The current structure for consumer enforcement is far too reliant on “increasingly overstretched” local authority Trading Standards Services and is “on the verge of collapse”, a report from Which? has claimed.
The consumer rights group calls in the report for the responsibilities of the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to be expanded to create a Consumer and Competition Authority, which would proactively lead on the enforcement of consumer rights and fair trading law.
Which? is also advocating for an independent product safety body that could provide specialist expertise and take on issues of national significance.
It claimed that the need for fundamental change was reinforced by Brexit. “There has already been speculation that the CMA’s consumer protection work could suffer as a result of having to take on much of the competition work that is currently done at European level, so it’s crucial that a comprehensive consumer enforcement system is equipped to handle that additional burden.”
The report also urges the Government to:
- give fining powers to consumer enforcers;
- give the Food Standards Agency’s National Food Crime Unit investigatory powers;
- make the display of food hygiene ratings a requirement across the UK, as is already the case in Wales and Northern Ireland;
- reform the dispute resolution and ombudsman systems, “to ensure firms that rip off their customers can no longer avoid being held accountable”.
Caroline Normand, Which? Director of Policy, said: “British consumers have strong rights and protections on paper, but a broken enforcement system means rogue firms can rip off customers or dismiss their complaints – and get off the hook far too easily.
“As Britain prepares to go it alone outside the European Union, now is the time for fundamental reforms to ensure consumers are properly protected from online scams, rip-off prices and unsafe products.”
Cllr Simon Blackburn, Chair of the Local Government Association’s Safer and Stronger Communities Board, said: “Local authority trading standards and environmental health teams continue to work hard to protect the public from doorstep and online scams, rogue traders and loan sharks.
“The answer to this problem is not to take funding, resources and expertise from councils to create new national bodies or to expand existing organisations, as these will lack the intelligence - and currently the powers - to take effective action at a local level against criminals.
“Instead, with the number of trading standards officers having more than halved since 2009 and budgets to this service having almost halved since 2011, government needs to use the forthcoming Spending Review to address the funding shortfall that local government faces.”
Cllr Blackburn also urged the Government to “stop adding to the ever increasing enforcement burden being placed on councils’ regulatory services without providing councils with the resources to take action to maintain its vital but varied role protecting local residents”.