Which? is warning that consumers will be left vulnerable to rip offs and scams due to ill-conceived and under-resourced changes announced by the government today.
Consumer minister Norman Lamb announced proposals that will abolish the consumer energy watchdog, Consumer Focus.
The move will pile more pressure on already over-stretched and under-resourced local trading standards officers and the Citizens Advice service.
Which? chief executive, Peter Vicary-Smith, said the government’s plans look set to ‘vandalise a system of consumer protection that is admired worldwide at a time when people most need protection.’
The changes are part of the government’s Consumer Landscape Review.
Local offices take on national issues
Local trading standards officers, who typically tackle street markets and rogue plumbers, will be required to do the majority of consumer law enforcement work.
Trading standards will now be expected to take on powerful national and international companies.
This will put considerable extra strain on local authority trading standards services at a time when councils are slashing their budgets and officers are being made redundant across the country.
Mr Vicary-Smith said: ‘The government knows that failing to enforce consumer law already costs the British public over £6bn a year but they seem determined to abandon consumers to increasingly sophisticated rip offs despite the harm this does to the economy.’
Law enforcement by committee
This chaotic and costly reorganisation will see the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) downgraded and merged with the Competition Commission.
The government claims that the new quango, the National Trading Standards Board, is to receive ‘increased funding of £10.5m’ for its work. However, this money is simply redirected current OFT enforcement money.
Mr Vicary-Smith said the government ‘seem intent on wasting millions of taxpayer pounds restructuring quangos and piling pressure on those who are already overstretched on the frontline.’
He added: ‘Giving OFT responsibilities to local trading standards officers and the Citizens Advice is like asking GPs to carry out heart surgery.’
Consumers exposed to rip offs and scams
The National Audit Office report found that enforcement spending is set to fall from the current £247m, to around £140 by 2014.
The government-funded watchdog, Consumer Focus, is also to be scrapped and its work challenging the government, powerful regulators like Ofgem and big businesses on behalf of consumers, will be handed over to the Citizens Advice.
Citizens Advice is already struggling to cope with the growing numbers of people seeking help on welfare benefits, housing and immigration problems.
Mr Vicary-Smith said: ‘The new consumer minister, Norman Lamb, has clearly been sold some dodgy advice himself. Rather than focusing on costly reorganisations, we want to see real action to show the Minister is taking his new role of protecting the nation’s consumers seriously.’