The interests of people in Wales must not be left unprotected or marginalised if the Government proceeds with its plans to abolish one of the major consumer advocacy groups in Wales, Consumer Focus. That’s the message of a report published today, Tuesday 10 January 2012 by the Commons Welsh Affairs Committee.
This is the committee's Seventh Report of Session 2010-12 (HC 1558-I and -II).
At the time of year when many families may be struggling with holiday debt and cold weather fuel bills, the committee says that the Government must ensure that Citizens Advice Cymru, which the Government is "minded" to task with taking on the advocacy functions of Consumer Focus Wales, maintains a strong, independent, consumer advocacy focused on the specific needs of people in Wales.
Consumer Focus Wales has until now operated in tandem with Citizens Advice, working in different and complementary ways to investigate and represent consumers' interests in their dealings with businesses, industry regulators and the UK and Welsh Governments. A significant aspect of their work is to ensure that consumers receive a fair deal in their daily lives. Advocacy is particularly important to the most vulnerable in Welsh society - including people on low incomes, people with disabilities, older people, and those living in rural areas.
In October 2010, the Government announced proposals to abolish Consumer Focus Wales and to transfer some or all of its functions to Citizens Advice Cymru. This has caused ongoing uncertainty. The committee says that the Government should now publish detailed plans for how Consumer Focus Wales' powers and responsibilities will be exercised in the future.
MPs are not wholly persuaded by the Government's reasons for abolishing Consumer Focus Wales, but recognise that given the current financial situation there is a strong case for examining whether consumer interests are represented in the most efficient and cost-effective way. However, the committee says that Government should provide guarantees that the best features of Consumer Focus Wales are protected in any successor body, including:
- statutory independence from interference by ministers or its parent organisation
- "Welsh focus" - ensuring that it concentrates predominantly on the special interests of consumers in Wales
- the present level of funding.
As consumer matters fall increasingly under the responsibility of the National Assembly for Wales, the committee calls for a review, before the end of this Parliament, on whether to devolve responsibility for consumer affairs to the National Assembly for Wales. The committee also argues that The Commission on Devolution in Wales should consider this matter when it reviews the powers of the National Assembly for Wales.
Comment from the Chair
David T.C. Davies MP, Chair of the Committee, said:
"We recognise that in the current financial climate we must ensure that consumer interests are represented - like everything else - in the most efficient and cost-effective way possible. Should the Government continue with its plans to abolish Consumer Focus Wales, ministers must ensure that its successor body has the same powers and resources. The new arrangements must not result in the interests of Welsh people being marginalised. We must maintain a strong, independent, Welsh focused consumer advocate, with the will and ability to challenge regulators when necessary, and so protect the interests of Welsh people - particularly those termed the most vulnerable - in their dealings with business and Government, both in Wales and the UK more widely.
We call on the Government to end without delay the uncertainty surrounding Consumer Focus Wales and look forward to its response to our recommendations."