A statutory body to represent the interests of Scottish consumers will be set up under a new bill introduced to the Scottish Parliament.
The Consumer Scotland Bill will create Consumer Scotland as an organisation that will identify areas of harm to consumers and recommend solutions, working to generate improved service, greater value for money and better buying choices for shoppers.
The idea, a manifesto pledge of the Government, arises because of evidence that, in specific markets, Scottish consumers behave differently and have different needs from consumers in the rest of the UK. While the reasons for this have not yet been fully analysed or understood, ministers believe that at present there is no dedicated mechanism delivering improved, targeted outcomes for Scottish consumers.
Consumer Scotland's principal functions will be:
- providing consumer advocacy and advice, with a view to reducing harm to consumers, increasing their confidence in dealing with supplier businesses, and increasing the extent to which public authorities take consumer matters into account;
- representation, by providing advice and information to ministers, local authorities, regulators and others, and representing consumers' views to them;
- research and investigation into consumer matters, including particular business sectors or practices;
- provision of advice and information to consumers.
It is particularly directed to have regard to the interests of vulnerable consumers, which includes those on low incomes, of pensionable age, the disabled or chronically sick, and people in remote areas who as a result have “fewer or less favourable options as consumers”.
It is thought that the bill will extend to cover legal services. Responding to a consultation that preceded the bill, the Law Society of Scotland expressed support for the proposals, on the view that the Society had found a gap created by the absence of a single consumer body with the right expertise, knowledge and capability to engage and consult with when it was are considering regulatory and other reforms.
Business Minister Jamie Hepburn said of the bill: “This is an important milestone in our work to make sure that a fairer Scotland means fairer outcomes for consumers. Consumer Scotland will be a dedicated champion for everyone across Scotland, focused on investigating consumer harm and developing solutions to tackle it.
“This kind of champion is needed more than ever. Between rising costs and reduced access to services like local banks, consumers need a strong voice to speak for them, and to bring public, third sector and private organisations together to find practical answers to these problems.
Which? director of advocacy Caroline Normand added: “Scottish consumers have told us about their deep concerns in many areas, from diminishing day-to-day banking services to patchy telecoms connections, and our research has exposed the impact these issues have had on trust in these essential industries.
“The move to create a dedicated consumer body backed by the Scottish Government to tackle these chronic issues is very positive. By putting a duty on public bodies to prioritise consumer interests, as well as providing adequate funding, the Scottish Government can ensure Consumer Scotland can play a crucial role in improving the lives of ordinary people.”