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Consumer Interests: World Consumer Rights Day

Volume 753: debated on Monday 17 March 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to promote consumer interests in the United Kingdom to mark World Consumer Rights Day on 15 March.

The Government are tackling the issues that consumers care most about head on. We are bringing in strong reforms through the Consumer Rights Bill to give greater clarity to goods, services and, for the first time, digital content. On World Consumer Rights Day, my department, Citizens Advice and Ofcom highlighted issues around mobile phones. We received excellent press coverage, which helped to increase awareness and to inform people where to go to get help.

My Lords, it was 52 years ago that President Kennedy said that every consumer should be protected against misleading adverts and unsafe and worthless products, and that consumers should be told how much interest they are being charged. Given that payday loan companies continue to charge excessive interest rates and that the Government have abolished the National Consumer Council, have allowed living standards to fall and have introduced a Consumer Rights Bill which, despite what the Minister says, consolidates rather than adds rights, what are the Government going to do to honour President Kennedy’s ambition?

My Lords, well informed, confident consumers are vital to building a stronger economy. Our plans will mean that consumers can be confident of their rights in everyday situations and that businesses will spend less time working out their legal obligations when they get complaints from customers. Since 2011, we have streamlined and brought coherence to a landscape that was previously confusing and therefore inefficient for consumers.

My Lords, one issue which concerns many consumers and no doubt many in this House is the state of many of our pubs and the number of closures that are taking place. Does my noble friend not agree that many such institutions have come out of the tyranny of the brewers—I am sure that we can exclude Young’s brewery from that—into the even worse tyranny of highly geared pubcos? Will the Government take action to stop the exploitation of tenants by pubcos and the closure of some 26 pubs every week?

My Lords, the Government value the pub industry and recognise the important contribution that pubs make to the fabric of local communities and to jobs and growth in the wider economy. We recognise that there are serious concerns about the relationship between pub-owning companies and their tenants. This is why we have published our consultation on a statutory code and an independent adjudicator for the sector: to enshrine the core principle that a tied tenant should be no worse off than a free-of-a-tie tenant. I cannot comment on the final proposals in advance of the government response to the consultation.

Does the Minister accept that the rather optimistic Answer that he gave about consumer protection contrasts acutely with the Answer given earlier by the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, to the first Question asked by my noble friend Lady Crawley? I invite him and the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, to get together to make sure that we have an across-government policy so that both are telling us the same story.

I regret that I was not in my place when my noble friend Lord De Mauley answered the Question, but I will take note of the noble Lord’s point.

My Lords, I think that the Minister will agree that consumer rights and consumer interests are best served by having strong consumer bodies. In this country, as a result of the statutory instrument passed last week, that will now mean primarily Citizens Advice, and we wish it well in that task. However, will the Minister take this opportunity to respond more clearly to questions raised in the debate on that statutory instrument? First, does the redesignation by ONS of Citizens Advice as a public body in any way threaten its charity status, its independence or its ability freely to campaign? Secondly, will the Minister set out more clearly the totality of grant in aid from BIS to both Consumer Focus and Citizens Advice over the past five years, so that we can see clearly what resources are available in the new consumer landscape?

My Lords, the answer to the noble Lord’s first question is no, but I would like to take this opportunity to clarify that Citizens Advice is a well recognised and trusted brand, which is why we took the decision to transfer the Consumer Direct service to it in 2012. We are establishing Citizens Advice as the publicly funded advocate for consumers. It will now be much clearer where the consumer should go to get help, and a faster and better-quality service will come forth to give consumers greater peace of mind.

My Lords, what can be done about the plague of cold callers on consumers, including vulnerable people, who are constantly harassed by calls selling anything from car insurance to PPI—you name it, they want to sell it to you? Vulnerable people, including older people, are being absolutely plagued by that. I speak as someone whose 80 year-old mother receives four or five calls every day trying to sell her something. It appears that nothing can be done about it.

There are some steps that consumers can take themselves—but, having said that, we are looking at this very closely. The first port of call, as I said, would be Citizens Advice. It will be in a much better position in future to give proper advice on that particular point.

My Lords, will the Minister please go back to the supplementary question asked by my noble friend about payday loans? He responded that the ideal solution was well informed, well educated consumers. Surely, people who are under stress and in poverty ought to be protected from such rates of interest, rather than rely on the consumer to be able to investigate at a time of great stress in their lives?

The noble Baroness is correct. Payday loans remain an issue, and we continue to liaise with colleagues in the Treasury to take steps to resolve that important issue.

In asking my question earlier today, I should have declared my interest as a milk producer. I regret my omission and apologise to the House.