Where now for consumer advocacy in the UK?

As I explained in a posting at the time, a year ago today, the Coalition Government announced it’s so-called ‘bonfire of the quangos’ and the public servants who run and staff these bodies are still working through the consequences. My particular interest concerns the consumer movement.

The Government announced that Consumer Focus and the Communications Consumer Panel – on both of which I sit – would be abolished and that most of the functions of these two bodies would be transferred out of the public sector to Citizens Advice.

Over the summer, there was a three-month consultation over a consultation document that sought to suggest how the proposals might work. The closing for submissions has passed and Ministers are expected to make decisions by the end of the year. The plan is that the new arrangements will take effect in April 2013.

However, I have to say that, one year on from the original announcement, the Government’s plans for consumer advocacy in the UK are no clearer – indeed they are less clear.

Whereas originally the plan was that Consumer Focus’s work would go to Citizens Advice, there has recently been a top-level agreement between Citizens Advice and Which? that suggests that Consumer Focus’s work be divided between the two organisations but the allocation of functions is still only very indicative. Meanwhile separate discussions are going on in Scotland and Wales which could lead to very different arrangements for those two nations. Finally, Ofcom has now stated that it no longer wishes to close down the Communications Consumer Panel but would like it to continue.

However this all works out, what is abundantly clear is that the totality of resource devoted to consumer advocacy in Britain at a time of  chronic consumer need will be significantly less and, in reaching the new arrangements, we will have caused confusion and anxiety to those working hard for consumers and deflected their time and attention away from the pressing needs of consumers.

Sadly I will soon no longer be contributing to the valuable work of Consumer Focus and the Communications Consumer Panel. My term on the CF Board expires in January and my term on the Consumer Panel expires in March. This means that, in the first quarter of 2012, I will lose both my paid appointments (my other two appointments are unpaid), so I will be looking for new challenges (suggestions welcome).


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