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 the Labour MP for Edinburgh South. He was previously shadow minister for employment relations, consumer and postal affairs, and shadow secretary of state for Scotland between May 2015 and June 2016. 

 

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.