Holes in our pockets

If your family includes an estate agent, a second-hand car dealer and a lawyer, it is easy to believe that you have seen it all.

But having run a consumer investigation over the last nine months at the request of Labour Shadow Business Secretary, Chuka Ummuna, I have now seen a lot more.

There are holes in our pockets as consumers and few of us are aware of how much we lose out.

So here are five conclusions from the investigation, set out in my report Confidence and Competitiveness:

1. Hidden losses can represent up to three times the amounts that you may be aware of.

2. The great majority of financial loss comes from a small percentage of problems. In financial terms, 2% of problems account for three quarters of all consumer losses.

3. The annual consumer detriment in financial services alone stands at around £11 billion pa.

4. The worst performing goods or services from a consumer perspective, measured by the level of complaints, are internet service providers, followed by Pay-TV and then bank accounts.

5. It matters where you live. Bradford is the number one complaints hotspot of Great Britain, followed by Manchester. The place with the least complaints per head across Britain is Kirkwall in the Orkney Islands.

In terms of what we know works, where consumers have confidence that the rules protect them, then things work well. People buy more. They are more open to innovation. They are more likely to switch when they need to. So confidence and competitiveness have to come together.

The good news is that we don’t need new rules to protect consumers. We just need to enforce the ones that we do have and make it easier for people to come together to defend their existing rights.

I therefore end with five recommendations. It is an independent report, but I was pleased to hear that these will all now be fed into the Labour Party Review – with a call to:

A. Set consumer confidence in the market as a policy and regulatory objective

B. Introduce Portuguese-style class actions, so that people with the same problems can come together more easily to get things put right

C. Establish a Fighting Fund for Consumer Enforcement, financed by half of all regulatory fines levied on companies for malpractice going to the fund

D. Set an Open Access Obligation, to encourage access to lifeline services based on a principle of inclusion – services which are essential for people to operate in a modern market economy and could include broadband and banking services

E. Set a consumer lead that works across government and which could include helping amplify the voices of consumers more effectively through civil society organizations.

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