co-operative reading

bruceVery many thanks to Bruce (Wood), developer and entrepreneur, who has handed me a well-thumbed, fabric-clad 1942 book “Consumers’ Co-operation in Great Britain’.

This tells me that Co-operatives UK, which I join at the beginning of November, started life from a Co-operative Congress in 1869.

The founding object, which I think is just great, was set as “the promotion of the practice of truthfulness, justice and economy in production and exchange.”

A community reinvestment act for the UK

Over at the Londlrs-logoon Rebuilding Society, I have been hearing from Naomi (Kingsley) about the emerging campaign coalition for a UK Community Reinvestment Act. The US legislation has been a great tool for getting banks to serve all communities, black or white, uptown or downtown, free of discrimination.

One first step, championed by Mick McAteer of the Financial Inclusion Centre, might be to extend the obligation of the new equalities legislation to the Financial Services Authority.

Or if George Osborne’s plan for a Consumer Protection Agency for financial services moves ahead, this could surely be part of the duties it has to open up data on who the banks serve or deny.

It feels like a good time for change.

corporate bribery?

From time to time, companies want me to shut up or want me to say nice things about them. Consumer watchdogs are the most trusted source of information on business, according to AccountAbility – up in the recession and up from five years ago.

I remember one of the accountancy firms withdrawing a promise of funding for inner city enterprise when I was at New Economics Foundation, because we had published an expose of their control on business life.  Nothing better for making us feel like we were on the right track! When at the National Consumer Council, we started to rate supermarkets and sure enough, a big basket of goodies arrived at our office with a note that we had been too mean to one of the poor corporates. It got sent straight back.

At a European telecoms company, in Spain, I was presented with a Real Madrid shirt signed by David Beckham shirt with ‘Mayo’ on the back. I left it there (left foot football not my strong point anyway).

dairyThis morning, a box with 48 new fair trade Cadburys Dairy Milk arrived special delivery on my desk – a present from Cadbury’s Global Head of Corporate Responsibility (perhaps as I’m on the Board of the Fairtrade Foundation). The fairtrade accreditation is pretty rigorous and Cadbury’s have just gone fair trade with their Dairy Milk bars. But free chocolates all round… not for me.

Good modern PR or good old fashioned corporate bribery?

Open rights

jim killockJim Killock works at the Open Rights Group, which defends your and my interests in the online world.

I met Jim this afternoon – one current concern of his is Phorm and the ways like this that our online relationships can be intercepted.

The UK Government, he argues, is likely to face criticism that our laws are not up to scratch compared to EU requirements.

Apples in a windfall

Over the last ten years, we have had countless energy strategies dropping like apples in a windfall.  fuelmx

The new plan is a welcome statement though of how start to move from where we are now to an economy more in line with environmental sanity. And I am really pleased to see that our campaigning, in partnership with others, for mandated social tariffs has been taken up. These are the lifeline rates open to vulnerable consumers, but which have been a mess for far too long. 

Higher energy prices may make sense but they are far from welcome because it tips more people into fuel poverty – I did some of the assessment on this for my Green Alliance report earlier this year. What will shape the consumer response, in my view, is whether the big money that is now levied on our energy bills is actually good value for money.

Is the energy market competitive? Are government programmes for renewables cost effective? Probably ‘no’ and ‘no’ but let the discussion begin…

My big move

After six and a half years working in the consumer field, I am making a move.

Towards the end of the year, I will be leaving Consumer Focus and taking up a new role with Co-operatives UK, which is the umbrella network or trade association for the co-operative movement.

The co-operative movement ranges from high street stores, such as those run by the Co-operative Group, through to worker-owned businesses such as the Edinburgh Bicycle Co-op, and from wind energy co-operatives through to the fast growing Phone Co-op. At the latest count, there are over 4,800 co-operative businesses in the UK, owned by 11 million people (and with a combined turnover of almost £29 billion).

I have loved setting up Consumer Focus and am proud of what we have done – there is a very strong team now across the organisation. But those who know me will also know that building an ethical economy is something that I have long been passionate about, from helping to start the Fairtrade Mark through to my recent book, Consumer Kids.

The world would be a better place with a little more co-operation and I am really privileged to have been offered the role – not to say a little nervous! I would welcome suggestions of what I should be doing when I get there… or what to find out more about before I do.

In praise of piracy?

piratesIt is pretty ironic that the crackdown on illegal file sharing targets people that the entertainments industry calls ‘pirates’, when in the public consciousness pirates are part of the nation’s heritage and freedom.

Thanks in part to Johnny Depp, pirates are also a big part of the world that children grow up in.

The debate around file sharing is still contentious, with industry pressing internet service providers to make illegal file sharers ‘walk the plank’ by having their internet access cut off, while public interest campaigners argue that the rules are designed by rampant vested interests and would make law-breakers of us all.

For a reasoned account of this, stripped of references to skull or crossbones, here is a talk at the Intellectual Property Crime Group by my colleague Jill Johnstone.

(Image from flickr user John-Morgan using a Creative Commons license)

It takes longer to pay off your credit card than your mortgage

With miminum repayments, it takes longer to pay off your credit card than your mortgage, I heard this morning at a packed meeting here of the Consumer Action network. We also talked about the rise of business bullying of regulators through funding judicial reviews.

With a Treasury White Paper on the way, we have the first session of our ‘focus on finance’ programme tomorrow morning, with John Howard presenting on an agenda for consumer-friendly reform of financial service regulation.

A good week for consumer rights

It has been a good week for consumer rights – or, if you like, a week in which Government has clearly taken on the mantle of the consumer cause. On Monday, we had the new theme of consumer rights in public services (something I can claim some initial credit for, though there is a long way to go to make this happen on the ground). Today, we see the launch of the new strategy for consumer policy – with the possibility of added powers (a consumer advocate, as the new Consumer Minister described it) for our work.

I am waiting to read the published document, but the vibes are good and the timing is right, as without consumer confidence and protection, there is little way out of economic uncertainty.

Consumer Focus itself published an expose on Tuesday of some of the green claims of companies, with a guide and some recommendations on building consumer trust in ethical offers at a time when people are feeling the pinch. denmark 136

Outside of Government, it was a great privilege yesterday afternoon to meet up with Martin Lewis and visit the team at – we are going to explore some ideas for collaboration on consumer rights.

Consumer power is on the rise!