A couple of years ago, we blogged about Ed Miliband taking the floor at a meeting organised by Which? where he aired his consumer agenda. Then last week he turned again to Which? – Citizens Advice was referenced as well – and declared how much they could help to make sure the consumer got a fair deal. Let’s see how much his views had changed on what needed fixing.
Two years ago, he was focusing on 5 things:
- Bank charges NB overdrafts – this was something a Financial Conduct Authority had to address pdq and not be a Lapdog but a Watchdog!! (Which? campaigning message)
- Control of the costs of train travel – making the inflation +1% cap a reality across all fares and all routes and why not car parking charges as well
- Energy markets – where a six supplier stranglehold made a nonsense of claims that this was a properly functioning competitive market place and where the older digitally disadvantaged consumer is barred from the most advantageous online tariffs.
- Low Cost Airlines – no more surprises to be allowed when suddenly late in the booking process, large new elements are added to the original tiny fare
- Pension Administration Charges – where dignity in retirement is protected by not allowing excessive admin charges swallowing up too large a slice of pensions.
There you have it. A questioner – your man from MAC – made the point that these were all private sector examples. Could Mr Miliband perhaps tell us how he wanted to strengthen the user voice in the public sector e.g the NHS? Ed acknowledged that this was something that past efforts had not got right and we need to look at it some more.
Energy and the theme of ‘broken markets’ plus the cost of living story is where he is at now. The consumer organisations are invited to help with getting more competitive markets and working with the old OFT – the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). Which?’s reaction to news of their role was suitably deadpan – they were working with the competition people already and were happy to do this more – details please. Their press release the next day on energy companies picked up on the politically hot vocabulary of the Miliband themes referring to ‘broken energy markets’.
Is Which? abandoning its traditional non-partisan approach to consumer issues and following the Labour pied piper? I doubt it – the prizes on offer are not big enough. Which? asked Ed at the 2012 meeting whether he was in favour of a Consumer Minister – he said he would think about it. What about the public sector – the consumer voice in the NHS? He said he would think about it.
And the thought about Consumers’ Association/Which? working with the Competition people and consumer protection organisations is hardly new. The Consumer Protection Partnership is there to do that. While CA is not a member of that body which is limited to organisations funded by government including the rump of the National Consumer Council, Consumer Futures, it works with all of them.
What is more interesting is whether Ed is serious about involving consumers directly and not working through organisations however devoted to the consumer cause? Why not take a look at the public sector through the prism of the user interest? God knows we would not want to see yet another re-organisation of the structures of patient engagement and consultation mechanisms of the NHS but how about some new powers, more responsibilities and a much higher profile? After all, it was a Labour government in the person of Alan Milburn that did away with the old Community Health Councils in 2003. The CHCs needed improvement – no question – but the sad thing is that none of the substitutes since have done any better – a sorry and dispiriting downhill spiral of expensive confusion, duplication and ineptitude whatever the government of the day.