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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.