Which? calls for action to protect consumer rights as Brexit looms | Money

The systems that enforce British consumers’ rights need to be overhauled and a number of new bodies and measures put in place to ensure the public is properly protected at a time when funding has been cut, according to a significant new report.

The government is being urged to take the pressure off local authorities, which are administering consumer complaints through trading standards offices, and instead bring in national bodies to deal with problems.

The consumer group Which? has detailed how the current enforcement systems to protect consumer confidence are no longer fit for purpose, even though the UK has “one of the strongest consumer rights frameworks in the world”.

And the existing infrastructure looks set to come under further strain as the deadline for Britain’s exit from the European Union comes ever closer, it says.

In December, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) – the national competition watchdog – warned that it would not be able to undertake some of its key functions if Britain crashes out with no deal at the end of March.

The Which? report details a series of measures the consumer organisation wants to see taken in order to ensure protection is maintained at a time of tightening budgets and political overhaul:

The creation of a national body called the Consumer and Competition Authority, under the CMA, which would spearhead the enforcement of consumer rights.

A transparent and independent consumer product safety body.

Funding to local authorities through these central bodies.

Powers for the enforcement bodies to impose fines.

The facility for the UK to be linked to EU networks and intelligence-sharing systems post-Brexit.

“The enforcement system that makes sure that people can have confidence that businesses are complying, and that they can take some action, has been under strain for a number of years,” says Sue Davies, strategic policy partner at Which?.

“We are concerned that it is not fit to deal with the current way that people are buying, and the way that marketplaces work, but also with some of the potential challenges that might come in the future.”

Figures compiled from 2015 put the loss to the consumer through scams and via e-commerce problems at just under £15bn while consumers spent 1.2bn hours trying to resolve the issues.

However, problems are often addressed by local authorities via trading standards offices even if an issue is of national concern. At the same time, these services have had funding cut by more than 50% over the last seven years.

Davies highlights how the trading standards arm of Peterborough city council has been dealing with the alert surrounding an estimated 5.3 million faulty dryers made by Whirlpool brands Hotpoint, Indesit and Creda, simply because Whirlpool’s UK head office is located there.

She says that local authorities have lost some expertise because of cuts and need more support from central authorities. As a result, she adds, there is now an increasingly reactive system, which is being led by complaints.

“Government reviews have highlighted that a number of issues are falling through the gaps as the public enforcement systems become increasingly complaints-led, and are failing to proactively address areas of consumer harm in a complex and often global marketplace,” says the report.


Cuts in funding made to the system enforcing consumer rights over the last seven years


Annual amount estimated to have been lost by consumers through scams and e-commerce problems


Number of hours taken to resolve consumer problems per year (according to 2015 estimates)

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