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I am very pleased to open the stage 1 debate on the Consumer Scotland Bill. Although it is a small bill, it has enormous potential to benefit the people of Scotland.
In 2015, ahead of the devolution of consumer advocacy and advice powers, the Scottish Government formed a working group on consumer and competition policy to explore how Scotland could best use its new powers for the good of consumers here in Scotland. The group brought together experts from across Scotland and the United Kingdom, from trading standards, Citizens Advice Scotland, Which? and others, and its work was supported by a series of expert panels drawn from regulators, academics and public services. At this stage, I want to put on record my sincere thanks to those who willingly gave their time and effort to the work of that group. As a result of that activity, the review of Scotland’s consumer protection landscape was comprehensive and informed by people who understand the history of consumer protection and its current challenges.
The group’s key recommendation was the establishment of a dedicated consumer champion that would speak up for consumers and represent their interests to policy makers, regulators and industry. That brings us to today’s debate, in which we are debating the Consumer Scotland Bill. Since that recommendation, the idea of consumer Scotland has been tested rigorously, but the expectations have remained consistent. People expect a body that can unite a fragmented landscape, a body that can make better use of data to identify and tackle harm, and a body that can focus on the most complex problems and find solutions.
I believe that, as well as establishing such a body, the bill goes further by establishing a consumer duty that will increase the consideration that is given to consumers by relevant public authorities.
Before I talk about the bill in more detail, I offer my thanks to the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee for its scrutiny at stage 1. I am pleased that the committee’s report recognises the need for a new consumer body, endorses the general principles of the bill and recommends that the Parliament agree to them. I have provided a written response to the committee on its recommendations and I look forward to further discussion of the report and the bill this afternoon.
I thank those who gave evidence to the committee, particularly those who have been instrumental in testing and developing the proposals for consumer Scotland. We have reached this position as a direct result of that. I am particularly grateful to those who took the time to respond to our pre-legislative consultation or who came to our consultation events. The vast majority of respondents agreed that consumer Scotland was needed and that our proposals for the body and the duty could add genuine value to the current system. Those views were replicated in response to the committee’s call for evidence.
The process of scrutinising and testing our proposals and thinking will contribute to refining and enhancing the bill, which is exactly what our legislative process is for.
The case for consumer Scotland has been made many times, but I will set it out again today. In proposing the body, I recognise that we operate in a landscape in which organisations already work hard to protect consumers. They do invaluable work and we owe them our thanks. However, we also know that the consumer protection landscape is complex and that, since the abolition of Consumer Focus Scotland, there is no longer a single organisation that can take a big-picture view of the issues that are faced by consumers in Scotland. Neither is there an organisation to co-ordinate responses to consumer harm so that limited resources are used most effectively. That is the gap that we want consumer Scotland to fill.
The bill provides the legal framework to ensure that consumer Scotland has the powers and structures to operate effectively, and it establishes it as a body with three key objectives: to reduce harm to consumers, to increase consumer confidence, and to increase the extent to which public authorities take account of consumer matters. To do that, the body will primarily carry out investigations into the most serious issues of consumer harm, using rigorous evidence gathering and analysis to identify the causes of consumer harm and recommend solutions to Government, regulators and industry.
Consumer Scotland’s work beyond that will see increased collaboration across the landscape and ensure that consumers have access to high-quality consumer advice, without the body itself becoming a front-line advice organisation.
The bill is deliberately high level and enabling and does not seek to prescribe how the body will carry out its functions. That will ensure that consumer Scotland’s senior staff and board will have a direct role in shaping and prioritising its work.
I recognise that the committee has highlighted that that flexibility has resulted in some concern that the body’s exact role is not fully understood. Although I continue to believe that the body should have the space to develop its operational activity, I am very clear that it must work with existing organisations and add value rather than duplicate what is already there. I have therefore committed to providing further detail on the form and functions of consumer Scotland, without, of course, restricting its scope to independently establish its own priorities and relationships. I offer assurance that, from day 1, consumer Scotland will be tasked with building strong relationships with consumer organisations, and that its work programmes and scope of activity will be developed with their input. That commitment is reflected in the bill, which makes collaboration fundamental to consumer Scotland, both in its general work and, specifically, in developing its work plans.
Following the committee’s report, I will strengthen those provisions. As the bill is currently drafted, the body can take account of any organisation with a consumer interest, but it is required to take account only of public bodies with “similar functions”. The committee, and many of those who gave evidence, correctly pointed out that there are, of course, many organisations in Scotland, mainly in the third sector, that work to protect consumers. The committee therefore recommended—and I agree—that consumer Scotland should be required to consider the work of other bodies, beyond those in the public sector, with the same or similar functions as consumer Scotland. We will lodge an amendment to address that.
The committee made a number of other recommendations, and I committed in my written response to the committee to giving detailed consideration to them all. However, I will highlight two more in this opening speech.
First, the Scottish Government accepts the committee’s recommendation that the bill should revisit the definition of vulnerability to ensure that it reflects that vulnerability can take many forms and that it is often about context and not simply the characteristics of individual consumers. Although the bill sets out that the examples provided are illustrative and not exhaustive, it is clear that the text has caused concerns, so I have committed to exploring an amended definition to assuage those concerns. I will be very happy to work with committee members, and indeed any member with an interest, to work out how best to achieve that.
Secondly, the committee noted that many of the challenges that consumers face also apply to people who are running small businesses. It recommended an amendment that will broaden the definition of a consumer to address those concerns. As the Minister for Business, Fair Work and Skills, I am very keen to support Scotland’s businesses in any way that I can. I commit to ensuring that the concerns of small businesses are addressed. I will be very happy to work with the committee on the best way to achieve that.
Establishing the legislative framework is only one part of the journey to deliver consumer Scotland. Significant practical work will also be needed to ensure that the body is ready by April 2021. If the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the bill this evening, that activity will increase. As a first step, we will begin the appointments process for the new chair to ensure that the future leaders of the body are able to take decisions on the body’s work as soon as possible. More important, it will mean that the leaders can be involved in building the relationships with other consumer-focused organisations that will be vital to the body’s success.
We will also take practical steps to ensure that the consumer duty we have proposed has a meaningful impact. We are the first nation in the United Kingdom to develop and propose such a duty, and we have done so in response to the support that was demonstrated through the consultation on a consumer body for Scotland. Together, the duty and the body will ensure that consumers are protected from the unintended consequences of policy making, and that their potential to drive change is recognised and encouraged.
As with the body, the duty will be developed collaboratively. I am aware of the danger that it becomes a token gesture or another burden for public authorities to deal with. That is, of course, something that I want to avoid, and it is why the bill requires that the authorities to whom it potentially applies must be consulted. I will ensure that that consultation is meaningful and that it will allow those who are affected to shape how the duty works in practice.
Establishing a new consumer body and a consumer duty for Scotland is both an opportunity and a challenge. It is an opportunity to put consumer fairness more squarely at the centre of policy and regulatory decision making, and it is a challenge for politicians, regulators and business leaders to respond positively to that.
I will continue to work across the chamber, especially with the committee, to ensure that the legislation does all that it can to make that happen and that it establishes a body and a duty that will drive real change, both for individual consumers and for the organisations that work to protect them.
I recognise that the committee raised other issues that I have not touched on in opening today’s debate. I have no doubt that they will come up in the course of our deliberations today, and I will try to respond in my closing speech. However, I make this offer here and now: if any member wants to discuss how to improve the bill, I will gladly meet them to do so.
We have an opportunity to improve the position of consumers in Scotland. We have the opportunity to do that collectively, and I hope that we will take that opportunity by passing this bill at stage 1.
That the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the Consumer Scotland Bill.
There can be little doubt that consumer spending has a significant impact on the economy. We are all consumers, after all. The late Roger Scruton said that the label of consumer belonged to,
“Whoever realises the use-value of a good, say, by eating food, by hanging and admiring a picture on his wall, by wearing clothes”.
Indeed, we all buy things in shops and online. We also choose energy tariffs, compare insurance policies, switch phone providers, book train tickets and pay direct debits. Sometimes, we seek to get our money back. We might have problems with the things that we buy and try to use. We might even feel as though we have been exploited or scammed.
As the minister outlined, the Consumer (Scotland) Bill seeks to strengthen the rights of consumers through the creation of a new public body. The intention of the new body is to strengthen consumer advocacy and advice, to identify how and why consumers experience harm in Scotland, and to mitigate that harm. It is a welcome bill, but, in many ways, it raises more questions than it answers. Stakeholders, witnesses and committee members broadly supported the bill in principle, with many telling the committee that there were gaps in the current advice and advocacy provisions. However, one could be forgiven for questioning what the bill does and what difference the new body will make to Scottish consumers in practice.
With limited detail in the bill about the overall structure and the operational model and activities of consumer Scotland, witnesses had different ideas of what the body’s priorities should be. A wish list of work programme priorities emerged, with research, product recall, quality assurance of advice and alternative dispute resolution all highlighted as worthy areas for consumer Scotland’s attention.
How the new body would interact with existing bodies that already work in that area was a further area of debate. Consultant Sarah O’Neill told us:
“consumer Scotland will want to set out criteria for why it will do certain pieces of work and why they are important. For example, what is the level of detriment? How many people will it affect? Is anyone else working on it?”—[Official Report, Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee, 5 November 2019; c 31.]
The minister offered assurances that consumer Scotland will collaborate with existing bodies to avoid duplication, but it remains unclear how that would be done. The committee has asked the minister to outline, in advance of stage 2, further detail on the form and functions of consumer Scotland, including how it will interact with other bodies. We welcome the minister’s commitment to do so.
The committee believes that the Scottish Government must ensure that the new body operates in a way that strengthens and does not impede the work of existing bodies. We saw concern from bodies such as Citizens Advice Scotland that their roles could be weakened. It remains unclear how consumer Scotland’s proposed advice and advocacy role will impact on the future role of Citizens Advice Scotland and its bureaux network.
Further questions were raised about respective remits and what that would mean for long-term funding. Many noted difficulties in separating consumer issues from other forms of advice, as people often experience problems in clusters. The committee recommended that the bill’s duty to collaborate is extended beyond public bodies to include third sector advice organisations, including CAS. I am pleased to say that the minister agrees and has committed to lodging an amendment at stage 2.
On a different matter, there was concern among some witnesses that consumer Scotland should have greater influence on trading standards and enforcement issues. Consumer enforcement, including trading standards powers, is reserved to the UK Government, which led some to question how consumer Scotland could seek to influence those areas. Matters of competition are also reserved, but are of equally great importance to how the consumer landscape operates. Given that background, the committee explored how information sharing with trading standards and other organisations could benefit consumer Scotland’s proposed evidence-led strategic role.
I move on to consumer duty. The bill creates a requirement for certain public bodies to consider the impact of their decisions on consumers. The Scottish Government considers that to be an important development in embedding consumer interests across policy areas and balancing what can, at times, seem like conflicting interests.
So far, so good. However, at the risk of sounding repetitive, I must say that many witnesses supported the idea of a consumer duty but were unclear about what that would involve, who it would involve and what impact it would have. Neither the nature of the duty, nor the processes for it, are specified in any detail in the bill, although consumer Scotland would have a statutory duty to publish guidance. Citizens Advice Scotland said:
“The Bill as presented is too greatly focused on the single output of creating Consumer Scotland and too little is said about how this action creates a better outcome for citizens in terms of an enhanced system to better protect their interests.”
The minister told the committee that the duty’s design and implementation will, again, be carried out collaboratively to avoid it becoming either a token gesture or an administrative burden. We await the outcome of those discussions, and I am sure that some of my colleagues in the debate will go into some of the issues in greater depth.
On another point, many witnesses criticised the bill’s definition of consumer for excluding individuals acting in a business capacity. The minister mentioned that point in his opening remarks. For example, sole traders who run their own businesses will not be covered and neither will small or microbusinesses. Some witnesses told us that small businesses often face the same disadvantages as individual consumers in their knowledge of markets, bargaining power and ability to enforce their rights when things go wrong. The Federation of Small Businesses Scotland identified the vulnerability of smaller businesses as consumers:
“From banking to online scams, from parcel delivery to energy and water contracts” they
“can often find themselves the victims of unfair and exploitative behaviour.”
The committee believes that many challenges faced by consumers are equally, if not more applicable to people running small businesses. Those people often have limited resources to pursue complaints and may also be suffering additional detrimental impact on their ability to run their business. The minister has, of course, committed to exploring those issues with interested parties, which I welcome.
The committee received 54 written submissions to our call for views and we heard from 19 witnesses across four committee meetings. It is always important to the committee’s work to hear views from individuals—businesses and others—in any work that we do, so we thank everyone who informed our scrutiny of the bill.
Turning to another part, perhaps, of the political constellation from the one that I started with, according to President John F Kennedy:
“Consumers by definition, include us all. They are the largest economic group, affecting and affected by almost every public and private economic decision. Yet they are the only important group whose views are often not heard.”
The committee approves the general principles of the bill.
I, too, thank the committee clerking team, the witnesses and all those who gave evidence at stage 1 of the bill.
The Consumer Scotland Bill is enabling legislation. It sets out the framework for the creation of consumer Scotland, a body whose primary objective will be to provide consumer advocacy and advice. The powers in that area were devolved to the Scottish Parliament following the passage of the Scotland Act 2016. We, of course, support the devolution of those powers, and we will support the general principles of the bill today. However, at the same time, we will be asking the minister to take action on the recommendations that are set out in the committee’s report. I welcome the minister’s positive response to the committee’s recommendations, as set out in his opening speech. We look forward to working with him to address some of the concerns.
With that in mind, I will highlight some of the key recommendations on which we are looking to the minister to respond. The first relates to the definition of “consumer” and identifying those who will benefit from the bill. During the evidence sessions, that definition was a primary area of concern, as was whether the protections afforded by the bill would extend beyond individuals to small businesses, whose needs are, in many respects, identical to those of individual consumers.
The bill defines a consumer as
“an individual ... who purchases ... goods or services which are supplied in the course of a business carried on by the person supplying them”,
providing that they are not acting
“wholly or mainly in the course of a business carried on by the individual”.
The committee’s reading of that is that the bill would not afford protection to those acting as sole traders, small businesses or microbusinesses. Indeed, they would be excluded from the protections in the bill.
The Federation of Small Businesses wrote to the committee specifically on that issue, highlighting that
“half of all” new
“businesses are based in homes and over one in ten Scottish workers are now self-employed.”
It further explained that,
“when purchasing goods and services, the smallest businesses often find themselves at a disadvantage because of their lack of expertise ... in making informed purchasing decisions; their lack of time to research the market; a lack of knowledge of their rights and ... poor bargaining power. But, because they are excluded from certain legal safeguards which protect individual consumers, smaller businesses” often find themselves with
We heard other evidence supporting those concerns. Shetland Islands Council highlighted that
“The definition of consumer excludes small businesses (of which there are many in remote rural areas and island communities) even though they often purchase goods or services in” a manner that is very
“similar to those of” individual
The committee calls for the inclusion of small and microbusinesses in the definition of “consumer”. There is precedence for that approach. Jonathan Lenton from Ombudsman Services informed the committee that the Financial Ombudsman Service has
“expanded its remit to cover businesses with up to 50 employees.”—[Official Report, Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee, 1 October 2019; c 56.]
I am not quite sure that the committee thinks that that is the right figure. However, we also heard evidence that Ombudsman Services deals with microbusinesses, which are defined as businesses with “10 employees or fewer.” To my mind, if we want to extend the definition to small businesses, that would be a good starting point. We can discuss the issue further down the line, but that is why the committee supports the calls to include sole traders, small businesses and microbusinesses in the definition of “consumer”. As I said, I was pleased to hear the minister say in his opening speech that he is open to the suggestion, and I look forward to working with him in stage 2 to broaden the definition in that respect.
The committee also recommends that there should be clarity on how the new consumer Scotland agency will avoid overlap and duplication with existing public bodies.
On a related point, the committee recommends that consumer Scotland be empowered to support the work of existing consumer protection bodies. For example, Citizens Advice Scotland gave evidence that its role and financing may be compromised as a result of the introduction of consumer Scotland. The committee recognised the concerns relating to the potential impact on the work and financing of Citizens Advice Scotland. I supported the recommendation that calls on the Scottish Government to clarify
“Consumer Scotland’s role in relation to advice provision”.
Such clarification is needed
“in light of the expectation that”
Citizens Advice Scotland
“will lose its levy related funding, worth approximately £1m in 2019/20 with ... no commitment from the Scottish Government beyond 2020/21.”
There are concerns about the introduction of the new consumer body and how it will impact on other bodies that already provide advice, including Citizens Advice Scotland. To address some of those concerns, the committee recommends that a Scottish consumer protection partnership be created, to support better communications and co-ordination between the different agencies involved in consumer protection in Scotland, including the new agency. I look forward to the minister addressing some of those issues in his closing speech.
Questions were also raised in relation to the bill’s financial memorandum. Evidence from Energy Action Scotland suggests that the proposal for 20 staff with a budget of £2.5 million would not be sufficient for the new agency to properly carry out all the functions for which it shall be responsible. EAS highlighted that
“we are already seeing so many issues mount up” for the agency to deal with, and said that
“we need to be explicit in the bill about its role and be more realistic about a budget.”—[Official Report, Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee, 1 October 2019; c 54.]
We are not in the business of advocating for significantly more money for another public quango. However, there has to be a realistic match between the expectations, role and functions of the new agency, and the funding and staffing resources that it will be able to rely on. I look forward to the minister addressing the questions about the budget and resourcing of the new agency, either in his closing speech or—if he wants a bit more time to think about it—at committee during stage 2.
Finally, the committee heard evidence that—as I think the minister himself recognised—much greater clarity is required on the scope of the legislation and the exact circumstances in which consumer protection will be afforded. I ask the minister to clarify in his closing speech whether legislation would protect consumers in the following circumstances: consumers who do not have superfast broadband as a result of the Scottish Government missing its targets for roll-out; the thousands of train passengers who cannot get on overcrowded trains every day; the ferry passengers across Scotland who have suffered 80,000 ferry cancellations; and the 14,000 Scottish students who applied to university, but who were rejected because of the Scottish National Party student cap.
The fundamental point is that we want to create an organisation that is independent and can set its own priorities in looking at the issues of greatest consumer harm. As such, it could, potentially, look at the issues that the member mentioned; it could also look at the UK Government’s failure to regulate deliveries to the Highlands and Islands, for example.
I look forward to that, because a huge number of consumers badly need protection and have been badly let down; the examples that I mentioned are just some of the areas of concern.
We will support the general principles of the bill at stage 1, and I look forward to working with the minister to explain the exact operation and function of the new consumer body.
I will use the time that I have to probe the minister, to try to get some transparency where there is opaqueness and some clarity and substance where there is silence and spin.
I say gently to the minister that the burden of proof in demonstrating the case for consumer Scotland rests on his shoulders. This is a Government bill with the force of Government behind it. Many of us are open minded and broadly embrace the idea, but we have yet to be convinced by legislation that is largely flat and pedestrian. We want to see a passive state give way to an active state.
Of course, there are some especially acute consumer issues in Scotland, such as the additional delivery charges that are imposed on people in the north of Scotland and on the islands. Such parcel surcharging raises fundamental questions about where such a service ought to sit between the public and the private sector, what role there is for average versus marginal pricing in the charging regime, and where our commitment to the universal obligation is.
Similarly, where is that commitment to universality when it comes to the establishment of a comprehensive broadband network or mobile phone coverage across Scotland? What rights do consumers and entire communities have to equal access? Where they exist, how can those rights be realised and, where necessary, enforced?
The objectives of consumer Scotland have not yet been defined. Some ideas, such as the duty to vulnerable customers, are welcome; however, the definition of “vulnerable customers” is not inclusive enough. I welcome the minister’s comments this afternoon about revisiting that definition.
The objectives of the new body should not be based on a desire to eliminate harm alone;. We heard that language again this afternoon. Rather, it should be more proactive and concerned not only with consumer protection but with consumer benefit.
We also need to consider the definition of “consumers”, because consumers are not just individuals but communities that collectively receive things and are affected by markets operating well or failing badly. Consumer Scotland should define “consumers” to include communities of interest and of place. That will be important in ensuring that it can best assist those communities.
It is suggested that the new agency will have a research focus, which might be useful in taking an evidence-led approach to consumer detriment and consumer benefit. However, is a lot of useful evidence not already collected and presented to us by Citizens Advice Scotland? Therein lies a wider point that I think we will return to again and again this afternoon. Can the minister tell us where the added value in the proposal lies, given the existing excellent work of Citizens Advice Scotland? It has a crucial role to play.
One of the most obvious and immediate benefits is that, as a statutory entity, consumer Scotland will have powers to demand information from certain organisations, to collate that information and to identify issues such as those that Mr Leonard has raised. We have not yet established it, but I am sure that the prospective consumer Scotland will be listening closely to him and will have heard the important issues of concern that he has raised, which it may want to take forward.
I thank the minister for that response, which was helpful and constructive. However, a question remains to be answered about the potential loss of resources to Citizens Advice Scotland, which is, after all, funded by a levy arrangement. Can the minister give us a guarantee or some assurance that the Government will put in place a long-term funding plan for Citizens Advice Scotland?
We also need to know whether consumer Scotland will have statutory powers, including powers of inquiry and investigation. Will it be able to lay reports directly before the Parliament, including recommendations about both primary—
Consumer Scotland will not only be able to do that; as the bill sets out, it will have to do that. The bill places a duty on it to report on any investigation that it has concluded, to report annually, and to report on a three-yearly basis on the state of the consumer generally in Scotland. Reports on all those things will have to be placed before Parliament under statute. It is not just a question of consumer Scotland being able to do those things; it will be obliged to do them.
The point that I was in the middle of making, though, was about whether it will also be entitled—and, indeed, required—to make recommendations on both primary and secondary legislative action that is being considered by the Parliament. If it will have powers to demand information from public bodies, how will that be underpinned and enforced? What powers of enforcement will it have? In other words, will it be a watchdog that barks but does not bite? We need to know the extent to which it will be able to demand information and co-operation from all public bodies and, indeed, other parties that supply things in the public realm.
If there is to be a new consumer duty on public bodies, who will operate it? What will be consumer Scotland’s relationship with the regulators, some of which are reserved whereas others are not? How will it interact in practice with the existing consumer bodies and regulators? Will it encourage collaboration and co-ordination? What will be the lines of accountability to Government and, more important, to the Parliament? Those are some of the fundamental questions that need to be properly and fully answered before this Government bill can progress with the Parliament’s whole-hearted confidence. I look forward to the minister providing Parliament with the answers to those questions.
We will play a constructive role, but we will not shirk our responsibility to scrutinise the proposals. If the minister believes that that information is all in the bill, he should tell that to the organisations of great repute, such as the Law Society of Scotland, that have raised significant questions about gaps in the bill.
I thank the clerks of the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee, the Scottish Parliament information centre and all those who gave evidence on the bill.
I have to be honest and say that, when the bill was introduced, I was sceptical of the need for it. Scotland has not had a statutory body concerned with consumer affairs since the demise, in 2008, of the Scottish Consumer Council, which had been set up by the UK Parliament. My recollections of that body include its very effective engagement, in around 2000, in the lead-up to the abolition of feudal tenure. The council identified that as an important consumer issue, as the owners of homes were subject to unfair, archaic and arbitrary feudal burdens that imposed private regulation of the use of their homes. The council’s perspective was extremely valuable, coming from perhaps an unexpected source. I am therefore sympathetic to the need to have a statutory consumer body, although we need to discuss its powers in detail.
Scotland has a long history of statutory consumer law, which dates back to long before the union of 1707. Someone drew my attention to the sumptuary laws, which regulated the private consumption of goods. In 1433, an act of the Scottish Parliament limited the use of pies and baked meats to those who held the rank of baron or higher. In 1471, the Parliament restricted the wearing of silk to knights, minstrels, heralds, high-ranking burgesses and those in receipt of £100 of annual rent. Mr Stevenson may know all about that.
We have had important case law since then. Members will be very familiar with the case of Donoghue v Stevenson, which involved a snail and a bottle of ginger beer and which went all the way to the House of Lords. The decision in that case confirmed the duty of care, in such circumstances, of people who supply goods to consumers.
The bill that is before us today is not so prescriptive. It will create a new body in a complex consumer protection and advice landscape at a time when society is questioning the fundamental nature of consumption and how it impacts on the wider world.
I thank the academics who gave evidence to the committee on the topic of consumption and consumers. I will say something about that, and I will want to speak to the minister about those areas. I welcome his commitment to having such discussions in the lead-up to stage 2.
The bill, as it stands, is framed in terms of reducing harm to consumers without, I think, adequately defining what kind of harm that might be—whether financial, emotional, direct, indirect, deliberate or unintended. I think that the concept of wellbeing—which the First Minister talked about just yesterday—would be a much more positive ambition for the new body in relation to the question—
I agree with the fundamental premise that Andy Wightman is laying out. However, does he accept that, in setting out that it is about reducing consumer harm, the bill encompasses all the things that he has just described? If we start to constrain it further, we might leave out other areas that we have not thought of. Might that not be an unintended consequence?
That is a very fair point. We should not seek to amend the bill in such a way that we risk leaving things out by omission. Any conversations that we have will focus on that kind of technical question.
I will turn to the topic of consumers and consumption. “Consumer” is a broad category, as members have intimated. Customers in cafes are consumers, as are healthcare patients and train passengers. People can consume in groups and through their business roles.
We must also make sure that the definition of a vulnerable consumer is not so narrow that it excludes those who are experiencing other vulnerabilities, such as young people who are experiencing financial vulnerability as they transition from being in education to supporting themselves. That is another area where we need to look at the bill’s drafting and at the question that the minister has just raised about omissions.
It is important to emphasise that consumption is not a neutral activity. Consumption impacts on the world around us and on the environment—for example, through excessive consumption and harmful consumer choices. The Infrastructure Commission for Scotland’s report points out that a major challenge in transforming energy usage is
“persuading consumers to change from the familiar and effective to something new”.
Changing behaviour is crucial if we are to meet our climate targets. Making ethical choices should be ingrained in our markets and societies. Ethical consumerism movements can greatly impact on business practices.
The bill does not adequately address the issue of where peer-to-peer markets or the reuse and recycling of goods fit into definitions of consumers and consumption. It is important to support the circular economy and the sharing economy if we are to meet climate targets. Consumers who participate in those markets also need to be protected, whether they are borrowing a tool from a tool library or buying a product that is made from waste products. That is particularly important as online platforms continue to disrupt traditional markets. The proposed circular economy bill that is soon to reach Parliament will reinforce the economic and environmental benefits of a circular economy. Therefore, we have quite a bit of work to do just on the definitions in section 23.
We welcome the bill, but we must ensure that it is fit for the Scotland of the future: a Scotland with a modern economy, with net zero emissions and where the priorities of people are placed above those of corporate bodies. Greens will therefore support the motion, and we look forward to having conversations with the minister in the run-up to stage 2.
I am new to the issue, as I do not sit on the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee, but I have been following the bill with interest. I echo the thanks of other members to the clerks of the committee and its members, who have worked hard to get to this point.
Anything that offers enhanced protection to our constituents is welcome, so the new consumer body that is to be created certainly has potential, but it needs to add value to whatever exists rather than duplicate or displace it. As we have heard, the new body will be formed and will operate within a well-established ecosystem. The bill remains unclear on how consumer Scotland will interact with those bodies, so I look forward to further clarification in the minister’s closing remarks. There are still outstanding issues.
We have heard a lot about Citizens Advice Scotland, which does valuable work in my constituency and those of many other members on everything from social security to housing, employment and relationships. The organisation helps hundreds of thousands of Scots each year who find themselves in tricky situations. Each week, in my constituency surgery, people come through the door with problems ranging from water or broadband issues to tenancy bills, and I regularly depend on the outstanding services that Citizens Advice employees offer my constituents and, indeed, me. Citizens Advice Scotland has done a huge amount on fuel poverty, by calling for greater investment and building the coalitions and calculations that underpin the work on that. Statistics that were released yesterday revealed the first increase in fuel poverty in this country in the past five years, which shows just how vital that work is.
I do not want the emergence of a new governmental organisation such as consumer Scotland to have an impact that makes others feel that they need to moderate the good work that they are already doing. Scotland is a better place if organisations have the licence and resource to challenge Government rather than just to be creatures of it. They should be the critical friend of the public sector and their first and only loyalty should be to ordinary people—the people who I and other members represent.
However, in other sectors, we have seen the chilling effect that can result from the fear of losing a contract or funding or of being beholden to Government. Organisations can be made to feel that they have to hold back and reserve their criticism or even cosy up to the Administration. That is not healthy, and we cannot allow it to happen with Citizens Advice Scotland, which is a vital consumer organisation.
As it stands, the creation of a whole new system through the bill does not take proper account of the other organisations in Scotland that play an important role in the consumer landscape. That is another reason why we need assurances that the new body will add value and something new. There are massive challenges ahead, and we all know that that starts with Brexit. Around 90 directives and some regulations make up the body of the European Union’s consumer protection laws. Those cover car hire, holidays, restaurants, product quality and advertising. Even if we do not realise it, each of us relies on those laws every single day of our lives, and they were all legislated for through the European Union.
However, protections could easily be diluted outside the single market. Trade agreements could expose our markets to forces that work against the interests of British consumers. Chlorinated chicken is eye-catching—perhaps even eye-watering—but it is only the beginning. I wonder what sacrifices might be made when trade deals are in the balance.
I also wonder how we will stay in touch with European agencies and reflect on their advice and support, which has often proven to be so effective. What will happen to the weekly alerts about dangerous products that we have come to rely on? We need strong advocates for consumers who are willing to campaign for change and who recognise our changing position in the international landscape.
Nowhere is the need for consumer protection greater these days than in emerging online markets. I hope that the minister will take some time in his closing remarks to touch on how consumer Scotland will protect our consumers in the online marketplace.
The Law Society notes that currently, although consumer Scotland has been granted power to demand information from other bodies, there is no reciprocal option for consumer Scotland to help other organisations’ legal cases. I would welcome further information about how those arrangements will work in practice. That is another area where Brexit will have a direct impact. Power is concentrated in the hands of a few, stifling competition and consumer choice.
Companies are using our data largely unchecked. There should be a code of ethics around how our data is used and a means to call in products that breach it. People are not making informed choices about whom they give their data to and they are not getting anything in return. There should be a mechanism for people from whom companies are profiting to benefit from such big profits, particularly among tech companies that are using people’s data to make money.
If consumer Scotland’s objective of protecting vulnerable consumers is to be fulfilled, there needs to be a concerted effort to focus on areas that are not currently covered by organisations such as Citizens Advice Scotland. It needs to have a clear and distinctive offer. I am clear that there is a valuable role for this new organisation in intervening at a market level where vulnerable people are not adequately supported. That combination of the people-focused approach already provided by a wealth of organisations alongside a holistic higher-level approach has the possibility to deliver real, concrete and sustainable improvements for those who need it most.
For those reasons, the Liberal Democrats will support the general principles of the bill.
Since the abolition of the Scottish Consumer Council in October 2008 by the then Labour Government, there has been no dedicated Scottish body with responsibility for protecting and promoting the interests of consumers in Scotland. Until its abolition, the Scottish Consumer Council was for nearly 33 years an independent policy organisation that represented consumer interests to policy makers, regulators, service providers and suppliers. It is an important service that we have been missing for 12 years.
It is only since the Scotland Act 2016 transferred new powers to this Parliament relating to consumer advocacy and advice that the Scottish Government was able to act to help protect consumer interests. When the Scottish Government consulted on the bill in 2018, around half of those who responded said that they found the current consumer landscape in Scotland to be fragmented, complex, disjointed and confusing to navigate. Thomas Docherty of Which? said in evidence to the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee that
“The Scottish Government has been very clear, and we have all said, that there is a confusing landscape for consumers.”
He went on to say:
“It is not always about inventing something new; it is about ensuring that consumers know where to go, whether that is to the ombudsman service for redress, or to trading standards, or to Advice Direct Scotland.”—[Official Report, Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee, 1 October 2019; c 54.]
I am pleased that the Scottish Government recognises that and will develop the new body in collaboration with the stakeholders that are already providing support and advice to consumers today.
We also found in committee that there is a clear need for the body to be dedicated to representing the interests of consumers in Scotland. Responses to the Scottish Government consultation on the bill found that
“There is evidence that in specific markets, Scottish consumers behave differently and have different needs from consumers in the rest of the UK, although there is no mechanism that delivers improved, targeted outcomes specifically for Scottish consumers.”
Section 4 of the bill will address that issue by allowing consumer Scotland to: obtain, analyse and review information relating to consumer matters; undertake investigations into business sectors or practices; and publish reports on any investigations that it conducts under section 4. Areas that could be investigated range from the importance of rural petrol stations, to why Scottish consumers receive more nuisance calls than those in other parts of the United Kingdom, to the on-going issue of parcel surcharges.
Our stage 1 report also recommended that consumer Scotland should have a duty in relation to product recall where it could
“coordinate and disseminate information around major recalls of faulty products.”
Electrical Safety First noted that the average success rate of an electrical product recall in the UK is just 10 per cent to 20 per cent. It felt that consumer Scotland should have a mandatory function to co-ordinate and disseminate information and advice to consumers on significant consumer safety issues. It said:
“this is key to ensuring a consistent and effective message is delivered from a single trusted source in a timely manner.”
I understand the minister’s view, in the evidence that he gave to the committee, that consumer Scotland would be unable to issue edicts about the recall of products. That said, I am pleased that he went on to acknowledge that the body would be able to conduct investigations and make recommendations on how the Scottish Government and others should respond.
I appreciate that the Scottish Government’s subsequent response to our stage 1 report also stated:
“On the specific issue of a recall duty, the Scottish Government believes that, in practical terms, the Bill as drafted would allow Consumer Scotland to take the lead in coordinating a Scotland-wide response to product recalls.”
I very much welcome the Scottish Government recognising the role that the bill could play in improving product recall. The new organisation will recognise and understand our distinct circumstances, such as our rural population and our local industries. Thus, consumer Scotland will move beyond simply highlighting problems and focus on seeking solutions that can make a real difference to the lives of consumers in Scotland.
Sue Davies, head of consumer protection at consumer group Which? said:
“Scottish consumers have told us about how chronic problems across vital industries are negatively impacting their day-to-day lives, from diminishing everyday banking services to patchy telecoms connections. Our research has shown trust in these sectors is dwindling, so the need for a dedicated consumer body backed by the Scottish Government is clear.”
The bill will create an independent champion for the consumer in Scotland that will aim to reduce harm to consumers, increase confidence among consumers in dealing with businesses supplying goods and services, and increase the extent to which consumer matters are taken into account by public bodies in Scotland. When the bill is passed, we will once again have a distinctive organisation safeguarding the consumers of Scotland.
I declare interests in businesses that supply goods and services to consumers.
I start by echoing other members and adding my thanks to my colleagues on, and the clerks of, the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee, witnesses and all those who gave evidence on the bill at stage 1.
The Scottish Conservatives welcome the aims of the bill, which seeks to reduce harm to consumers, to increase confidence among consumers in dealing with businesses that supply goods and services to them, and to increase the extent to which consumer matters are taken into account by public bodies.
Although we support the bill in principle, the Scottish Conservatives have concerns about the extent of the powers that the new body will have. We believe that the bill needs to include clearer definition of the scope of the power that consumer Scotland will have, especially given that other organisations already provide such support. I note that the committee agreed with that, and stated in its stage 1 report that it believes that
“the Minister should outline in further detail the form and functions of Consumer Scotland, including how it would interact with other bodies, so as to ensure there is no duplication of work.”
I am sure that members across the chamber agree that Citizens Advice Scotland is a fantastic organisation. It is well known for its expert network of support to empower people in every corner of Scotland. The organisation provided more than 200,000 pieces of consumer advice in 2018-19, so I was interested to read its views on the bill.
Our small businesses are at the heart of all our communities, so we must do what we can to ensure that support is provided to them so that they can continue to build all over Scotland. As a great supporter of small businesses, I was pleased to see that Citizens Advice Scotland pushed for further support to be provided to small businesses by consumer Scotland. Citizens Advice Scotland noted that
“healthy microbusinesses are a vital component of inclusive growth; therefore we would like to see the Bill amended to include these consumers”,
which I am glad the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee recognised.
As I said, the great network of advice that Citizens Advice Scotland provides to consumers across the country is well known, and that is recognised by many other organisations, too. Energy Action Scotland noted how it
“provides an important perspective in the consumer landscape given the breadth and depth of its consumer data. These real-life consumer insights from the frontline help provide evidence which in turn informs their policy work”.
The Scottish Conservatives are proud to build our policies on an evidence-based approach, so I agree with Energy Action Scotland’s point that Citizens Advice Scotland needs to be more involved in the setting up of consumer Scotland. That view is echoed by Energy UK, which said that
“Further clarification is required around the role of Consumer Scotland and the existing role of CAS, in particular with regards to energy.”
Consumer Scotland’s main goal is to protect consumers. I therefore note Electrical Safety First’s key recommendation that the bill
“needs to be strengthened to ensure consumer voices are a central part of setting Consumer Scotland’s work programme with a requirement for it to consult.”
Activity that helps to ensure that consumers have a greater say in reporting their issues for further investigation should be incorporated in the bill and, therefore, into the legislation relating to consumer Scotland’s powers.
I have spoken previously in the chamber about support for regulating electricians; that principle of implementing safe practices also applies to electrical goods. Research has found that only a third of Scottish consumers currently register their appliances, which makes it difficult to contact them about recalls. Therefore, in order for consumer Scotland to be introduced as an investigatory body as well as an advocacy body, it is important that the recommendation that it prioritise investigations into key product-safety issues be noted. As Electrical Safety First noted,
“in Scotland alone, in just one year, there were over four fires a week caused by white goods”.
The bill is an opportunity for us to assist consumers in protecting themselves from poor-quality products, as well as to ensure that cheap products are safe. Less than 20 per cent of faulty electrical products are successfully recalled, which leaves companies reliant on indirect means of telling consumers about faulty products. I note that the committee has agreed that it is important for the minister to consider conferring
“a duty on Consumer Scotland to coordinate and disseminate information around major recalls of faulty products.”
The bill aims to protect our constituents as consumers. That principle is, I am sure, supported by all. Although we support the bill’s aims at this time, we will be looking for clarification of the extent of the intended powers of the body in order to avoid duplication of effort.
I thank the clerking team for putting together the committee report that members are referring to.
The Consumer Scotland Bill came out of the Smith commission after 2014. As Gordon MacDonald and others have reminded us, the Scottish Consumer Council was abolished 12 years ago, in 2008. I presume that that was the driver for the discussion that took place in the Smith commission about doing something new and effective for consumers in Scotland.
The idea behind the bill is simply to transfer powers to legislate for delivery of consumer advice and advocacy in order to reduce harm to consumers, to increase consumer confidence in supply of goods and services, and to raise the profile of consumer matters in businesses.
The bill will make the body accountable to the Parliament, and has a focus on supporting vulnerable consumers, which featured in discussions and has been mentioned in the debate. The bill will give consumer Scotland the power to require certain bodies to provide information, which is an issue that was also discussed at some length.
The majority of the evidence backed the creation of the new body. However, a new body being proposed naturally creates a discussion about duplication, separation of duties and access to data from other bodies that occupy the same space to a degree. The committee heard a lot about that during its meetings.
One of the earliest issues that was raised was the current fragmentation of consumer advice services, which is perhaps a result of the abolition of the Scottish Consumer Council that we heard about.
Consumer protection seems to be spread around a number of organisations that offer advice and advocacy services. The plea from everyone who gave evidence was to tidy that landscape up—to make it clear who does what and how consumer Scotland will work with existing bodies. Should the new agency be front and centre, public-facing and accessible, by offering advice directly, or should that work be left to the existing agencies, such as Citizens Advice Scotland, which currently performs that duty? That would leave consumer Scotland to focus on high-level strategic issues that affect consumers. The minister favours the latter approach, which would allow CAS to focus on its core role of supporting the bureau network to deliver vital advice to people and to advocate on their behalf.
Consumer Scotland will have a broader remit to start building an evidence-based picture of consumer harm and to act as an advocate for change. We heard contributions on enforcement powers, which are reserved to UK Government agencies through trading standards. Although those powers cannot be contained in the bill, it is envisaged that consumer Scotland will, as a national body, use its evidence-gathering function to highlight and advocate for change with those other stakeholders.
Concern was expressed by colleagues from East Ayrshire and Glasgow City councils, who told us that there is a growing lack of capacity and resource to provide second-tier interventions for people to take action—for example, against retailers. Therefore, concerns remain about how that function can be supported in the future.
We have also heard today about product recall and whether consumer Scotland could play a leading role in that. Electrical Safety First has told us that when product-recall notices are issued for electrical goods in the UK, the average success rate is no better than 20 per cent. That means that there is a failing somewhere, so without becoming the investigating body, there might be an opportunity for the new agency to raise awareness of product recalls.
One important part of the discussion was about who and what are “vulnerable” consumers. Some members have touched on that this afternoon. The bill suggests some obvious groups of people—the elderly, the infirm, people on low incomes and people who live in remote areas. However, it soon became clear to the committee that vulnerability is more about context than characteristics. People are perhaps more vulnerable after a bereavement; people might not be aware of the myriad of terms and conditions on products for sale online; and younger people might be more vulnerable to direct and online marketing. Therefore, it was pleasing to hear the minister respond and agree to explore the issue further.
Access to data needs to be tidied up. We heard that various bodies will be expected to share data with consumer Scotland to enable it to fulfil its role, and that it will have a power to require that. There are some issues about that in relation to data protection, but the minister agreed to examine the matter further by setting up a working group to clarify and simplify that. East Ayrshire Council and other bodies support the power to require information to be made available.
I will say a word or two about the world of online retailing and how consumer Scotland might help consumers in the global consumer market. Alex Cole-Hamilton touched on that in his speech. It is important that we think about how we protect consumers who live in Scotland and buy goods and services online from Scottish, UK, European or international companies. We would all benefit from establishing reciprocal arrangements with other jurisdictions to provide advice and advocacy support when people need help under those circumstances—post-Brexit or otherwise. It is a global market and redress should not be limited to the country that we live in.
The Consumer Scotland Bill makes a useful proposal that will help consumers in Scotland. A new national body that seeks to gather information on what matters to consumers, and to advocate for improvement across the consumer landscape, is surely a worthwhile objective. I look forward to our continuing engagement as the bill passes through the subsequent stages, and to seeing some clarity on the many issues that have been raised, which will, if they are resolved, strengthen the bill further.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in the stage 1 debate on the Consumer Scotland Bill. Like Andy Wightman, I was sceptical about the need for the bill when there is already a crowded and confusing landscape, but I have come to accept that perhaps having an overarching body with a role of co-ordinating rather than duplicating makes some sense.
I am not sure that, at this stage, the Government has a clear view on how the body should operate, and it has not set out the specific functions of the body, preferring to leave it to consumer Scotland to work out that detail at a later stage. The committee was not entirely convinced by that approach, so I am pleased to hear that the minister will return at stage 2 to set out some of that detail in the bill. That will certainly be helpful.
I will cover four areas of the committee’s report: the role and importance of Citizens Advice Scotland; the inclusion of consumers in the new body; the question of definitions, which other members have touched on; and, finally, the issue of product recall.
Let me start with Citizens Advice Scotland. As members will know, Citizens Advice Scotland provides advocacy and advice through a network of local bureaux. The bureaux, including those in West Dunbartonshire and Argyll and Bute, provide front-facing community advice. That is supplemented by consumer services on water, energy, post and more, which added up to over 200,000 pieces of consumer advice in the past year alone. The establishment of consumer Scotland will see resources transferred from CAS to the new body. Although the Scottish Government has helpfully said that it will provide continued funding, that will be only for one year—there is no in-principle commitment beyond that timeframe.
I was genuinely surprised when the SNP members on the committee voted to reject my amendment, which was entirely factual and asked the Scottish Government to consider a long-term funding plan. I am disappointed, and I could not help but wonder whether SNP members are allowed to ask the Scottish Government to consider things. Surely, SNP members value the work of citizens advice bureaux and the contribution of their volunteers across Scotland in providing consumer advocacy. Perhaps I am missing something. Nevertheless, I am very pleased that colleagues from other parties—and, indeed, the minister himself—seem to support my request, and I trust that the Scottish Government will look at it again.
I understand that the Scottish Government is committed to enshrining in legislation the role of Citizens Advice Scotland as consumer advocates. That is a helpful move, and I look forward to seeing an amendment on it at stage 2.
I concur entirely with the points that Jackie Baillie has made about Citizens Advice Scotland. Does she accept that the committee’s recommendation was that we should consult a wider range of bodies beyond the public sector and Citizens Advice Scotland, to ensure that all the relevant organisations are included?
I am delighted to concede that point. The minister will also recognise that Citizens Advice Scotland enjoyed statutory underpinning until the powers were returned to the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government neglected to include that in the Consumer Scotland Bill. Although I accept the widening of the definition, it is important that Citizens Advice Scotland is in the bill, too.
The bill is silent on whether consumers will have a voice or be involved in the governance of the new body. Furthermore, they do not appear to have a role in shaping the work programme. That is a mistake—the committee thought so, too. Consumers need to be involved at every level, and I encourage the Scottish Government to think further about that.
On definitions, the committee was keen for the definition of “consumer” that is set out in the bill to be widened to include small businesses—an approach that is favoured by the Federation of Small Businesses. Microbusinesses typically have fewer than 10 employees, so they probably have more in common with the domestic consumer than with larger businesses and can be vulnerable to making poor purchasing decisions or being the victims of unfair practice. Therefore, they should be included in the bill.
Willie Coffey was right about the definition of a “vulnerable consumer”—the committee was of the view that, as it is currently drafted, the definition in the bill is too narrow and restrictive. It should not be about the particular characteristics of the consumer alone but should include the circumstances that they might find themselves in, which make them vulnerable at a particular point in time. I understand that it might be useful for us to consider the guidance of the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission, because it has already grappled with the issue.
Turning to the issue of product recall, for shorthand, I will call the amendment that I intend to lodge at stage 2, to make the issue absolutely clear, the Whirlpool amendment. I thank Electrical Safety First for its evidence and for helping to get us to this point. Members across the chamber will be aware that there have been a number of product recalls, typically involving faulty or dangerous white goods. I say “dangerous” because the consequences can be severe. As Alexander Burnett said, every week in Scotland at least four fires are caused by white goods, which means that 80 per cent of house fires are caused by faulty products.
Let us think about the Whirlpool example. Just over 1 million tumble dryers and washing machines have been recalled because of fire risk concerns, yet not all of them have actually been removed from people’s homes. As the average success rate is about 10 to 20 per cent, that means that hundreds of thousands of faulty tumble dryers and washing machines remain a hazard in people’s homes. Consumer protection powers are reserved, but this Parliament has an opportunity to make a positive difference by ensuring that consumer Scotland has the power to disseminate information and advice about major product recalls. It can be a central, trusted source of information that, ultimately, helps to reduce the harm that is all too often caused by defective and faulty goods.
I commend the bill to the chamber at stage 1, and I look forward to the minister taking a leaf out of the cabinet secretary’s book. I will certainly work with him to improve the bill.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this important debate on the Consumer Scotland Bill.
Safeguarding consumers’ interests and making sure that they can play a part in building a more inclusive, sustainable economy is a key priority of the Scottish Government. The achievement of that priority will be assisted by the actions that will be taken through the bill, which include the establishment of consumer Scotland and the introduction of a duty on relevant public authorities to have regard to impacts on consumers and to the desirability of reducing consumer harm when they make strategic decisions in the course of delivering their functions.
I am sure that the Scottish Government recognises that the consumer landscape is complex. To ensure that consumer Scotland adds genuine value, it must be developed in collaboration with stakeholders.
As well as establishing consumer Scotland, the bill will put consumers at the heart of policy making through the consumer duty. The new duty will require that, when a relevant public authority makes decisions of a strategic nature about how to exercise its functions, it must have regard to the impact of those decisions on consumers in Scotland and to the desirability of reducing harm to consumers.
The complexity and fragmentation of the landscape, particularly with regard to consumer advice services, is a concern. In responses to the Government’s consultation, it was repeatedly suggested that consumer Scotland should address that issue.
I have already mentioned that, to ensure that they add value, stakeholder engagement and collaborative working have already taken place. Indeed, there has been extensive stakeholder engagement, and I am certain that it will continue throughout the passage of the bill.
Another key deliverable from the bill will be the creation of an independent consumer champion that is dedicated to representing the interests of consumers. Consumer Scotland will act as a consumer champion at a time when we are exiting the European Union and face rising prices, a climate emergency and rapid technological advances. It is more important than ever that there is a strong voice to champion the interests of consumers and ensure that they are not left behind.
Consumer Scotland will move beyond simply highlighting problems to actively seeking solutions that can make a real difference to the lives of consumers. It will recognise and understand our distinct circumstances, such as those of our rural population and our devolved industries. By enshrining the body in statute, we will send a clear signal that the Scottish Government sees consumer fairness as a key part of our wider fairer Scotland agenda. Crucially, as a public body that is accountable to Parliament, consumer Scotland will have to demonstrate that it is providing value for public money by driving forward real change for people in Scotland.
The Scottish Government will continue to work with stakeholders to ensure that consumer Scotland does not duplicate existing good work in the consumer protection landscape. I am sure that, in doing so, the Scottish Government will recognise, for example, that Citizens Advice Scotland has an important place in that landscape and is committed to continuing to give a voice to many vulnerable consumers. A separate consumer body will allow Citizens Advice Scotland to focus on its core role of supporting the bureau network to deliver advice to vulnerable citizens and to advocate on their behalf.
Consumer Scotland will have a broader remit than CAS has. It will have the responsibility of building a comprehensive, evidence-based picture of consumer harm across Scotland and of identifying the solutions that are needed to tackle that harm. Consumer Scotland’s advocacy for all consumers will benefit the bureaux by allowing them to focus resources on those consumers who may need more interventionist support.
Another issue that I would like to focus on is the economic importance of consumers, who are vital to our economy and to achieving vital policy outcomes such as the decarbonisation of our economy and a reduction in our use of plastic. Some figures estimate that consumers account for 60 per cent of spending in the economy. We cannot grow our economy without them, and we cannot achieve the kind of inclusive growth that we want if consumers are not treated fairly or feel unable to use their spending power to reflect the things that they care about as citizens.
We know that systemic consumer harm, or unequal consumer outcomes, can have far-reaching consequences such as the fact that those who live in poverty routinely pay more for essential goods and services. Consumers need a strong champion to challenge those inequalities and to empower them to speak up for themselves.
Consumer Scotland will not work alone. It will work with a variety of organisations that already provide advice and support to consumers, such as Citizens Advice Scotland, Which? and Advice Direct Scotland.
Given the current climate emergency, consumers will have a vital role to play if we are to transform our economy so that it becomes more sustainable and we achieve our carbon emission targets. To do that successfully, we must support consumers to change their own behaviour and encourage businesses to change theirs. The establishment of consumer Scotland and the introduction of the consumer duty will help us to achieve those aims.
An example of the sort of issue that consumer Scotland could investigate is one that colleagues such as Richard Lochhead, Gail Ross and others have been particularly vocal in raising awareness of both in and outwith this chamber: parcel deliveries. Consumers in rural and Highland areas suffer a long-standing detriment in that they sometimes pay up to 50 per cent more in delivery charges than consumers across the rest of the UK pay. Although the area is reserved to the UK Government, the Scottish Government has led on actions to tackle the issue—for example, by developing a statement of principles for use by retailers. However, the problem persists. A consumer body that was dedicated solely to Scottish issues could fully explore the underlying causes and propose to businesses and regulatory authorities practical solutions for reducing consumer detriment, which would be welcomed.
I noted with interest the comments of Caroline Normand, which were set out eloquently by my colleague Gordon MacDonald. She said:
“The move to create a dedicated consumer body backed by the Scottish Government to tackle these chronic issues is very positive.”
The mission and the ambition is to improve the lives of ordinary people across Scotland. I welcome the bill and look forward to supporting it.
An important piece of legislation is being considered today. A new consumer protection agency has the potential to help many people across the country and further promote consumer confidence across a variety of business sectors. Currently, there are a number of organisations that offer similar services, and a new statutory agency such as the one that is proposed in the bill can complement the work of other groups and provide a broader and more effective selection of advice on unfair trading, harm reduction and other consumer issues.
Some issues have been raised, such as the duplication of work and how the new agency will fit into the bigger picture in Scotland. There have also been a few other concerns, which I will speak about in a while. However, I am broadly supportive of the bill and its objectives at this stage.
I thank the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee for its stage 1 report. I also thank the Finance and Constitution Committee and the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee for the consideration that they have undertaken.
The devolution of powers over consumer advice and advocacy in the Scotland Act 2016 made it necessary to create a body to deliver the objectives that are set out in the bill, operating alongside ministers and the third sector as well as equivalent bodies in other parts of the UK.
I can certainly support the three overarching aims of consumer Scotland, which are set out in section 2. Reducing consumer harm by combating unsuitable trading practices will be of great benefit to people across the country—in particular, older or vulnerable people. Increasing consumers’ confidence when they are dealing with businesses will help put minds at ease and—hopefully—lead to benefits for both parties. Ensuring the salience of consumer matters will mean that both the state and the private sector are able to respond to the challenges of tomorrow in an agile way.
As it stands, the bill will ensure that consumer Scotland is subject to independent reviews every five years of its operation. Given the speed at which market practices can evolve, I wonder whether that timescale needs to be shortened to ensure continued best practice. In a similar vein, consumer Scotland will have to publish a consumer welfare report every three years. For the same reason, I think that a shorter time period would be useful, and I hope that some consideration will be given to those issues at later stages.
Thank you. That helps, and it adds to the debate.
External organisations have also raised a few concerns about elements of the bill, and I will touch on a few of those.
The first is the potential duplication of work that is done by other organisations—for instance, in the charitable sector. In its very helpful briefing, the Law Society of Scotland has pointed out that there is not sufficient clarity on the functions of consumer Scotland, so there is a challenge in assessing where consumer Scotland fits into the overall consumer landscape. I hope that that can be addressed at a later stage.
The Law Society has also pointed out some details about information sharing that will need clarification in the bill. It is important that, as consumer Scotland will be able to demand information from other bodies, there should also be a mechanism for the information that it collects to be shared. That will ensure that there is a joined-up, evidence-based approach among all similar organisations, rather than all of them going in different directions based on different data.
A number of concerns have been raised about how consumer Scotland will go about protecting vulnerable people and about the definition of “vulnerable”. As the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission has pointed out, the current definition is quite narrow, and it may require further clarification if it is to be effective in fulfilling the aims that have been set out by ministers. The law governing consumer Scotland needs to be as all-encompassing as possible, so I hope that those representations from legal organisations will prompt a clarification at later stages of the bill.
I am also grateful to Citizens Advice Scotland for its contributions to the bill through its stage 1 briefing as well as its submissions to the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee last year. Its model of working shows us that one of the most valuable resources in identifying fundamental problems can be the people who have been negatively affected by consumer issues in the past. By drawing from people’s life experiences, we can ensure that consumer Scotland prioritises solutions to the problems that people face every day. The SLCC has pointed to the establishment of an advisory group, which seems to be a sensible approach, so I hope that the minister will take that suggestion on board.
CAS also pointed out an issue regarding its legal status as a consumer advocate, which is true in England and Wales but would not be the case in Scotland if the bill were passed, so I hope that steps can be taken to clarify or correct that later on.
The bill is a good start in creating an agency that is required to fulfil our obligations under powers that were devolved to the Scottish Parliament in the Scotland Act 2016. I am pleased about some of the ideas that have been set out—in the bill and by the minister today—for the operational priorities of consumer Scotland, and agree that they are the right priorities for consumers around the country.
Some elements of the proposed legislation will need to be improved. They are by no means insurmountable and will just require some work to be done as the bill progresses. With that in mind, I am happy to support the general principles of the bill and look forward to seeing how it progresses in the committee and beyond.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate on the Consumer (Scotland) Bill. I thank the committee members for their work on the stage 1 report.
I am not a member of the committee, but I have an interest in consumer issues, and am interested to see how the bill develops. As a previous spokesperson on rural affairs, I remember the scandal of meat contaminated with horse products, when the trust of consumers was severely damaged by a weakness in the inspection regime and the complicated supply chain of processed meat products. Consumer trust is important and a robust system of advice and redress for consumers is vital in building trust and providing protection.
It is important that any new body brings additional value to the current situation. Although new powers have been devolved that enable us to legislate for the delivery of consumer advice and advocacy, most consumer powers are reserved to Westminster. In a common UK market for goods and services, that makes a degree of sense. However, the new power enables the establishment of the new body to address any issues that are specific to Scotland or have a strong Scottish dimension, and to provide robust research and a strong advocacy role to influence Government.
It is worth recognising that, as this change occurs in the UK, the EU also has consumer powers, sharing competence for consumer protection with member states, which ensures a baseline standard of protection around the EU, and responsibility for product safety and competition. As we leave the EU at the end of the month, there could be a role for consumer Scotland in identifying any weaknesses or gaps that might develop after the transition period, depending on the level of regulatory alignment that is agreed.
It is positive that many of the points that were highlighted by the committee have received a positive response from the Government at stage 1. The committee has secured a number of commitments, including on the definition of vulnerability, sole traders and microbusinesses, the financial memorandum and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, and the need for the duty to collaborate to include the third sector. There is much agreement and anticipated work for the committee at stage 2.
However, the stage 1 report and the briefings that Citizens Advice Scotland and the Law Society provided for the debate are united in their concern that consumer Scotland’s objectives are not defined, and external organisations are unclear about how consumer Scotland will operate. Although the Scottish Government argues that it will be for the body to set its strategic direction and work priorities, there is a need for greater clarity about how the new body will operate, how it will work with existing consumer bodies and how it will work with the regulators that have enforcement powers that the new body will not have. In Scotland, we have established consumer rights organisations, including Citizens Advice Scotland and consumeradvice.scot, whose representatives I spoke to in the Scottish Parliament last week. Those are front-line services that offer advice and support to consumers who are facing difficulties. It needs to be clear that the new body will not detract from—and will complement—their work, which is another reason why the issue of levy-related funding and CAS needs to be resolved.
Most people do not think about influencing Government or investigating a sector when they want to complain about a product or look for advice on how to resolve an issue. Those will still be the services that consumers want to directly use. We have to ensure that advice services are properly funded and that the investigative and enforcement services of trading standards officers in our local authorities are also fully resourced. Consumer Scotland will need to work closely with the Competition and Markets Authority, and it is important that structured opportunities for that and for other collaborative work are created.
As a member of the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee, I recently worked on the UEFA European Championship (Scotland) Bill for the Euro 2020 tournament, which included measures to stop ticket touting during the tournament. Ticket touting is a practice that exploits music and sport fans by reselling tickets at inflated prices and creating a profit margin that does not support the artist, promoter or venue but goes into the pockets of unscrupulous dealers and businesses. The Competition and Markets Authority undertook a compliance review and forced secondary ticket sellers to comply with consumer law, which makes the process more transparent for the consumer, but I completely disagree with the business model that is used by resale companies. I recently got a letter from a company that operates a resale platform in which it describes “dynamic pricing” and argues that
“concepts such as ‘face value’ are becoming increasingly outdated and irrelevant.”
That is nonsense. I do not know of any fan who has been happy to be ripped off to secure tickets to a concert, when they find themselves sitting in a row in which everyone else has paid half the price that they have. It is that kind of gap in our legislation that consumer Scotland should focus on.
We recently passed the legislation on Euro 2020, but there was a degree of frustration that the legislation covered only the term of the tournament. That was similar to the position for the Commonwealth games, in that the Scottish Government could legislate to protect a major event but the legislation was limited to that time period. In response to questions on that during the committee’s evidence sessions, the Minister for Europe, Migration and International Development, Ben Macpherson, said that consideration was being given to introducing a framework bill. However, we need clarity about how that would work with reserved powers.
Although there are issues to be addressed around what the Law Society described in its briefing as what consumer Scotland “will actually do”, I hope that the new body can work positively to impact on issues such as tackling the rise of secondary ticket selling in Scotland. We have seen progress through enforcement of the Consumer Rights Act 2015 in a recent case that was brought by consumeradvice.scot and East Ayrshire Council’s trading standards department, whereby a fine was issued through the legislation for the first time in Scotland—it was also the first successful case of its kind in the UK. That case tackled a misleading ticket sale in which the consumer did not have the information that they were entitled to. However, current legislation does not restrict the selling of tickets for an inflated price, which is exploitative. I would welcome consumer Scotland, when it is created, working to understand the situation in Scotland and to propose how we can address it to protect the consumer.
The debate reminds me that I asked the whips at the beginning of this parliamentary session whether I could be on the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee—unfortunately, they put me elsewhere—because the committee’s work is clearly interesting and of value. The report that the committee produced on the Consumer Scotland Bill is an example of that. I now find myself on the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee and the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee marking my own report card by reviewing things that I did as a minister—it is a bit odd, but there we are.
The Scotland Act 2016 devolved responsibility for consumer advocacy and advice to the Scottish Parliament, which is very much to be welcomed and is the foundation of the legislation that we are debating. However, advocacy and advice need not be all that we do, because we can also inform—for example, we can inform manufacturers and small businesses. The important point is to understand through evidence why consumers experience harm, and then to develop solutions that increase fairness to consumers, thereby increasing consumer confidence.
It is important to consider that, in the context of the Consumer Scotland Bill, we are not setting up something in opposition to manufacturers and suppliers; on the contrary, an informed and demanding consumer who raises the game of suppliers and manufacturers is in the interests of those businesses, because that will make them more competitive in their efforts to sell into their local and export markets. In other words, good products command a market, so the legislation is not the enemy of businesses.
I turn to some of the detail. I note from paragraph 29 of the policy memorandum that consumer Scotland will be
“a body corporate” and that one thing that will be necessary is to have
“an Order in Council” because
“the civil service is a reserved matter.”
I simply ask that the minister advise—perhaps now or at a later point—whether he has engaged with the UK Government to get assurance that such consent will be given. I would be surprised if there were any difficulties in getting that, but it would be useful to know that for the sake of completeness.
Paragraph 66 of the policy memorandum—and elsewhere—talks about the impact on highland and island communities and rural communities more generally. As someone who represents a hybrid area that is very rural and has significant large towns, I have particular interest in the application of the legislation to areas that are more distant from city centres. I see no reason to doubt that there will be benefits to those areas, as there will be elsewhere.
A number of members—most notably and recently Jackie Baillie, in relation to white goods—raised the topic of product recall. I have said before in the Parliament that we should seek to get the serial number of our white goods on the front of the goods. The number is always on the back and people have to take the product out of where it is installed in order to find it. I think that that is a big contributory factor to why so many recalls do not have high returns—people find it very difficult to find out whether their Whirlpool, or whatever the brand of the product might be, is subject to a recall. Although we do not have the power to command that, we might, through this legislation, have the power to inform consumers, persuade them about the issue and demand that that change happens.
The issue of chlorinated chicken was also mentioned. That leads us to the issue of the labelling of products and their origins, because that informs the consumer whether the product that they might be contemplating buying, particularly in relation to food, is one that they want to engage with and buy. However, we cannot do everything that we might want to do—we cannot cut into competition law or operational matters, but we can certainly assist consumers in making choices.
Another reserved issue that we can, nonetheless, engage in is helping consumers to understand what advertising means. I include in that much of what happens on social media, where the boundary between advertising, comment and information is not always particularly clear.
The bill, and what will be done, is not just about preventing harm; it is about delivering real benefits. Others have talked about Citizens Advice Scotland, which I strongly support it; I regularly send my constituents in its direction when they have difficulties. I certainly would not wish to see its role being diminished in the many communities in which it is represented on the ground, with local people as directors and other local people who understand the communities’ needs. A central body elsewhere might be less able to engage directly with local issues.
I will close on the issue of vulnerability and vulnerable consumers, which has also been raised. Andy Wightman mentioned the Donoghue v Stevenson case, which was brought in 1929. One of the interesting things is that May Donoghue, who pursued that case, relied on in forma pauperis. She was a pauper and was able to take her case all the way to the House of Lords because she was relieved under that provision of carrying the costs of her opponent, should she lose the case.
I think that that is an interesting example, going back some distance, that might inform how we see the new consumer body operate. May Donoghue was a pauper to the extent that only one of her four sons survived into adulthood. She has delivered, as the most famous litigant in life, a little bit that contributes to this debate.
Nobody disagrees with strengthening consumer protection in Scotland; however, a number of issues in the bill require clarification. It appears that it is enabling legislation, but its objectives are not altogether clear, and there is no clear view or vision. That point was made by Claire Baker, among others. It appears that much more needs to be consulted on, and that consultation surely should have been done before the bill was introduced, albeit that it is welcome at this stage to give more clarity to the role of the organisation.
A number of members mentioned the organisation’s interaction with other bodies. The Law Society of Scotland also raised that issue, as did the Co-operative Party—of which I am a member—in its briefing for the debate. It is not clear how the body will interact with existing bodies and regulators that are already tasked with taking enforcement action. In his opening speech, Jamie Hepburn said that he hoped that it would unite a fragmented landscape; however, the fear is that it will just add to the clutter of the landscape. As such, clarity on the issue would be welcome. The body needs to do something new and not simply replicate or replace existing organisations.
Members talked about Citizens Advice Scotland, and there was support from around the chamber for the important role that it plays. In his opening speech, Jamie Hepburn talked about consumer Scotland taking account of the role of the voluntary sector, but again it is not clear what that means. Citizens Advice Scotland will be impacted by the bill, particularly in the light of the expectation that it will lose its levy-related funding; that point was made by Richard Leonard. That funding was worth about £1 million in 2019-20, and there is no commitment from the Scottish Government beyond 2021. Jackie Baillie suggested that that funding would transfer from Citizens Advice Scotland to consumer Scotland. There is a concern about that, because it is very unclear what the benefit of the new organisation to Citizens Advice Scotland will be. It provided more than 221,000 pieces of consumer advice in 2018-19, which was nearly 30 per cent of its work. As such, if consumer Scotland is not providing front-line services, will Citizens Advice Scotland still provide that service, and, if so, how will it be funded for doing that work? We have to be very clear that consumer Scotland does not take over from Citizens Advice Scotland, and that it and local authorities—which also provide front-line services—are properly financed to provide that support.
There was also discussion about the consumer duty, which—again—is not very clear. It falls to local bodies, and I know that local authorities are concerned that it might place more stresses on them and mean that they have further duties to fulfil.
Rhoda Grant mentioned that local authorities are concerned. However, she will be aware that Glasgow City Council, for example, came out strongly in support of the duty, as an enhancement of any public authority on which we decide to confer that responsibility as part of its consideration of the place of the consumer as it takes forward its policy making.
Nonetheless, clarity is, again, required. Although the Government is consulting on what the duty is and how it works, those bodies that will have that duty placed on them need to know what it means for them here and now—indeed, when the bill is going through Parliament.
A number of members spoke about product recall. My colleague Jackie Baillie talked about her “Whirlpool amendment”, which is catchy—that is going to stick. Consumer Scotland has to have a role in product recall and in raising awareness. We are all aware of the Whirlpool situation, whereby people have difficulty getting information, getting their machines removed or changed through a replacement, or being compensated. That is a huge fire risk, but it also means that people are having to live without an essential piece of equipment—their washing machine. They may be left with a washing machine that they dare not use and cannot afford to replace. Alexander Burnett talked about consumer Scotland’s role in co-ordinating information, but it must also have a stronger role in requiring companies to assist consumers when such things happen.
Many members said that small businesses are consumers. On the whole, that is right, although some thought needs to be given to the definition to ensure that small businesses do not receive protection when they are suppliers and that consumers are not disadvantaged.
Richard Leonard’s point that communities should be considered to be consumers is important. Many members talked about broadband, parcel surcharges and universal services, and communities need to be able to exercise their consumer rights collectively in relation to such things, as do the other groups that Andy Wightman mentioned.
Claire Baker brought something new to the debate when she talked about ticket touting. It is important that the new organisation has the powers to deal with that and take action on it. We have spoken about ticket touting many times, but it seems that nobody has been able to take action on it.
Vulnerable customers need to be protected, and I agree with the comments that Jackie Baillie and Willie Coffey made on that. It is not just about people with certain characteristics because, when people are preyed on, it is often the circumstances that have made them vulnerable.
We need to be sure about what consumer Scotland will be and what it will do. A number of members talked about it being a campaigning organisation, but will it be a watchdog with teeth that can make a real difference or simply a new pressure group that will campaign? Will it do both things? Will it be able to compel organisations that do not fall within this Parliament’s remit, such as utility companies, to act?
We support the bill at stage 1. We will want to see much more detail as it goes through the other stages, but if it will bring something new to consumers and protect them better, it will be welcomed by the whole Parliament.
I add my thanks to the committee’s clerking team for its work in relation to the stage 1 report that we produced together, and I thank the organisations and experts that provided evidence to us as part of our scrutiny work. It was extremely helpful and useful in our decision making.
Our convener, Gordon Lindhurst, speaking for the committee, outlined some of the detail of our stage 1 report. Although the bill is in many ways framework legislation for the new body, I strongly believe that there is still a considerable body of work to be done before the Parliament can be confident that the bill and consumer Scotland will succeed in their objectives.
The committee has welcomed the general principles of the bill, and I believe that all members will look to approach it constructively and in a spirit of improvement. However, our work raised significant questions about the role, aims and operation of the new body—questions that I feel are fundamental. Some of them have been covered in this debate.
At this stage, there is still a considerable lack of clarity over how consumer Scotland will function. I have read the Scottish Government’s response to the committee’s stage 1 report, but I am not sure that I am any clearer on several central points about its functions. The Scottish Government has been at pains to clarify its remit, but the broader issue of where it will sit within the existing body of consumer organisations remains largely unanswered.
The Scottish Government’s response that much of that involves what will be operational questions for the new organisation’s board seems simply to kick some of the questions further down the road. As the bill progresses, we should have at least some conception of the direction of the body and how it will avoid simply duplicating large amounts of existing work that is undertaken by other organisations.
It is positive that ministers have accepted the committee’s suggestion of a Scottish consumer protection partnership to formalise some of the working relationships including with trading standards in Scotland, which has the benefit of being a well-recognised and long-standing part of the consumer landscape.
The position in relation to citizens advice bureaux has been raised several times. We all know from our constituents the value that is placed on consumer protection and the excellent work that those organisations do on the public’s behalf. In many cases, they and advocates such as us are the only buffers that stand in the way of sharp practices and exploitation, particularly against vulnerable constituents.
In my Highlands and Islands region, for example, we have raised concerns over a number of out-and-out scams. I have also campaigned on issues such as delivery charges, which have been mentioned today, whereby people outside the central belt can be charged entirely disproportionate costs for having things delivered to their homes. In some cases, charges are hidden below free delivery “guarantees”.
The Parliament now has increased powers to act in those areas. The further powers were part of the Scotland Act 2016, which implemented the recommendations of the Smith commission, which every party in this chamber supported. There is clearly space for the Scottish Government to act in terms of consumer advocacy and advice. I am sure that that view is shared across political divides.
As parliamentarians, we seek devolved consumer arrangements that are appropriate and that meet the expectations of the people who contact us, or whose issues are referred to us. Ministers should look at the points that have been raised today in that light .
As things stand, however, we do not have enough information on the Scottish Government’s proposals to be clear that consumer Scotland will make the real difference that ministers suggest.
I have spoken about relationships with other organisations. What shone through the evidence is that enduring and well-considered working links must be created between consumer Scotland and other regulatory bodies. However, again, we lack some of the details.
To give one example, on information sharing, the committee highlighted provisions for data sharing in the relevant framework under the Enterprise Act 2002. We proposed working with the UK Government to ensure that consumer Scotland could benefit from those arrangements. We now have assurances that that will be explored by the Scottish Government and that conclusions will be shared. However, it is surprising that, faced with the bill, we are still only at the stage of explorations. A number of other colleagues have raised similar concerns, on which, yet again, I hope that the minister will be able to provide some answers as the bill progresses.
My colleague Dean Lockhart echoed issues around strengthening, not detracting from, other bodies operating in the area. He also raised the issue of how consumer protections apply to small businesses, especially in remote and rural areas, drawing on the evidence of Shetland Islands Council. In my region, such businesses often comprise one or two people, and they find that in their business transactions they have very different protections and access to support. I welcome the minister’s comments on that in his opening speech.
The issue of duplication has already been covered in some detail, so I will not rehash it, but I again point to the concerns around Citizens Advice Scotland.
Dean Lockhart also pointed out that there is something of a disconnect between the bill and the experience of the public in dealing with the Scottish Government and its agencies. Where, he asked, were the similar protections for citizens who receive poor service from the public sector?
Tom Mason raised the reporting requirements of the new body, and its proposed annual consumer welfare report that will be laid before this Parliament. Again, it was interesting to get clarification on that from the minister. He also noted the significance of the reviews of the organisation that are proposed in the bill. However, ministers should reflect on the length of that period going forward.
That said, these are positive steps, which will help to ensure accountability and which must be taken seriously, particularly in the early years of consumer Scotland’s operation.
There were other very thoughtful contributions from fellow committee members, which covered many of the areas that the committee had considered.
My colleague Alexander Burnett praised Citizens Advice Scotland, and welcomed its support for the inclusion of small businesses in the bill. Rhoda Grant raised concerns over the future funding of Citizens Advice Scotland. That area of concern came up a number of times.
Concerns were also expressed around the funding of local authorities, and particularly of departments such as trading standards, which require to be properly funded so that they can engage in some of the campaigns that the new body may work on.
Consumer rights provide protections, in recognition that the normal process of law cannot resolve every disagreement experienced by the public in the average day. Not every purchase, nor every service provided, should or will be brought to the courts when a dispute arises. Therefore, when consumers are mistreated, it is often to consumer advice, protection and advocacy groups that they turn. Such issues strike at the heart of fairness in our societies and providing a level of justice to all.
Consumer Scotland can make a difference to how consumers are supported, but the Scottish Government’s approach, while having merit, does not yet provide the clarity that will be necessary for such success.
I thank members from across the chamber who have taken the time to contribute to the debate. By and large, the debate has been positive, although there have been a few issues raised that might suggest the contrary. I have the broad sense that the direction of travel in establishing consumer Scotland as a new organisation to look out for the interests of consumers across the country is welcomed, so I welcome that. Several members have raised issues and concerns; it is incumbent on me, as the minister in charge of the bill, to engage with them, so I commit to doing so.
A number of members commented on the limited detail on how consumer Scotland will operate when it is established. My first observation on that is that the bill is a high-level enabling bill. By and large, that is the right way to proceed. I hope that members all understand the core purpose and function of consumer Scotland—not least because that is laid out clearly in section 2. Not ramming the bill full of detail about how consumer Scotland will operate day to day is as much a strength as it could be perceived to be a weakness. I imagine that most members subscribe to our intention that the body will be wholly independent of Government and of political direction. On that basis, it is appropriate that we set up an organisation that can, as far as possible, determine itself how it operates.
That said, I have committed to providing more detail on how consumer Scotland will operate. I hope that the committee feels that my response to its report was positive. I have taken on board all of its recommendations, not least on that issue. Further amendment might not be required, but if it is felt that that would be helpful, I will of course be willing to consider doing so.
I again record my thanks to Gordon Lindhurst’s committee for its consideration. Mr Lindhurst spoke about how a range of organisations set out in evidence what they perceive the priorities for consumer Scotland should be. We have heard a bit on that during the debate, with members raising a range of issues to do with consumer harm, as they perceive it, that have occurred recently. That, too, is a strength, because it shows that there is no shortage of views or of organisations that will want to engage with consumer Scotland to make clear the issues that they think should be a priority. It will be incumbent on consumer Scotland to interact with and consult those organisations.
I again make the point that consumer Scotland will have to consult on its forward work programme. That is laid out in the bill, and we are going to strengthen the provision so that, as I said to Jackie Baillie, consumer Scotland will take account not only of public sector organisations that have a similar function, but of organisations beyond the public sector, in order to come up with a coherent work programme.
That takes me to the concern that was raised by Alex Cole-Hamilton and others about ensuring that there is no duplication of effort. I agree with that, which is why I responded positively to the committee’s suggestion, which we discussed when I gave evidence to it, on the creation of a Scottish consumer protection partnership, so that all the relevant organisations can come together to discuss the issues of the day, and so that duplication is minimised. I have committed to taking that forward; I have said that we will do it.
Alex Cole-Hamilton said—I hope that I am quoting him correctly—that the new body should not cause other bodies to modify the good work that they do or have a “chilling effect”, such that those bodies do not challenge the Government. On his latter point, I say that if that is what we had intended, it has had very limited practical effect thus far—although, of course, we do not seek to do that. It is appropriate that organisations robustly challenge Government and it is intended that consumer Scotland will exercise such a function. That should, if anything, encourage other bodies to do the same.
A number of members talked about the concern that was expressed at stage 1 that the definition of “consumer” excludes small businesses. I know that the Federation of Small Businesses has raised that. It set out that small businesses often face the same hurdles as individual consumers. I concede the point; we have acknowledged that and will lodge an amendment on it. Of course, there are different ways to achieve that. We could set out a specific reference to small businesses and define them by size. As Dean Lockhart mentioned, Ombudsman Services, which I met earlier this week, has a definition. I observe that there is a slight difference in functionality because it is a redress body through which a small business or microbusiness can seek redress. The situation is not quite the same here.
I thought that Richard Leonard made an interesting observation that communities could be consumers. Maybe there is an opportunity to widen the definition of “consumer” to deal with such things. I would be happy to discuss that with him. I look forward to his full engagement and to his responding positively to my invitation to discuss that or any other issue.
Richard Leonard also said that he wants the bill to be transformed from being “passive” to “active”. I have to concede that I am not entirely sure what that means. I would be delighted if he would meet me to enlighten me on that point. He talked about the need for enforcement powers in relation to the demand for information by Consumer Scotland if an organisation refuses to provide such information. I was surprised that he was not aware that that is in the bill, between sections 8 and 12. It is in print, so I urge him to have a look. As I said, I will be happy to meet him.
A number of members talked about product recall, which is an issue that we have debated recently, and one which I discussed yesterday with Electrical Safety First. Jackie Baillie talked about Consumer Scotland being made able to take forward such activity. The bill already provides that ability—I think that the issue is the suggestion that it should be a duty. I am open to considering that. I look forward to seeing the “Whirlpool amendment”, as she called it, when she lodges it. I note that we need to be careful not to create confusion and to give a consistent message, because other organisations undertake some such activity. We also have to consider what is devolved and what is reserved. I am willing to look at the issue.
Andy Wightman talked about the wellbeing agenda in the consumer context—an issue that he raised at committee. Similarly, he raised the place of the consumer in a changing economy, which was also mentioned by Richard Lyle. I believe that our ambition is a shared one; the issues that Andy Wightman raised are pertinent and important and are part of the purpose of the bill. The definition of “consumer” that is in the bill encompasses that, but I am happy to discuss the matter with him to see whether we need to finesse the bill further.
The definition of “vulnerability” was mentioned by a number of members. We have never sought to define vulnerability narrowly. I appreciate that that has been raised as a concern, and am committed to addressing it. Jackie Baillie suggested that Scottish Legal Complaints Commission guidance might be helpful; I am willing to look at it as an example. I assure every member that the fundamental position that we are committed to is that we will support and amend the bill to take cognisance of their concerns.
I will close by talking about citizens advice, because concern has been expressed. I greatly value the work of Citizens Advice Scotland and of individual citizens advice bureaux. Every member does. What we seek to implement will not encumber the ability of citizens advice bureaux to continue the work that they do. I say to Rhoda Grant that the funding that we have historically given CAS and have continued up to this financial year has not been to fund provision of front-line consumer advice. We will continue to work with CAS. I engage with the organisation regularly and will meet the chief executive next week. I will continue to engage because of the important role that CAS plays in supporting consumers and citizens.
I could say much more about the bill, but time prohibits me from saying much more. I hope that Parliament will unite this evening to agree to the general principles of the bill. I will be happy to come back to say a lot more about the Consumer Scotland Bill in due course.