It will be a crap day for consumers if government axes two bodies that have an outstanding track record of holding companies to account.
The origins of Consumer Focus, for whom I was privileged to be the first Chief Executive, date back to the 1970s, with the formation of the National Consumer Council. The Office of Fair Trading (OFT), the second possibly under threat, is in great form. Both organisations can genuinely claim to have reformed markets and saved consumers billions of pounds.
It is right to review the consumer and competition regime, if the aim is to speed up investigations and ensure that regulators themselves champion consumers. There is certainly work to do and the current system wasn’t doing all it could. But the costs of a botched job to save public expenditure will land on ordinary consumers, who face the stealth tax in future of companies allowed to overcharge. It is like robbing Peter and Paul at the same time.
Why does Ireland, after all, now have the highest consumer prices in Europe? An in-depth commission not so long ago concludes it was precisely because Ireland did not have bodies like Consumer Focus and the OFT.
Mike O’Connor, who took over from me at Consumer Focus, said on BBC radio this weekend – “Government has to take this decision and we wait to see what they have got to say.” Rightly, he defends the value for money of a wonderful team of people that he leads, in Cardiff, Glasgow, Belfast and London. “We cost the taxpayer in our core grant about £6m a year. Just last week we won a return to consumers of over £70m from the energy companies. And three months ago through our super complaint we changed the ISA rules so savers will get an extra £15m a year.”
And what a victory it was last week in relation to nPower and the energy bills – a tenacious, hard-fought campaign in the face of corporate and regulatory obfuscation. Well done to all involved – heads high now.