Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Will White Paper Deliver Green Shoots for Consumers?

To clear their desks ahead of the summer (and clutter ours to no useful purpose), UK officials responsible for Business, Innovation and Skills have recently released a white paper outlining the government's approach to consumer policy, presumptively entitled "A Better Deal for Consumers".

It appears the paper has been prompted by the "downturn" and "the way consumer markets are changing because of the effects of globalisation, and the increasing use of technology by consumers and business to buy goods and services." Which should read: "a dog's breakfast of either previously announced or 'new' but belated attempts to help the vulnerable, tinker with consumer credit, and update enforcement powers and some consumer law."

Don't get me wrong. There's some good stuff in here. But it's beyond me, for example, why it's taken until 2009 to call for a quicker solution to the saga of the bank charges litigation (we've owned some of the key defendants for some time), or to begin the no doubt lengthy process of banning unsolicited credit card cheques, restricting the basis on which credit card issuers can reprice cards after issuing them or ensuring that credit cardholders' repayments are credited towards the most expensive aspect of their card bills first. And, while anything to help those who are overly indebted is to be applauded, we've already heard about the £290m of government funded loans in the budget. And, in the vast scheme of things it's hardly worth mentioning that the government "will invest a further £300,000 in free face to face debt advice [which] will give an immediate boost to debt advice capacity for six months and enable the equivalent of 12 full-time debt advisers to help an extra 1,200 people struggling with crisis debt."

The 'meat', if there is any in this paper, is simply a reference to the unfortunate process of gold-plating the Consumer Credit Directive, and "bringing forward, in due course, a new Consumer Rights Bill which will [no doubt gold-plate] the proposed EU Consumer Rights Directive". The latter exercise has of course been rather undermined by the lack of any real evidence of detriment (see the EC's Consumer Markets Scoreboard).

Guess it's a case of hurry up and wait for that better deal.

Here's an extract of the menu in more detail:

Helping the vulnerable:

  • Help to support homeowners and social housing tenants in arrears, and better legal protection for mortgage holders and tenants
  • ”Breathing space” relief for consumers overburdened with arrears on their utility bills and other unsecured debts
  • A new debtors’ guide to help those with debt problems understand their options
  • A new self-help debt advice toolkit to support debtors who want to negotiate repayment proposals with their creditors themselves
  • A Money Guidance service in the North West and North East of England to help people make better financial decisions and avoid problem debt
  • A new dedicated NHS helpline to offer healthcare support to those experiencing recession-related stress and anxiety
  • Improved guidelines for health and social care workers to support people with mental health problems and overburdened with debt
  • Reviews into how effectively energy and water suppliers protect vulnerable customers from disconnection and help customers with problem debt
  • Swift enforcement action against debt write-off scams and against firms who exploit the vulnerable in debt
  • Measures to ensure more responsible debt recovery practices by debt collectors and bailiffs
  • Programmes to reduce household energy bills.

Tinkering with consumer credit:
  • A review of the regulation of credit cards and store cards, including a ban on the sending of unsolicited credit card cheques
  • Ensuring consumers can access impartial support on choosing and managing credit cards and other consumer credit products
  • [Gold-plating] the Consumer Credit Directive, including new requirements on all lenders:
    • to explain their products to consumers adequately before they enter into a contract, including the consequences of any failure to repay
    • to check the credit worthiness of consumers before they lend to them to follow guidance from the OFT to tackle irresponsible lending practices
  • A review by the OFT of high cost credit markets
  • A continuing programme of reforms to make the credit market work effectively for consumers and lenders.
Updating enforcement powers:
  • A series of pilot projects to test the use of new powers to deliver compensation for consumers
  • A new national strategy and specialist team for internet enforcement on consumer issues
  • A central “Fighting Fund” to tackle rogues operating on a big scale
  • A new Consumer Advocate who will co-ordinate work to educate consumers and be a champion for groups of consumers who have suffered a loss at the hands of a business
  • A mechanism for consumers to get money back that has been recovered from overseas scams
  • Support for product safety testing of imported goods at major ports
  • Stronger penalties for rogue traders through new banning orders
  • Simplifying the confusing array of sources of information and advice to ensure consumers can more easily find the support they need
  • A new Consumer Rights Campaign.
Updating some consumer law:
  • Developing rules on new “digital” products to ensure the core principles of consumer protection apply
  • Looking at how the law on misrepresentation and duress can be made simpler, more transparent and accessible to business and consumers
  • Reforming consumer law and simplifying weights and measures legislation without diluting consumer protection
  • Modernising Trading Standards powers to help them deal more effectively with modern trading conditions

Posted via email from Pragmatist's Posterous

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