The Renewal Group, consisting of a wide range of Conservatives such as Robert Halfon, Guy Opperman, David Skelton and myself, have produced a pledge card for the party conference with a series of policies that we believe the Party should adopt. As part of this I am calling for consumer policy to be put back at the heart of government policy by establishing a Minister for Consumers.
I believe that it is important that we have a clear, coherent consumer policy that places consumers centre stage and informs government departmental thinking. We must regain our ambitions that guided our policies around privatisation: to deliver competition in order to improve customer service and innovation across our economy. We can achieve this through reviving our belief in consumers as the true arbiters of markets.
Conservatives have always believed that markets are there to serve consumers, not to dominate them. They are at their best when driven by active, informed, powerful consumers, who demand market innovation and greater efficiency. What is good for consumers and competition is ultimately good for the best businesses as well.Unfortunately, bad markets disguise, mislead or control consumer choice. Over the past ten years government departments have often been captured by the supply side of markets – we now need to reboot our commitment to consumers. We need a fundamental redesign of markets, regulators and government departments to put consumers at the heart of our economy, with a new emphasis on demand not just supply.
Horsemeat, dodgy promotions, Equitable Life, doorstep selling, PPI – the news is full of these rip offs and lies at the heart of our market economy. Worryingly the consumer rip off is being conflated by some with the free market – linking these travesties with the principle of deregulated markets and privatisation.
However, due to sharp practices consumers are sometimes being asked to absorb inflation with no knowledge and less transparency. It must never be acceptable to ‘disguise’ a price rise or a value reduction by packaging, ingredient shifts or promotions. Consumers need clear information that reduces the asymmetry of information between the producer and the consumer and delivers real purchasing power.
Of all the practices being used to rip off consumers, shrinking the size of products has become a particular favourite of favourite of food companies. This sees product packaging and presentation remaining the same, but the “consumerable content” shrinking. Even ‘The Grocer’ magazine recognises that this is happening across a wide range of products.
By establishing a Minister for Consumers the Renewal group believes these problems could be very effectively addressed. This Minister should be given a government-wide role, allowing them to test whether all government policies are consumer friendly. By being based in the Cabinet Office this Minister would be able to migrate across all government departments to seek out market failure.
As a party, Conservatives need to reengineer how they look at markets and ensure that the push and pull of the consumer can be felt throughout the supply chain, not just when they become victims of a supply led system. There is no party that is more appropriate to take up the consumer’s mantle than the Conservative Party.
We believe that consumers are market makers and market shapers and must be the most important element of a vibrant, healthy and innovative market. It is now our role to remind the market that the consumer must be king.