The Scotland Act (2016) transferred new powers relating to three key areas including competence for consumer advocacy and advice. There is evidence that in specific markets, Scottish consumers behave differently and have different needs from consumers in the rest of the UK, although there is no mechanism that delivers improved, targeted outcomes specifically for Scottish consumers. The 2016 SNP manifesto committed to a new statutory body to support consumers; this is envisaged as an investigatory body, focusing on tackling issues where there is a high level of consumer detriment, and which need concerted and collaborative action to address.
On 4 July 2018 the Scottish Government launched a consultation on 'A Consumer Body for Scotland' seeking views on the proposed powers and functions of this new statutory body, Consumer Scotland.
A total of 58 responses were received; 43 from organisations and 15 from individuals.
|Advice body/consumer org/complaint resolution||18|
|Local Authority / trading standards||5|
Main Findings: The current consumer landscape in Scotland
Around half of those responding echoed comments made in the consultation paper, noting that the consumer landscape in Scotland is fragmented, complex, disjointed and / or confusing to navigate. There were also some comments that there are inconsistent levels of service due to the range of different bodies responsible for policy making, regulation, enforcement, advocacy and advice.
Respondents also referred to the loss of local authority trading standards advice services which has left a gap in advice available to consumers.
There was support for the establishment of a national body such as Consumer Scotland; this was seen as helping to provide a more consistent and unified approach to support for consumers. Respondents identified a range of roles or areas of focus for Consumer Scotland, including the need to address gaps in the current landscape and identify emerging markets where advice and advocacy is needed, and to build on and enhance the structures and relationships that already exist. There were also some references to the need for partnership working between Consumer Scotland and other organisations in the advocacy and advice sector, as well as the need to avoid duplication of effort.
Only a small number of respondents were unsupportive of the establishment of Consumer Scotland, and key concerns were that this could lead to duplication of effort or that it would add to confusion for consumers, given that some policy responsibility remains with the Westminster Government.
Main Findings: Consumer Scotland
The proposed functions of Consumer Scotland
A majority of those responding to this question agreed with the proposed functions of Consumer Scotland, and only a very small number disagreed, although a large number of respondents opted not to provide a response. A key theme was one of broad support for the proposal and a number of respondents reiterated their support for elements of the consultation paper, for example, the importance of independence or the need for Consumer Scotland to be staffed by experts. However, some respondents noted the need for adequate funding.
A key theme was the need for clarity over the relationship between Consumer Scotland and other public bodies with responsibility for consumer protection, and how the new body would fit with existing organisations in the consumer protection landscape. Allied to this, there were requests for clarity on the scope of the powers for the new body and how these would be communicated to consumers.
There were some concerns over the potential for the new body to duplicate work already conducted by other consumer protection organisations such as Citizens Advice Scotland or its bureaux, and some respondents highlighted the need for effective coordination across the sector. A small number of respondents noted the importance of UK-wide consumer protection organisations with which Consumer Scotland should operate.
There were some requests for information on the sector in which Consumer Scotland would operate.
Powers and duties for Consumer Scotland
There was some support for the powers and duties outlined in the consultation paper, although there were some comments on the need for the duties to be clearly defined to avoid duplication of roles and responsibilities. A wide range of specific powers and duties for Consumer Scotland were outlined.
There were a small number of references to the need to have a strong network with regulators that is underpinned by agreements that take into account the established expertise of other organisations.
Criteria that would constitute a specifically Scottish consumer issue
A number of those responding to this question noted that a specific Scottish consumer issue could include any matters falling under devolution, although there was also a degree of acknowledgment that some consumer services, such as water, would impact on a wider UK population. Some respondents commented that any issue affecting consumers in Scotland should be considered a specifically Scottish consumer issue; others noted instances where Scottish consumers are disproportionately affected in comparison to the rest of the UK. There was also some reference to Scottish geography or the location of consumers affected.
Criteria to be considered when assessing the level of harm needed to be reached before an investigation is pursued
Respondents referred to a wide range of criteria that could be considered, including where there are specific issues with vulnerable customers, the number of individuals affected, the prevalence of issues, the level of harm to individual consumers and potential future impact.
There was some reference to definitions or approaches that have been adopted by other organisations and which could be considered by Consumer Scotland. Some respondents also noted that consideration should be given as to whether other public authorities such as Trading Standards Services were better placed to deal with specific issues, and a small number of respondents suggested Consumer Scotland should focus on unregulated sectors.
Possible additional functions for Consumer Scotland
There were some comments of a need for Consumer Scotland to have a wide remit and a capacity to respond to issues in a speedy manner. Key themes that emerged were that Consumer Scotland should have a function to oversee or coordinate advice services so as to ensure consistency and expertise in the quality of advice and levels of service offered; to store data centrally, and to collaborate with other organisations which have a consumer focus.
Once again, there was reference to the need to ensure that any organisations have clear roles and responsibilities so as to avoid any duplication in services offered.
There were some requests for Consumer Scotland to be able to ensure that consumers have access to advice and redress services; and some reference to the need for promotion or lobbying for a prevention agenda as well as consumer awareness and education.
Additional functions that would enable Consumer Scotland to adapt and respond to future consumer challenges
A key theme to emerge at this question was a suggestion for Consumer Scotland to have a 'horizon-scanning' role in order to check what future developments might occur, both within specific sectors and across the consumer landscape as a whole.
Another key theme was the need for Consumer Scotland to work with other bodies and regulators in Scotland and the UK.
Main Findings: Scottish Government action
Views on the current consumer advice system
Comments on the current consumer advice system focused on the fragmented, inconsistent and complex nature of the current landscape. A wide range of suggestions were made as to ways in which the consumer advice system could be strengthened; these included the need for consumer bodies to work together to create consistency in advice available and better coordination of services.
A key theme was the suggestion for a single coordinating organisation offering a single point of entry to consumer protection, which would allow for accessibility to all, access to specialist agencies, consistency in available advice, better coordination across the sector and streamlining the landscape. There were also comments of a need for a funding regime that would help sustain advice and advocacy for consumers.
Views on how the Scottish Government could improve how it commissions and funds advice
Views on how the Scottish Government could improve how it commissions and funds advice often echoed points made in response to earlier questions such as the need for long term funding to help build sustainable capacity, the need to share data across organisations or the need for Consumer Scotland to be a one-stop-shop.
A few respondents referred to other work that has been carried out and to which the Scottish Government could refer.
A key theme which emerged in relation to how consumer advocacy can develop greater capacity to bring change for consumers, included the importance of having an independent and / or representative voice to support consumers. There was also some reference to the benefit of development of a customer scoreboard to provide a solid evidence base to identify areas where consumer detriment is occurring. There was also some support for the proposal that CAS would maintain its advocacy powers.
Views on whether there should be a duty on public authorities to consider the impacts on consumers of policies or decisions
Most of those responding to this question felt there should be a duty on public authorities to consider the impacts on consumers of policies or decisions, albeit that some made qualifying statements in relation to their support, the key comment being the need to have a clear definition of who consumers are.
Only a very small number of respondents noted their opposition to the introduction of this duty.
How Scottish Government should use its resources and powers to improve outcomes for consumers
There were some suggestions for ways of improving consumer representation and engagement. A number of respondents echoed points made in response to earlier questions including the need to prioritise consumers and create a culture that places the interests of consumers at the heart of policy and decision-making, supporting consumer choice and driving consumer engagement, simplifying the consumer landscape, the need for medium and long term funding and reviewing how data is recorded, collated and shared.
Email: Erin McCreadie