Consumer protection is a form of regulation which protects the interests of consumers. A significant proportion of casework can fall into consumer/provider quarrels, and for many constituents turning to their MP is the final resort after a long period of frustrating dispute, most often with household utilities and telecoms providers.
Casework examples which spring to mind would be the son who continued to receive TV licence demands for his late father, despite informing the company of his death, or the woman who discovered she had been paying her next door neighbour’s water bills for the past 15 years due to a misconnection, only to be realised when a large family moved in next door and her bills went through the roof. Such constituents may find an MP’s timely intervention can work wonders in what can evolve into very stressful situations.
The first step for the caseworker should be to obtain copies of all relevant documents that the constituent has kept concerning the case – bills, demand notices and so on. These can copied again and sent to the relevant organisation with a cover letter asking for further investigation into the matter and clarification. An MP’s letter will be given far more attention at a higher level in the company than your constituent’s repeated – and futile – phone calls to junior call centre staff. In many cases, if the organisation is indeed at fault, the MP’s intervention will ensure the matter is resolved quickly and (if your constituent is lucky) with an apology. Sometimes the company will compensate to the level they deem appropriate, or will at least cover the cost of the constituent’s phone calls to their call centre.
However, if direct intervention with the company in question does not resolve the issue, you may wish to contact the regulator for that industry, or encourage the constituent to do so. If you’re a caseworker needing a direct line, some of the organisations listed will have MP’s Hotlines. Please see the W4MP Hotlines page here.
If you’re a researcher rarely involved in constituency casework, it’s still very helpful to have a basic idea of the regulators and what their remits are. Knowing who does what will help you get the information you need most efficiently when, for example, your MP makes a last minute decision to take part in an Adjournment Debate on water infrastructure maintenance. The statistics, reports and opinions of the watchdogs and regulators are generally well respected, so knowing where to turn can often yield a well researched, professional briefing from the guys who really know what they’re talking about.
There have been many changes in the consumer protection landscape in recent years. The Citizens’ Advice Bureau has taken over the functions of Consumer Direct and Consumer Focus and you can visit the relevant section of their website here: https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/consumer/
There are also several Internet consumer advice sites:
BBC Watchdog http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/Y9Vpnl94w0pwKly0VLBTVm/consumer-advice
Money Saving Expert – http://www.moneysavingexpert.com/shopping/?tab=sect25
Which? – www.which.co.uk
You may also find the GOV.UK website useful – www.gov.uk. Aside from information about everything from benefits to recycling, there’s info on consumer rights in the ‘Crime, justice and the law’ section https://www.gov.uk/consumer-protection-rights.
Regulators of some sectors have the power to apply the Competition Act in concurrence with the Office of Fair Trading. This means that they can apply and enforce the Act to deal with anti-competitive agreements or abuse of market dominance by companies in their sector. They do not necessarily deal directly with consumer complaints, but it is useful to know their remits and responsibilities.
The regulators with this power are:
Office of Gas and Electricity Markets (OFGEM) – www.ofgem.gov.uk. They promote competition between the big energy companies and are also responsible for ensuring there is adequate investment in the networks and that energy companies protect vulnerable customers and work to achieve environmental improvements. They do not directly investigate individual consumer complaints
Office of Water Services (OFWAT) (also covers sewerage industry) – www.ofwat.gov.uk. They will refer direct complaints from consumers about their water companies to the Consumer Council for Water (see below)
Office of Communications (OFCOM) – www.ofcom.org.uk. Unlike the first two regulators, Ofcom is independent of the government, though it is answerable to Parliament. Ofcom is the communications regulator. It regulates the TV, radio and video on demand sectors, fixed line telecoms, mobiles, postal services, plus the airwaves over which wireless devices operate.
Ofcom is not responsible for regulating:
- disputes between you and your telecoms provider;
- premium-rate services, including mobile-phone text services and ringtones;
- the content of television and radio adverts;
- complaints about accuracy in BBC programmes;
- the BBC TV licence fee;
- post offices; or
- newspapers and magazines.
Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) – http://orr.gov.uk/. They regulate the safety and economy of Britain’s rail service, as provided by Network Rail. Consumers will need to complain to Network Rail in the first instance but the ORR’s Customer Correspondence Team may be able to take a complaint further
Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) – www.caa.co.uk. An independent regulator; its activities include economic regulation, airspace policy, safety regulation and consumer protection. They’ll advise you to take up a complaint with the airline involved first.
The following organisations are the ones you’re most likely to come across, but the degree to which they can become involved in individual customer complaints varies.
Water – www.ccwater.org.uk. Consumer Council for Water – independently represents water and sewerage service customers. Takes up consumers’ complaints if they have tried and failed to resolve issues directly with their water and sewerage companies. They aim to settle 70% of complaints within 20 working days.
Contact phone numbers depend on the region you live in, and can be found on the website.
Advertising and Promotions – www.asa.org.uk. Advertising Standard Authority (ASA) – investigates complaints about advertisements, direct marketing or sales promotion. It can put a stop to misleading, harmful or offensive adverts, ensure sales promotions are fairly run and help reduce junk mail. They have an online complaints system or they can be contacted on 0207 492 2222.
Financial Conduct Authority – https://www.the-fca.org.uk/ The Financial Conduct Authority is the conduct regulator for 56,000 financial services firms and financial markets in the UK and the prudential regulator for over 24,000 of those firms.
Food and drink – www.food.gov.uk. Food Standards Agency (FSA) – an independent government department set up to protect the public health and consumer interests in relation to the food industry. It’s the job of the FSA to oversee local authority enforcement of food standards law, so they don’t deal directly with consumer complaints. Consumers can report incidents where they feel their consumer rights have been compromised, for example the Agency runs a hotline to gather information on known or suspected fraudulent activity in the sale or marketing of food. They will then assist local authorities to investigate the claims.
Prudential Regulation Authority – http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/pra/pages/default.aspx The Prudential Regulation Authority (PRA) was created as a part of the Bank of England by the Financial Services Act (2012) and is responsible for the prudential regulation and supervision of around 1,700 banks, building societies, credit unions, insurers and major investment firms. The PRA’s objectives are set out in the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 (FSMA). The PRA has three statutory objectives:
- a general objective to promote the safety and soundness of the firms it regulates;
- an objective specific to insurance firms, to contribute to the securing of an appropriate degree of protection for those who are or may become insurance policyholders; and
- a secondary objective to facilitate effective competition.