Issue 21

CONSUMER SCOTLAND AND THE WIDER LANDSCAPE

By Sheila Scobie, Director for Scotland, Competition and Markets Authority

Consumers and the consumer protection landscape face a period of change. Much of this reflects the fast-moving environment we live in and, presents both opportunities and risks.
As the UK’s competition and consumer authority, we seek to make a real difference every day for millions of consumers. The Sainsburys/Asda merger for example could have led to worse outcomes for consumers across a range of everyday items – in stores, online and at many petrol stations across the UK. So we blocked it. Another example of the real difference our work makes is our investigation into the funerals market. We want to understand why there have been large increases in the costs of funerals for what are often very vulnerable consumers.

At the CMA we are acutely aware of the shifting consumer landscape and have taken steps to adapt and address these issues. In February we launched reform proposals to ensure consumers are central to our work and that we can be more flexible in our work. These reforms are in response to the twin challenges posed by the growth of the digital economy and declining public confidence in market competition.

This commitment can already be seen in our work. Our Edinburgh office has expanded from 3 to over 40 people within a year, 8 work within our consumer protection and enforcement group. We continue to focus on issues that affect consumers across the UK. In particular, we are delivering on areas that will have a real impact for Scottish consumers, including energy, legal services reform in Scotland and the Transport (Scotland) Bill.

The current consumer landscape represents a history of policy development. With the newest addition being Advice Direct Scotland, launched earlier this year, and the soon to be established Consumer Scotland agency. Legislation on Consumer Scotland is expected from the Scottish Government in the next few weeks.

I was therefore very pleased to be invited to speak at the MacKay Hannah conference, The New Consumer Scotland Agency: Investigation is coming, at the end of April. This is a subject that has provided much interest and debate over recent years. Combined with the changing consumer landscape, there was a lot to discuss.
As I reflect on the speeches, questions and discussions from that day, it is clear there is broad support for Consumer Scotland. At the same time however, there are fundamental questions about the scope of its role and how it will fit into the landscape that remain unanswered.

It is fair to say that the landscape is busy and complex. It involves different organisations working at a national, regional and local level, with both separate and shared powers and responsibilities. A place can be found for Consumer Scotland in the current landscape, if it shares the commitment we all have to protect the interest of consumers and telling the world of our collective success at doing so. That is why the CMA has called for Consumer Scotland to be part of Consumer Protection Partnership (CPP).

The CPP is a UK wide network. It works to identify and prioritise areas where there is greatest harm caused to consumers and coordinates action by its members. As a CPP member Consumer Scotland would be able to work with others to meet shared commitments. The CPPs strategic oversight has worked well so far. Successes have included raising awareness of parcel delivery surcharging at a UK level; and, the work strand on home improvement and energy efficiency that is being led by Trading Standards Scotland with other major partner involvement from across the UK. As organisations across the consumer landscape face resource pressures, the CPP’s strategic role is also an important way to ensure resources are efficiently used and not wasted on duplication.

Partnership was also an important theme from the conference. The ability of Consumer Scotland to successfully partner with others in the landscape will be fundamental to its success. In his forward to the Consumer Scotland consultation in 2018 Jamie Hepburn made a similar point. He emphasised the importance of developing a consumer body that builds on the strengths of a complex system. This means working with enforcement agencies, regulators and other consumer agencies.

Linked to this is the need for a clear role for the agency – what powers and responsibilities will allow it to work successfully alongside its partners to deliver for consumers and businesses? That is why we at the CMA have called for clarity of the role for Consumer Scotland.

In addition, Consumer Scotland must be independent of government. It is fundamental that it is beyond political interference and is able to prioritise work based on issues that can be feasibly addressed. It should make recommendations based on evidence of consumer harm.

Consumer Scotland potentially has a lot to offer, as reflected in discussions at the recent MacKay Hannah conference. Over the next few months legislation will be introduced and discussed in Parliament. The CMA looks forward to participating in these matters and working with the new agency once it becomes operational in the next year or so.

By Sheila Scobie, Director for Scotland, Competition and Markets Authority

Issue 21

Issue 21

DEMENTIA, CONSUMERS IN SCOTLAND, CHILDREN & YOUNG PEOPLE'S MENTAL HEALTH AND WOMEN IN BUSINESS IN SCOTLAND

Setting our sights high for Scotland's women-owned businesses

Research undertaken by WES at the end of last year for the Federation of Small Businesses found that women owned businesses already contribute a staggering £8.8bn into the Scottish economy every year. That’s more than some of the stated economic “growth sectors” according to the Scottish Government Growth Sector statistics.

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