Issue 22

CONSUMER SCOTLAND - LET'S BUILD ON OUR PROUD LEGACY

By Amanda Britain, Housing, Health & Wellbeing Specialist/CIH Scotland Board, Vice Chair, Iriss; Chair, Peter Gibson Memorial Fund

Consumer advocacy has a proud history in Scotland. Forty years of championing consumers by the Scottish Consumer Council and its successor bodies until the sad closure of Consumer Futures in 2014. These bodies had a hugely impressive track record, achieving significant impact across diverse topics, time after time shaping public policy in the interests of consumers and demonstrating an unshakeable commitment to social justice alongside a willingness to tackle difficult issues and powerful interests.

Consumers are by nature disparate groups with different needs, making it harder for their voices to be heard. Technology is transforming our lives, presenting new challenges for consumer protection and advocacy. And there is persistent and growing inequality between rich and poor, with a continuing and growing challenge to protect the interests of the least advantaged members of society.

This ever changing context underlines the importance of a strong consumer advocacy body and the need for such a body in Scotland today. So what can the new Consumer Scotland learn from the history of consumer advocacy in Scotland?

Championing Consumers: The story of consumer advocacy in Scotland 1975 to 2014 records the achievements of the Scottish Consumer Council, Consumer Focus Scotland and Consumer Futures over these forty years and draws out the key features that underpinned this impressive legacy.

Strong leadership

A strong governing body with the right mix of consumer interest expertise and strategic experience provided essential leadership for the SCC and its successors. The SCC and its successors were fortunate in the many talented board members and directors that were attracted by its commitment to social justice. A positive working environment and culture encouraged people to stay, and to work to their full potential.

Values and attitudes

Certain attitudes and values characterised the work of the SCC and its successors, including

  • persistence and tenacity
  • confidence in articulating the consumer interest in the face of professional or provider opposition
  • a willingness to be both reflective and self-critical
  • being open to challenge and debate

Effective and transparent workplanning

The SCC and its successors demonstrate how a body with a wide remit must be able to make strategic
decisions about how, why and where it will focus its resources to deliver the best results. They used a structured workplanning process based on the following criteria

  • the significance of the work for disadvantaged groups
  • the level of detriment – either that many people were affected, or that fewer people were very seriously affected
  • whether there were other organisations working in the area
  • the likelihood of bringing about change

A robust and wide-ranging evidence base

The credibility of a consumer organisation depends on being able to articulate the collective consumer voice and campaign for change on the basis of robust research and evidence. Publishing just under 250 major reports on issues facing consumers in Scotland

Connectedness with the consumer experience

Consumer organisations need effective mechanisms for seeking grass-roots consumer views and feeding them back into policy and practice. This is partly achieved through research, but can also include setting up bodies like Consumer Network, or panels of consumers to assist with particular projects, as well as forging direct links with particular groups of consumers in relation to specific pieces of work.

Working in partnership with others

Partnerships forged by the SCC and Consumer Focus Scotland with a wide range of partners were pivotal to their success. The SCC was not afraid to work with the professions, with business and with service providers, engaging directly with organisations which had traditionally had no interest in working with consumers and service users.

The SCC and its successors learned that by engaging in the policy making process at the earliest stage, and by developing relationships with other stakeholders it was most likely to achieve change.

Using specialist expertise

The experience of the SCC and its successors from its early days shows the benefit which can be obtained from the use of both specialist committees of the board and external advisory or working groups on particular projects, drawing their membership widely from interested stakeholders and experts in the area under consideration.

Strong communication skills

Effective advocacy depends on excellent communication skills. Over the years the SCC and its successors took different approaches. A press and publications officer was employed to lead the SCC’s work in this area at one time. In later years media specialists were contracted to provide media training for staff and to issue press releases and manage press contacts.

Ten principles that should underpin a consumer-focused consumer protection and representation framework in Scotland are

  1. be independent and seen to be independent
  2. be secure and sustainable
  3. have statutory powers to protect consumers
  4. be accountable to funders, the Scottish Parliament and the public
  5. be sufficiently well-funded to carry out its role effectively
  6. cover all sectors which affect consumers
  7. represent the interests of all consumers in Scotland, with a particular responsibility for those who are most vulnerable or disadvantaged
  8. be focused on prevention
  9. have a strong research focus to support robust consumer policy conclusions
  10. retain an outward focus, representing the consumer interest at appropriate national and international policy levels, and in doing so maintain effective links with consumer bodies elsewhere in the UK and overseas

There is no better way to articulate the consumer voice and to ensure that the consumer voice is heard at the heart of policy making and service delivery than through a consumer advocacy body. Such a body does not need to be large. The SCC and its successors demonstrated that the key ingredients are effective leadership and governance, staff with commitment and the ability to research consumer experience and turn this into policy positions that deliver real benefit for people in Scotland.

Here’s to the new Consumer Scotland building on Scotland’s proud history and successful approach to consumer advocacy – and achieving its own impressive legacy.

By Amanda Britain, Housing, Health & Wellbeing Specialist/CIH Scotland Board, Vice Chair, Iriss; Chair, Peter Gibson Memorial Fund

Issue 22

Issue 22

THE PUBLIC SERVICES CHALLENGE, DEBATING OUR NHS, TRANSFORMING RAIL IN SCOTLAND AND SCOTTISH CONSUMER RIGHTS

Scotland's public sector challenges are everyone's responsibility

Twenty years on from the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, much is made of Scotland’s distinctive approach to public services. There’s no doubt that there are some real successes, like the Scottish Government’s approach to social security, where the rhetoric of dignity, respect and fairness has so far been matched by the reality. But Scotland is facing the same headwinds that are affecting public services all over the world. And we are more exposed than ever before, as the Scottish Government is now responsible for taxes that fund around 40% of devolved spending.

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