Consumer advocate should be truly 'independent'

Government plans to create the post of a consumer advocate tasked with co-ordinating efforts to educate consumers on their rights have been given a cautious welcome.

The appointment of the advocate was set out in the government’s Consumer White Paper.

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) said that the move would be positive but only if the post is genuinely intended to improve customers’ understanding of their legal rights.

An effective consumer advocate could also help businesses by giving customers the information they need to resolve problems in the quickest, most efficient way, the BRC added.

However, the business organisation argued it is vital that the advocate’s position is an unambiguously independent one.

To secure that independence and to simplify the way that consumer information is handled, the creation of the new post should also see a rationalisation of the confusing range of consumer education bodies which already exists, the BRC continued.

These include the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Office of Fair Trading and Trading Standards.

Stephen Robertson, the director general of the BRC, said: “Responsible retailers go well beyond the legal minimum to meet customers’ needs and put things right if they go wrong.

“A consumer advocate will only be worthwhile if it actually improves customer education and advice. It must not be just a gesture. The government should make the role independent of campaigning bodies such as Consumer Focus, particularly if the advocate is given the power to bring collective legal cases.”

Mr Robertson added: “Most consumer problems are sorted out face-to-face in store but improving access to the other options that already exist is good for customers and retailers when it leads to a speedier more efficient resolution.”

Plans for a single, simplified consumer rights law were also welcomed by the BRC, although it said the government was right to wait until it is able to include the provisions of the EU Consumer Rights Directive, which is currently being developed.