacy organisation for Wales which addresses effectively the realities of devolution and the 'changing and developing devolution settlement in Wales'.

We will comment on the detail of the Bill when we have had the opportunity to consider it fully.

We believe that Consumer Voice must be independent of Government and that the skills and experience of Energy Watch and Post Watch must not be lost.

This must not be a cost cutting exercise.

We share with Government the aim of creating confident consumers and believe that this is best achieved through sharing responsibility between Government, businesses, and consumers themselves.

We call on the UK Government to encourage suppliers to better manage complaints in house.

Buying a house is the biggest financial commitment that most people make and they should have confidence in their Estate Agent.

We welcome moves to crack down on rogue Estate Agents and Energy salesman and to protect consumers from unfair or illegal practice.

We support proposals for estate agents to join a redress scheme and keep written records of all sales, for the expansion of circumstances in which the Office of Fair Trading can take action against Estate Agents - and to give cancellation and 'cooling off' rights for sales made in solicited calls - PROVIDED they are proportionate and do not unduly burden law abiding business.

We must put the citizen centre stage - and the work of the Welsh Consumer Council in raising concerns about the performance of public services must continue.

People continue to see public services as a critical underpinning to our culture, values and identity as a nation - but they want to be treated as customers in the same way as the private sector does.

We support this aim - whilst acknowledging the changes in our social fabric caused by demography, culture and social inequalities.

As MORI's State of the Nation Report found, 'people have a dream of locally based, locally accountable institutions'.

Our Manifesto for the Assembly elections will carry forward a vision based on localism and social responsibility.

Encouraging localism recognises that local people best understand local problems.

In Wales, to an even greater extent than England, we have seen public services suffocated with red tape and a 'Government knows best' mentality.

We believe that elected Councillors are the best people to decide how Council budgets are set and would avoid the 'ring fencing' of Council budgets as much as possible - although with exceptions, in areas such as school funding.

We believe that a property tax like Council Tax must be based on a fair valuation process that wins the trust of tax payers.

In an attempt to avoid rises in income tax, the tax burden has shifted far too much to council tax payers, hitting those on low or fixed incomes the hardest. We will carefully consider the final report of the Lyons inquiry into the financing of local government.

And we believe that to strengthen the link between local democracy and local accountability, an increase in services provided by our town and community councils is needed.

As the Welsh Consumer Council state, the third sector is an increasingly valuable resource for the delivery of public services.

We believe that social justice will only be delivered by really empowering people to fulfil their potential and to take ownership in their own communities.

We must start trusting people and sharing responsibility.

We must remove the limits on what the voluntary sector, social enterprises and community groups can do.

It is these social entrepreneurs and poverty fighters who can deliver the solutions to the long-term problems of our most deprived communities.

They combine public sector values with private sector standards.

They can succeed where the state has failed.

We believe that tackling debt and social exclusion is an issue of social responsibility and seek fair and proportionate credit regulation and consumer protection.

Government, civil society and business must work together to promote financial education and financial inclusion.

Total UK consumer debt, including mortgages, is over £1.2 trillion - and personal debt is increasing by £1 million every 4 minutes.

Insolvencies are up 55%.

Nearly 10% of the poorest areas in the UK are in Wales.

Citizens Advice Bureaux have seen a big increase in new inquiries on debt in relation to consumer credit - and these have increased at a faster rate in Wales than elsewhere in Britain.

Mortgage and landlord possession orders in Wales increased by 36% last year alone - a bigger increase than in England at 31% - and non-status lenders have a share in court activity up to ten times their market share.

Homelessness is an ever increasing threat.

As Housing Forum Cymru state 'housing is creating a more divided Wales … the consequences for social cohesion, reduced life chances and poor health are enormous'.

We propose that financial education should be taught in schools between 11 and 18, a cooling off period for store cards, clearer information for credit card users, the same data sharing standards for home credit companies as apply in the mainstream banking sector and a co-ordinated crackdown on illegal loan sharks.

We support work done by the Financial Services Authority and the Council of Mortgage Lenders on financial capability, the creation of an online 'debt test' and sustainable home ownership.

However, mortgage lenders will find it difficult to deliver reform on their own and improvements will require support across a range of industries and trade associations.

AND we also want to work with the Citizen Advice Bureau and other consumer groups to see how the Treasury Select Committee's Annual Report on Financial Exclusion can be put into practice.

However, Citizens Advice Cymru has told me that their current level of service cannot meet demand - and a co-operative approach to funding at Welsh Assembly Government, Local government and Community level is needed if we are to address the inequitable access to independent advice services across Wales.

Equally, we must continue to strengthen and promote credit unions across Wales, forging links with organisations such as housing associations, Job Centre Plus and Citizens Advice Bureaux.

Malnutrition is becoming and increasing problem in older people and food poverty - or the inability to gain access to a healthy diet - is a real and growing problem for people of all ages across Wales.

We must work to identify and remove barriers including a lack of local shops selling healthy food and a lack of transport.

However, we must also champion Fair Trade for both food producers in developing nations and food producers in Wales itself.

Above all, we believe in an approach that is local rather than national, that is human rather than structural, that puts relationships before economics and trusts society before the state.

But when we say we trust society, we have expectations of it too.

We are always telling people to be more responsible.

Society needs to be more responsible as well."

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