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Consumer Focus Wales

Volume 532: debated on Wednesday 14 September 2011

It is a particular pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mrs Brooke. I am grateful for the opportunity to once again put forward the concerns of the Welsh consumer sector to the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr Davey). He was good enough to meet representatives from Consumer Focus Wales and my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) a few weeks ago. I was grateful for that meeting, and I am grateful to have the opportunity to present to him what are perhaps some familiar arguments.

Consumer Focus was set up by the Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Act 2007 and it has a federal structure, with autonomous bodies in each of the devolved nations. The bodies collaborate, but each leads on projects of its own, particularly where there are differences due to devolution. Consumer Focus Wales has done some outstanding work on a number of issues of concern to my constituents. It has worked very closely with trading standards departments on the major concern of private car parking, including with Lawrence Martin from Ceredigion trading standards, to try to eradicate the shady practices that sadly have gone on in the pursuit of private parking offences. I understand that one private operator in Ceredigion has been the cause of the most trade complaints in the area for many years. A year ago, Consumer Focus Wales put out a call for evidence to consumers and received numerous complaints about private car park operators. The complaints included instances of operators misleading consumers about the nature of charges, operators and debt recovery agents using threats to secure payment, charges that bear no relation to the loss sustained by the operator or landowner, ease of access to keeper details registered with the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, errors in charging and the lack of an independent appeals process. I also, as a constituency MP, have received a number of complaints, and there has been interest in the local press. I cite that as just one pertinent example in my constituency.

Consumer Focus Wales has carried out crucial research as part of its work, thanks to which we know that 200,000 people in Wales do not have access to a bank account, 206,000 homes in Wales are off the mains gas network and half of prepayment meter households self-ration their energy. That research has given us additional insight into the problems faced in Welsh communities, particularly rural ones. I am very glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North (Jonathan Evans) is here this afternoon. We do not know whether the new model will allow for such unique Welsh research to be carried out to the same extent, advancing Welsh issues in a Welsh context.

The work that Consumer Focus has done on post offices, digital inclusion, fuel poverty and financial services has been very important in raising the issues and in proposing practical solutions to some of the concerns. A major piece of work for Consumer Focus Wales this year has been an investigation into park homes, which is an issue close to many of my constituents’ hearts. Many of the issues involved, particularly licensing by local authorities and planning, are devolved, so that is an excellent demonstration of why we need a Welsh perspective.

Perhaps the most important work that the organisation has done—literally a matter of life and death—has been its investigation into E. coli and food safety. All members of the Public Bodies Bill Committee have received as written evidence a letter from Sharon Mills, who tragically lost her son as a result of the 2005 E. coli outbreak. Consumer Focus Wales has taken up the matter, raising some serious concerns about food safety, and changes have been implemented as a result, such as the Welsh Government agreeing to introduce the mandatory display of food hygiene ratings by all food businesses, and encouraging the Food Standards Agency to clarify the law on the separation of raw and cooked food. Just this month a food safety map of Welsh schools was released, which highlighted the ones that had failed to make the grade. For the record, it is worth quoting a paragraph from Mrs Mills’s letter:

“If it wasn’t for Consumer Focus Wales the profile of food safety would not have been raised over the past two years, significant advancements in implementing these recommendations wouldn’t have been made or reported and most importantly myself and other families would continue to be in the dark about what action was being taken to ensure no other family has to go through what we have been through.”

As a former consumer affairs Minister, I acknowledge the difficulty that there was during my time in office in getting a coherent and relevant representation of consumer viewpoints, which was a key Government objective. It is universally recognised that Consumer Focus Wales has managed to achieve that objective and, therefore, within the context of the reforms that are being considered, I wonder if my hon. Friend would not think it appropriate for the responsibility for Consumer Focus Wales to be devolved to the National Assembly for Wales, so that we can at least retain within our area an organisation that is universally admired across the political spectrum.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point; he pre-empts the second half of my speech. The central message on which I agree with him is the need to secure a holistic body of information, with those isolated cases with which we as constituency MPs often deal put into the much broader context. That has been the great strength of Consumer Focus, and Consumer Focus Wales.

I wanted to set out the work that Consumer Focus Wales has done, because I do not want anyone to be under the illusion that it is not a relevant or useful body. I certainly do not believe that the Government take the view that the work done by Consumer Focus is not valuable; the Minister has said that that is not the case in our discussions. The organisation’s work is recognised, because the Government propose to transfer its functions into another, albeit in my view inadequate, model. The Government’s intention to reduce the cost is understandable, and I sincerely hope that they are able to deliver a service for consumers at a lower cost, but these functions are vital—they make a real difference to people’s lives.

The Government are now consulting on their approach to consumers, while the legislation that will allow them to abolish Consumer Focus makes its way through the Commons—the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones), who is here, will recollect yesterday’s brief discussion in the Public Bodies Bill Committee on the role of Consumer Focus. The consultation had not, however, even been launched when the Bill was heard in the House of Lords some months ago. That certainly is not the ideal approach, though it is arguably necessitated by the difficult timetable and the need to make savings. Nevertheless, it inevitably has created a sense of uncertainty.

The real concern that Consumer Focus Wales has is about the model proposed by the Government. There are few organisations that I have praised more often in this House than Citizens Advice. It performs excellent advocacy right across Wales and the United Kingdom, but it does not have—currently, at least—a great deal of expertise in detailed policy research, certainly outside of benefits, personal finance and housing. It has done some admirable work, and as a constituency MP I have referred cases to it on such matters, and it has referred cases back to me. What were formerly my two bureaux in Aberystwyth and Cardigan, now merged into one Ceredigion bureau, have done some excellent work.

I support my hon. Friend in his views on Consumer Focus Wales, but I do not think that the alternative model would work to represent my constituents. Citizens Advice does not have that reach into the rural areas or that way of tapping into the problems. For instance, in Brecon an alternative organisation called the Brecon Advice Centre has set itself up to replace the citizens advice bureau.

I agree with the thrust of my hon. Friend’s remarks. Like me, he represents a vast rural area. Brecon, Radnorshire and Ceredigion are huge tracts of rural Wales. With the capacity of small organisations, inevitably facing financial constraints at the moment and curtailed by costs, I question their ability to reach out into those communities, despite the best of intentions. We will have to look closely at the resource transfer implications, if resources are going to Citizens Advice, to ensure that it has adequate resources to deliver what is expected of them.

I welcome the Government’s intention to expand Citizens Advice’s policy research team, but there is no certainty about retaining existing expertise to transfer it to that team. We need to differentiate between the advocacy role of the individual bureaux in our constituencies and the central role of collating information, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North alluded, providing Members of Parliament, other interested parties and the Government with holistic information that advances public policy.

Some excellent people work in Consumer Focus Wales, and they have developed a high level of expertise over the past years. There is no guarantee that those excellent people will be retained by a new model. I hope that I am wrong on that, if we move in a certain direction, but I fear the worst.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that Consumer Focus Wales offers a unique service? It is not there as a special interest group, but there to protect the citizen as a consumer. That is where its research comes from, and that is its focus. It is able to support consumers right across Wales with its specialist knowledge because of that.

I concur with the hon. Lady’s comments. Consumer Focus Wales has the unique ability to look at an individual case or an individual citizen coming forward with a concern, call for further information, as I said when I mentioned car park issues in my constituency, explore the depth of the problems, which are often brought to its attention by an individual citizen, and present them positively to policy makers. That approach is to be commended. The matter is not just about advocacy, but about the link between an individual citizen’s problems and advancing changes in public policy.

Returning to the body of expertise, I would be interested if the Minister could update us on the latest status of discussions with Citizens Advice about the proposed model.

The definition of “consumer” set out in part 1 of the Consumer, Estate Agents and Redress Act 2007 includes the words,

“the activities of any government department, local or public authority or other public body.”

As such, Consumer Focus Wales regularly undertakes work to look at the services that consumers receive from all levels of Government. It does not just have an advocacy role—critical though that is for individual citizens—but looks at the workings of Government agencies. There is no certainty that that important and independent focus on Welsh public services will continue.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that Consumer Focus has also identified the need to help shape the functions of the new Welsh language commissioner? That is yet another area in which its expertise could be used.

I was not aware of that, and I am grateful for that intervention. I will come on to issues about the Welsh language in a moment, because they are, as the hon. Lady knows, critical to our constituents.

The failure to recognise the gap between what the consultation describes as consumer policy and all the areas that Consumer Focus Wales works in creates a worry that future arrangements may leave out altogether significant areas of work currently undertaken by Consumer Focus Wales. There is also concern about the arrangements for the extra help unit, which protects some of the most vulnerable consumers in society and is part of the Consumer Direct service via a referral protocol. The proposal is for that service to be transferred to Citizens Advice and Citizens Advice Scotland by March 2012. Therefore, that needs to be integrated into the plans for Citizens Advice to take over the Consumer Direct service, with absolutely no break in the service provided.

Significantly, the extra help unit is a completely bilingual service. That has to continue. I am not clear from what has been proposed how Citizens Advice plans to supply a fully bilingual service. Not only does that have to be provided, it must enable Welsh speakers to have direct access to a phone line staffed by trained Welsh language operators. Many of us, including myself, have great concerns about the function of public bodies and their capacity to respond to people who speak in Welsh. Providing a service via an intermediary translation service such as Language Line is not an acceptable alternative, a principle supported by the Welsh Language Board. The Office of Fair Trading once tried to provide a Welsh language Consumer Direct service via an intermediary, but changed that policy following complaints from users and advice from the Welsh Language Board. Any clarification on that matter would be extremely helpful.

Crucially, while the new model in Scotland will be led from Scotland, and the model in Northern Ireland is led from Northern Ireland, in Wales we will be led from London. That would present concern in many areas. Given that the Welsh Government have competence for a number of the issues raised by Consumer Focus, and that there are many significant policy divergences between London and Cardiff, many of which I welcome, it is crucial for there to be Welsh input, which was the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North in his intervention. I know that we have a much better model for Wales than when proposals were first raised, but it still falls short of the Consumer Focus Wales model. I doubt whether it is practically achievable within the current model of Citizens Advice in England and Wales.

I understand that the Welsh Government are seeking the power to set up their own consumer body, in the same way that the Public Bodies Bill will give them the power to set up their own environmental body to take on the functions of the Countryside Council for Wales, Environment Agency Wales and Forestry Commission Wales. That would not involve the transfer of new powers, other than the ability to set up their own body to deal with advocacy. It would require no additional funding—in the current climate I respect that—as Wales would simply get the Barnett consequential that would arise from the new model in England, with much of the funding coming from levies rather than the public purse. The Minister may well urge me to respond to the consultation, but the difficulty that we face is that the Bill is going through Parliament now, and if we are going to give the power to the Welsh Government, as I believe we should, we have to act now.

Finally, we should go back to the original purpose of the decisions over quangos and consumer bodies. Do they streamline the process? That is questionable, given the new responsibilities expected of Citizens Advice and the significant work that will be required to get it to do the equivalent work of Consumer Focus Wales. Will it save money? Again, that is debatable, given the costs of transferring functions and the expansion of Citizens Advice that is required. I am sure that the Minister can help us on that matter.

Ultimately, there is a need for a body that can look specifically at all consumer issues from a Welsh angle. If that can be achieved through what the Government are outlining, then I am happy to listen to what they propose, but I am not sure that it can. In that case, I hope that the Minister will listen to the calls of many, including his counterparts in the Welsh Assembly Government, and give them the opportunity to go their own way and have the power to set up a Welsh consumer body—

I apologise for being late; I was giving evidence to the Select Committee on Procedure. There is unanimity of support in the National Assembly for Wales for the transfer of such powers. That is a key point to be made to the Government in London.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that intervention before my last four words. That is a key point. On the basis of what the hon. Gentleman and I have said, I hope that the Minister will look favourably at what some of us are suggesting.

May I start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) for securing the debate? As he said, he and my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) came to see me in June, just after the consultation had begun, to press their case. My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion has pressed his case again today with his usual energy and enthusiasm. He was right to discuss in his initial remarks the excellent work done by Consumer Focus Wales. Any changes made will not reflect on that work; in many ways, we want to build on it and its excellence in representing consumers in Wales.

My hon. Friend mentioned Sharon Mills, whose son Mason tragically died during an E. coli outbreak in Wales. Ms Mills showed through her excellent work on food safety with Consumer Focus Wales that citizens can play a role. It also shows that Consumer Focus Wales has done an excellent job.

My hon. Friend is right that we are still consulting, and the consultation will not close until the 27th of this month. To reassure him and other Members, particularly Members from Wales, that we are listening, I can tell him that officials from my Department will be in Cardiff next week talking to officials in the Welsh Government about what they want. We have a genuine desire to reach out, listen, consult and find a way forward, and to ensure that all the great things that Consumer Focus Wales has done are maintained and that the Welsh voice is heard in whatever we end up with as a result of the consultation.

We must await the end of the consultation process. We will consider all responses carefully, but we believe that our proposals to rationalise further the functions of consumer protection bodies, strengthening the front line of consumer protection while reducing the complexity, confusion and waste of the current wide variety of bodies, are a positive step forward for consumer advocacy in Wales and across the UK.

We have absolutely no intention of reducing the level of support afforded to consumers across Wales; in fact, the whole purpose of the exercise is to see how we can improve it. I agree with the assertions made by the Welsh Government and Consumer Focus Wales that Consumer Focus Wales’s functions in representing Welsh consumers should be retained in Wales. The organisation’s important role in providing support for particularly vulnerable consumers, for example, which my hon. Friend asked about, will remain under the new regime.

Exactly how that role will be delivered is obviously still under consideration and will need to include comments from the ongoing consultation, but as I said, we are talking with interested parties, including the Welsh Government and Citizens Advice, to design a model of consumer representation in Wales that meets our objective. We believe that the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend and Consumer Focus Wales are not insurmountable, and I hope that we can cover them all in our considerations.

Consumer Focus Wales has an agreed funding formula with Consumer Focus. Will the Minister ensure that any successor body has funding comparable to that currently enjoyed by Consumer Focus Wales?

The hon. Gentleman will understand that that is part of the deliberations and consultation. I cannot pre-judge the findings of the consultation, but funding is clearly key among our decisions.

One big issue raised is governance in Wales. We see no reason why the new model cannot replicate the current one. We understand how important it is that decisions affecting Welsh consumers should be made in Wales. I hope that that reassures hon. Members.

We do not want to add layers of bureaucracy. In these difficult times, that would be wrong, as my hon. Friend said. Although it is important that each country should have national representation on issues of specific interest to it, universal industries should also continue to have a single national voice and should not have to negotiate three or four times whenever they wish to do something.

For example, if Royal Mail wished to make even a minor change to their service, devolvement of consumer advocacy, which some have proposed, would require them to have detailed conversations three or four times over, which could lead to differing levels of service. I hope that hon. Members can understand that some industries covering the whole United Kingdom are not devolved, and that we do not want to add unnecessary costs that will not serve the consumer.

I am pleased to hear that the discussions are being held between the Minister’s Department and our colleagues in the National Assembly Government. That is important, and I wish those discussions well. Can my hon. Friend understand the frustration of some of us who are committed devolutionists and who look forward to the time when power can be transferred and Ministers in Cardiff, rather than here, will decide the appropriate future structure? That is my fundamental point, coupled equally with the need to provide a good service.

I understand how my hon. Friend feels about that point. I hope that we can come to some agreement, not just in this debate but in due course. We want to give consumers and others greater clarity about who is championing their rights. Consumers need to know who their advocate is. We want to increase the impact of publicly funded consumer advocacy domestically and internationally and to reduce overlap. We want all that to be delivered by a known and trusted organisation with high visibility and outreach. I will talk tomorrow to the Welsh Minister, Carl Sargent, about the issue. I hope that that indicates to colleagues that we are taking Welsh concerns seriously.

Citizens Advice in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland is widely recognised and trusted by the public. In the surveys, its brand recognition is extremely strong and it is extremely well trusted. That is one reason why we have shaped the consultation as we have. It is a distinct advantage for an organisation with such strong recognition and trust to be up front, championing the consumer.

I will be brief, as I am looking at the time. As the Minister is praising Citizens Advice, in which we all join him, I will share with him the observation that Citizens Advice is under great pressure. Other Members of Parliament and I are now seeing people who cannot get into Citizens Advice surgeries. Is he taking account of Citizens Advice’s capacity to take on the responsibility?

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman made that point, as it enables me to clarify something that has been slightly confused in this debate. One must remember that at the moment, Citizens Advice has a national organisation, which undertakes much of its research for consumers, and local bureaux. We are talking about the national organisation, Citizens Advice, taking forward the work of Consumer Focus and other organisations to ensure a powerful research and expertise base for advocacy, education and information at the national level.

I must end my remarks, I am afraid.

That will be in no way affected by local pressures. Most funding for the national work comes either from levies or from the taxpayer; a lot of the local funding comes from local government. They are two connected organisations, and the strength is in their connection.

Citizens Advice, the national organisation, gets information fed up from the grassroots all the time. That is one reason why the brand is so trusted and why the organisation has a special, and perhaps unique, role to play in our country. Citizens Advice has local representation through its bureaux in communities. Although those bureaux will not be conducting research, they will be able to feed into the analysis. That is particularly important for the most vulnerable in our society. It is another reason why I think that our model has a lot of strengths.

I emphasise that Citizens Advice has an excellent track record of advocacy on behalf of consumers at a national and local level. We want to build on that track record and the brand awareness that it enjoys and direct resources for consumer education, information, policy and advice to Citizens Advice. We also want to bring together local, bottom-up information with the national research and expertise currently carried out by Consumer Focus, which is, as we have heard, of extremely high quality. That will create a powerful consumer body to which businesses will have to listen.

We do not intend to lose the experience and expertise held at Consumer Focus. Instead, we want to bring together its policy and research expertise, especially in the energy and postal services sectors, with the long-standing success of Citizens Advice and its bureaux in helping consumers. By operating in that way, we can connect consumer policy and research functions with the concerns and problems of citizens in their communities. There are benefits to be realised by making that connection. We remain committed to working with all, including those across Wales, to make it a reality.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.