This consultation seeks your views on how the Scottish Government can best use powers on consumer advocacy and advice. As we set out in the following sections, although these powers are narrow, consumers are too important to the health of our economy and the trajectory of fairness for our ambitions to be similarly limited.
A key aim of our work is to establish Consumer Scotland so that there is a dedicated, evidence-led approach to identifying and understanding consumer harm and inequality in Scotland. However, we also accept that the body will only be as effective as the policy environment that surrounds it. For this reason, the consultation has two distinct parts:
- Section 1 – our proposals for establishing a body called Consumer Scotland, which will carry out in-depth investigations into areas of most pressing harm to consumers in Scotland, and use its findings to advocate for specific and practical solutions;
- Section 2 – general Scottish Government policy for consumers, including providing more holistic advice services, improving the impact of consumer advocacy, and increasing the consideration of consumer interests in public policy-making, potentially through development of a statutory duty for public authorities in Scotland.
These sections represent our analysis of how we can best enhance the existing consumer landscape. This does not mean that our recommendations are the only solutions, and we are open to additional proposals or improvements to those we set out here. This formal consultation is also only one part of the work we will be taking forward to ensure the views of those who know consumer issues best or are most affected by them are heard. In the coming months, we will continue to hold meetings and conduct user research to ensure we build the fullest picture possible.
When consumers suffer harm, it is essential that they are empowered to exercise their rights to redress, and that, where this harm is widespread or goes unresolved, there are systems in place to tackle the offending behaviour and prevent it in the future. At present, these roles are fulfilled by Citizens Advice Scotland ( CAS), which delivers statutory functions to provide advice to individual consumers and campaigns for better consumer outcomes generally; the Consumer and Markets Authority ( CMA) and Trading Standards services, which enforce consumer law; and a range of ombudsmen, which work to resolve consumer disputes.
This is a complex landscape, which sometimes makes it difficult for consumers to know where to turn and for consumer organisations to collaborate and share information.
Many aspects of consumer protection needed to address this are reserved to Westminster, including the regulation of the sale and supply of goods and services, guarantees, hire-purchase and trade descriptions. We do not propose to stray into these areas. However, following passage of the Scotland Act 2016, the Scottish Government gained powers in relation to:
- the provision of consumer advocacy by, or with the agreement of, a public body.
- the provision of consumer advice by, or with the agreement of, a public body.
In addition, provision was made for the Scottish Government to allocate levy funds from the energy and postal sectors to fund consumer advocacy and advice in Scotland in those sectors.
These powers mean we can influence how the consumer voice is represented to regulators, policy makers and industry and allow us to provide publicly funded assistance to help individuals understand and exercise their consumer rights. In addition, there are many key markets in Scotland – such as legal services, water, education and health – which are devolved and where policy decisions or unscrupulous trading practices can have profound impacts on consumers.
Finally, the Scottish Ministers also now have the power in certain circumstances, acting jointly with the Secretary of State, to refer a market for investigation by the Competition and Markets Authority if they have reasonable grounds for suspecting that one or more features of the market are preventing, restricting or distorting competition in the supply or acquisition of specified goods or services. Using this power requires the cooperation of the UK Government, but it still offers a means for Scottish Ministers to draw attention to and seek remedies for market issues of particular concern in Scotland. We will therefore ensure that Ministers are able to make use of it where appropriate.
As the foregoing paragraphs make clear, the division of responsibility for protecting consumers is complicated, and any action the Scottish Government takes to improve consumer outcomes must and will respect the areas of consumer protection which remain reserved to the UK Government. However, the devolution of even limited powers has provided scope to develop a consumer policy that focuses on creating two things: a culture that prioritises consumer fairness, and more effective mechanisms to redress unfairness where it occurs.
1. Do you have any comments on the consumer landscape in Scotland?
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