How the coalition is failing to stand up for consumers

The government has consistently resisted measures which would tackle the living standards crisis.

Last month, David Cameron tweeted that "we are on the right track - building an economy for hardworking people". But people across the UK won’t feel that at all – they only thing they can feel is their pockets being hit. Average earnings are £1,477 a year lower than they were at the time of the last general election. This means that, in real terms, workers are on average earning today the same as they were in 2001.

And the promises were so big. Before the 2010 general election, the Tories said: "We want to see an economy where not just our standard of living, but everyone’s quality of life, rises steadily and sustainably."

It has done anything but. Working families are worse off with energy bills having risen by £300, while the profits of the energy companies have soared. It is yet another year of inflation-busting fare rises will just add to the pressure on household budgets. Instead of standing up for hard-pressed commuters, this government is siding with the private train companies and helping them to increase their profits at the expense of passengers.

Consumers are a key driver of the economy, creating the demand for goods and services which provide jobs, stimulate innovation, create wealth and tax take. In a functioning economy, knowledgeable, informed and empowered consumers can drive up standards, supply and value for money as well.

In government, Labour recognised this and strived to be the party of consumers for the benefit of the economy. We built consumer interests into regulation, supported Trading Standards and created Consumer Focus which was respected by all stakeholders. We got a fairer deal for purchasers of energy and other basic necessities, and ensured an ever increasing standard of living - something this government has failed to emulate, as prices rise higher than incomes.

So what are ministers doing for consumers? Despite the rhetoric, the government’s recently published Draft Consumer Rights Bill, is little more than window dressing. Whilst steps to cover areas such digital downloads are welcome, reflecting arguments which we have been making on the need for protections for consumers in new markets, the Bill is a huge missed opportunity to help hard-pressed consumers by ensuring a fair deal on energy prices, tackling high rail fares and challenging the cost of living crisis engulfing Britain.

On top of this, ministers are ignoring the other pieces of the jigsaw such as enforcement, advice and funding. Their changes to consumer protection since 2010 have been muddled and have created uncertainty and confusion: They’ve abolished Consumer Focus and then set-up a new body – Consumer Futures – to do the same job. This is alongside a slashing of funding to local authorities which has significantly impacted Trading Standards, making it harder for consumers to uphold their rights and seek redress. Aggregate trading standards funding has dropped from £245m to £142m since 2010, with hundreds of jobs being lost estimated to amount to around 15% of the total workforce upholding and enforcing consumer rights. And through the Bill, the government now want to remove the ability of Trading Standards officers to make inspections unannounced. In response, the Trading Standards Institute has said it "would urge the government to refrain from removing the power of trading standards officers to enter premises unannounced. It is an essential tool for them to use and it is vital that when complaints are made, councils can investigate and tackle the problem immediately."

Ministers’ rejection of our calls for better standards in the private rented housing sector and their refusal to adopt a Code of Conduct for the banking and insurance industry reflect how they are standing up for the wrong people and their lack of concern for helping hard-pressed families. Similarly, the limited collective redress measures proposed in the Bill fall short of what groups of consumers across the UK need to obtain effective consumer redress when they have been wronged.

Simply, this government has resisted measures which would tackle the real living standards crisis which people are facing.

However, Labour is clear – if in government we would be taking action to implement a One Nation programme to boost people’s living standards. We need a tough new energy watchdog to force suppliers to pass price cuts onto consumers, and to ensure the over-75s automatically get the cheapest tariff.

Likewise, we’ve seen rail fares up 9% a year, after the government allowed train operators to increase some fares by up 5% above the supposed ‘cap’. We would be put passengers first by banning train companies from increasing fares above the cap set by ministers so that fares would be rising by no more than 1 per cent above inflation under Labour in each year of this parliament

And we are already examining plans to bolster collective action, empowering consumers so they can club together more easily to seek redress, as part of our policy review, led by consumer champion Ed Mayo last year. During the passage of the Bill, we will be pressing ministers for a strong, accessible collective redress mechanism, one which mirrors the Portuguese and Australian models that remove the legal excesses and is not a US-style class action, where litigation is dominant.

We know that David Cameron and his government won’t stand up for consumers. It’s time for him to wake up and adopt Labour’s plan to help working people – not keep filling the pockets of those at the top that exacerbates the cost of living crisis.

David Cameron speaks during a press conference at the end of the G20 Leaders' Summit on September 6, 2013 in St. Petersburg, Russia. Photograph: Getty Images.

Ian Murray is shadow minister for employment relations, consumer and postal affairs, and Labour MP for Edinburgh South

 

Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.