Scottish Government’s working group will consider implications of Westminster decision to kill off Consumer Focus Scotland. FURTHER enquiries by Diary of Injustice regarding the largely anti-consumer decision by the Westminster coalition Government to axe Consumer Focus & Consumer Focus Scotland have revealed the Scottish Government has formed a ‘working group’ to consider the implications on consumer protection in Scotland and develop practical outline variations which optimise future arrangements for Scots consumers, who face a raw deal from the UK Government’s decision to scrap Scotland’s key consumer champion, Consumer Focus Scotland.
Details passed to Diary of Injustice last week revealed the Scottish Government established the working group on the UK reform of consumer and enforcement bodies in November 2010. This group is chaired by a member of the Scottish Government Business Directorate, with representatives from Consumer Focus Scotland, Citizen’s Advice Scotland, OFT, COSLA, the Trading Standards Institute, the Society of Chief Officers of Trading Standards in Scotland, and representatives of relevant Scottish Government departments.
The remit of the working group is to:
· Consider the feasibility of implementing the proposed UK model in Scotland, with a focus on accountability, capacity, and resources;
· Develop practical outline variations which optimise future arrangements for consumers in Scotland, encompassing links to relevant devolved policy and services, and specifically the scope for devolution of consumer advocacy and/or enforcement policy and delivery, and/or resource transfers;
· Support all relevant organisations to individually and collectively influence the Scottish content of UK consultation and develop an informed view ahead of that UK consultation.
The Group is due to report to Scottish Ministers by the end of January 2011. Scottish Ministers will then take a view informed by the work of the working group, on what arrangement would best serve the interest of consumers in Scotland.
A Scottish Government spokesman commenting on the working group’s aims, said: “The working group was formed to consider the implications for Scotland of the UK Government’s proposed reform of consumer and enforcement bodies, including the abolition of the Office of Fair Trading and Consumer Focus Scotland. It includes representation from various stakeholders, including the afore-mentioned bodies, the Scottish Government, trading standards professional bodies and the Citizen’s Advice Bureau.
“The working group is examining distinctive Scottish issues associated with implanting the UK proposals and possible variations including the scope for further devolution. The group has been liaising closely with the relevant Westminster department, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills rather than the Scotland Office. The groups findings will in due course be shared with the UK Government (both BIS and the Scotland Office) to inform wider consultation.”
Scotland Office were not invited to be part of working group. While the working group is taking into account the views of some of the consumer bodies facing the axe, and others who will be left to pick up the pieces after Consumer Focus is axed, it transpires not all have been made welcome to the working group, as was revealed during Westminster questions where, in response to a question from Glasgow North MP Ann McKechin, the Scottish Secretary of State Michael Moore revealed his department, the Scotland Office “has not been invited to be represented on the Scottish Government working group”, promoting some to wonder why the Scottish Government were not seeking more allies in the fight to keep Consumer Focus Scotland from being closed, given the organisation has played a key role in many reforms in Scotland, particularly those relating to justice.
Ann McKechin MP, Glasgow North (Labour). Commenting on the Scottish Government’s decision to shut out the Scotland Department in London, Ann McKechin M.P. Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland said : I am also deeply concerned about the proposed abolition of these bodies and the levels of resources that will be available to any successor bodies. From my previous experience as a Scotland Office Minister, I consider it extraordinary that the Scottish Government should have set up a working group on an area of reserved policy without any direct representation from a Whitehall department even at official level. This is a major change in consumer protection and the UK Government must take a proper part in ensuring that consumers’ interests north of the border are adequately covered. It would appear that the alleged “respect agenda” between the two administration is wearing thin.”
Earlier this week, further developments on the issue occurred at the Scottish Parliament, where in response to a question from Peter Peacock MSP, the Minister for Enterprise, Energy & Tourism, Jim Mather indicated he was expecting the working group’s report in February.
However, it was then revealed by Mr Peacock in his response that “the UK Government is entirely open to there being an outcome in Scotland that is different from that for the rest of the UK”, a position which now raises the possibility of saving of Consumer Focus Scotland, if of course, the Scottish Government are minded, or motivated to do so.
An additional, and if I may say so, excellent suggestion by Kilmarnock and Loudoun MSP Willie Coffey (SNP), “that the Minister take up with his UK counterparts the need for manufacturers to publish details of known faults with their products” brought a reply from Mr Mather he would do as the members ask.
Mr Coffey’s suggestion could well be applied to many areas of commerce & business, particularly of course, legal services, where law firms should be required to publish the regulatory records of their solicitors, to enable consumers to make an informed decision as to whether any particular solicitor or law firm is the right one to represent their legal interests.
The Scottish Parliament’s website reported the session as follows :
Peter Peacock (Highlands and Islands) (Lab):
5. To ask the Scottish Executive what action it is taking and what progress is being made in examining the United Kingdom Government’s proposals for the reform of UK consumer protection bodies; what devolved implications there are for Scotland and its consumers, and when it will report its findings on the proposals. (S3O-12661)
The Minister for Enterprise, Energy and Tourism (Jim Mather): “Those are reserved matters, as the member will know. Although the UK Government proposals will have implications for Scotland, the policy detail is not yet fully defined. We invited key Scottish stakeholders to form a working group to consider how we might optimise future arrangements in Scotland and influence decisions in Whitehall. I expect the group’s report in February.”
Peter Peacock: “I am grateful to the minister with regard to that plan, and I am grateful for the work that he indicates is being done. I understand that the UK Government is entirely open to there being an outcome in Scotland that is different from that for the rest of the UK. I urge the minister to make early proposals to the UK Government to influence its forthcoming consultation on the future of Consumer Focus Scotland and to work with other parties across the Parliament to try to secure a consensus on the various options and build on the common ground that I believe will exist between members on the issue.”
Jim Mather: “That was a constructive contribution from the member, and my answer is yes to all of that. I reinforce the message that we are maintaining close contact with the UK Government. We view this as an opportunity to create a model that provides a best solution for Scotland. The more voices that are involved in that, the better.”
Willie Coffey (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (SNP): “Will the minister take up with his UK counterparts the need for manufacturers to publish details of known faults with their products and for consumer organisations to take into account the variety of ways in which customers now choose to complain about products and services, notably via internet postings?”
Jim Mather: “We are entering a new era, following the financial services crash, in which people are looking to manufacturers and all businesses to be much more aligned with customers and their wellbeing. I will make a point of doing as the member asks.”
Given the chance of saving Consumer Focus Scotland for Scots, I would urge readers to write to their own MSPs and the Scottish Government, especially the Minister responsible, Mr Mather, making your feelings on the issue known and supporting the retention of Consumer Focus Scotland, which has done so much for Scots consumers in many areas including justice, over many years.