The Consumers' Association has not given up its radical campaigning or its independence

Richard Colbey's insinuations that the Consumers' Association (CA) is jettisoning its core principles of fierce independence and fearless campaigning based on rigorous research ("Which side is Which?", 11 October) are wrong.

Colbey declined our offer to discuss his concerns with my senior staff when he approached us while researching his piece. Had he done so, his arguments, and his article, would have fallen away.

We have done more not less campaigning in recent years. What organisation led the campaign to take food safety from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, is the major funder of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, led the campaign to get GM foods labelled? More recently, you have only to look at media coverage of our "Rip-off Britain" campaign against car-industry cartels to see that the suggestion that CA is moving away from its mission to defend consumers against shoddy business practice through "radical campaigning" is just wrong.

It is curious that Colbey takes issue with legal advice offered by CA lawyers which he says may "in due course be proved right". In both the cases he cites our lawyers gave accurate advice. He may not like those laws. But our duty is to give the right advice to our members. To give consumers false hopes, based on what we wished the law was rather than on what it is, could lead to costly court actions and almost certain defeat. That really would be shoddy, maybe even negligent, and exactly the kind of behaviour that gets lawyers a bad name with consumers.

The most serious accusations in the article are that CA is somehow "surrendering" its independence and falling down on the quality of its research. However, the examples Colbey gives to support this wild claim can be used to disprove his case. He says the broadcasting of Which? onAir on a Sky channel would hamper our ability to criticise News Corporation's communications strategy. Nonsense - we would never operate on any channel without complete editorial control. We would never put our commercial activity before our duty to protect consumers.

And as for those assertions about shoddy, downmarket research, did Colbey not see our devastating report into high-street banks or our report on poor ISA advice in the latest issue of Which? (four pages); or the exposure of wholesale consumer dissatisfaction with the General Medical Council's complaints handling in the latest issue of Health Which? (five pages). These were all backed up by meticulous research.

He says the emphasis in Which? now seems to be on publishing research into cheaper goods. Well, I do not consider mortgages, savings accounts, holidays or items such as cars or widescreen TVs to be "cheap goods". What matters isn't the price but the importance to consumers - we regularly survey our readers and know that they are as interested in the price and quality of smaller-ticket items which they buy regularly as they are on less frequent major purchases.

Which? spends more than £1 million a year on projects at its bespoke testing centre, and the same on in-depth external research to test around 70 products. In total we spend around £3 million on financial, services and product research - no small beer.

Colbey asserts that Consumers' Association research is "often sloppy". How rich, from the author of such an ill-founded diatribe masquerading as journalism.

Sheila McKechnie
Director, Consumers' Association
London NW1

This article first appeared in the 18 October 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Will Peter secure peace in Ireland?