Consumer Focus Wales

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 14th September 2011.

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Photo of Mark Williams Mark Williams Liberal Democrat, Ceredigion 4:30 pm, 14th September 2011

It is a particular pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mrs Brooke. I am grateful for the opportunity to once again put forward the concerns of the Welsh consumer sector to the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, my hon. Friend Mr Davey. He was good enough to meet representatives from Consumer Focus Wales and my hon. Friend Roger Williams a few weeks ago. I was grateful for that meeting, and I am grateful to have the opportunity to present to him what are perhaps some familiar arguments.

Consumer Focus was set up by the Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Act 2007 and it has a federal structure, with autonomous bodies in each of the devolved nations. The bodies collaborate, but each leads on projects of its own, particularly where there are differences due to devolution. Consumer Focus Wales has done some outstanding work on a number of issues of concern to my constituents. It has worked very closely with trading standards departments on the major concern of private car parking, including with Lawrence Martin from Ceredigion trading standards, to try to eradicate the shady practices that sadly have gone on in the pursuit of private parking offences. I understand that one private operator in Ceredigion has been the cause of the most trade complaints in the area for many years. A year ago, Consumer Focus Wales put out a call for evidence to consumers and received numerous complaints about private car park operators. The complaints included instances of operators misleading consumers about the nature of charges, operators and debt recovery agents using threats to secure payment, charges that bear no relation to the loss sustained by the operator or landowner, ease of access to keeper details registered with the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, errors in charging and the lack of an independent appeals process. I also, as a constituency MP, have received a number of complaints, and there has been interest in the local press. I cite that as just one pertinent example in my constituency.

Consumer Focus Wales has carried out crucial research as part of its work, thanks to which we know that 200,000 people in Wales do not have access to a bank account, 206,000 homes in Wales are off the mains gas network and half of prepayment meter households self-ration their energy. That research has given us additional insight into the problems faced in Welsh communities, particularly rural ones. I am very glad that my hon. Friend Jonathan Evans is here this afternoon. We do not know whether the new model will allow for such unique Welsh research to be carried out to the same extent, advancing Welsh issues in a Welsh context.

The work that Consumer Focus has done on post offices, digital inclusion, fuel poverty and financial services has been very important in raising the issues and in proposing practical solutions to some of the concerns. A major piece of work for Consumer Focus Wales this year has been an investigation into park homes, which is an issue close to many of my constituents’ hearts. Many of the issues involved, particularly licensing by local authorities and planning, are devolved, so that is an excellent demonstration of why we need a Welsh perspective.

Perhaps the most important work that the organisation has done—literally a matter of life and death—has been its investigation into E. coli and food safety. All members of the Public Bodies Bill Committee have received as written evidence a letter from Sharon Mills, who tragically lost her son as a result of the 2005 E. coli outbreak. Consumer Focus Wales has taken up the matter, raising some serious concerns about food safety, and changes have been implemented as a result, such as the Welsh Government agreeing to introduce the mandatory display of food hygiene ratings by all food businesses, and encouraging the Food Standards Agency to clarify the law on the separation of raw and cooked food. Just this month a food safety map of Welsh schools was released, which highlighted the ones that had failed to make the grade. For the record, it is worth quoting a paragraph from Mrs Mills’s letter:

“If it wasn’t for Consumer Focus Wales the profile of food safety would not have been raised over the past two years, significant advancements in implementing these recommendations wouldn’t have been made or reported and most importantly myself and other families would continue to be in the dark about what action was being taken to ensure no other family has to go through what we have been through.”