The Scottish Government’s policy paper on consumer protection rightly makes the case for these services to be run in Scotland, but its solution is another predictable centralisation of services. Devolution or independence shouldn’t stop at Holyrood.
The Scottish Government has published a paper ‘Consumer Protection and Representation in an Independent Scotland: Options”. The paper recognises the fundamental importance of providing a robust legal framework of consumer protection, supported by consumer bodies with a voice strong enough to be heard, and powerful enough to take action when consumers are harmed or at risk. This is all fine and good and a welcome absence of deregulation rhetoric for a change.
At present most consumer protection matters are reserved to the UK Parliament, but responsibility for enforcing consumer protection lies with local authorities’ trading standards departments. In addition, responsibility for consumer education, information, advice and advocacy in certain subject areas is reserved to Westminster whilst other related areas (such as policy relating to legal education and financial capability) are devolved. UNISON Scotland has argued that consumer protection should be devolved based on the subsidiarity principle.
The paper sets out a number of issues that an independent Scotland could address including nuisance calls, delivery charges and the regulation of pay day loans. However, with the possible exception of delivery charges, these issues could just as easily be addressed in a UK framework and certainly under greater devolution. While these are important issues, they are clearly not as important as some big consumer protection schemes such as the pensions guarantee scheme or protection of bank deposits. These do not feature in the paper and some would argue are the sort of schemes that benefit from the economy of scale the UK can deliver.
The case for consumer protection in an independent Scotland is fairly made in the paper and reflects the arguments we have previously made for devolving many of these services. The paper also makes reference to the 2012 Audit Scotland report on trading standards. That report stated “that the long-term viability of councils’ trading standards services is under threat, and urgent action is needed to strengthen protection for consumers”. While we share that concern, we would argue that this reflects cuts in council services more than structure. Centralising these services simply makes them less responsive to local needs, breaks the link with other council services and creates a whole new national bureaucracy. The problem for the Scottish Government is that they are responsible for council financial allocations and the Council Tax freeze that has led to cuts in consumer protection services - albeit in the context of austerity economics from the ConDem coalition.
Merging quangos in the form of a one stop Consumer Ombudsman might be a viable proposal, but frankly it doesn’t score highly for me in the case for independence. Larger bodies also tend to go for generic staff that don’t have the expertise in a specific field, something the Francis Report highlighted in the context of English care regulation.
UNISON has also argued that competition policy should be devolved. We have highlighted the problem of using the London based bodies to resolve disputes between the Water Industry Commission and Scottish Water. Their expertise is in a private sector utility market and they have no concept of public service. However, this structure was designed and legislated for in Scotland. The Scottish Parliament already has the power to bring this function back to Scotland.
There is much in this paper I agree with in making the case for delivering these functions in Scotland under greater devolution or independence. However, it misses the point in some key areas and offers a vision of an independent Scotland that increasingly centralises services away from local democratic control. Not a pitch that will win many converts here!