The end of the dream that was Consumer Focus

At the time of the last Labour Government, there was a grand project to pull together all the statutory consumer bodies – most representing consumers in a particular regulated sector – into one integrated consumer voice.  Ofcom resisted the inclusion of its newly-formed Consumer Panel, the Department of Transport kept Passenger Focus outside the scheme, and the possibility of including CCWater was eventually made the subject of a future statutory review.

But the relevant legislation did merge Postwatch, Energywatch and the National Consumer Council into a new body which the Act called the New National Consumer Council but the organisation itself branded Consumer Focus. Funding for Consumer Focus came from three sources: from the big six energy companies for the energy work, from Royal Mail for the postal work, and from the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills for the work on the general economy which included a bit of communications work on issues like switching and mobile.

In the run-up to the General Election of 2010, things looked pretty good for Consumer Focus. The BIS funding was reasonable given the economic circumstances and it was proposed that a new post of Consumer Advocate be created and located in Consumer Focus. Then came the Coalition Government and the so-called ‘bonfire of the quangos’ via the all-embracing Public Bodies Act.

So the review of the position of CCWater never took place, the idea of a Consumer Advocate was abandoned, and the Government decided that Ofcom’s Consumer Panel – by then called the Communications Consumer Panel – and all the work of Consumer Focus should be transferred to Citizens Advice and Citizens Advice Scotland.

Ofcom was originally willing to see the Panel go to Citizens Advice but changed its mind and instead decided to retain the Communications Consumer Panel and the Advisory Committee for the Older and Disabled but to merge them (a process which formally requires a statutory instrument under the Public Bodies Act but the relevant SI has still not been passed).

Meanwhile the work of Consumer Focus outside energy and posts was transferred to Citizens Advice a year ago with much reduced funding from BIS. The remaining parts of Consumer Focus have been rebranded Consumer Futures and transfer to Citizens Advice at the end of this month. The last Board meeting of Consumer Futures takes place today and last night there was a farewell dinner for past and present Board members of Consumer Focus/ Consumer Futures.

So, where does this leave us? In my view, it leaves us with a consumer voice in the regulated sectors which is much less well resourced and much weaker than before this grand project began. It also leaves us with a very uneven representation of consumers in different regulated sectors:  there is a statutory, stand-alone consumer voice on communications within the regulator; there are statutory, stand-alone consumer voices for transport and water outside the regulators; and there are consumer voices for energy and posts in a special unit of a non-statutory organisation.

Finally, I must declare that I am far from a disinterested observer of all this. I was the Member for England on the Communications Consumer Panel for its first eight nd a half years; I was the Greater London Council members on Postwatch for its last three years; I was a member of the Board of Consumer Focus for its first three years; and, for the last two years, i have worked with CCWater colleagues in my current role as Chair of the Customer Challenge Group at South East Water.

I wish all my colleagues well in all the consumer organisations mentioned in this posting. At this time of austerity more than ever, consumers need a strong, properly-resourced voice across the different market sectors, especially where choice of service provider is difficult, limited or non-existent. And, one way or another, consumer bodies have to work more closely together because most of the time consumers do not see their lives through the prism of a particular industry sector and often the most vulnerable face similar issues across sectors.

Footnote: This blog posting was published as a feature in the magazine “Utility Week”.


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