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

I was not aware of that, and I am grateful for that intervention. I will come on to issues about the Welsh language in a moment, because they are, as the hon. Lady knows, critical to our constituents.

The failure to recognise the gap between what the consultation describes as consumer policy and all the areas that Consumer Focus Wales works in creates a worry that future arrangements may leave out altogether significant areas of work currently undertaken by Consumer Focus Wales. There is also concern about the arrangements for the extra help unit, which protects some of the most vulnerable consumers in society and is part of the Consumer Direct service via a referral protocol. The proposal is for that service to be transferred to Citizens Advice and Citizens Advice Scotland by March 2012. Therefore, that needs to be integrated into the plans for Citizens Advice to take over the Consumer Direct service, with absolutely no break in the service provided.

Significantly, the extra help unit is a completely bilingual service. That has to continue. I am not clear from what has been proposed how Citizens Advice plans to supply a fully bilingual service. Not only does that have to be provided, it must enable Welsh speakers to have direct access to a phone line staffed by trained Welsh language operators. Many of us, including myself, have great concerns about the function of public bodies and their capacity to respond to people who speak in Welsh. Providing a service via an intermediary translation service such as Language Line is not an acceptable alternative, a principle supported by the Welsh Language Board. The Office of Fair Trading once tried to provide a

Welsh language Consumer Direct service via an intermediary, but changed that policy following complaints from users and advice from the Welsh Language Board. Any clarification on that matter would be extremely helpful.

Crucially, while the new model in Scotland will be led from Scotland, and the model in Northern Ireland is led from Northern Ireland, in Wales we will be led from London. That would present concern in many areas. Given that the Welsh Government have competence for a number of the issues raised by Consumer Focus, and that there are many significant policy divergences between London and Cardiff, many of which I welcome, it is crucial for there to be Welsh input, which was the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North in his intervention. I know that we have a much better model for Wales than when proposals were first raised, but it still falls short of the Consumer Focus Wales model. I doubt whether it is practically achievable within the current model of Citizens Advice in England and Wales.

I understand that the Welsh Government are seeking the power to set up their own consumer body, in the same way that the Public Bodies Bill will give them the power to set up their own environmental body to take on the functions of the Countryside Council for Wales, Environment Agency Wales and Forestry Commission Wales. That would not involve the transfer of new powers, other than the ability to set up their own body to deal with advocacy. It would require no additional funding—in the current climate I respect that—as Wales would simply get the Barnett consequential that would arise from the new model in England, with much of the funding coming from levies rather than the public purse. The Minister may well urge me to respond to the consultation, but the difficulty that we face is that the Bill is going through Parliament now, and if we are going to give the power to the Welsh Government, as I believe we should, we have to act now.

Finally, we should go back to the original purpose of the decisions over quangos and consumer bodies. Do they streamline the process? That is questionable, given the new responsibilities expected of Citizens Advice and the significant work that will be required to get it to do the equivalent work of Consumer Focus Wales. Will it save money? Again, that is debatable, given the costs of transferring functions and the expansion of Citizens Advice that is required. I am sure that the Minister can help us on that matter.

Ultimately, there is a need for a body that can look specifically at all consumer issues from a Welsh angle. If that can be achieved through what the Government are outlining, then I am happy to listen to what they propose, but I am not sure that it can. In that case, I hope that the Minister will listen to the calls of many, including his counterparts in the Welsh Assembly Government, and give them the opportunity to go their own way and have the power to set up a Welsh consumer body—