I was quite amazed at the coverage of the Queens Speech. The fourth estate had already decided long before it was delivered what the follow-up headlines were going to be – House of Lords reform and Tory infighting. And we were led to believe that unless the Speech delivered a bill to solve the euro crisis, deliver growth and reduce unemployment singlehandedly, it would be a failure. So I suppose I should not have been surprised that the commentary didn’t seem to mention the consumer-focused legislation at all!
I didn’t read anything about the introduction of social tariffs for those on the lowest incomes in the draft Water Bill. Has anyone assessed the positive impact that the Grocery Code Adjudicator could have on building a more resilient food supply chain – i.e.: better value for the consumer? And what were the commentators saying about Electricity Market Reform? There was not a murmur about how these proposals might address some of the biggest financial headaches facing households. These are all very important bills for the people that we serve – our constituents.
As possibly the only MP to have worked for the Consumers’ Association/Which? – albeit a very long time ago – I am always interested in whether policy is shaped around the most important part of the market: the customer. Conservatives are sometimes tempted to talk about markets as if they only consisted of corporate supply chains, forgetting the end user – the voter. This perception must be dealt with.
But now more than ever, we must ensure that we are supporting the consumer in every way possible. That means that we need to clamp down on companies that mis-sell, we must ensure that consumers have clear and transparent information about the tariffs, nutrition and services levels they are buying, and that we deliver at the heart of our education system the life skills to support consumers to be much more resilient – from financial education through to cooking and basic household tasks.
Last week, I shared with some mothers at a Sure Start centre my top ten products that I believe are misleading the consumer with packaging that deceives the customer into thinking that they are getting a whole lot more than they are. Those mothers will not be buying those products again but on their very tight incomes they might have already been “taken-in” by “clever” packaging or misleading product “descriptions.”
We must demand transparency if processed products reduce their nutritional content due to commodity price increases – they always tell us when they have 10% more meat – should they not tell us when they have 10% less? And with new energy tariffs we must insist that the consumer can compare tariffs and that bills are comprehensible – how about your bill arriving with light bulb hours rather than blinding us with the science of kilowatt hours.
The public are smart and are starting to find very innovative approaches to survive in the face of higher prices. The consumer doesn’t need our support in making the right decisions – but they do need to know that they are part of a system that is being straight with them. So while no Government will be able to stop global price rises, the coalition must ensure that the consumers are protected from sharp operators, have a stronger voice in policy development and are being provided with the information that enables them to make the smart choices.
We must never be seen to side with producers or retailers to the detriment of the consumer. We must be on the customers’ side and seen to be on their side.