Dealing with Service Providers and Consumer Protection (for Caseworkers and Researchers)

Added: 25 November 2008

  1. Introduction
  2. Consumer Protection Organisations
  3. The Big Five Regulators
  4. Other Sectoral Regulators

 

1.  Introduction

Consumer protection is a form of regulation which protects the interests of consumers. A significant proportion of casework can fall into consumer/provider quarrels, and for many constituents turning to their MP is  the final resort after a long period of frustrating dispute, most often with household utilities and telecoms providers.

Casework examples which spring to mind would be the son who continued to receive TV licence demands for his late father, despite informing the company of his death, or the woman who discovered she had been paying her next door neighbour’s water bills for the past 15 years due to a misconnection, only to be realised when a large family moved in next door and her bills went through the roof. Such constituents may find an MP’s timely intervention can work wonders in what can evolve into very stressful situations.

The first step for the caseworker should be to obtain copies of all relevant documents that the constituent has kept concerning the case – bills, demand notices and so on. These can copied again and sent to the relevant organisation with a cover letter asking for further investigation into the matter and clarification. An MP’s letter will be given far more attention at a higher level in the company than your constituent’s repeated – and futile – phone calls to junior call centre staff. In many cases, if the organisation is indeed at fault, the MP’s intervention will ensure the matter is resolved quickly and (if your constituent is lucky) with an apology. Sometimes the company will compensate to the level they deem appropriate, or will at least cover the cost of the constituent’s phone calls to their call centre.

However, if direct intervention with the company in question does not resolve the issue, you may wish to contact the regulator for that industry, or encourage the constituent to do so. If you’re a caseworker needing a direct line, some of the organisations listed will have MP’s Hotlines. Please see the W4MP Hotlines page here.

If you’re a researcher rarely involved in constituency casework, it’s still very helpful to have a basic idea of the regulators and what their remits are. Knowing who does what will help you get the information you need most efficiently when, for example, your MP makes a last minute decision to take part in an Adjournment Debate on water infrastructure maintenance. The statistics, reports and opinions of the watchdogs and regulators are generally well respected, so knowing where to turn can often yield a well researched, professional briefing from the guys who really know what they’re talking about.

 

2.  Consumer Protection Organisations

There have been some changes in the consumer protection landscape in recent years, with the merger of Energywatch, Postwatch and the National Consumer Council into Consumer Focus. A number of internet consumer advice sites have also sprung up, including of course the very popular Watchdog (www.bbc.co.uk/watchdog)  and Which? (www.which.co.uk).

A short remit of each organisation is given below:

Consumer Directwww.consumerdirect.gov.uk.  The first point of call to receive advice on how to make a complaint. Consumer Direct is a government-funded telephone and online consumer advice service offering clear, practical and impartial consumer advice (08454 04 05 06). They won’t complain to a service provider or trader on a consumer’s behalf, but they offer advice and refer the consumer to the right organization to help.

Consumer Focuswww.consumerfocus.org.uk.  A new statutory organisation, or consumer advocacy body, which covers energy and postal services in England, Wales and Scotland. It will be required to investigate complaints from energy consumers relating to a disconnection or a threat of disconnection and it will have the power to investigate energy and postal complaints made by or on behalf of vulnerable consumers. For consumers who have been disconnected or threatened with disconnection, Consumer Direct will often refer them to the Consumer Focus Extra Help Unit.

You may also find the Direct Government website useful – www.direct.gov.uk.  Aside from information about everything from benefits to recycling, there’s info on consumer rights in the ‘Government, Citizens and Rights’ section www.direct.gov.uk/en/Governmentcitizensandrights/Yourrightsandresponsibilities/DG_10015892.

 

3.  The Big Five Regulators

Regulators of some sectors have the power to apply the Competition Act in concurrence with the Office of Fair Trading. This means that they can apply and enforce the Act to deal with anti-competitive agreements or abuse of market dominance by companies in their sector. They do not necessarily deal directly with consumer complaints, but it is useful to know their remits and responsibilities.

The regulators with this power are:

Office of Gas and Electricity Markets (OFGEM)www.ofgem.gov.uk.  They promote competition between the big energy companies and are also responsible for ensuring there is adequate investment in the networks and that energy companies protect vulnerable customers and work to achieve environmental improvements. They do not directly investigate individual consumer complaints

Office of Water Services (OFWAT) (also covers sewerage industry) – www.ofwat.gov.uk.  They will refer direct complaints from consumers about their water companies to the Consumer Council for Water (see below)

Office of Communications (OFCOM)www.ofcom.org.uk.  Unlike the first two regulators, Ofcom are independent of the government, though they are answerable to parliament. Consumers can complain to Ofcom on a variety of communications issues, from problems with their radio reception to offensive content on television or radio. However, Ofcom will not intervene in individual disputes with telecoms providers. They also steer clear of TV licensing problems

Office of Rail Regulation (ORR)www.rail-reg.gov.uk.  They regulate the safety and economy of Britain’s rail service, as provided by Network Rail. Consumers will need to complain to Network Rail in the first instance but the ORR’s Customer Correspondence Team may be able to take a complaint further

Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) www.caa.co.uk.  An independent regulator, its activities include economic regulation, airspace policy, safety regulation and consumer protection.  They’ll advise you to take up a complaint with the airline involved and then the Air Transport Users Council (see below).

 

4.  Other Sectoral Regulators

The following organisations are the ones you’re most likely to come across, but the degree to which they can become involved in individual customer complaints varies.

Office of Fair Trading (OFT)www.oft.gov.uk.   A non-ministerial government body which promotes and protects consumer interests while making sure businesses are competitive and fair. It encourages complaints (08457 22 44 99) but cannot  promise to investigate all complaints it receives.

Water – www.ccwater.org.uk.  Consumer Council for Water – independently represents water and sewerage service customers. Takes up consumers’ complaints if they have tried and failed to resolve issues directly with their water and sewerage companies.  They aim to settle 70% of complaints within 20 working days.

Contact phone numbers depend on the region you live in, and can be found on the website.

Postal Services – www.psc.gov.ukPostal Services Commission (Postcomm) – a non ministerial government department which regulates the postal market , including Royal Mail. It cannot investigate individual complaints.

Air Travel – www.auc.org.uk.  Air Transport Users’ Council (AUC) – the consumer council for air travellers, funded by the CAA. They will investigate complaints on behalf of an individual, provided the individual has not received a satisfactory resolution from the airline in question.

Advertising and Promotions – www.asa.org.uk.  Advertising Standard Authority (ASA) – investigates complaints about advertisements, direct marketing or sales promotion. It can put a stop to misleading, harmful or offensive adverts, ensure sales promotions are fairly run and help reduce junk mail. They have an online complaints system or they can be contacted on 0207 492 2222.

Financial Services – www.fsa.gov.uk.  Financial Services Authority (FSA) – an independent body financed by the financial services industry and accountable to parliament. The FSA regulates most financial services markets, exchanges and firms, from the largest insurance providers to individual self-employed financial advisers. It sets the standards that they must meet and can take action against firms if they fail to meet the required standards.

Food and drink – www.food.gov.ukFood Standards Agency (FSA) – an independent government department set up to protect the public health and consumer interests in relation to the food industry. It’s the job of the FSA to oversee local authority enforcement of food standards law, so they don’t deal directly with consumer complaints. Consumers can report incidents where they feel their consumer rights have been compromised, for example the Agency runs a hotline to gather information on known or suspected fraudulent activity in the sale or marketing of food. They will then assist local authorities to investigate the claims.