Scottish Government action
73. This section of the consultation paper looked at consumer and wider advice services, consumer advocacy and the role of the consumer interest in Scottish public policy and decision making.
74. The consultation paper noted that consumer advice provision needs to keep pace with changes to the world in which we live and that consumers know where to turn when they need help.
Q8: What are your views on the current consumer advice system? How could it be strengthened?
75. Comments on the current consumer advice system tended to mirror many of the views expressed at Question 1, with comments on the fragmented, inconsistent and complex nature of the current landscape. There were also a small number of comments that the current landscape has been weakened by the loss of consumer advice and intervention services from Trading Standards Services. There were also a small number of comments that it can be difficult to know where to obtain advice or how to access the required advice.
76. A wide range of suggestions were made as to ways in which the consumer advice system could be strengthened. Again, many of these echoed points made at earlier questions. These included the need for consumer bodies to work together to create consistency in available advice, better coordination of available services, to ensure that there is no duplication of advice and for data and information to be shared in order to help inform consistent preventative strategies. As one organisation in the advice body/consumer org/complaint resolution sector commented,
"It is important, therefore, that a strategic and integrated approach is taken to the provision of advice and education on consumer matters; legal rights and responsibilities; housing; and money and debt. This should include bodies in the private, public and voluntary sectors. Organisations which come into contact with consumers at key 'life events' such as setting up home; having a baby; getting married; or losing a job, could also play a vital role both in signposting people to appropriate sources of help and in providing direct help and support."
77. Another key theme was the suggestion for a single coordinating organisation offering a single point of entry to consumer protection. The key advantages of this were that it would be accessible to all, it would offer a joined up approach, access to specialist agencies, consistency in available advice, better coordination of consumer programmes and advice services, as well as streamlining the landscape.
78. Several respondents noted the need for a funding regime that will help sustain advice and advocacy for consumers. Other suggestions made by respondents included:
- A need for an ombudsman and arbitration service.
- A focus on advice and redress and strengthened links between the two.
- Better signposting for consumers to access services.
- A need for consumer advice and intervention to be a statutory duty for Scottish councils. There was also reference to the need to strengthen local authority Trading Standards Services.
- Better use of digital technology in the provision of consumer advice and the use of online complaints tools.
- A range of communication channels that can be used by consumers, including face-to-face advice (considered to be particularly relevant to vulnerable consumers), digital and telephone.
79. A small number of respondents referred to the Scottish Government's pilot project which aims to unite the online complaints tool, Resolver, with existing telephony services at Citizens Advice Direct. It was felt that lessons could be learnt from this to help deliver a strengthened and more effective advice system. One respondent in the advice body/consumer org/complaint resolution sector suggested that lessons could also be learnt from the recent independent review of legal aid in Scotland and the recommendations made in this review.
Q9: What are your views on how the Scottish Government could improve how it commissions and funds advice to individuals?
80. A total of 31 respondents, many of whom were organisations in the advice body/consumer org/complaint resolution sector or individuals provided commentary to this question. Many of their comments echoed those seen in response to previous questions.
81. One of the themes which emerged related to the need for long term funding which would help to build sustainable capacity as well as helping to attract and retain high quality, experienced staff and offer a better service to the consumers; in turn, this would allow providers to plan their service provision more strategically as well as providing stability and security for advice providers.
82. There was also reference to the need to share data, or to strengthen existing data sharing between organisations and bodies providing advice to consumers. Allied to this, there were also a small number of comments on the need for Consumer Scotland to be a one-stop-shop; this would allow them to ensure a consistent service to all consumers. One organisation also suggested a second tier for intervention capabilities and a third tier for legal support.
83. A small number of respondents felt that the Scottish Government should consider whether existing consumer advice organisations are fit for practice and can demonstrate competencies.
84. Other suggestions for ways in which the Scottish Government could improve how it commissions and funds advice to individuals, each from a small number of respondents included:
- Funding for face-to-face advice and / or offering a range of channels to offer advice; including the integration of existing services with technology-based solutions so that consumers can access advice across different platforms and media.
- Funding for education or advertising campaigns to raise awareness of issues related to consumer advice.
- To review what is currently available and ensure any duplication is removed, identify any gaps and ensure these are filled.
- To ensure an outcomes-focused approach from advice agencies and others in the consumer landscape, including regulators and businesses.
- To set up an evaluation and approval programme for future funding; this would help to drive integration, coordination and sustainability and interoperability around personal data sharing.
- Set up a national quality assurance framework for advice services; this would help to ensure a focus and scrutiny on the quality of advice offered.
85. A few respondents referred to other work that has been carried out and to which the Scottish Government could refer. These included an outline of how funding operates within a specific sector. An organisation in the Local authority / trading standards sector noted that they follow the 8 key principles of commissioning that were developed by the Office of the Third Sector. There was also reference to recent work conducted by Blake Stevenson on publicly-funded advice services in Scotland; reference to the Scottish Government's pilot project which aims to unite the online complaints tool, Resolver, with existing telephony services at Citizens Advice Direct; and the approach implemented in projects such as the Scottish Government's Welfare Reform Mitigation project.
86. The consultation paper noted that effective consumer advocacy can drive solutions to even the most intractable consumer problems but that the current model of advocacy is not always effective. The Scottish Government has begun a review of consumer advocacy to understand which interventions most effectively drive change. A Ministerial Taskforce on Consumers and Markets has also been established which brings expertise together and will act as a coordinating mechanism until Consumer Scotland is established.
Q10: How can consumer advocacy develop greater capacity to bring change for consumers?
87. A total of 33 respondents, many of whom were organisations in the advice body/consumer org/complaint resolution sector or individuals, provided commentary to this question. Once again, many of their comments echoed those seen in responses to previous questions. Key themes emerging included the importance of having an independent and / or representative voice to support consumers, with a small number of comments on the importance of the voice of the consumer being at the heart of any work undertaken by Consumer Scotland.
88. A number of other issues were each commented on by small numbers of respondents. These included the benefit of development of a customer scoreboard as this would provide a solid evidence base to identify areas where consumer detriment is occurring and help to prevent this reoccurring in the future. Some respondents also noted their support for the proposal that CAS would maintain its advocacy powers, and a small number also noted that the CAS model works well, albeit one respondent suggested that they needed to adopt a more proactive role. Other comments, each made by a small number of respondents included:
- Reference to the need for better training for advice staff.
- The need to focus on areas where consumers are unable to take action themselves.
- The need to make it easier for consumers to take their cases to court and the need for court advisors to be available in all courts.
- Support for action that targets traders who are targeting consumers.
- Suggestions for a new consumer body to be based on the model developed by the Water Industry Consumer Forum; and a need to examine the benefits that have been derived for the water sector to see if these can be applied in other sectors.
89. Other key themes which had been mentioned at earlier questions included:
- The need for a single point of contact or one-stop-shop that would have responsibility for centralised data capture, a capacity to exchange information and intelligence between agencies and act as an umbrella organisation for the wider consumer advocacy sector.
- Easy and transparent access to consumer advice, with a small number of references to vulnerable consumers in particular.
- The need for adequate funding to enable sustainable consumer advice services.
- The need for collaboration and partnership working between consumer advice and advocacy groups.
90. The consultation paper noted that consumer and public authority action are linked and many important priorities depend on consumer cooperation. The Scottish Government is developing a range of mechanisms which could ensure consumers receive full consideration when developing new policies.
Q11: What are your views on whether there should be a duty on public authorities to consider the impacts on consumers of policies or decisions?
91. A total of 33 respondents, across most sub-groups, provided commentary to this question.
92. Most of those responding to this question felt that there should be a duty on public authorities to consider the impacts on consumers of policies or decisions; and the Green Deal was cited as an example that could be used to help guide this duty. The following quotation is typical of the responses to this question,
"For consumer issues to be central when policy decisions are being made, using a duty to consider the impacts on consumers is a mechanism that would improve or remedy issues for consumers."
(advice body/consumer org/complaint resolution sector)
93. Only a very small number of respondents were against the introduction of this duty, with an industry / trade body commenting,
"We believe the interests of consumers need to be better considered by the Scottish Government and other bodies when proposing public policy interventions. Currently consideration of consumer issues is not done consistently across departments. Furthermore, the cumulative impact of policy decisions is rarely considered, nor a metric for considering those impacts on consumers (or indeed the wider economy). These are all areas where a better and more consistent approach would be welcomed. We don't believe a statutory duty should be the first step in improving this approach. The priority should be focusing on developing a better and more consistent approach. Should non-legislative measures prove ineffective then a public duty may be necessary to ensure the Scottish Government effectively considers the needs of consumers when developing public policy."
94. Some respondents made qualifying statements in relation to their support, the key one of which was a need to have a clear definition of who consumers are. Other issues raised, each by only one or two respondents included;
- A need to strike a balance between giving due consideration to new policies through a design-led approach and giving policy makers permission to act quickly when necessary to remedy harm.
- A need to consider the extent to which such a duty might be placed on businesses that provide goods and services to consumers.
- A need to consider how public authorities would consider impacts of policies or decisions upon consumers.
- There should also be a requirement to report on how this duty is acted upon.
- A query over who would be responsible for conducting the assessment process.
- A need for more information on the public bodies which would be subject to this duty.
- A need for a programme of support and guidance to public authorities to help with implementation.
- A need to safeguard against the unintended consequences where local authority priorities are concerned.
- A need to consider both direct and indirect impacts.
- The potential for this to clash with Best Value principles.
- There is a need for alignment, coordination and collaboration with UK government and relevant UK bodies.
- The impact should be considered on all parties.
- Scottish Government contracts should have conditions to protect consumers.
- There is a need for an increased profile of consumer matters across the public sector.
- There is a need for consistency in educational or preventative messages across the public sector.
Q12: Beyond the actions set out in section 2, how should Scottish Government use its resources and powers to improve outcomes for consumers?
95. A total of 28 respondents opted to provide commentary in response to this question, with most comments made by very small numbers of respondents; many of which reiterated points made in response to earlier questions.
96. A few respondents made suggestions for ways of improving consumer representation and engagement. These included:
- Setting up consumer engagement groups along the lines of what has been established within the energy network sector; or setting up consumer panels in particular sectors such as the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission Consumer Panel.
- Setting up experience panels such as those set up ahead of the devolution of the new social security powers.
- Encouraging public bodies and private organisations to consider appointing consumer representatives to their boards and developing wider consumer engagement strategies.
- Establishing a Consumer Ombudsman for Scotland.
- Setting up consumer courts such as the Tayside In-Court Project and having one court in each sheriffdom; or setting up a specific consumer court to deal with low value consumer issues.
97. Points raised in response to earlier questions included reference to the Scottish Government:
- Prioritising consumers and creating a culture that places the interests of consumers at the heart of policy and decision-making; supporting consumer choice and driving consumer engagement.
- Helping to simplify the consumer landscape to make the process of resolving issues more simple; for example, making it easier for consumers to seek advice, obtain intervention and legal action where needed.
- Securing medium and longer term funding for Consumer Scotland so as to facilitate a strategic and evidence-based approach to consumer policy development.
- Setting up Consumer Scotland with a wide remit.
- Reviewing how data is recorded and collated by advice services and shared with other agencies; and ensuring effective data sharing across agencies. One respondent within the advice body/consumer org/complaint resolution sector suggested that all organisations holding data about individuals that can be used as Verified Attributes should be required to provide this information; another that all consumers should be provided with a safe, secure personal data store.
- Helping to improve the effectiveness of ADRs across Scotland. One local authority / trading standards organisation suggested,
"…. we think the Scottish Government could consider trying to tackle ADR problems through the Scottish justice system. Although many aspects of ADRs are reserved matters, the courts are a matter for Holyrood. It may be possible to have a "consumer court" to deal with relatively low value consumer issues in a manner that is very user-friendly and largely at-a-distance and online. It would of course need to be compulsory for businesses to engage with this if it were part of the formal justice system. It would have to be even simpler and more user-friendly that the Sheriff Court Simple Procedure and there would have to be safeguards allowing referral and appeal to traditional courts. But it may be possible to design something where 99% of the cases are resolved through straightforward, at-a-distance processes. We recognise that this would be a challenging proposal to achieve, but significant improvement on the current ADR system failure would be a very considerable achievement."
- Providing appropriate resources for enforcement to make the consumer protection landscape effective.
- Preserving and enhancing local advice networks and organisations by helping to develop collaboration and strategic partnerships with Consumer Scotland.
- Using the resources and expertise within the local authority system more effectively for enforcement issues.
- Supporting research.
Email: Erin McCreadie