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Consumer Scotland Bill

Overview

This Bill sets up a body to provide advice to consumers and to represent consumers’ interests. It’s to be called 'Consumer Scotland'. 

The first version of this Bill sets out that a consumer is a person who gets goods or services from a business, as long as the person getting them is not doing that only or mostly as part of a business. Consumer problems are things like a faulty kettle or problems with your mobile phone provider.

Consumer Scotland would:

  • have the power to campaign for consumer issues, for example high delivery charges for rural Scottish communities
  • research and investigate consumer issues
  • provide information on consumer issues 
  • work with other organisations to provide consumer advice 

Across all its work, Consumer Scotland has to consider the interests of vulnerable consumers. 

The Bill also places a new duty on public bodies to consider the impact of their policies on consumers.

You can find out more in the Explanatory Notes document that explains the Bill.

Why the Bill was created

Consumers are an important part of Scotland’s economy. The Scottish Government wants to encourage businesses to grow. Supporting and protecting consumers helps this.

Consumers are important because:

  • consumer spending accounts for two thirds of economic activity
  • some consumers are treated unfairly

An example of consumers not being treated fairly is when people who are the poorest pay more for essential services.

The government depends on consumers to help with some of its initiatives for social good. For example, trying to reduce use of plastics.

You can find out more in the Policy Memorandum document that explains the Bill.

Becomes an Act

The Consumer Scotland Bill passed by a vote of 67 for, 0 against and 0 abstentions. The Bill became an Act on 9 June 2020.

Introduced

The Scottish Government sends the Bill and related documents to the Parliament.

Consumer Scotland Bill as introduced

Related information from the Scottish Government on the Bill

Opinions on whether the Parliament has the power to make the law (Statements on Legislative Competence)

Information on the powers the Bill gives the Scottish Government and others (Delegated Powers Memorandum)

Scottish Parliament research on the Bill 

 

Stage 1 - General principles

Committees examine the Bill. Then MSPs vote on whether it should continue to Stage 2.

Have your say

The deadline for sharing your views on this Bill has passed. Read the views that were given.

Who examined the Bill

Each Bill is examined by a 'lead committee'. This is the committee that has the subject of the Bill in its remit.

It looks at everything to do with the Bill.

Other committees may look at certain parts of the Bill if it covers subjects they deal with.

Who spoke to the lead committee about the Bill

Video Thumbnail Preview PNG

First meeting transcript

The Convener

Agenda item 4 is on the Consumer Scotland Bill. We are joined by three witnesses: Norman Kerr, director of Energy Action Scotland; Thomas Docherty, head of public affairs, nations and regions, for Which?; and Jonathan Lenton, an ombudsman at the Ombudsman Service. I thank you all for coming in today.

Jackie Baillie

I declare an interest as the honorary vice-president of Energy Action Scotland, but that does not mean that I agree with Norman Kerr on everything.

I have a simple question to kick off with. Do we need consumer Scotland? I am curious to know how it could provide any additionality over the work of the existing consumer bodies.

Norman Kerr (Energy Action Scotland)

The simple answer is no. It would not add much to the landscape. Others have said that it would tighten the landscape, but we are not convinced about that. The bill provides additional powers that could have been easily given to Citizens Advice Scotland. When Consumer Futures was dissolved and Citizens Advice was to take on its responsibilities around Great Britain, Energy Action Scotland argued that Citizens Advice should be accountable to Parliament, so that Parliament would have a duty to approve its work plan and receive reports on consumer detriment.

The bill is simply trying to replicate that, and our worry is that that would muddy the consumer landscape. Consumers already have a fairly wide choice of people with whom to discuss problems and, unless the new body also took on the role of consumer education, which we can all agree is lacking, it would not add anything to the landscape.

Thomas Docherty (Which?)

We take the reverse position. In 2015, when the devolution of the powers was first proposed following the Smith commission, the Scottish Government originally proposed the creation of a single body. However, CAS, Which? and other members of the independent working group said that that was not the way to do it. That might not have been everybody’s position, but it was a starting point, and I am happy to explain why that was. Almost from the start, it was felt that having two distinct bodies with two clear remits was the way forward.

We are huge admirers of what Citizens Advice Scotland does on tackling fuel poverty and on financial wellbeing, welfare, benefits and advice for citizens on immigration and employment rights. If the bill were to be passed, CAS would continue to do those things, and consumer Scotland would focus purely on the consumer landscape.

It is worth remembering that Scottish consumers spend more than £8 billion per month. In order to spend that money, they must have confidence that the markets in which they transact work for them. In too many markets—some are reserved and some are devolved—that is not the case.

We—and almost everybody who made a written submission—think that there are clear gaps in the environment. Rightly, the Scottish Government has not squeezed in a new body to fill the gaps without touching the sides of any other body that is working in the area. Instead, it has done the right thing by looking across the board to see which responsibilities should move from other organisations to consumer Scotland. It has created a system that is bold, brave and logical, so that when organisations such as ours look at the two bodies, it is clear which of them will do what, as well as what organisations such as Trading Standards Scotland and Advice Direct Scotland will do.

Jonathan Lenton (Ombudsman Services)

I will not pretend to be an expert on the consumer landscape in Scotland. However, looking at the complaints that we deal with, I can see that there is a complaint class that is unique to Scotland—we receive a set of complaints from Scottish consumers that is different from the complaints that we receive from consumers in the rest of the UK. For example, under our communication scheme, there are complaints on the availability of broadband and mobile signals and on broadband speed—those really stand out in the data on Scottish consumers, particularly in relation to consumers in rural areas. We can see the argument for setting up a consumer advocate who focuses on such issues for Scottish consumers.

We are doing some exciting work at the moment, including with one of the working groups that was set up to look at the data strategy for consumer Scotland. The group is looking to bring together data from numerous organisations, including ours, the Financial Ombudsman Service, Advice Direct Scotland and commercial organisations such as Trustpilot and Resolver, to provide a much better picture of the consumer journey and where detriment occurs. We are looking at standardising data sets across those organisations and bringing them together to understand consumers’ experience. That is innovative—we have not seen other organisations doing that kind of work—and could be the model for cross-organisational data sharing in the future. We can see some positives.

Jackie Baillie

Thomas Docherty mentioned that the bill is about not just filling gaps but providing something more strategically coherent. On that basis, do you see any potential problems with the existence of consumer Scotland reducing the public funding that is available to other consumer organisations? If it is going to do part of the job that others currently do, will the others lose money?

12:00  



Thomas Docherty

When you say “other consumer organisations”—

Jackie Baillie

I am talking about organisations such as Citizens Advice Scotland.

Thomas Docherty

Right. Citizens Advice Scotland will not lose any money for its citizens advice bureaux network or for the work that it does on citizens advice issues. That money will not be touched.

It would be an interesting argument if we were to say, “We’re going to have a new body, Consumer Scotland, but we’re also going to fund a second body that will spend taxpayers’ money doing the very things that the first body is doing.” That does not make sense. In its submission to the Finance and Constitution Committee, Citizens Advice Scotland has put the figure at about £1.52 million. That money will move from CAS to consumer Scotland, because that is the money that CAS is given by the Scottish Government to look at consumer issues.

Jackie Baillie

In effect, what you are describing is displacement rather than additionality.

Thomas Docherty

No. This is off the top of my head but, according to the financial memorandum, the total budget for consumer Scotland will be about £1.9 million. I am conscious that the minister is to appear before the committee next month, so I am sure that members will challenge him on this, but we have sought clear assurances, which we have been given, that there will a real-terms increase in funding for consumer Scotland. It will not just be a case of taking the £1.52 million that goes to CAS; it will be a case of taking that £1.52 million and putting in additional funding to deliver a first-class consumer research and advocacy body.

Norman Kerr

I am glad to hear that no funding will be displaced, but I do not see how that commitment can be made at the moment. I know that colleagues at CAS are deeply concerned that although there might be no change for a short period of time—perhaps the first year—after that, that money could be ripped away from them.

Jackie Baillie

I have a question about brand, after which I will stop, because I am conscious of time. With its network of citizens advice bureaux, Citizens Advice Scotland is a recognised and trusted brand. That is certainly the case in my local community, and I suspect that it is the case in everyone else’s. Consumer Scotland will be a brand-new Government agency. Would it not play better with where consumers are at the moment to give the Citizens Advice Scotland network the relevant powers?

Thomas Docherty

No. Forgive me, but I think that you are talking about two different brands. A much better question to ask would be one about Citizens Advice Scotland and Advice Direct Scotland—

Jackie Baillie

Sorry—I ask the questions and you give the answers; don’t tell me what a better question would be.

Thomas Docherty

Well, bluntly, the comparison that you made is not the right one to make, because consumer Scotland will not deliver advocacy services. Advice Direct Scotland is already delivering advice services through telephony, online and via social media—it has been doing that since 1 April. Consumer Scotland will not be a brand like that; frankly, if it were to try to be such a brand, the committee would have some questions to ask about the spending of public money. Consumer Scotland’s job will be to do research to identify areas of consumer detriment, to investigate what is causing those problems, to propose solutions and to advocate to regulators, businesses and the Scottish and UK Governments how those problems should be fixed. The delivery of advice services is for Advice Direct Scotland and citizens advice bureaux.

Jackie Baillie

Does Mr Lenton or Mr Kerr have anything to add?

Norman Kerr

I take what Thomas Docherty says about research, but CAS already does research and should already try to influence the UK Parliament through Citizens Advice Great Britain. As I understand it, much of what we are talking about as regards telephony, broadband speeds and energy suppliers will continue to fall within the remit of Westminster’s retained powers, so the new body will have no teeth. All that it will be able to do will be to ask ministers to make recommendations to the UK Parliament. I do not believe that the new body will deliver what is being suggested.

Richard Lyle

Is the duty to collaborate in the bill sufficient to ensure that consumer Scotland does not duplicate the work of other bodies, such as council trading standards officers and citizens advice bureaux?

Norman Kerr

Collaboration is needed, and it is always good. However, if collaboration relies solely on the good will of other agencies—for example, South Seeds in Glasgow and Greener Kirkcaldy in Fife, which Energy Action Scotland mentioned in its submission and which very much have boots on the ground in their areas—it is very hit and miss, because such agencies have had funding pulled from them. I am not talking about the £1 million or so that is being taken away from the citizens advice service; I am talking about small, local organisations. If collaboration is based on good will for a Government agency that holds all the funding, we will be asking smaller organisations, which need to fund premises and volunteers, to collaborate without getting any recompense.

Richard Lyle

Who funds my local citizens advice bureau?

Norman Kerr

The local authority funds that.

Richard Lyle

Exactly. The council funds it, not the Government. If any money is getting ripped away, it is local government that is ripping it away, through localism—but that was not my question.

The Convener

Was that a statement, Richard?

Richard Lyle

Well it is true. It is the council—you know that, Norrie. The situation is that councils, through localism, allocate money to whoever they wish.

I want to get back to the consumer. If I buy a wonky television, I might go to citizens advice, but it might not be able to help me—we find that some companies do not react. If the company does not react to citizens advice, I might complain to Ombudsman Services about it, if I can. The company might not listen to the ombudsman. Sometimes people do not listen to you; I have come across that. If I then go to consumer Scotland, the company might go, “Oh, wait a minute, that’s consumer Scotland. They’re tied up with the Scottish Government, so we’d better sit up.” Do you agree that going to someone different—even a member of the Scottish Parliament—can get a reaction? Do you agree that, depending on who you go to, you might get a reaction?

Norman Kerr

As Thomas Docherty said, consumer Scotland will not be doing front-line advocacy. It will be doing in-depth research and looking at consumer detriment; it will not intervene in individual cases. That is my take on it. Therefore—

Richard Lyle

That might not be my take on it.

Norman Kerr

Then the bill needs to be explicit on that, and it needs to show the link with the existing consumer landscape.

The organisations that I mentioned—Greener Kirkcaldy and South Seeds—receive funding from the Scottish Government, not local authorities. You talked about people ripping funding away: it is not local authorities who are ripping funding away; local authorities are already under strain. There used to be eight citizens advice bureaux in Glasgow; there are now five, because the local authority has taken the funding away.

Richard Lyle

Yes. The local authority took the funding away.

Norman Kerr

I know that colleagues will disagree.

Thomas Docherty

I accept that the Scottish Government—and the minister, when he comes to the committee next month—will have to do some explaining to people. However, let me say again that consumer Scotland will not take money away from front-line organisations, because it will not be doing their job—that is specifically not what it will be doing.

I think that the organisation’s total head count will be somewhere between 16 and 20, according to the financial memorandum. Any suggestion that it could deliver a face-to-face advocacy service is as ludicrous as Citizens Advice Scotland trying to set up a telephony advice scheme to rival Advice Direct Scotland. That is just not the purpose.

Let me be very clear: people who go to citizens advice bureaux are not going there for advice on standalone consumer issues. A brief example would be what happened with Thomas Cook last week: Which? and Advice Direct Scotland had a huge number of hits on our websites and social media from people with queries about their consumer rights—they would have been going to Ombudsman Services as well. Those customers will not be walking into citizens advice bureaux in large numbers to have those conversations, because that is not what people do. However, the staff who have lost their jobs might well go to citizens advice bureaux to get advice about where they stand financially. That is the brilliant role that Citizens Advice Scotland plays and will continue to play in the future. There is a very clear divide.

Richard Lyle

The main things that Citizens Advice deal with are rents, council tax—

Thomas Docherty

Benefits.

Richard Lyle

In my experience, you name it and they will deal with it.

The Convener

Perhaps Jonathan Lenton might want to comment before we move on to questions from Colin Beattie.

Jonathan Lenton

I would just add that in Ombudsman Services we talk about strategic redress—as well as helping the individual, we think about how we can work with other organisations to improve the consumer experience. There are four pillars of consumer protection: advice, advocacy, enforcement and redress. How the organisations work together can determine how the consumer experience can be improved. Has that worked brilliantly well in the past? I would say that it probably has not. We are improving as a group of organisations. For example, in energy, we have a tripartite arrangement with Citizens Advice UK and the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets. We get together every month and look at our data and we identify issues that are causing detriment to consumers. Then we put a plan together on what Ombudsman Services, as the alternative dispute resolution provider, Citizens Advice, as the advice provider, and Ofgem, as the regulator, are going to do. We think that the intention behind consumer Scotland suggests that such an organisation could really add to that co-ordinated approach and conversation.

Colin Beattie

I have a very simple question. Does the bill give consumer Scotland the necessary powers to carry out its role?

Thomas Docherty

Yes.

Colin Beattie

Why?

Thomas Docherty

Because of what it is intended to do. Consumer Scotland is intended to be a research body and an investigatory body—it is important to say that I do not mean that it will investigate an individual transaction or company, but rather that it will look at investigating markets. It will be a body that develops policy and advocates on behalf of consumers. You could add extra powers, Mr Beattie, if you wished it to do additional things. There is a question about super-complaints, for example. However, in relation to the four tasks that it has been set—and the things that it will not try to do—it has the right balance of powers.

Jonathan Lenton

I point to the good work that Citizens Advice did a few years ago highlighting the loyalty penalty. Citizens Advice found that customers who stay with companies for a period tend to pay more than new customers and that vulnerable customers are more likely to stay with their service provider, which means that that group is significantly impacted. That is the kind of work that we expect consumer Scotland to do for Scottish consumers. The work that Citizens Advice did has had big ramifications in some of the sectors that we are involved in—we can see the impacts on the energy and communications sectors, with policy makers looking at the research and doing something about it.

Colin Beattie

I will repeat the question. Does the bill give consumer Scotland the necessary powers to carry out its role?

Jonathan Lenton

Again, I note that this is probably not my area of expertise. One thing that we like in the bill is the fact that it places an expectation on public bodies that they will take into account the impact on consumers of any future changes to the law. We think that that is pretty good. I do not know what my fellow panel members think, however.

12:15  



Thomas Docherty

Scotland will be the first part of the UK to do that. We have been huge champions of it. On occasion, we had some difficult conversations on the subject with the minister, but he has been really supportive, and we think that it is a really important step forward.

Colin Beattie

I suppose that, when we look at consumer Scotland’s powers, the biggest thing that we see is lacking is that it does not have any enforcement powers. Is that a problem?

Thomas Docherty

It is not, because consumer Scotland is not trying to be an enforcement body. I will put that the other way round. Because it is not trying to be an enforcement body, it does not need enforcement powers. Which? is not an enforcement body and neither is Citizens Advice Scotland. We do research and advocacy. We are not trying to step on the toes of others.

Colin Beattie

I saw Norrie Kerr nod his head in response to my question.

Norman Kerr

I return to my original point. What is consumer Scotland for? It will have no enforcement powers, and we already have organisations such as the Competition and Markets Authority and trading standards, which have such powers. If it will just be another research body that seeks to influence people, then I am sorry, but in my view we already have that across the consumer landscape.

The Convener

Can I interject? I have a question for Thomas Docherty. In the Which? submission to the committee, you say:

“The proposed Bill provides Consumer Scotland with the necessary powers to adequately represent consumer interest and achieve its stated aim of improving support for Scottish people.”

To be clear, you consider that it does not need any enforcement powers or actual powers to make anything happen in order for it to achieve those aims.

Thomas Docherty

Yes, because—

The Convener

What are its powers, then?

Thomas Docherty

I am sorry to repeat myself, but consumer Scotland will not try to act like a trading standards body or a regulator. Those are the two particular areas where it would need enforcement powers. It will try to look at areas such as banking services and access to cash, legal services, telecoms and rail, to give you four examples. None of those issues has had any attention from a consumer body in Scotland in recent years, although members of the committee have lodged many questions and raised issues to do with the quality of services in their areas. We have identified that consumer Scotland could look at the problems with those things and come up with solutions.

As I said, there is also an argument on the question of super-complaints, which could be considered if that was subsequently felt to be useful. Fundamentally, however, we think that the bill strikes the right balance.

The Convener

We will go back to Colin Beattie.

Colin Beattie

I will remain on the subject of what consumer Scotland should and should not do. Would you like it to do anything in particular in the area of consumer redress?

Thomas Docherty

There are a number of areas of consumer markets where access to ADR schemes and ombudsman schemes is not compulsory and we believe that the detriment is severe. There are many areas that consumer Scotland could choose to focus on. I hope that, in the first couple of years, it will carry out an investigation into how Scottish consumers are affected by not having a right to automatic ADR in some of those areas.

Jonathan Lenton

We have some experience of offering ADR in unregulated sectors. We opened the consumer ombudsman service in 2015 following the introduction of new regulations that required all traders to make customers aware of ADR, but traders were never compelled to use the ADR scheme that they had to inform their consumers about. Actually, without—

Colin Beattie

Can I interrupt? The question was whether you would like consumer Scotland to do anything in particular in the area of consumer redress.

Jonathan Lenton

I do not anticipate that consumer Scotland would act as a redress body but, like Thomas Docherty, I think that there are areas in business sectors where the lack of redress causes problems for consumers. I reiterate that that would be an interesting area for consumer Scotland to explore.

Thomas Docherty

I agree.

Jamie Halcro Johnston

A couple of points have been raised about banking. Which? has done a report on Scottish banking, the Scottish Affairs Committee at Westminster has done an inquiry into banking and bank closures, and this committee has done an inquiry into bank closures. There has been research into the problem, and solutions—or, rather, suggestions; using the word “solutions” may be going too far—have come out of that.

You mentioned the loyalty penalty work done by Citizens Advice Scotland. I am in no way trying to be negative about that, but we have known for years that there is an issue about losing out by staying with one supplier. I am struggling to see how the proposed organisation would provide additional opportunities to look at that issue. To some extent, there are already organisations that cover the issues that you have highlighted.

Thomas Docherty

About 18 months ago, I had a wonderful morning giving evidence to this committee on the issue of banking, which is why I raised it. If you recall, I said that we had produced some statistics. We had what I call “What?” statistics—about what the loss of branches had been. We have since put up new information saying that, in the past five years alone, 30 branches have gone from Scotland. However, no work has been done on the reasons why. As I said to the committee at the time, no work has been done on the longer-term impact. It is all very well having statistics—frankly, there is no shortage of statistics, as long as agencies such as ours can produce lots and lots of numbers—but what has been missing so far is an investigation into those statistics.

Jamie Halcro Johnston

Do you not think that this committee and the Scottish Affairs Committee should be doing that, and coming up with recommendations? That is what committees do. We take evidence from organisations such as yours, the banks and various consumer groups and individuals, and come up with suggestions or solutions.

Thomas Docherty

I will use banking as an example, but this would apply equally to telecoms, rail or whatever else. Our advice to the Scottish Government would be based on the work that we have done. We fund ourselves—we are not a publicly funded body and we take no money from the taxpayer. The cost of doing a substantive piece of work to get into the problem in Scotland would be six figures. This committee does not have six figures to spend on that type of in-depth research to understand the everyday finances that people are trying to use. That is work that is not currently being done. Such research would include market research and polling, and doing focus groups in, say, the Highlands and Islands, Edinburgh and Kilmarnock. It would involve proposing solutions and then campaigning. That is where the advocacy comes in. The committee made some brilliant, thoughtful recommendations to UK and Scottish ministers, many of which, disappointingly, neither Government has so far chosen to take up. That on-going advocacy work is the bit that consumer Scotland should be doing.

Gordon MacDonald

I will continue on the research aspect. When a consumer has a problem, they might go to citizens advice or trading standards, or they might phone up Which? for advice. In my constituency, there is also the Community One Stop Shop, which is not aligned with any of the other organisations. There is a wealth of case history out there. Is any organisation pulling all that together to identify trends, problems or areas that should be investigated?

From the lack of response, I take it that the answer is no. There is therefore a need for a body that will do that type of work. In order to do so, it will have to have the agreement of all the organisations to share that data. Are there any issues that would prevent an organisation from sharing that data?

Norman Kerr

I do not believe that sharing the data would be an issue. The question would be how anonymised the data would need to be. Organisations already collect data and they now have general data protection regulation responsibilities. If they are not already collecting data that can be anonymised, the question is what they do with all the old stuff. The preparation of that data to give to a new body might require quite a bit of work.

Thomas Docherty

I have a meeting on Thursday afternoon—I do not know whether Jonathan Lenton will be there—regarding the Scottish Government’s data working group that is digging into the issue that Mr MacDonald raised about what we would need to do. We already share data, exactly as Norman Kerr said, and we take out individuals’ details in order to do so. It is the trends that are crucial, though. The issue is not that one person has had a bad experience of buying a used car, for example. The data that ADS collects shows that large numbers of people have problems with used cars or with buying furniture, which is another common problem. Pulling together that kind of data is very important.

Gordon MacDonald

Could there be a specific role for the new organisation? For instance, I am aware that there is not a recall database in the UK, whether the recall is about cars or other products—Which? had a campaign recently about tumble dryers, I think. Is there a need for an organisation to highlight to consumers all the recall issues, or the concerns arising from research? We talked earlier about consumer education. Which? has been very good over the years at promoting best-buy products and so on, but there does not seem to be general information out there from organisations, unless you are a Which? subscriber. Is there a need for that type of information to be out there?

Thomas Docherty

Yes, definitely.

Norman Kerr

The size and shape of the proposed organisation means that it would have 20 staff and a budget of £2.5 million. However, we are already seeing so many issues mount up that they would be too much for an organisation of that size as it tried to create the database that Mr MacDonald wants as well as get the co-operation of myriad other organisations. If we want the organisation to do that, we need to be explicit in the bill about its role and be more realistic about a budget. Thomas Docherty talked about a six-figure budget for research, but if the kind of money that we are talking about is £2.5 million, we will not get much research each year from an organisation of that size.

Gordon MacDonald

The organisation could have a signposting role in the early days, until the point at which it built up some form of database.

Norman Kerr

It could.

Thomas Docherty

That is absolutely crucial. The Scottish Government has been very clear, and we have all said, that there is a confusing landscape for consumers. 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 if what they need is information on their flight rights, for example. I am thinking of the dreadful news over the past two weeks about Thomas Cook.

Gordon MacDonald

Thank you.

Willie Coffey

Thomas Docherty gave examples earlier about some issues that have come up, such as the availability of cash and the disparity in digital connectivity. Is it the case that such issues have never had a home to which people could go to raise complaints or issues? Might consumer Scotland begin to hoover up some of those issues that have not had an obvious home? Is that what the bill and the proposed body will provide?

12:30  



Thomas Docherty

That is an excellent question, Mr Coffey, and I think that there are two parts to the answer. First, part of the issue is that there has not been a body that has had responsibility for looking at such issues, to gain an understanding of what causes them and what the redress might be, and to advocate for that.

Secondly, some of the issues—perhaps not ScotRail, but digital connectivity—are emerging. We are all of a certain age; the idea that we would sit with our phones all the time is new. There is an expectation that broadband is the fourth utility. People expect more than just the 10 megabits per second universal service obligation minimum, and they expect to be able to use their phones all the time.

In the past 30 years we have gone from having 24,000 bank branches in the UK to about 7,500. There has been a reduction in ATMs, too.

Those are emerging issues. Again, it is about working with others, such as Ombudsman Services, Which? and CABx, to identify emerging threats and come up with an action plan. I will be so bold as to say that I would be amazed if this committee did not have suggestions for what consumer Scotland might focus on in its first couple of years. It cannot focus on all the issues in its first year. It could probably do two a year, and it might do a third, as it grows.

Willie Coffey

Constituents come to me about the plethora of ridiculous fees that are attached to buying concert and theatre tickets. For example, there are multiple booking fees, so if someone buys four tickets they pay four booking fees. Such issues have been a problem for years. Can we expect consumer Scotland to deal with that issue? How would it do that and make recommendations for—in this case—the UK Government?

Thomas Docherty

In the context of the UEFA nations league next summer, I understand that the Scottish Government will introduce a bill on secondary ticketing—I think that that is correct. That is exactly the type of issue on which consumer Scotland might say, “Look, in Scotland we have a problem. At big festival events and big sporting events, we see consumers being ripped off. Here are our proposals”—although I am not suggesting that it would do that next year. It is not just about going to the UK Government all the time; it is about going to the Scottish Government or the regulator and saying, “We have identified a pattern of bad behaviour, and these measures could be taken to address it.”

Willie Coffey

The new body could look at that issue, then. Has a previous body ever looked at it and had any success?

Thomas Docherty

We did some work on secondary ticketing at UK level, to highlight practices. The CMA, to its credit, has done some work to crack down on people such as Viagogo. However, not enough work has been done on, for example, the extent of the problem in Scotland and the powers of the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government to address it.

Willie Coffey

There is some potential for us there. Thank you.

Dean Lockhart

As drafted, the bill protects only individual consumers and does not extend to small businesses or sole traders. Has it got the balance right in that regard?

Norman Kerr

As I said, I do not think that the bill is needed, but if it goes ahead, my answer to your question is no. It would need to take cognisance of all consumers, and small traders are consumers.

Jonathan Lenton

We are running an event today at the Tory party conference on exactly that issue, that is, the detriment that is experienced by small businesses. As we see it, a lot of microbusinesses face exactly the same issues as consumers face, in the context of knowledge of the market, bargaining power and ability to enforce their rights when things go wrong.

The Financial Ombudsman Service has just expanded its remit to cover businesses with up to 50 employees. We are limited to 10 employees at the moment. We are arguing that the protection of alternative dispute resolution should be extended, and we certainly agree that microbusinesses in Scotland should be entitled to the same protections.

Dean Lockhart

What would the cut-off point be, based on what is in other legislation? Would it be 10 employees? What is best practice?

Thomas Docherty

The current figure that is used is fewer than 10 employees, for a microbusiness.

Jonathan Lenton

Yes. In the world of ADR, we are used to the definition of a microbusiness as being one that has 10 employees or fewer. Our argument now is that we think that businesses that are slightly larger than that need protection.

The Convener

I have a brief final question. What are your views on the consumer duty aspect of the bill? What do you think of what is proposed in that regard?

Thomas Docherty

We worked very hard, along with other organisations, to persuade the Scottish Government that such a duty would be a welcome step forward. Rail is a very good example of why it is needed. At the moment, there is not a duty on the body that runs the railway to consider consumers in doing so. Anyone who lives in Fife or Dumbarton will probably have suffered at the hands of Scotfail in the past couple of years. That is the kind of area in which people will benefit from the consumer duty.

To be fair, we agree with Citizens Advice Scotland that the specific wording that is used in the bill about having due regard to consumer interests needs to be looked at but, fundamentally, what is proposed is a pioneering step. Scotland will be the first part of the UK to have a consumer duty. The other Administrations are looking at having such a duty. If we get consumer Scotland right and we get the consumer duty right, Scotland will be at the front end—as is so often the case—of improving the environment for consumers.

The Convener

I see that others are nodding their heads. Do you agree, Norman?

Norman Kerr

I do.

The Convener

I thank all three of you. [Interruption.] I am sorry—I beg Jackie Baillie’s forgiveness. She wants to ask a final brief question.

Jackie Baillie

Absolutely. Thomas Docherty mentioned Dumbarton. Does he not appreciate that members of the Scottish Parliament have consistently raised concerns about ScotRail with the Government? We will have a debate on the issue this week. What will a Government agency be able to do that will be different from what MSPs currently do? How will it be any harder than we are?

Thomas Docherty

The key thing to remember is that consumer Scotland will not be a Government agency any more than CAS is a Government agency.

Richard Lyle

Consumer Scotland will be a consumer agency.

Thomas Docherty

It will be a consumer agency that will be accountable to the Parliament, not the Government. I am always in bewildered awe of Jackie Baillie’s tenacity on behalf of the people of Dumbarton, and I would never be brave or foolish enough to say that anybody could work as hard as Jackie Baillie does.

Jackie Baillie

There you go. I think we’ll stop there, convener.

The Convener

I think we will. I thank all three witnesses for coming in.

12:37 Meeting continued in private until 12:54.  



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Second meeting transcript

The Convener

Agenda item 2 is consideration of the Consumer Scotland Bill. We have a number of witnesses with us today. From my left to my right we have Jane Adams, chairperson of the chief officers of citizens advice bureau in Scotland—COCABS—group; Anne Lavery, deputy chief executive of Citizens Advice Scotland; Derek Mitchell, chief executive of Citizens Advice Scotland; and, last but not least, Rory Mair, chair of Citizens Advice Scotland. I welcome you all.

The sound desk will operate the microphones, so there is no need to push any buttons. If you want to answer a question, simply raise your hand and I will try to bring you in. You do not all need to answer every question; we will let the discussion flow as members of the committee ask about various matters.

I will ask the first question. What does CAS do with regard to providing consumer advice and campaigning on consumer issues? I see Rory Mair volunteering to answer.

Rory Mair (Citizens Advice Scotland)

The first thing to say is that, in Scotland, we are by far the biggest provider of consumer advice and advocacy. We provide more than 250,000 pieces of information every year—no other agency provides more advice than we do through our network of bureaux across the country. We also advocate on behalf of consumers on the issues that they raise with us. Our approach to consumer advocacy involves the lived experience of citizens, so it is the citizens themselves who tell us what is important to them and we take that forward. We think that that is an important element of any consumer advocacy and support mechanism—we actually listen to what is bothering citizens and then advocate on those things.

A common misconception, which I recognise is perhaps a result of our name, is that we are only an advice agency. However, ever since we were formed 80 years ago, we have had two objectives: one is to give advice; and the other is to advocate on behalf of citizens on the issues that they bring to us. Right at the heart of what we do across the citizens advice network is the idea that we give advice and advocate on those things that are important to citizens. That is an absolutely crucial point to bear in mind in relation to the bill.

The Convener

I suppose that what people need is somewhat broader than that, though, because there might be general issues that people are not aware of and which they, therefore, do not raise with you. I imagine that there are plenty of things that people might have an issue with, if they knew about them. How do those matters come to the fore?

Rory Mair

In some senses, that is the important issue in relation to the bill. As we say in our submission, one of the reasons why we support the idea of the creation of consumer Scotland is that there probably needs to be some broader, research-based approach that asks how we can identify where consumer detriment might happen and how we can ensure that it does not happen. We recognise that, as we are an agency that is focused on citizens and their experience, that is not our primary purpose. However, it is fair to say that we conduct research in order to identify with various service providers other areas in which consumer detriment might happen, and that we work with big service providers to try and ensure that their systems operate in a way that means that consumers will not be damaged.

The Convener

Do any of the other members of the panel wish to comment, particularly on my second question?

Derek Mitchell (Citizens Advice Scotland)

I agree with Rory Mair that consumer Scotland will fill a potential gap. However, it is important to remember that people see themselves not as consumers or citizens but as people. They come into our bureaux and tell us what is happening with regard to things that are detrimental to their communities, and we pick those things up. As Rory Mair says, we can validate what they are telling us by checking whether the thing that they are talking about also happens in other places—Aberdeen, Inverness, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Ayrshire and so on. If we find that it does, that is an issue for us.

We wrote to the committee with information about a few things that we have done in that regard, such as our work around parcel surcharging. Funeral poverty is another good example of what we do. The utility of what we do in that regard does not simply involve the individual who finds themselves in funeral poverty, because the changes that we can make by shining a light on funeral poverty mean that other people who might struggle when a relative dies can afford to bury them gracefully. We do a range of similar work. For example, the your bus, your say campaign, which was brought to us by Jane Adams’s bureau, concerned bus services that had stopped operating or were infrequent in an area, which meant that people faced social isolation, difficulty accessing job centres when they were trying to get back into work or problems when trying to access the jobs market in general.

All those issues involve people’s lived experience, but I do not think that people who are experiencing difficulties in relation to those things come into our bureaux saying, “I have a consumer issue.”

Jane Adams (Chief Officers of Citizens Advice Bureau in Scotland)

I will follow up on what Derek Mitchell and Rory Mair said about the perspective of the bureaux and the strength of the network. Let me use the bus campaign as an example. We identified that there was an issue in Aberdeenshire. The strength of the network allowed us to find out whether it was a bigger issue across Scotland and to take that advocacy campaign around the country.

Gordon MacDonald (Edinburgh Pentlands) (SNP)

Citizens Advice Scotland provides a valuable service. Unfortunately, it has no presence in my constituency, so, occasionally, I have to send constituents halfway across the city to get its support.

In relation to the gaps that you highlighted in the consumer support network, CAS’s website highlights six areas on which you provide advice: benefits, debt and money, work-related problems, housing, relationships and consumer issues. What proportion of your workload is consumer issues?

Anne Lavery (Citizens Advice Scotland)

As Rory Mair said, we deal with about 240,000—

Gordon MacDonald

The figure that I have is 272,000 clients.

Anne Lavery

That is the virtue of the service that we offer. As we have made clear, we do not see people as citizens or consumers; they are just people. People come to citizens advice bureaux with, on average, seven issues. Some of those issues might be related to fuel poverty, which is a consumer issue. However, they might be in fuel poverty because, as a result of universal credit issues, they have not received their benefits. We look at the person in the round.

Although we provide 240,000 pieces of advice and see 270,000-odd clients, we have recently done work to look at the proportion of advice that we give that is specifically consumer related. We have tried to take a conservative approach, so that we do not provide an unfair analysis, but the minimum proportion of the workload that is consumer related is, roughly, one third. However, that third is made up of people who have other issues. That is the virtue of the service and the benefit of the advice that we provide. People can come to one place and have their problems solved, rather than be categorised as a citizen or a consumer.

Gordon MacDonald

I accept that people have a range of problems.

Anne Lavery

Absolutely.

Gordon MacDonald

You help roughly 90,000 people a year who have consumer issues.

Anne Lavery

Yes—people whose primary issue is consumer related.

Gordon MacDonald

Last week, we heard that consumers spend £8 billion a month in Scotland and roughly £100 billion a year. The Audit Scotland report “Protecting consumers”, which came out a couple of years ago, mentions

“1.3 million people in Scotland who think they have reason to complain about goods or services bought in the last year”.

Given the fact that the Audit Scotland report says that 1.3 million people a year have problems with consumer issues, and you deal with roughly 90,000 people, is there a large gap in support for consumers?

Anne Lavery

The people we are talking about access our services predominantly through the bureaux. A much larger number of people access our services through our website. A lot of the people to whom you refer are able to self-help and simply need advice through the public-facing advice site, which empowers them to solve their problems. There is a gap but it is smaller than the figures indicate, because people self-serve and find other ways to access the advice through our network, as opposed to coming into a bureau. Over the past years, we have been keen to provide advice to people in a way that suits them. That might be face to face in a local constituency, over the phone or by accessing advice—which they can use to solve their problem—on our website.

Gordon MacDonald

You talked about web access. The Scottish Government commissioned Advice Direct Scotland to provide telephone and web advice on consumer issues. How has that impacted on CAS? Do you work in tandem? How does the relationship work?

Anne Lavery

Despite the removal of that contract, we are still the biggest provider of consumer advice in Scotland. We continue to provide that consumer advice through our bureaux, our extra help unit and a telephony offering.

Rory Mair

There is another issue. Previously, we provided that service. The difficulty is that a telephony service, by its very nature, signposts people somewhere, and it signposts people to us. That means that people are phoning one agency and are being told that the answer to their problem lies with somebody else. We know that people do not like being pushed from one place to another.

For people who can get a resolution to their problem simply by accessing a website, that works very well. I recognise that there are a number of people to whom that applies. However, the great number of people who will not get their problem resolved simply by accessing a website need to be referred somewhere else. At the moment, we are the place where those people are referred.

10:00  



Derek Mitchell

To go back a bit to what Anne Lavery was saying regarding the interdependencies between citizens, consumers, advice and advocacy, if someone is living on a limited income and their washing machine or their boiler breaks, that is a consumer issue. They will often have a choice to make, because they do not have any spare money. Do their weans go to school with dirty clothes, or do they get their washing machine fixed? If they get the washing machine fixed, they might not be able to pay their rent or their council tax that week. We find that people do not see themselves as being compartmentalised.

As Anne Lavery said, there will be times when people come to see us with about seven different issues. The beauty of providing services to people when they want them, where they want them and how they want them, which we work hard to do, is that we can see the results of some of the national projects that we deliver. Somebody may be having a web chat with a simple question that they think can be answered pretty simply. However, when that web chat or conversation takes place, it may become clear that there are many other issues. Sometimes, when somebody asks if they can pick up the phone and speak to you, they come on the phone with a range of issues in their life that need to be resolved, and we suggest that they make an appointment to come in and see us. The triage service at that point is really important. It involves providing information, advice, advocacy and redress; it is about solving people’s problems when they come to us the first time. That is where we are going—that is what we want to do.

Jane Adams

As a practical point regarding face-to-face consumer advice within communities, it is worth noting that, over the past 10 to 20 years, there has been a reduction in the amount of direct funding that is put into local CABs for consumer advice, yet we have managed to maintain our service levels: the 250,000 issues advised on, as well as the generalist advice. We have been able to do that through our network of more than 2,000 volunteers giving high-quality advice. We have maintained that despite funding not being put into face-to-face advice on consumer issues.

Gordon MacDonald

The majority of your funding comes from either local authorities or the United Kingdom Government. Is that right?

Jane Adams

For the local bureaux, it comes from local authorities, yes. Local authorities have been more specific about how they want their funding to be used. Bureaux often find that that does not cover consumer advice.

Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab)

The committee understands that some of the advocacy work that you carry out is going to be transferred to consumer Scotland. I am thinking of your policy units on energy, post and water. There is no reference to that in the policy memorandum at all. Where have you got to with your discussions with the Government on that? Are you able to discuss the extent of that transfer at this stage? If so, what will the likely impact be on Citizens Advice Scotland?

I am looking to Derek Mitchell to answer first.

Derek Mitchell

Rory Mair can start, and I will come in later.

Jackie Baillie

Rory will start—perfect.

Rory Mair

You have identified exactly the worry that we have: if the new agency does the things that are set out in the consultation, which are strategic, high-level activities that we do not do, we do not have a problem. If it does what we already do, we do not see how that adds any value to what consumers experience. We work to a high standard and we have good relationships with big providers that allow us to do that work to a high standard. Simply transferring that work around does not seem to us to make much sense. We are very worried about that, because the resources that make up our total ability to support consumers need to be maintained. If any bit of that is taken out, it is not just the area where that bit is taken out that will suffer but our ability to provide the work as a national resource and to support the CABs properly.

You have identified exactly what we are worried about. If the new agency does the things that are set out—such as intervene in markets to make them more consumer friendly, undertake high-level research that nobody else does and hold big campaigns on complaints—we will support that, as we said in our written submission. However, if it starts doing what we already do, we will want to know why. We are worried about the effect that that would have on the resources that we receive.

Regarding our discussions with the minister, we have had a little bit of reassurance at a high level that there is no intention to do that, but because there are few specifics in the bill on how the new agency will behave, we are worried that the agency, once it is formed, will seek to find its own place, which might impinge on what we do. We are looking for assurances through this process that that will not happen.

Derek Mitchell

We are supportive of a new body that, as colleagues have pointed out, does things in a more systematic way, involves itself and puts consumers at the heart of decision making, just as the public sector equality duty and the fairer Scotland duty have done. Those are really good things.

The top-down approach can meet our bottom-up, lived-experience approach; there is some discussion about how those meet in the middle. If the new body comes into operation and it is left to the new chief executive and chair to decide how the body operates in Scotland’s already well-defined consumer protection environment, that will be a waste of public money, when it could do the things that we want and the Scottish Government intends it to do. It should focus and add value, not try to muscle its way into different things. By its nature, intervening in markets and systems is a medium to long-term measure.

Our worry is that, after the first year, the body will need to come and respond to you guys about what it has done. It might have done a lot of really good things, but the visibility of that work will not be immediately apparent, so the danger will be that it looks for some low-flying fruit—we are that fruit.

Jackie Baillie

If I am picking you up right, at the moment you have nothing on paper—never mind in a policy memorandum or in the bill—that gives you that reassurance.

Derek Mitchell

The reassurance that we have from the minister is that we will not lose anywhere near as much of the initial money as we thought we would lose. The minister’s view is that the new body should operate at that higher level. He has reassured us that he respects, values and trusts what we do and will continue to do so.

Jackie Baillie

Just so that I am clear, there is no staff transfer but there is some resource clawback. Is that what you are describing?

Derek Mitchell

It is too early to say whether there will be any staff transfer, so I cannot give you a definitive answer on that. I do not think that there will be much because, as Rory Mair says, if the new body is genuinely going to do the things that are set out, it will not undertake people-based advocacy, which is what we do and which works very well. In the main, industry likes it—sometimes it does not like it—when we put consumers’ interests first, particularly slightly vulnerable consumers.

It is a bit early to say, but there might be something in the middle because, for example, we get money for national research that might legitimately sit with consumer Scotland in the future. We are still working on that with officials.

Jane Adams

I am not party to the conversations that Derek Mitchell and Rory Mair are having, but the network of local bureaux are concerned that changes from the Consumer Scotland Bill might mean a reduction in resource to CAS, which will affect the ability of local bureaux to carry out advocacy and social policy work. What happens with the bill must not have an impact on the advocacy work that local bureaux do—I do not want that to be missed. We cannot perform our client-facing role without CAS’s support and it cannot do it without us. It is important that that is captured in our conversations.

Jackie Baillie

Clarity is needed in the bill or in writing to provide that reassurance.

Jane Adams

Yes.

Colin Beattie (Midlothian North and Musselburgh) (SNP)

Mention has been made of the extra help unit and the fact that CAS provides support to energy and postal customers across the country through that unit. How will that be directly affected? How much of the work that is done in relation to energy and postal customers is consumer led and how much is higher-level advocacy?

Anne Lavery

On your first question, the extra help unit is an integral part of the service that we offer. As you say, it provides advice to vulnerable post and energy consumers and those who are often at risk of being cut off. It is a huge part of the advice offering that we provide because, as we have said, those who are at risk of having their energy cut off are also those who are struggling to put food on the table. Having the extra help unit as part of the citizens advice network means that not only can we help those people with their energy issues, we can do a warm transfer across to the bureau, which can help them with their wider issues. In the opposite direction, people who come into the bureau can access the expertise that we have in the extra help unit, which is a Great Britain-wide service that is run out of Scotland.

We have sought the reassurances that you have asked about from both the Scottish and UK Governments—it is a joint funded unit—to confirm whether they see it as part of the citizens advice network in the future. Both Governments have given us assurances that they see the unit as an integral part of our services and that there are no plans to remove it from the citizens advice network at present.

Colin Beattie

Thank you. My second question was about how much of the work that is done in the unit, particularly in relation to energy and postal customers, is consumer led and how much is higher level advocacy.

Anne Lavery

The unit provides that advice to the consumer at the point when they need to ensure that their energy supply does not get cut off. That data is then fed into a data hub that we have constructed. We own the biggest data set on individuals outside the public sector and we can feed that in and link it to the data that we have from the bureaux to understand and advocate on those issues that impact people the most.

It is about taking the information that comes from the extra help unit and amalgamating it with the wider bureau data, which allows us to pick up on patterns and to see, fairly early, where patterns are emerging. Through the extra help unit, we have relationships with the energy and service providers, just as we do through our advocacy work on the energy side. It is a virtuous circle of advice that highlights patterns of detriment and allows us to advocate—through the wide data set that we have—on people’s behalf; it allows us not just to solve problems immediately for individual clients and those who are affected but to highlight those issues through campaigns, so that people who might not be aware of the issue will become aware of it.

Colin Beattie

How big is the advocacy service in the unit? It is funded by both the UK and Scottish Governments, but how much of the resources do you use for advocacy on the wider issues, as opposed to the consumer-led issues?

Anne Lavery

We have an impact team, which is our policy and advocacy unit. That team is part-funded by the UK Government and the Scottish Government, because it deals with citizen consumer issues. That goes back to the point that we made earlier—it is about issues and campaigning on the issues that have an impact on people. The funding that is being proposed to be moved into the new body is the funding that is used to support the delivery of that entire advocacy offering that the citizens advice network provides. Does that answer your question?

Colin Beattie

Only partially. How much would that money amount to? How much of the resources are pointed at consumer-led issues and how much are pointed at the advocacy service?

Derek Mitchell

In practice, they are not separated in that way. For us, the importance of the extra help unit is that it has a practical day-to-day role in preventing disconnections from happening. Self-disconnections have risen considerably over the last wee while—you guys will know from your constituencies that people make a choice between heating their house and feeding their weans. That is how dire things are for some people. An energy company physically disconnecting someone is now almost a thing of the past and that is largely due to the EHU.

Colin Beattie

If I may interrupt, you have indicated that you think that the funding on the advocacy side will potentially go away. You must have already scoped out what the impact of that would be and how much funding is at risk. Do you have those figures?

10:15  



Derek Mitchell

On the advocacy function for energy, the levy-based advocacy money is going, but we will not walk away from engaging and advocating on behalf of vulnerable consumers in the energy market. As you know, there will be a rise in energy bills in the future, there are climate change targets to meet and there is carbon reduction. A whole range of things are happening in the energy market—now, and for the foreseeable future—around networks and everything else, and we need to be a central part of that, speaking for the people who do not really have a voice. There are a lot of issues around electric cars and how things will develop. The vast majority of people who come to our bureaux will never have an electric car, so why should they pay for the privilege of the infrastructure costs to facilitate that? There are big decisions and discussions that I am sure you guys will be having about whether the Government, industry or whoever pays for that. We need to continue to have a role in that space, and I think that the minister agrees that we should have that.

Colin Beattie

But you have not scoped out what part of that work might be at risk in the move to the new body or whatever. You said earlier that you felt that some of it might move away. You must have assessed that.

Derek Mitchell

Yes. You will have a note of the point about the levy-funded advocacy, which equates to roughly £1.5 million.

Colin Beattie

And that is the part of your work that you think could be at risk.

Derek Mitchell

We have reached an understanding with the Government about the advocacy that we provide, which will be crucial. We have taken a hit—albeit a manageable hit—in the amount of resource that we will have to provide advocacy in the future.

Colin Beattie

I will move on to something a bit different. In your response and letter to the committee, you said that you would like to see the role of Citizens Advice Scotland put on a statutory basis in the bill. I have two questions on that. First, how would that work in practice? Secondly, what difference would it actually make?

Derek Mitchell

Until the point at which advocacy and advice were devolved, we were covered by statute: we were named as advocates under the CEAR act. Going back to what Rory Mair said earlier, we are absolutely supportive of what could be a unique public body working in Scotland to provide first-class services with a top-down approach in addition to our bottom-up approach.

The fear is not about now; it is about what happens in the future. We want some recognition of the work that we will continue to do in the future, just as we have been discussing. Many of the responses that have been made on the bill have mentioned a fear of replication or duplication. Part of the bill deals with not replicating or duplicating what public authorities do—although I am not sure why bodies are defined specifically as “public authorities”.

We do not have infinite resources in Scotland to provide advocacy—no Government has infinite resources. Our focus, therefore, is on ensuring that any new body—any new kid on the block—adds value and does not do things that are already being done. There is a precedent for that. The fact that we have more than 2,500 volunteers, as Jane Adams mentioned earlier, does not mean that we cannot carry out statutory functions.

Colin Beattie

I wish to clarify one point. Do you have a different status here in Scotland from that in England? In other words, do you have some sort of statutory basis down in England that you do not have up here?

Derek Mitchell

Our sister organisation does.

Colin Beattie

What would that be?

Anne Lavery

Previously, under the CEAR act before it was amended under the Scotland Act 2016, we had the statutory responsibility. That has now been removed from Citizens Advice Scotland, but it is still held by Citizens Advice in England and Wales.

Derek Mitchell

And the National Consumer Council, as it was.

Anne Lavery

Our ask of the committee is that that position be put back into legislation in Scotland, so that we can continue to have assurance that we will be delivering people-based advocacy on behalf of citizens across Scotland.

Colin Beattie

To be clear, that is not affecting your day-to-day services in Scotland. It is securing your position in the future that you are more concerned about.

Anne Lavery

It is about ensuring that we can continue to deliver that service, yes.

The Convener

I want to bring in Rory Mair, as he was wanting to comment. Perhaps you could also clarify which act we are talking about here. An acronym has been used for it.

Rory Mair

Okay—the others will do that.

I will start with the first point. I have been chair of CAS for three years. Eighteen months ago, we were told that £1.5 million would be taken off us to form the basis of the funding of the new agency. It has taken 18 months of our time to get an assurance from the minister that that will now not happen. I am looking for a situation in which the biggest provider of consumer advice and advocacy in Scotland is not spending 18 months of its time trying to ensure that its resources and its ability to support citizens will continue because there is no protection for us under any legislation or any other assurance that the resources that we have now are the resources that we will have in the future.

It is a real issue for the network to be able to plan for the future without thinking that we could just be told at a stroke, and with no reference to anything else, to form a new thing with £1.5 million having to come off—in other words, that a third of our available resources would have to disappear in order for the new agency to be formed. That has not happened, because we spent 18 months seeking reassurance with ministers. Should I and the board of CAS be spending 18 months trying to ensure that we do not lose resources, or should we be focusing on the needs of citizens and providing the best possible service?

Yes, we are looking for some statutory basis that says that you cannot simply come along, take the resources away and say that they are being transferred to another agency. That does not seem to be unreasonable for the biggest provider of consumer advice and advocacy in Scotland.

Colin Beattie

So the statutory basis that you are looking for is really about ring fencing funding.

Rory Mair

No. The statutory basis that I am looking for is that policy makers have to treat us as seriously as other people. That is not necessarily what happens now. Being named in the bill would allow us to have that status. That is what we are after. We know that you cannot take away all our uncertainties, and we know that you cannot secure our funding into the future. All we are asking for is that you do not add to those uncertainties and insecurities, noting that we were covered in statute before and we are now not going to be. That seems to us to be a regressive step, and we do not want that to happen.

Derek Mitchell will tell you what that acronym means.

Derek Mitchell

Says Rory confidently. Anne might know.

Anne Lavery

The CEAR act is the Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Act 2007.

The Convener

That is a UK act that applied only to England, because this area is of course devolved in Scotland. Is that correct?

Anne Lavery

It is devolved now. The powers that we had under the 2007 act were changed under the Scotland Act 2016.

The Convener

So more recently than the 2007 UK act.

Anne Lavery

Yes.

The Convener

The bill that we are considering now is effectively a reconsideration of where we are at in Scotland, as it is now the preserve of the Scottish Parliament to deal with the matter.

Anne Lavery

Yes.

Derek Mitchell

Essentially, what we are looking for is an assurance that our place in this space, which we have occupied for 80 years, continues into the future. In our recent conversations we covered the difficulty with our funding and, once we had spoken to the minister, things happened pretty quickly. The minister has given an assurance that he respects, trusts and values what we will be doing. We want some sort of assurance for the future. If that was in the bill, it would be great, or it could be set out through guidance or whatever, but we do not want to be faced with the same situation going into the future that we have faced over the past 18 months, with a huge degree of uncertainty. We want to represent people. That is what we are good at.

The Convener

We will move on to questions from Richard Lyle.

Richard Lyle (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)

I believe that you have near-enough answered the question that I am going to ask you. I previously worked with Mr Mair in another setting, and I know how much he likes to press the Government and so on. Good morning, Rory—I have not seen you for a number of years.

Basically, what do you really want out of the bill? What is your view? I respect your organisation and what you do—there is a citizens advice bureau round the corner from my office. What would you suggest? What detail should there be in the bill?

What will consumer Scotland do in practice? What is needed? What guarantees, if any, would you like?

Rory Mair

I will start; others will no doubt come in.

We think that a big prize is on offer and that, with the advent of consumer Scotland, there will be a strategic top-down approach to consumer issues, big research and big campaigns, and that that would meet the bottom-up approach. We think that that would provide something absolutely unique to Scotland and that there would be a fantastic consumer protection and advice service.

Our worry is that, with the creation of that top-down bit, the bottom-up bit will be eaten into. We are looking to ensure that the new agency does not undermine what already exists, because citizens rely on that, and that there is a balance between a top-down approach and a bottom-up approach to consumer issues. The CAS board genuinely believes that it would be a good thing if we could merge those approaches together properly. That is why we support the creation of consumer Scotland.

We want a reassurance that consumer Scotland will concentrate on the things that it has been said that it will do, and we would like details of what a systems-based approach to consumer issues is. It is said that there will be such an approach, but we have not heard a description of what that is, and we think that members ought to press on that. I know what I think it is, and I know what would be valuable.

Richard Lyle will remember from our days in local government that we moved away from an audit position in which there was auditing for best value once in a blue moon. We think that there should be a best value-type process for consumers. Service providers would be told, “If you don’t have the systems in place to protect and nurture consumers, we’ll assume you’re not doing that.” That is what a systems-based approach would involve. We will never do that, but if that is combined with what we do, there will be a fantastic consumer protection and advice service in Scotland. That is what we would like.

Richard Lyle

Basically, you want the new organisation to have what it will do set in stone—bear with me, Rory—or, alternatively, you know what it will do in the future and what you will do, and you want to be left to do what you are good at and to carry on with your good work. You want assurances or a commitment in the bill to ensure that you can carry on, with nothing changing. You want things to improve for consumers, but your organisation will not be overaffected by the bill. That is what I am getting from you.

Rory Mair

We do not feel that nothing will change. An agency such as consumer Scotland cannot be brought into being with nothing changing. We do not want the bringing in of the new agency to be seen as an end in itself. The outcome that we want is the creation of a better system.

All that we are asking for is that, in the creation of the new agency, the effect that it will have on people who are already doing business will be taken into account. I think that our business will change in the years after consumer Scotland has been established. The interface between us and consumer Scotland will certainly have to develop. It is not fair to say that we are simply saying that we want nothing to change. However, we want assurances that citizens will continue to be served by us in the way that they have been in the past.

Jane Adams

I want to follow on from that. When we consulted chief officers on the bill, we were concerned about the lack of detail. We were not exactly sure what consumer Scotland would do, so it was hard to base an opinion on that. However, the consensus was certainly that we did not see any value in consumer Scotland’s replicating what citizens advice bureaux and CAS already do very well and have done very well for 80 years.

Of course we welcome any developments that would make the consumer landscape fairer in Scotland, but we want the community-based advocacy that we do to be recognised and protected.

From the chief officers’ point of view, the bill does not have detail on what consumer Scotland would do. We want what we do to be protected, but we see value in work being done at a more macro level. Rory Mair talked about that.

10:30  



Richard Lyle

I will finish by pressing the question, which any one of you can answer. What do you think consumer Scotland should do, and what do you think your organisations should be left to do?

Derek Mitchell

For me, consumer Scotland should do the things that we have been discussing with officials and the minister.

Richard Lyle

Like what?

Derek Mitchell

Running high-level investigations into consumer detriment, taking a systems-based approach to how systems and markets operate, and ensuring that there is a consumer duty. It is our proposal and our ask that a consumer duty be put in place, to make sure that consumers get rights such as those under the fairer Scotland duty and the public sector equality duty, to ensure—as Rory Mair said—that there is a best value approach. If people cannot demonstrate that they are taking that approach, we can assume that they are not.

Those are the high-level things that consumer Scotland can do, and will do very well. It is not that we do not want to change—we are having our 80th anniversary, so we can look back quite a bit. When we were formed in 1939, we dealt with ration books, evacuations and folk getting their houses bombed, so we have moved on. From some of the stuff that has been talked about today, there is still a sense that we simply deal with citizen issues, benefits, debt and housing. If we want to remain as relevant today as we have been in the past, and be able to look to the future, we will change. We have changed enormously in the past two to three years and we will continue to change and evolve in a way that makes sense for the people whom we represent.

Richard Lyle

Are you basically saying that we should leave you to do what you do well, and consumer Scotland can set the policy?

Derek Mitchell

It is not only us in the consumer landscape at the moment; there are many in that landscape who do very good work. We are looking for the new body—and I believe that this is the intention—to provide additionality to that landscape, around the things that I spoke about earlier.

Richard Lyle

Thank you.

The Convener

I would like to clarify my understanding of what Rory Mair said. Derek, I assume that you have not been advising for the past 80 years.

Derek Mitchell

Not myself, no. [Laughter.]

The Convener

As I understand it, it is not that you want things set in stone, but you want to know what the framework in which you will operate will be. Is that correct?

Rory Mair

Yes. Just as we have to be respectful and cognisant of the new body, the new body has to be respectful and cognisant of the people who are already in the business doing the work. We are looking for that reassurance.

I think that we will have to negotiate on this—you cannot set in stone and pin down what the agency will do on day 1, and we would not ask you to do so. That would just restrict the agency. However, a framework that says how we will operate together would be very important.

The Convener

On that point, Mr Lyle is asking about the detail of how you see that framework. Derek Mitchell’s response was that that has been put to ministers in discussions. To respond to Mr Lyle’s question, could you write to the committee after today’s session with details of precisely what you are looking for with regard to the framework? It would be helpful to have those.

Finally, the bill is intended to create a duty on certain public bodies to have regard to the impact of their strategic decisions on consumers. Do you favour that proposal, and is it set out specifically enough in the bill at this stage?

Derek Mitchell

Yes, I think that the intention is absolutely right, although we will have to wait and see how it works in practice. Others have mentioned the amount of information that we glean from communities every day, and through the development of that hub and the information that we have, we are keen to tell consumer Scotland and policy makers generally about that lived experience. How they get that information from public authorities is another matter, but the intention is absolutely right.

The Convener

You can write to the committee later on that or any other point that has been raised to clarify or add to what you have said.

Jamie Halcro Johnston (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

Congratulations on your 80 years. My question is on two areas and is for either Rory Mair or Derek Mitchell. Prior to the announcement and your concerns that you were going to lose £1.5 million, what consultation did you have with the Government? Was it sprung on you or had you been discussing a potential change in funding?

Rory Mair

I would not say that there had been consultation—the announcement came pretty much out of the blue.

Jamie Halcro Johnston

A lovely surprise for you.

Rory Mair

It was a surprise.

Jamie Halcro Johnston

How long has that £1.5 million funding been part of your revenues and how long is it guaranteed for in the future? What reassurances have you been given on that?

Derek Mitchell

The funding that we are going to lose has been in place since 2012—when Consumer Focus was disbanded, the powers in Scotland came to us.

Jamie Halcro Johnston

How long is it guaranteed for? Is it for one year or three years?

Derek Mitchell

The current commitment is for the next financial year. Our assumptions from the discussions is that that will become part of our base budget and then that money would have to be cut from that—as happens to other organisations. I do not think that that is the intention, but then, that is life in the third sector. It gives us some clarity over the next 18 months.

Jamie Halcro Johnston

But is there no long-term commitment?

Derek Mitchell

That is part of what we are seeking assurances on through the process.

Jamie Halcro Johnston

Thanks for that. I want to come back to the potential role of consumer Scotland and how that would fit in. At the moment, when you are carrying out high-level research and creating campaigns, you can utilise the information that comes in from the bureaux and that data in order to make your case. Will that data be available to the new body? If it is your data at the moment, will it be made available to the new body or would data protection restrictions prevent that?

Derek Mitchell

We would not give out personal data, but we would share anonymised data. We are committed to that. The future of the consumer protection system in Scotland should be about collaboration and partnership. We will do whatever we can to help the new body in the future.

Jamie Halcro Johnston

So that data will be available to it.

Derek Mitchell

Absolutely.

Jamie Halcro Johnston

We have talked about the high-level research. At the moment, there are areas where CAS does that and there are areas where other organisations do that. Is there any reason why the new body could do that better, if that additional funding, which is being allocated to set up the new body, was provided to fund CAS or the other organisations to do that research?

Derek Mitchell

We are on record as saying that we carry out the research that we do very well. We take the right approach and it often validates lived experience. I am sure that consumer Scotland will do such research well, too.

Jamie Halcro Johnston

There are areas in which you have greater specialism and there are areas in which other consumer bodies specialise more. However, the new body will be more general in its approach.

Rory Mair

If our vision of consumer Scotland is the one that is implemented, and it aims to do the things that we have described, the interface will be most immediate in the area that you are describing. The question of what is top-level research for us and what is top-level research for the new agency is something that we will have to work through quite carefully. As Derek Mitchell suggested, if there is an area where staff transfer might happen, it will be in the area of high-level research.

Jamie Halcro Johnston

Alright. In your submission, you say:

“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.”

As a general point, where can you see the new body creating better protection for consumers? If we had a clean slate, would this be the way that you would propose to improve protection or would you take another approach?

Rory Mair

What has been difficult for us as a board is that we see genuine value in the creation of consumer Scotland, but we also see it as a threat to us. It has been difficult for us because, on behalf of consumers, we want to welcome what consumer Scotland could be, but at a practical level we are worried about resources and whether it will impinge on our work.

That is why we are coming here and saying that there are things that we do not do and should not do. We do not know how to make markets more consumer friendly. We do not know how to do extremely high-level investigations and get redress at that level, and we do not have the backing of a Government-led agency to help with that. That is not what we specialise in. We specialise in a community-based, lived-experience approach.

We recognise that the new agency would do some good stuff. Our concern is that it will do good stuff only if it recognises that the rest of the system has to be maintained as well. If the new thing is created at the expense of the rest of the system, that will not be good for consumers. We need to keep the whole system in place and augment it with the new thing that we are talking about.

Jamie Halcro Johnston

Do you think that there is a willingness on the part of the Government to address the concerns that you and others in the sector have expressed?

Rory Mair

That is what we continue to press the minister on.

Gordon MacDonald

I just want to clarify something. The figure of £1.5 million has come up a couple of times this morning. You said that you have received reassurance with regard to your funding. If that £1.5 million relates to high-level research staff who might transfer to a new organisation, surely the net effect on your organisation is zero. Alternatively, are you saying that some of that funding will be used to cross-subsidise other parts of your organisation?

Rory Mair

If only we had £1.5 million for high-level research—that would be great. However, only £200,000 or so of that amount was to do with high-level research; the rest relates to the core of what we do. We have been assured that we will not lose substantial resources. The sum is perhaps a wee bit lower because of a recognition that some of that high-level research will go to the new agency. However, the £1.5 million was not for high-level research—as I said, it relates to the core of what we do, which is why we were so keen to get the assurance that we would not lose that money. If we lost it, it would make it virtually impossible for us to do consumer advocacy and to support the bureaux with their advocacy. It was not a transfer that was simply based on the high-level research; that involves a much smaller figure.

Willie Coffey (Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley) (SNP)

You have almost answered the question that I was going to ask. The issue of the separation of duties has been raised. Your submission talked about CAS and the bureaux taking a bottom-up approach and the potential for consumer Scotland to take a top-down approach. Just a moment ago, you said that you do not do certain things and do not carry out certain functions. Can you flesh that out a bit more so that we can get a clearer understanding of what the separation of duties might look like in practice?

Rory Mair

I can, and others might be able to come in with more specifics.

As I said, we take a bottom-up approach. It is not our job to intervene in markets across the board. We work on the basis of consumers coming to us with questions; we do not try to find a systematic way of making providers of services and goods be more nurturing of consumers and less exploitative. That is not our job—that is not what Citizens Advice Scotland was set up to do, and it is not what we would want to do.

Similarly, it is quite difficult for us to undertake massive pieces of research into what will happen in the future or where there is potential consumer detriment and how it can be avoided. If big investigations need to be done, it is better for them to be done by a Government-led agency rather than by us, as we would be doing them in a bottom-up, consumer-led way. It is not that we will not do bits of that work; it is that there is another place for that to be done. That is exactly the sort of thing that, in the consultation document, the Government said that consumer Scotland would do. We support that.

Derek Mitchell

That is right. I get the sense that this new body will have economists and analysts who will take a systems-based approach. We do not have any of those kinds of people at that level. The proposal is about additionality. We have a well-defined space. As I said earlier, a lot of people provide good consumer protection in Scotland, and we see the proposal as adding value to the landscape. We do not want consumer Scotland to replicate or duplicate what is already being done.

10:45  



Willie Coffey

So, if the relationship between CAS and the new agency works as it has been described, you would support that and you could work in that environment.

Derek Mitchell

Absolutely.

Willie Coffey

On data sharing, Anne Lavery mentioned that CAS has one of the biggest consumer-issue datasets that exist. Clearly, when the new agency is set up, it will depend on gathering data from you and a number of other sources. How do you see that working? Will you be able to share information with consumer Scotland and other agencies quite well?

Anne Lavery

We recognise that data sharing will be crucial to the operation of the new agency. As an organisation with a footprint across most communities in Scotland, we get our data from the lived experience of people in those communities, and a central agency will need to have access to that type of information, as well as information from other agencies, in order to do the advocacy work that it will want to do.

As the chief executive has said, we welcome the opportunity that this body can create to enhance that data sharing and to ensure that all of the datasets that exist across Scotland can be pulled together to identify the significant issues that cause consumer detriment. Provided that the approach is consistent with the general data protection regulation and the associated legislation and does not impact on our confidentiality arrangements, our impartiality and our services to citizens, we would be happy to share our data.

We would like a bit of scoping work to be done to see what kind of data is out there that could support the new agency and to help us to understand how easy it would be for that data to be shared with the new agency, because that will be fundamental to its ability to do its job.

One of our asks is for the dataset that the new agency develops to be made public. It could be a useful dataset for all agencies and could be used as an education tool and a means of improving outcomes for consumers.

Willie Coffey

Presumably, there will have to be discussions about who has access to and ownership of your dataset.

Anne Lavery

Absolutely. We would want to discuss that with our network. However, we do not want to put in place unnecessary barriers. Our aim is to make things better for citizens and consumers and for people to improve things. We think that we have a key role to play in that. We use our data to ensure that we can campaign on those issues that impact on people and communities, and we are happy for other agencies to work in that way, where appropriate. We want to ensure that, if there are other ways in which consumer detriment can be tackled, we are party to enabling that to happen.

The Convener

I thank members of the panel for coming to speak to us. I now suspend the meeting to enable a change of witnesses.

10:47 Meeting suspended.  



10:51 On resuming—  



The Convener

We move to our second panel of witnesses on the Consumer Scotland Bill. We have with us Adam Stachura, head of policy and communications for Age Scotland; Gillian Burgan, social policy worker and scams helpline adviser for Clackmannanshire citizens advice bureau; Lucy O’Leary, chair of Central Borders citizens advice bureau; and Kristi Kelly, bureau manager at Aberdeen citizens advice bureau. Welcome to all four of you.

Gordon MacDonald will ask the first question.

Gordon MacDonald

An Audit Scotland report a few years ago highlighted that 1.3 million people in Scotland thought that they had reason to complain about the quality of products or services, but more than half a million of those people either did not complain to the retailer or took no further action. In your specific areas, what major consumer issues are brought to you?

Adam Stachura (Age Scotland)

Some of the bigger issues we hear about through our free national helpline are about care home contracts and the provision of services around funerals. After the Competition and Markets Authority investigation into care home contracts, there has been interesting work with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and trading standards to try to develop better information and advice for people about what is expected when they initiate contracts.

That is a big issue, notwithstanding the more routine things that happen when people buy products and services. For instance, digital exclusion can make it more difficult for people to understand how to access their rights and what to do about them and how to contact a company or find any trace of their purchase if they have misplaced a receipt. Those are also big issues for us.

Gillian Burgan (Clackmannanshire Citizens Advice Bureau)

In Clackmannanshire, our consumer stats normally make up just short of 22 per cent of our client base; breaking that down, 14 per cent are debt issues that arise from arrears on hire purchase—catalogue and mail order—and even mortgage or bank and building society overdrafts. Car finance and repairs have become more significant issues recently.

Lucy O’Leary (Central Borders Citizens Advice Bureau)

Sometimes inquiries may be logged as covering several different issues. In Galashiels, about half of the consumer issues that have been identified are around utilities and communications—the big-ticket items. It may well be that smaller items are dealt with online or through the website.

Kristi Kelly (Aberdeen Citizens Advice Bureau)

I agree with that. A lot of our consumer issues are to do with debt and utilities.

Gordon MacDonald

Several weeks ago, we took evidence from Thomas Docherty of Which?. He said that no consumer body in Scotland advocates on behalf of people using banking, legal and rail services. You mentioned communications, but he said that telecommunications is not covered. Why are no organisations in Scotland looking at those areas on behalf of consumers?

Adam Stachura

I think that lots of organisations will look at those issues individually. For example, CAS, Age Scotland and Which? all conduct inquiries and investigations into such issues.

I will offer a personal view on banks. They are regulated on a UK-wide basis, because it is a reserved power. I know that this committee and others have looked at bank branch closures and how they impact on consumers in Scotland in particular. The challenge might be to do with where the responsibility lies or where the different banks’ boardrooms are.

It is certainly incumbent on lots of different organisations to flag up the issues that you raise and highlight them and for members of this committee and those beyond this room to advocate on behalf of their constituents, too. However, there are regulatory bodies, with teeth, whether that be Ofcom or the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets.

Lucy O’Leary

I cannot answer the question about why there are not regulatory bodies for those areas. However, if we consider utilities and communications, the changes in the market structure and in the bodies with which people are having issues are so rapid that I am not sure how you can chase those moving targets.

In relation to communications, people have gone from complaining about BT not putting a line into their house to complaining about their mobile phone contract. It is the same for utilities. There has been an explosion in the range of companies offering services over the years. The sector is fast moving. Although the issues may stay the same, the complainees change very quickly.

Gordon MacDonald

I am trying to determine whether there is a need for a general organisation that would look at the wider consumer issues and support you guys in providing your day-to-day advice. Is there such a need? Should there be an organisation that looks at the problems and how they can be addressed and signposts people so that they get the best advice? Should it look at regulation for Governments, whether that be the Scottish or UK Government?

Gillian Burgan

I absolutely agree that there is such a need. As a bureau, we can only take things to a certain level, whether that be providing first or second-tier advice. We need support in relation to third-tier advice and beyond.

I noticed that the phrase “super-complaint” was used in feedback in the “Analysis of responses to the Consultation on A Consumer Body for Scotland”, which I think is brilliant. There are such things as super-complaints. As a bureau, we deal with so many different organisations, which have different rules and are governed by different bodies. If we had a body that we could go to for support when we have taken a case as far as we can, that would enhance what we do. I would welcome that.

Lucy O’Leary

This goes to the heart of the relationship between the bureaux, CAS and consumer Scotland. When clients come through our door, they do not say, “I’ve got a consumer issue.” They just ask for help.

We and our advisers may identify which bits of those issues are consumer issues. That takes a lot of teasing out in some cases. Aggregating that in CAS, so that we can highlight that there is a widespread problem—whatever it may be—that is particularly big in rural areas would be a really valuable function. As has been said, the extra bit of the jigsaw that would be good to have is a body that can tackle the infrastructure and the shape of the market.

Gordon MacDonald

The suggestion is that, when it is created, consumer Scotland could start by looking at a maximum of two or three subjects a year. What priority areas should it look at on behalf of clients?

Gillian Burgan

I run the scams web chat, and scams are a massive problem. We have been running the service since 2 September, and I have dealt with 36 cases already, with a total of about £33,000 having been lost to scams so far. It is a massive area, and it should be focused on.

11:00  



Lucy O’Leary

At the start of that work, I would like there to be a good whole-systems look at where consumer harms fit into other areas, such as employment debt and welfare. I am not sure about identifying an issue; the danger of doing that is to hive off the problem into a little world of its own, and that is not how it is for our clients.

Kristi Kelly

I would agree with that. You have possibly identified a few gaps. You could look at the wider picture and then identify the gaps and you could perhaps focus on them.

Willie Coffey

Are the public genuinely confused about who to go to for help and so on? Do people need clarity about who best to approach? Could consumer Scotland help to declutter the landscape?

Gillian Burgan

I do not think that people are confused. I spent 22 years in retail and if I, as a deputy store manager, could not resolve someone’s complaint, the first thing they would say would be, “I’m going to Citizens Advice to make a complaint. I’m going to take this further.” CAS is a body that people recognise they can go to for help, so that we can escalate an issue on their behalf.

Adam Stachura

There is absolutely a place for lots of different organisations that can advocate and give good advice. It depends on which organisation people like. It is the same in politics—voters or constituents go to whomever they trust and have a good relationship with. There is certainly a useful role for the agency to be an overarching body and to be the first port of call for lots of things that can be signposted.

If we consider the landscape, we have the CMA, which will look at investigations, although it does not really have all the necessary teeth—it will give recommendations. Beyond the CAB network, Citizens Advice Scotland, Age Scotland and so on, people think of going to trading standards offices, but their staff go and speak to businesses as opposed to being consumer facing and taking the consumer’s problem to the business.

There is certainly a place for the agency, and there is the overarching point that consumer Scotland is a straightforward name so that is where people will go to find out about all the various problems and issues.

Kristi Kelly

Having an organisation called consumer Scotland could be really confusing to people who would already know where to go for help. It does not really say what the organisation does.

As was mentioned in the previous panel session, people who phone an organisation can get told that they actually need to go somewhere else. Is consumer Scotland going to be another layer to that, so that someone phones the agency and gets told, “Well, phone this person,” but then get told when they do, “No, actually, you need to phone this other person”? It needs to be clearly defined which organisation people should get passed on to, so that they are not just passed around, in which case they get fed up. They give up and they do not bother resolving their issue, because they cannot even figure out who they are supposed to speak to about it.

Willie Coffey

Adam Stachura discussed “digital by default” in his written submission. Is there a risk that much of the advice is becoming too digital and that that is becoming the only option for many people? Adam Stachura also mentioned premium advice lines, which people can get advice by only if they can afford to pay for the phone calls. Is there a risk that we are making things a bit too digital?

Adam Stachura

Digital is becoming the most straightforward and simple option for lots of things. It is the fastest way to put up information and direct people. Huge numbers of people will have mobile phones in their pockets and will just be able to Google something—or use whatever search engine they choose.

We deal with older people in general—anyone over the age of 50—but the big challenge, as we at Age Scotland see it, is that there are 500,000 people in Scotland over the age of 60 who do not use the internet. We use that figure repeatedly. That is a current figure, and it is equivalent to the population of Edinburgh. That is the number of people who do not use the internet and who might not have anyone else to go to in order to ask for advice or to ask where they can find out about something.

The danger is that the most vulnerable or most in need people do not know how to get access to the phone number in the first place because it is on a website. We looked around at the different advice that people could get and where to signpost people. The answer is the same for lots of local authorities. To find a phone number, people have to go online and be lucky enough to be able to navigate the maze in the first instance.

The big challenge for us is having different options for people to go to, such as a face-to-face option or an on-the-phone option. A freephone number is absolutely vital, as is ensuring that there are not lots of different numbers for people to dial before they can work out who they want to talk to. That could mean that, by the time they have heard six options, they have forgotten what the first one was. There should also be a way for people to write to us.

Having the freephone and face-to-face options is hugely important, because a lot of older people might want to talk about physical things with somebody. They might not have the facility to take a photo of the thing or to scan that photo in and email it off somewhere.

The context is that half a million people over the age of 60 are not using the internet. That is a significant number of people who could just miss out.

Lucy O’Leary

I will give a concrete example. All the bureaux collect information from individual clients and feed it up to CAS to inform its policy development. Our social policy report from the last quarter mentioned trying to get an 82-year-old guy who did not have internet access to find a cheaper energy deal. However, all the cheap energy deals are online only. That immediately turns a consumer issue into a money issue and a fuel poverty issue.

Kristi Kelly

Digital should add to what is already there. Our network is moving to more digital options. We now do web chats and more telephone support than we did before, and we are looking to move that on. However, that does not cut the number of people who come through our doors looking for face-to-face support. It has increased the number of people we have dealt with without affecting our face-to-face support. It is important that people have both options.

Willie Coffey

If there is to be a role for consumer Scotland, it should be to ensure that the digital gap does not become wider. We should try to reach out to the more vulnerable sections of society that do not have access. I presume that the witnesses agree that we need to give that further consideration.

Lucy O’Leary

I have a point to make about vulnerability. I know that the bill contains a description of vulnerability. All our clients are vulnerable when they come in to us, whether or not they tick an official vulnerability box. If I am trying to sort out some knotty problem, I am vulnerable to misinformation, duff advice and all that sort of thing. The people whom we see are vulnerable because they have a problem, and not just because they fit the description of somebody who is vulnerable.

Jackie Baillie

There is an offer of a definition of vulnerability in the bill, but I take it from Lucy O’Leary that she would want that definition to be widened so that it is more flexible.

Lucy O’Leary

I certainly would. There are some big gaps. For example, our bureau is seeing a rising proportion of people who have either temporary or long-term mental health issues. When we talk about the people whom our bureau helps, I tend to talk about them as people who are at a low point of resilience. That can mean me, because I am having a bad day. It can mean somebody who has a long-standing mental health problem. It can mean somebody who lives 10 miles from the nearest bus. It is not a badge; it is just a state of being.

Jackie Baillie

Is that view shared by your colleagues on the panel? I see nods.

Adam Stachura

I agree with that. Not all older people are vulnerable; we would never say that in Age Scotland. However, when we look at scams and fraud, we might discuss older people as a target market of people because of their perceived vulnerability. That is for lots of reasons—they might live on their own or have cognitive impairment, for example. We welcome the fact that older people have perceived vulnerability. However, it is a very good point that, as soon as someone presents with a problem, they need that kind of help.

Jackie Baillie

Let us stick with definitions for a moment. The bill defines consumers in a way that excludes small businesses. I am thinking of the sole trader type of operation. Is that helpful, or should they be included? I am conscious that other pieces of consumer legislation include them.

Lucy O’Leary

We are in Galashiels—you may know what it is like. We have a small-business urban environment with a rural hinterland in which there are a load of very small rural businesses. Those businesses are very vulnerable to disruptions in communications. The broadband is—well, I will not get into that. The vulnerability to any kind of disruption and the ability to get something done about it is a big issue for us.

Jackie Baillie

Is that view shared by the other panellists?

Adam Stachura

I am afraid that I do not have a view on the sole trader issue, given our line of work.

Jackie Baillie

Are there no older sole traders?

Adam Stachura

There will be, and they will be an incredibly valuable part of the economy, but I am not entirely sure that I am best placed to judge.

Jackie Baillie

That was a nice recovery.

Some submissions that we received suggested that there were genuine concerns that consumer Scotland might end up duplicating work that is carried out by other organisations. I am keen to know how to avoid that so that we get added value from the new body, as has been suggested. Perhaps Adam Stachura can start.

Adam Stachura

When we look at the landscape of information and advice provision and advocacy work, it is very interesting to see that there is a really good network across Scotland. It includes the network of bureaux as well as the Age Scotland helpline, along with our information guides and community development work. There are a lot of organisations that do very similar things.

As I said earlier, it is important to consider that, although some people might not be comfortable with a particular organisation, they might look to someone else if they have had a good first experience. It is very important that every organisation that provides information and advice and carries out advocacy work works together with other organisations, recognising that they might not have a monopoly.

For instance, we do a lot of good partnership working with Citizens Advice Scotland on consumer and advocacy issues. It is important to know who the expert is. I understand that there might be people in bureaux or in CAS who will signpost or refer individuals with issues relating to social care and care home contracts to Age Scotland so that they get the right advice, or what might be seen as the best advice.

It is important to understand in the advice landscape that there might be people who are better suited to helping with certain issues. It is important to look at the situation in the round, especially with regard to consumer Scotland and how everyone works together. It might not be the most helpful thing to give one person a monopoly on everything; I do not think that anybody would think that that would be a good idea.

We have a good landscape in Scotland for cross-working. We realise where the best efforts can be made and who the experts in some niche fields might be to ensure that we get to the end product. That means that whoever has presented themselves to us—in the same way that your constituents will present themselves and your case workers will do valiant and noble work to ensure that their problems are resolved—will be helped, but they will also know where to go if we do not have the answers. That is incredibly important.

Jackie Baillie

Are there any other views?

Gillian Burgan

I agree with Adam Stachura. As a bureau, we can take complaints only so far. The bureaux would welcome a body that is made up of experts in the consumer field. As Adam Stachura said, we signpost people elsewhere because we can take things only so far. If there was one body, we would not have to send a client from pillar to post, back and forth.

Jackie Baillie

My understanding is that the new body is not going to resolve individual cases; rather, it will have a much more strategic advocacy role. Therefore, your desire for a third tier will not rest with that body if it separates itself out.

Kristi Kelly

I see consumer Scotland more as a body that will collate information. At present, our local staff see that someone has an issue, as staff do in the bureaux in other areas, and CAS collates all that information and feeds it back. However, as Adam Stachura said, there are other bodies out there that collect different information. In its role, consumer Scotland can collate all the information and make a higher-level decision.

Jackie Baillie

That is useful.

Lucy O’Leary

In an ideal world, it would be great to have a body that was able to achieve a bit more consistency in access to consumer advice. Our organisation is made up of 60 different individually funded charities. We are all in different financial positions, and our budget has been cut year on year. Whether we like it or not, there is currently a bit of a postcode lottery in people’s ability to talk to someone face to face in a bureau at a time that makes sense for them. I know that it is difficult, but it would be fantastic if consumer Scotland could do something about the commissioning of good-quality consumer advice at the right level.

11:15  



Colin Beattie

Consumer Scotland will have advocacy, advice and information-gathering powers, but enforcement and powers to change the main consumer rights will remain reserved to the Westminster Government. Do you see that as a barrier to consumer Scotland being able to make a difference for consumers?

Adam Stachura

I suppose that the proof will be in the pudding in relation to how consumer Scotland works and what issues are presented to it. I did not have an answer to the earlier question about what the first couple of years might look like, on the basis that things will change quite quickly. We need to consider the other organisations or bodies that will take things forward, such as the Competition and Markets Authority, because there will be partnership working.

As part of the change to the legislation, the view of the Scottish ministers will certainly be taken into account in relation to any bigger work. There might be a challenge for consumer Scotland around power of attorney, given the cross-border issues that exist. It might be able to advocate on consumer issues on behalf of people who have a power of attorney for someone else, but there might be a challenge with that being accepted or adopted at the other end, in England, Wales or Northern Ireland. However, I am not yet sure whether there would be a problem with where the main powers would lie, on the basis that the Scottish ministers would have some power to help to commission new work.

Kristi Kelly

The bill is a bit vague about compelling information. It does not really say what that would mean. Are you saying that it could be reserved to the Scottish Government to do the compelling?

Colin Beattie

No. What I am saying is that I am concerned that enforcement and powers to change consumer rights will still lie with the Westminster Government, and I am looking to hear what you think about that. Consumer Scotland will have advocacy, advice and information-gathering powers, but it will not have powers to enforce if there are any infringements that it sees or the power to change any consumer legislation. All of that will still lie with the Westminster Government. Is that a barrier to consumer Scotland carrying out its duties effectively?

Kristi Kelly

I guess that it will depend on consumer Scotland’s relationship with the Scottish Government once consumer Scotland has been set up. If the Scottish Government sets up consumer Scotland and it does all the hard work and gathers evidence but the Scottish Government does not listen to it and make changes, it will be completely pointless.

Colin Beattie

The point is that the Scottish Government does not have the power to make any changes. That will still be reserved to Westminster.

Kristi Kelly

Ah—sorry. I misunderstood.

Colin Beattie

The question is whether that will impair consumer Scotland’s ability to do its job effectively.

Lucy O’Leary

It probably will, except that, at the very least, consumer Scotland will have a slightly louder voice. It will have a single voice, whereas we currently have a lot of quieter voices.

Colin Beattie

There does not seem to be an opinion on whether consumer Scotland would be more effective if it had enforcement powers.

Lucy O’Leary

It will be easier to have an opinion on that when we know what consumer Scotland is actually going to be. I am not sure that I have that picture yet.

Colin Beattie

Okay. It is envisaged that consumer Scotland will collect data from lots of sources to help it to understand and prioritise consumer issues. What data would your organisations share with it?

Kristi Kelly

We generally share our information via Citizens Advice Scotland. We collate statistics. We have lots of detail in our cases that we cannot share without the clients’ permission unless it is anonymised. Even if it is anonymised, we have to make sure that it does not identify people in any way.

Colin Beattie

Are you saying that the GDPR restricts the information that you can share?

Kristi Kelly

Yes.

Colin Beattie

How do you get past that?

Adam Stachura

I suppose that it depends on what information is required. Under GDPR, there will be lots of personal information on individuals that cannot be shared, but it might not be necessary for consumer Scotland to have that information. However, depending on how things work out, in order to offer insights, we might provide information on general trends or types of issues that are coming in, such as the number of calls from certain locations, which would not necessarily involve providing people’s personal data.

I do not think that there will be a problem. Consumer Scotland, as an agency, will be able to get information from other public bodies. However, it might also want information from charities to feed into its work—generally speaking, that would be about types of issues, trends and volume, to give the agency a picture of what is going on. Similarly, I do not think that anyone would share individual information with us unless we had express consent from that person.

Colin Beattie

I take it from what I have heard that the information would not drill down to the personal level—as you say, it will be about trends and overall positions—so what information can you share that would be useful to consumer Scotland?

Adam Stachura

If consumer Scotland is looking to conduct an investigation or raise an issue, we would be able to express information in a general sense. For example, we could give information on calls to our helpline on different types of issues. We could say that there had been X number of calls about a certain issue over a certain period, and maybe that there had been more from a certain local area. That approach—as opposed to providing the exact details of 200 people—adds tremendous value, as it shows where to start digging. It would be incumbent on the agency to come back and ask about specific matters that it might want us to explore further. However, in the first instance, it would just be about the top-level issues, to let the agency work out whether there is a wider impact.

Consumer Scotland will also be able to get information from the 60 CABs across Scotland, and Age Scotland is one of many charities that might be able to provide an insight on the public. Consumer Scotland could get a big picture, which could help it to work out what it needs to do and where to go.

Kristi Kelly

Adam Stachura mentioned the CAB network. We can give the local point of view, and CAS will collate the overall information. Sometimes, something that is an issue in Aberdeen is not an issue for Lucy O’Leary in the Borders, or vice versa. We could give more local information, which could then be compiled and brought together.

Sorry, but I have forgotten my other thought.

Colin Beattie

You can come back to it.

Gillian Burgan

Certain trends in Scotland are normally flagged up to bureaus by way of calls for evidence by CAS. We can feed into that. Those could be on issues such as universal credit. Whatever the trend is, we as bureaus feed in to social policy through the calls for evidence. We could perhaps do that for consumer Scotland as well.

Colin Beattie

I think that Kristi Kelly has just remembered what she was going to say.

Kristi Kelly

Yes. My other point was that, once consumer Scotland has decided what it wants to look at, it would be useful if it could let us know, because we would keep an eye out for those issues and be more mindful of them. It is difficult for us to go back and try to remember what has happened. It is not always easy to look through the data that we have on people, because we have to read every case. If we knew that consumer Scotland was looking for something specific, that would be in our minds, so we could keep an eye out for it and give better information.

Colin Beattie

I have two questions arising from that. First, I can see that it might be useful to have, for example, regional information and national information, but do your systems allow for that? I assume that they do.

Secondly, to go back to what Kristi Kelly said, would it be possible to get down to a very local level if that was necessary? Do you have the capability to change systems easily? Our experience with Government indicates that getting statistics is a huge issue. If you try to achieve that, would your systems enable it?

Lucy O’Leary

You would probably be better off asking the information systems leads at CAS about that, because they are the ones who collate the information—as Kristi Kelly said, we just send in our stuff. Every case is recorded using codes for what the issue is, how it has been dealt with and the demographics of the client. Each bureau already has a data sharing agreement in place with CAS. I guess that you are talking about what would be the data sharing agreement between CAS and consumer Scotland, which is the level above what we see.

We collect and submit data about individual cases, but it does not include individually identifiable information, as Kristi Kelly said. We do not have a lot of staff for the type of organisation that we are. The central Borders citizens advice bureau is, overwhelmingly, staffed by volunteers, so we do not have the resources to do deep dive retrospective data mining for individual cases. However, if we were, for example, interested in funeral poverty this quarter, we would make sure that our advisers identify those cases as they come in, so that they can be flagged on their way through to the central system. Does that help?

Colin Beattie

That is helpful.

Richard Lyle

The bill would create a duty on certain public bodies to have regard to the impact of their strategic decisions on consumers. In practice, would that make a difference?

Adam Stachura

That is worth doing. I am trying to think of good examples. It will boil down to how the duty is implemented. If that does not happen now, it should happen. Public bodies should at least look at end users having the best experience of any service or product.

Lucy O’Leary

I have a slight worry that it will be a box-ticking exercise. How do big organisations, such as Vodafone, achieve and set out in their annual report something that takes account of the needs of their millions of users?

Richard Lyle

And do they really care?

Lucy O’Leary

And do they really care?

My background is in national health service management, and I will draw on an analogy in relation to that work. There was a requirement to involve patients, users and carers in our reporting but, because of the diversity that we dealt with, it was difficult to do it properly. That was the situation in a local health system. When it comes to a multinational organisation, it would be brilliant to achieve that, but I am not sure how we would do that in any meaningful way.

Richard Lyle

We have heard a lot of evidence this morning. I ask for your final thoughts. Is there anything else that the bill should do? Is there anything else that this committee should be asking about?

Adam Stachura

There are issues in our written evidence that we have not gone over in depth. It is important that staff and people who are involved in consumer Scotland are aware of the power imbalance that exists in contracts and services—whether that is in care home contracts or funeral services—for certain people. Sometimes, by virtue of their need, people do not have time to shop around. Staff have to be aware of the dynamics of people using services.

We have outlined a bunch of things in our submission. There were good questions earlier about digital exclusion. It is important to highlight that topic. A good example of a public service is how Social Security Scotland approaches matters—it make information available face to face, in localities, on the phone and on the website. As a new agency is created, there are lots of things like that to reflect on.

Lucy O’Leary

We have touched on the value of face-to-face advice. Our advantage is that the face-to-face advice that we provide overwhelmingly comes from volunteers. That is about trust. We are based in Galashiels high street, behind a grotty shop front. People go in and there is someone that looks a bit like them, who can help them with their problem. Apart from the fact that it is brilliant value for money, it is about the local community helping the local community. Another structural layer might inadvertently chip away at that. I worry that we would lose that locally based trust and, therefore, the ability to unpick knotty problems for a person who walks through the door.

Richard Lyle

I would never say that any of your shops are grotty.

Lucy O’Leary

Come and see Galashiels. [Laughter.]

Richard Lyle

The people in them are lovely.

You are on the ground, so someone can walk in and instantly talk to you. A person from the agency might be 40, 60 or 100 miles away. Are you getting unnecessarily worried?

11:30  



Lucy O’Leary

I hope so. As Rory Mair and Derek Mitchell referred to, the agency might introduce an extra silo into a system where the bureaux and CAS have a degree of holistic, whole-systems thinking. It would not be efficient or effective if part of the system says, “Oh—consumer issue! We can’t deal with that. You have to go and talk to those people over there.” More important, such an approach would not address what the client came in for. They do not care what the issue is; they just need help. That is my worry, but I hope to be proven wrong.

Kristi Kelly

The role of consumer Scotland should be to enhance what is already there, make improvements and fill in the gaps, not to erode anything that is already in place.

Richard Lyle

Thank you very much.

The Convener

As there are no further questions, I thank the witnesses for coming in today.

11:31 Meeting continued in private until 12:31.  



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1 October 2019

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29 October 2019

What is secondary legislation?

Secondary legislation is sometimes called 'subordinate' or 'delegated' legislation. It can be used to:

  • bring a section or sections of a law that’s already been passed, into force
  • give details of how a law will be applied
  • make changes to the law without a new Act having to be passed

An Act is a Bill that’s been approved by Parliament and given Royal Assent (formally approved).

Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee's Stage 1 report

Delegated Powers and Law Reform committee

This committee looks at the powers of this Bill to allow the Scottish Government or others to create 'secondary legislation' or regulations.

Read the Stage 1 report by the Delegated Powers and Law Reform committee published on 31 October 2019

Debate on the Bill

A debate for MSPs to discuss what the Bill aims to do and how it'll do it.

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Stage 1 debate on the Bill transcript

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame)

The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-20544, in the name of Jamie Hepburn, on the Consumer Scotland Bill at stage 1.

14:52  



The Minister for Business, Fair Work and Skills (Jamie Hepburn)

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.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the Consumer Scotland Bill.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I call Gordon Lindhurst, convener of the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee, to speak on behalf of the committee.

15:04  



Gordon Lindhurst (Lothian) (Con)

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.

15:13  



Dean Lockhart (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

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

“fewer protections”.

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

“consumers.”

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.

Jamie Hepburn

Will Dean Lockhart give way?

Dean Lockhart

I have a long list here, but time prevents my listing the huge number of potential consumers who could benefit from the bill. If I have time, Presiding Officer, I will give way to the minister.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

The point is so intriguing that I am happy to hear the minister’s response.

Jamie Hepburn

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.

Dean Lockhart

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.

15:22  



Richard Leonard (Central Scotland) (Lab)

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.

Jamie Hepburn

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.

Richard Leonard

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—

Jamie Hepburn

Will the member take an intervention?

Richard Leonard

I will.

Jamie Hepburn

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.

Richard Leonard

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.

Jamie Hepburn

They are in the bill.

Richard Leonard

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.

Jamie Hepburn

Will the member give way?

Richard Leonard

I will not, as I am concluding my remarks.

We will be critics not because we want the new consumer body to fail but precisely because we want it to succeed.

15:30  



Andy Wightman (Lothian) (Green)

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.

Jackie Baillie

He was there.

Andy Wightman

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—

Jamie Hepburn

Will the member give way?

Andy Wightman

Yes.

Jamie Hepburn

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?

Andy Wightman

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.

15:36  



Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

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 them most.

For those reasons, the Liberal Democrats will support the general principles of the bill.

15:42  



Gordon MacDonald (Edinburgh Pentlands) (SNP)

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.

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani)

I have a wee bit of time in hand for interventions, if anyone is so inclined.

15:48  



Alexander Burnett (Aberdeenshire West) (Con)

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.

15:53  



Willie Coffey (Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley) (SNP)

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.

16:00  



Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab)

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.

Jamie Hepburn

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?

Jackie Baillie

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.

16:06  



Richard Lyle (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)

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.

16:14  



Tom Mason (North East Scotland) (Con)

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.

Jamie Hepburn

I am very happy to meet the member and consider that point. However, as I explained to Richard Leonard, it should be observed that it will be incumbent on consumer Scotland to report annually; it will not be every three years, as Tom Mason has suggested.

Tom Mason

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.

16:21  



Claire Baker (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

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.

16:27  



Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)

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.

Richard Leonard spoke about additional delivery charges, as did Gordon Lindhurst, when speaking in his role as convener of the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee.

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.

16:34  



Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

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.

Jamie Hepburn

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.

Rhoda Grant

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.

16:42  



Jamie Halcro Johnston (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

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.

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani)

I call Jamie Hepburn to wind up the debate. Ten minutes will take us to just before decision time.

16:49  



Jamie Hepburn

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 doing so. 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.

Financial resolution

A financial resolution is needed for Bills that may have a large impact on the 'public purse'.

MSPs must agree to this for the bill to proceed.

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Financial resolution transcript

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

The next item of business is consideration of motion S5M-20319, in the name of Derek Mackay, on a financial resolution for the Consumer Scotland Bill.

Motion moved,

That the Parliament, for the purposes of any Act of the Scottish Parliament resulting from the Consumer Scotland Bill, agrees to any expenditure of a kind referred to in Rule 9.12.3(b) of the Parliament’s Standing Orders arising in consequence of the Act.—[Derek Mackay]

Vote at Stage 1

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Vote at Stage 1 transcript

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

The first question is, that motion S5M-20544, in the name of Jamie Hepburn, on stage 1 of the Consumer Scotland Bill, be agreed to.

Motion agreed to,

That the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the Consumer Scotland Bill.

The Presiding Officer

The final question is, that motion S5M-20319, in the name of Derek Mackay, on the financial resolution for the Consumer Scotland Bill be agreed to.

Motion agreed to,

That the Parliament, for the purposes of any Act of the Scottish Parliament resulting from the Consumer Scotland Bill, agrees to any expenditure of a kind referred to in Rule 9.12.3(b) of the Parliament’s Standing Orders arising in consequence of the Act.

Meeting closed at 17:01.  



MSPs agreed that this Bill could continue

Stage 2 - Changes to detail 

MSPs can propose changes to the Bill. The changes are considered and then voted on by the committee.

Changes to the Bill

MSPs can propose changes to a Bill  these are called 'amendments'. The changes are considered then voted on by the lead committee.

The lists of proposed changes are known as a 'marshalled list'. There's a separate list for each week that the committee is looking at proposed changes.

The 'groupings' document groups amendments together based on their subject matter. It shows the order in which the amendments will be debated by the committee and in the Chamber. This is to avoid repetition in the debates.

How is it decided whether the changes go into the Bill?

When MSPs want to make a change to a Bill, they propose an 'amendment'. This sets out the changes they want to make to a specific part of the Bill.

The group of MSPs that is examining the Bill (lead committee) votes on whether it thinks each amendment should be accepted or not.

Depending on the number of amendments, this can be done during one or more meetings.

First meeting on amendments

Documents with the amendments considered at the meeting that will be held on 25 February 2020:

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First meeting on amendments transcript

The Convener

Section 1 agreed to.

Schedule 1 agreed to.

Section 2—The general function of providing consumer advocacy and advice

Amendment 20, in the name of Andy Wightman, is grouped with amendments 23 and 4.

Andy Wightman (Lothian) (Green)

I have a number of amendments to the bill in a number of groups. They share an attempt to move us beyond conventional ideas of consumers and consumption and instead to recognise that consumption is a critical part of a much wider debate about the economy and sustainability. Consumerism is one of the dominant global social forces, so its impacts must be understood beyond the conventional paradigm of the individual person choosing to buy a product or a service.

Amendment 20 seeks to broaden the general function of consumer Scotland in relation to the concept of harm. It would replace the objective of reducing harm to consumers in Scotland with a duty to reduce harm to consumer interests. Consumer interests are referred to elsewhere in the bill—in section 20 and, tangentially, in section 23. It is a broad term that is readily intelligible by the courts, and it is flexible in relation to emergent issues that might affect consumers. Amendment 20 specifies examples of harm to such interests as

“harm that is ... financial ... emotional ... environmental”

and “physical”.

Amendment 23 would add a further objective to the list in section 2, that of

“promoting and enhancing wellbeing”.

That does not need further elaboration; it recognises that wellbeing is an important social and public policy goal that can be advanced by high standards of consumer advocacy and advice.

I will support the minister’s amendment 4.

I move amendment 20.

Jamie Hepburn

I appreciate the consideration that Andy Wightman has given to the bill. It is clear that our aspirations and ambitions for consumer Scotland are closely aligned. It is, and always has been, the Scottish Government’s intention to provide meaningful results for consumers; everything that the bill does is designed to achieve that, which is why it provides for publication of a consumer welfare report.

I remain open to doing more to reaffirm our intentions, but we must do so in a way that avoids unintended consequences. For that reason I urge Andy Wightman not to press amendment 20. I fully support the point that he makes: harm to consumers takes many forms. However, as we have seen in the debate on the definition of “vulnerability”—which we will return to later—there is a risk in using even non-exhaustive lists, which should be avoided.

I am concerned that—much like the issue of vulnerability—amendment 20 might encourage consumer Scotland to operate and to consider issues through a certain lens. That is, I presume, the intention behind seeking to include amendment 20 in the bill. The risk is that we might unintentionally circumscribe consumer Scotland’s thinking, such that the body is slower than it might otherwise be to recognise other kinds of harm that we do not yet foresee. I therefore suggest that the ordinary meaning of “harm” is more flexible and does not require explanation.

I suggest that we instead provide examples of harm—such as those that are laid out in Andy Wightman’s amendment 20—in the explanatory notes, so that we acknowledge the variety of forms that harm can take.

I have listened with interest to the evidence on wellbeing that has been submitted to the committee. I thank Andy Wightman for championing the issue. He did that during the stage 1 debate and has discussed the matter with me in advance of stage 2. I respectfully suggest that my amendment 4 offers greater specificity than the general requirement to consider wellbeing in Mr Wightman's amendment 23, even without amendment 4’s expressed geographical limit to “in Scotland”.

However, I would be keen to work with Mr Wightman ahead of stage 3 to include in the bill a specific reference to wellbeing in a way that does not prioritise wellbeing over the advancement of inclusion, fairness and prosperity. That could be achieved best by its being added to the detail that is laid out in amendment 4. I hope that Mr Wightman is willing not to move amendment 23 and to support my amendment 4. I am sure that we can work together to ensure at stage 3 that wellbeing is more explicitly referenced in the bill.

The Convener

No other member wishes to speak to the group, so I ask Andy Wightman to wind up and either to press or seek to withdraw amendment 20.

Andy Wightman

I will deal with the minister’s final points with regard to wellbeing. I am happy not to move amendment 23. I do not agree that amendment 4 encompasses wellbeing, but I am happy to have that conversation in advance of stage 3.

I understand where the minister is coming from with regard to amendment 20. We have discussed the risks that are inherent in setting out even a non-exhaustive list for a body that is designed to operate independently. Notwithstanding the non-exhaustive list of four factors in the amendment, I still have a concern about the language in section 2(a), which is focused on

“reducing harm to consumers in Scotland”.

It is couched in conventional terms; the only harm that can take place is to the consumer who would, I presume, be actively engaged in consumption of a product or service. The point that I have tried to make with amendment 20 with regard to language—replacing “consumers” with “consumer interests”—is that consumer interests are much broader than the individual interests of any one consumer who might be affected by an issue that is related to their transactions for products or services. I was keen to get recognition through the amendment that harm can take place to consumer interests, broadly speaking. I do not need to go into how, but harm can go well beyond the interests of a single consumer at any one time.

Jamie Hepburn

I understand the issues that Mr Wightman has raised, which I am very willing to consider. My primary concern about amendment 20 is the inclusion of the list. I am more than happy to discuss his wider point in advance of stage 3, if he is willing, but my concerns about that element of the amendment remain, at this juncture.

Andy Wightman

I thank the minister. I understand his point about the risks that are inherent in setting out a list. Amendment 20 is a whole that cannot be split at this stage. However, in the light of the minister’s comments, I am happy not to press amendment 20. I look forward to discussing with the minister how section 2(a) is framed, in advance of stage 3.

Amendment 20, by agreement, withdrawn.

The Convener

Amendment 21, in the name of Andy Wightman, on businesses, is grouped with amendments 24 and 36. Andy Wightman will speak to and move amendment 21, and speak to the other amendments in the group.

Andy Wightman

Amendment 21 would replace the word “businesses” in section 2(b) with “entities”. Not all entities that supply goods and services will be businesses, in the conventional sense of the word. For example, the rise of the peer-to-peer or sharing economy, and the fact that many services are delivered by not-for-profit organisations mean that “entities” is a more appropriate term.

Amendment 24 would delete the word “business” from section 4 for similar reasons, and amendment 36 deals with the question slightly differently by defining business to include “not for profit enterprise”. Whatever route is taken, it is my view that we need to clarify the language throughout the bill. I look forward to hearing the minister’s response on the matter.

I move amendment 21.

Jamie Hepburn

As I said earlier, Mr Wightman and I are in close agreement about how and why consumer Scotland should operate.

10:15  



I urge Mr Wightman not to press amendment 21. It is not entirely clear what exactly could, or would, be captured by the term “entities”. It could be argued, for example, that it would exclude sole traders: it is not clear that they might be considered to be “entities” under the legal definition. The reference to business is already very wide; if there is something missing that Mr Wightman seeks to cover, again I will be very happy to speak with him in advance of stage 3 in order to understand more about that and to consider whether we can work out an alternative approach.

On amendments 24 and 36, although I note that consumer Scotland has always had the power under the bill to investigate non-business sectors, as a result of section 4(2)(b), I concede that clarity might be useful. Accordingly, I urge the committee to support both amendments.

The Convener

No other member wishes to speak on the group, so I call on Andy Wightman to wind up and to press or seek to withdraw amendment 21.

Andy Wightman

I am grateful for the minister’s comments. I am happy not to press amendment 21, on the understanding that we can have a conversation about what exactly “businesses” means in law, and whether issues remain to be resolved.

Amendment 21, by agreement, withdrawn.

The Convener

Amendment 22, in the name of Andy Wightman, is grouped with amendments 27 and 28.

Andy Wightman

Amendment 22 is a substantial amendment. It is designed to ensure that one of consumer Scotland’s objectives under its general functions would be to provide consumer advocacy and advice, with a view to, in addition to the other factors that are set out in section 2,

“promoting a reduction in the consumption of natural resources.”

It is now widely known and accepted that, globally, we consume as if we had three planets—to be precise, 2.68 planets’ worth of natural resources—and the capacity to absorb the resultant waste. As Friends of the Earth points out in its briefing, Scotland’s material consumption across all sectors accounts for 68 to 74 per cent of our entire carbon footprint. Over the past years, there has been a particular focus on plastics in terms of both the production and the disposal of a product that is derived from non-renewable resources.

Internationally, the United Nations has adopted guidelines for sustainable consumption. In its most recent conference on trade and development, it highlighted the importance of consumer protection laws based on promoting sustainable consumption.

It is self-evident that we need to reduce consumption of natural resources, because they are finite, because consumption drives climate change, because rates of consumption in the rich world impose a disproportionate debt on poor countries, because consumer choice can help to drive the process of reducing impacts on the natural world and because we have international obligations, under the UN sustainable development goals, particularly goal 12, to ensure sustainable consumption and product patterns.

The United Nations recently said:

“In 2017, worldwide material consumption reached 92.1 billion tonnes, up from 87 billion in 2015 and a 254% increase from 27 billion in 1970 with the rate of extraction accelerating every year since 2000. This reflects the increased demand for natural resources that has defined the past decades, resulting in undue burden on environmental resources. Without urgent and concerted political action, it is projected that global resource extraction could grow to 190 billion tons by 2060.”

Amendment 22 is modest in its language but important in its scope. It would require consumer Scotland to undertake its functions with a view to, together with the other matters in section 2, promoting the reduction that is required in the consumption of natural resources.

Amendment 27 adds that, in exercising its functions,

“Consumer Scotland must have regard to the environmental impact of the actions of consumers.”

That is self-explanatory.

Amendment 28 would place a requirement on consumer Scotland to produce three-yearly reports on the impact of the actions of consumers on progress toward the net zero emissions target which is set out in the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009, and to report on the nature and extent of the impact of the actions of consumers where they have a negative impact on that progress.

I move amendment 22.

Jamie Halcro Johnston (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I have sympathy with what Mr Wightman is trying to achieve, but I do not think that it is a role for consumer Scotland, so I will not support amendment 22.

Willie Coffey (Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley) (SNP)

I have a question for Mr Wightman on the definition of “natural resources”. Would things such as water and fruit be included under the definition? I am sure that he is not intending that we reduce our consumption of water and fruit.

The Convener

I will let the minister come in before I allow Mr Wightman to respond.

Jamie Hepburn

That is very generous of you, convener.

The Convener

I try to be, but one cannot always be generous.

Jamie Hepburn

There is little in the principles that Mr Wightman has laid out from which I would demur. The intent and principle behind amendment 22 are in keeping with the view, which I have always had, that the body should tackle hard questions and drive meaningful change. Environmental sustainability is, of course, a key priority for the Government.

I recognise the intent and spirit of amendment 22, but I am concerned that the phrasing could be open to interpretation and could lead to unintended consequences. The deputy convener’s question gets to the heart of the issue. I am not seeking to be obtuse, but amendment 22 does not set out a hard-and-fast legal definition of “natural resources”. Does it encapsulate things such as fruit and vegetables? I do not think that that is Mr Wightman’s intention.

Andy Wightman

In international law, “natural resources” is not a contested term, but I understand that it could be open to interpretation if it is referred to in legislation. If the minister is sympathetic to the idea behind amendment 22, and if his only concern is how we define “natural resources” in law—I know that he has some way to go in his remarks—would he be sympathetic to incorporating such a function if we were able to reach agreement on a definition?

Jamie Hepburn

That was precisely the point that I was coming to. I urge Mr Wightman not to press amendment 22 and to discuss the matter with me. As I said, I am not unsympathetic to the intent behind the amendment; I know what it is trying to achieve. We are happy to look at whether such a definition is used in wider international law and at whether a slightly different form of terminology would achieve what has been laid out. Amendment 22 could be open to interpretation and might lead to consequences that are not being sought, but I commit to working with Mr Wightman on that issue.

Amendment 27 has my full support. It usefully makes clear that, as has always been the case, consumer Scotland is being established to have regard to environmental matters. The explanatory notes make clear that consumer Scotland having such a regard is a legal consequence of its inclusion, under schedule 2 to the bill, in the list of bodies that are covered by the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002. Among other things, that will require consumer Scotland to act in a way that is calculated to contribute to the delivery of climate change targets. There is no harm in—indeed, a lot of good will be achieved by—amendment 27 making that more explicitly clear. I urge the committee to support amendment 27.

I appreciate the intent behind amendment 28, and I am genuinely committed to looking at what it seeks to do, but I hope to address the matter outwith this process, which picks up on the point that Jamie Halcro Johnston made. Amendment 28 would place the responsibility for preparing an environmental impact report on consumer Scotland’s shoulders, but I am not convinced that consumer Scotland is the most appropriate body to prepare such a report. I stress that consumer Scotland will have a role in supporting our climate change ambitions. As I have outlined, that will be made more expressly clear if amendment 27 is agreed to, which I hope that it will be.

Amendment 28 would somewhat change the body’s role from focusing on and understanding areas of consumer harm to focusing on the impact of consumer activity. Undoubtedly, that is a commendable aim, but we have to be clear that, as the financial memorandum sets out, consumer Scotland will be a small and fairly nimble body. It cannot do everything, nor should it try to do. It cannot be all things to all people; nor should it seek to be. It will not necessarily have the scientific expertise that will be required if it is to discharge the proposed duty in a meaningful fashion. Other bodies, such as the United Kingdom Committee on Climate Change and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, might be better placed to carry out the assessments that are proposed in amendment 28. Consumer Scotland could collaborate with such organisations, if they thought that its input would be useful.

Finally, by the time consumer Scotland is established, in 2021, the Scottish ministers will have a duty under the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009 to set out, as part of our climate change plan,

“proposals and policies for taking, or supporting, action to reduce emissions ... associated with the consumption and use of goods and services in Scotland.”

As we have heard many times, and as has been expressed clearly to this committee, consumer Scotland must be designed in a way that minimises the risk of duplication. Amendment 28 could increase the risk of duplication.

I reiterate my commitment to look at the issue, and I urge Andy Wightman not to move amendment 28. Consumer Scotland is not the natural home for his proposed duty, but I will be happy to discuss with him how we might explore the aims of amendment 28 and use the Government’s wider powers, responsibilities and influence in that regard, without the issue becoming part of consumer Scotland’s activity.

Andy Wightman

I am encouraged by what you said, minister. Thank you for your helpful comments, to which I will come.

I understand why Jamie Halcro Johnston might take the view that this is not the role of consumer Scotland. However, amendment 22 is trying to make consumer Scotland a little bit bolder, by making it a body that understands that there is more to consumers and consumption than has conventionally been regarded as the case in the world of consumer affairs.

The world has moved on. We are in a climate emergency. We live in a globally connected world, in which patterns of consumption have been highlighted by a range of international bodies as incredibly important drivers of not just environmental degradation and climate change but poverty. I do not think that it is unreasonable, in 2021, when we are talking about consumer affairs and consumption, to incorporate functions in that regard.

What I heard from the minister was some sympathy and the suggestion that the kind of consideration that I am proposing is potentially appropriate. He was not definitive on that point, but he said that he is happy to discuss the matter.

The minister also said that he is concerned about the definition of “natural resources”. Willie Coffey asked me about that, too. I will have further discussions with the minister on this, but my understanding is that the term “natural resources” is well understood under international law to include elements such as water, soils, minerals, timber and biodiversity—those are natural resources.

We all have a duty to manage natural resources in a sustainable way, and consumption is clearly one of the drivers of our not doing so. We saw the impact of that in a recent report that set out the decline in Scotland’s biodiversity. Consumption is a central issue, and I do not understand why a duty relating to reducing consumption cannot be part of a modern consumer body.

However, I do not want to split the committee at this stage. Therefore, I am happy not to press amendment 22, on the understanding that I will discuss with the minister how we can come up with language to secure duties in relation to reducing consumption.

The Convener

Does any member object to amendment 22 being withdrawn?

Andy Wightman

Convener, I have not concluded my remarks.

The Convener

Sorry, Mr Wightman. I thought that you had. I was rushing you on; I beg your pardon.

Andy Wightman

I apologise.

I thank the minister for supporting amendment 27.

I will be happy not to move amendment 28. I heard what the minister said about the Scottish ministers’ duties under the 2009 act in relation to consumption—I confess that that has passed me by; I will take a close look at the provision. The matter needs to be looked at, but if the Scottish ministers’ duties are sufficiently well defined in the 2009 act, I am happy not to press the case—for the moment, anyway.

Amendment 22, by agreement, withdrawn.

Amendment 23 not moved.

Amendment 4 moved—[Jamie Hepburn]—and agreed to.

Section 2, as amended, agreed to.

Section 3 agreed to.

10:30  



Section 4—The research and investigation function

Amendment 24 moved—[Andy Wightman]—and agreed to.

Section 4, as amended, agreed to.

After section 4

The Convener

Amendment 37, in the name of Jackie Baillie, is grouped with amendments 5 to 7.

Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab)

I am happy to speak to amendment 37 and the other amendments in the group. As members will know, I call this the “Whirlpool amendment”. I do so because it is simply not good enough that, last year alone, white goods caused a house fire in Scotland every single day. That is despite Whirlpool’s recall of more than 1 million tumble dryers and washing machines.

Product recalls demand serious action of us and of the United Kingdom Government. Most recalls achieve about a 10 to 20 per cent success rate, which means that thousands of faulty, dangerous machines remain in people’s homes today.

Manufacturers and retailers experience major problems tracing consumers with a recalled item if that item has not been registered. Electrical Safety First has found that about only one third of Scottish consumers bother to register their appliances.

Having a central body—consumer Scotland—as a single, trusted source co-ordinating recall information is key to reaching consumers with consistent and effective messages.

Amendments 5 to 7, in the name of the minister, seek to do the same thing, but I consider my approach to be more comprehensive.

Amendment 37 would ensure that consumer Scotland provides the relevant and necessary information to consumers.

I move amendment 37.

Jamie Hepburn

I note, as I did in our stage 1 debate, that the bill as introduced would allow consumer Scotland to provide information on product recalls. However, as Jackie Baillie has laid out, the danger posed by unsafe products is undisputable; so is the evidence that product recalls are often currently ineffective tools for removing that danger from people’s homes. Those are issues that we have had cause to debate in Parliament before.

The committee, and Jackie Baillie in particular, made a compelling case at stage 1 on this issue. I have been convinced that, in light of the particular danger to consumers, the bill should explicitly charge consumer Scotland with taking action in that area.

I thank Ms Baillie for her work on the issue, especially for coining the pithy “Whirlpool amendment” terminology that she has rehearsed again today.

Both Ms Baillie’s amendment 37 and my amendment 5 put it beyond doubt that consumer Scotland will provide consumers with information about major product recalls happening in Scotland.

I consider that both our amendments have strengths and merits. I argue that mine is more comprehensive than Ms Baillie’s. However, rather than reject one or other of them today, I suggest that she withdraw hers, in which case I will not move mine, and that we agree to work together to unite those strengths.

My amendments impose a duty on consumer Scotland to ensure that information and advice is not only provided to consumers on product recalls, but provided on actions by manufacturers where the response to the dangerous product includes more than just a recall, such as offers by manufacturers to repair products at home, which forms part of the current Whirlpool recall. That is a positive step and widens the impact that consumer Scotland can have in that area.

Jackie Baillie’s amendment requires consumer Scotland to do three things: to maintain a database, to publish information about that database and to provide advice to any consumers who are affected or are potentially affected by product recalls.

On the database, I can see the attraction of a centralised information source. I would, however, be keen to understand how it would work in practice, and I would be particularly keen to see how it will ensure that it does not add duplication or confusion, which the committee has been clear that it seeks to avoid. For example, the UK Government already maintains a database with information on product recalls, as, I believe, does the Chartered Trading Standards Institute. To be fair, it might be argued that those databases are not sufficiently well known or are inconvenient for consumers to use, so there may well be a case for consumer Scotland to keep one. Given the need to ensure that any database would maximise clarity for consumers rather than confuse them, I believe that the issue merits fuller discussion.

During the stage 1 debate, we also heard that the issues that prevent consumers from responding to recalls are not only to do with awareness and that consumers are also influenced by issues such as difficulties with finding serial numbers or concerns about providing retailers with personal data at the point of sale. Those issues might not be solved by a database, but it is entirely possible that consumer Scotland can investigate how manufacturers, retailers and the consumer protection system can create behaviour change. Again, I believe that that warrants fuller discussion.

My only other question around Jackie Baillie’s amendment concerns whether it could be read as requiring consumer Scotland to provide bespoke, individual advice to specific consumers, which would mean that it would essentially become a front-line advice organisation. That is open to interpretation but, as drafted, there are two separate requirements. One is to publish the information in the database; and the other is to provide further information to any consumers who are affected or are potentially affected. If that is interpreted in a way that requires consumer Scotland to provide specific advice to individual consumers, that could cut across the roles of organisations such as Advice Direct Scotland or Citizens Advice Scotland. It would also go against the grain of everything that I have thus far laid out to the committee. Indeed, external stakeholders of consumer Scotland will primarily use it as a strategic investigatory body rather than a front-line advice organisation.

There is also an issue that, if consumer Scotland is required by law to provide advice to any consumer who is affected, that might raise expectations that the body will proactively seek to identify and advise consumers, which would be almost impossible to achieve and would be extremely resource intensive.

I am sure that those outcomes are not what Jackie Baillie is seeking to achieve. That is why I am keen to work with her to ensure that they are avoided. I recognise the successful work that she has done to move the debate on product recalls forward, and I ask her to withdraw her amendment today, with the assurance that I will not move mine, so that we can bring back an appropriate amendment. Should she choose to press it, I ask the committee to reject it and support the amendments in my name, which achieve the objective of establishing a recall function of consumer Scotland while avoiding the issues that I have laid out.

Jackie Baillie

I am glad that everybody is calling my amendment the Whirlpool amendment. I am also glad that the minister recognises that this is a good idea and that he has introduced his own amendments in the area. I still prefer my amendment, although I understand his comments about how it could be open to interpretation. However, to be frank, the databases that currently exist are not good enough, as I think that he acknowledges, and the provision that I seek to introduce is not intended to replace the roles of front-line advisers such as those in Citizens Advice Scotland, as I think that he also knows.

That being said, in the interest of harmony, I am happy to compromise by withdrawing my amendment so that I can have a discussion with the minister prior to stage 3, and I will lodge an improved amendment for stage 3.

Amendment 37, by agreement, withdrawn.

Section 5—The information function

Amendments 5 to 7 not moved.

Section 5 agreed to.

Section 6—General provision about functions of Consumer Scotland

The Convener

Amendment 8, in the name of the minister, is grouped with amendments 9, 11, 38, 39 and 17.

Jamie Hepburn

I begin by thanking everyone who gave evidence to the committee on the range of bodies that consumer Scotland should collaborate with. They were right to highlight that the consumer protection system consists of organisations beyond public bodies, and that many others do important work. In fact, Which? submitted a briefing at stage 2 that agreed with the conclusion in the committee’s stage 1 report about the need for consumer Scotland to establish close working relationships with a variety of stakeholders.

In recognition of that, I have lodged two packages of amendments. Amendment 8 recognises that ministers might wish to put beyond doubt that there are certain bodies or office holders whose activities should be taken into account by consumer Scotland. I am thinking of bodies such as Advice Direct Scotland, Citizens Advice Scotland and trading standards organisations. As members will be aware, the Which? briefing also welcomed this regulation-making power to name bodies with which consumer Scotland should work.

Amendment 9 expands the general collaborative provisions to cover any persons who are carrying out similar activities.

By choosing to use the word “persons” rather than “bodies” in the amendments, I have allowed for the possibility that commissioners or other office holders might also operate in areas of interest to consumer Scotland, and they should also be considered. I hope that that demonstrates to the committee and to those who gave evidence that their concerns have been heard and acted upon.

On Jackie Baillie’s amendments, I am pleased to say that I can offer my support for amendments 38 and 39. We have heard many times about the risk of duplication in the consumer landscape, and both amendments sensibly seek to lessen that risk. I note, however, that if my amendments are agreed to today, as I hope they will be, amendments 38 and 39 might need to be revisited at stage 3 on a technical basis to ensure that the use of the term “person” is consistent across the bill. As I say, that would be a small technical matter, which I am sure that we could resolve at that stage.

I move amendment 8.

Jackie Baillie

The minister has recognised that the main concern is about the potential for duplication of the work of other bodies. The consumer protection landscape is indeed complicated, with a variety of organisations already working in the areas of advocacy, advice, enforcement, and redress.

The lack of clarity around how consumer Scotland will interact with those existing bodies is largely being resolved by my amendments and, indeed, by the minister’s, which are welcome. I am delighted that the minister will support amendments 38 and 39, and I urge other members to support my amendments and the minister’s.

The Convener

As no other members wish to speak on the amendments, the minister may wind up.

Jamie Hepburn

I am happy to move on, convener.

Amendment 8 agreed to.

Amendment 9 moved—[Jamie Hepburn]—and agreed to.

The Convener

Amendment 25, in the name of Andy Wightman, is grouped with amendments 26, 10, 2 and 40. I draw members’ attention to the pre-emptions that are shown in the groupings paper.

Andy Wightman

Amendment 25 is designed to shift the focus from “vulnerable consumers” as a class of people, to the factors that lead to their vulnerability. As drafted, section 6 contains an exclusive list that includes, for example, older people, people on low incomes and so on.

Amendment 26 narrates the non-exclusive list of characteristics that can lead to vulnerability—for example, age, health and geography. The minister’s amendment 10 will achieve broadly similar ends, but is drafted in much more general terms. Jackie Baillie’s amendment 2 would add to the exclusive list a catch-all category that is similar to the more general amendment 10.

There is clearly a little bit of overlap among the amendments in the group, and pre-emption applies, although I am never very good at working out the consequences of pre-emptions and how to vote.

Anyway, having considered the amendments in the group, I am content with the minister’s amendment 10, because it will achieve the key objective of moving away from an exclusive list and focusing on individual circumstances.

The Competition and Markets Authority provided comments to the committee that suggest defining a “typical consumer” to mean the same as an “average consumer”, as used in the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008. That is, it suggests that we define “typical consumer” such that it is consistent with terminology in other legislation. I am sure that the minister will reflect on that suggestion; I just wanted to ensure that it was drawn to his attention.

10:45  



I believe that I am obliged to move amendment 25, as it is the first amendment in the group, but I might, subject to the minister’s comments, not press it. I will support amendment 40.

I move amendment 25.

Jamie Hepburn

The amendments in the group are all quite significant, so there is a lot to address. The convener will need to forgive me—I will get through this as quickly as I can.

I will set out my thinking on amendment 10, which is in my name, and on the key differences between the definition of vulnerability in that amendment and the alternative definitions that have been set out by Ms Baillie and Mr Wightman. I will then turn to Ms Baillie’s amendment 40.

How we define “vulnerability” or a “vulnerable consumer” is at the heart of the bill and of the aims of the new body. That is why it is so important that we get it right. The Government’s amendment 10 responds to calls for us to be more open by reflecting the fact that vulnerability is not fixed. We took on board the reality that it is not dependent on characteristics alone and that we cannot assume that a particular characteristic will always result in vulnerability. Instead, vulnerability is based on context and individual circumstances, and can vary for people over time. Indeed, almost all of us will be vulnerable at some point—for example, because of bereavement or because of lack of expertise in complex matters.

I thank everyone who made those points in evidence to the committee or during the stage 1 debate. I am especially grateful to Jackie Baillie for pointing us in the direction of the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission’s definition of vulnerability. My amendment 10 utilises that definition as the basis of what we seek to define as a “vulnerable consumer” in the context of the bill. In doing so, amendment 10 makes it clear that vulnerability can be about a consumer’s characteristics, their circumstances or both. It also recognises that circumstances and characteristics can be permanent, long term or short term.

On Andy Wightman’s point, I have seen the Competition and Markets Authority’s suggestions in relation to what a typical consumer, in contrast to a vulnerable consumer, might look like. Members could reflect on the fact that the CMA also suggests that it could be left to consumer Scotland to define that in the course of its activity. However, I am happy to look further at the matter.

On amendment 2, although Ms Baillie and I have sought to achieve similar aims, I believe that the Government’s amendment 10 responds more closely to the committee’s recommendation. In particular, Ms Baillie’s amendment would maintain the list of circumstances, such as age and disability, that gave rise—rightly so, I have concluded—to some of the initial criticisms. I believe that providing a principles-based definition of vulnerability, without prejudging the types of vulnerability that it might cover, is the neater solution.

Beyond the list, the Government’s amendment 10 differs in two other significant ways. First, my amendment does not include the criterion that defines a “vulnerable consumer” as one who is

“less able ... to protect or represent their interests in the market”,

which is in the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission definition, and is included in Ms Baillie’s amendment 2. I chose to remove it on the ground that it is quite limiting. A consumer who struggles to represent their interests might experience harm as a result, but that represents only one possible cause, when there might be many.

Therefore, I moved away from the causes of harm, and instead included the harm that consumers are most likely to experience: having “fewer or less favourable options”. To ensure that consumer Scotland can act pragmatically, amendment 10 will require only that circumstances or characteristics “may” mean that the person has

“significantly fewer or less favourable options”

than the “typical consumer”. That means that consumer Scotland will be able to act without needing to prove that harm is definitely occurring. We have also included a catch-all provision for harm that is not captured by that most likely cause.

The second difference is that my amendment 10 will also work with the possible extension of the definition of “consumer” to include small businesses, which we will come on to discuss later. In contrast, Ms Baillie’s amendment 2 lists only individuals as examples.

For those reasons, I believe that the Government’s amendment 10 represents what stakeholders and—if I have correctly interpreted what the committee sought from a new definition in its stage 1 report—the committee want.

Andy Wightman’s amendment 25 seeks to change the label “vulnerable consumers” to “consumers experiencing vulnerability”. I fully appreciate and understand why he has proposed changing the language. By changing the emphasis as he suggests, he is—I think—seeking to send a message that consumers are not defined by vulnerability, and that they are not vulnerable at all times. However, although I support the motivation, I must note that the term “vulnerable” is used throughout the statute book, including very recently—in the short title, no less—in the Vulnerable Witnesses (Criminal Evidence) (Scotland) Act 2019. We should not upend that convention without a very good and clear reason for doing so. If changing the label were the only way to clarify our view of vulnerability, we might have such a reason. However, it is clear from the definition that I propose that the bill refers to circumstances and context, which are crucial.

However, if there is a strong feeling across the committee that more needs to be done to clarify that consumer vulnerability can fluctuate, that can be included in the explanatory notes, and I am happy to commit to doing that.

I cannot, in any event, support amendment 25 because it directly conflicts with my amendment 10, which continues to define “vulnerable consumers”. There is also reference to that term in section 13. I therefore urge Mr Wightman not to press amendment 25. However, if he is minded to explore the matter further in conjunction with the Government in order to find a way that would work, and which would adopt consistent language throughout the bill, I would be happy to work with him to that end.

Mr Wightman’s amendment 26 includes a different and very thoughtful list of examples of what might be felt to constitute vulnerability. However, the central criticism still applies: a list runs the risk of encouraging expectations—within and outwith consumer Scotland—of what “vulnerability” means. In contrast, the Government’s amendment 10 makes it clear that vulnerability is about a comparison with the typical consumer, and does not make assumptions that people in particular categories will, or will not, definitely fall within the definition of “vulnerable”.

Amendment 10 will also remove the perception that listed characteristics will be privileged over others, and it will leave equal space for a range of foreseeable and unforeseeable circumstances. That is not to say that we cannot supplement the explanatory notes with examples of vulnerability, if that is considered to be desirable. Mr Wightman’s list would be an excellent starting point for that. That might strike the right balance through ensuring that the bill is not prescriptive and that guidance exists.

Finally, on Jackie Baillie’s amendment 40, I am fully supportive of everything that Ms Baillie is seeking to achieve, so I commit to ensuring that she is successful at stage 3. With that assurance, I urge her not to press the amendment and to relodge it in a slightly different form.

I will explain why. I would be happy for subsection (b) in amendment 40 to apply to the consumer welfare report; indeed, if that suggestion had been presented as a specific amendment on its own today, I would have urged the committee to support it. It is extremely sensible for a body that has been asked to pay particular attention to the interests of vulnerable consumers to demonstrate how it has done so. When we come to stage 3, I will support such an amendment to section 16.

However, in relation to the proposed subsection (a) in amendment 40, I do not think that the welfare report is the correct place for ensuring that consumer Scotland’s board reflects the views of vulnerable consumers, nor is that something that consumer Scotland is obliged, or even able, to ensure. As such, asking it to report on how it has done that will not achieve the desired results.

Instead, because ministers will approve appointments to the board, I argue that they should be responsible for ensuring that membership aligns with the priorities that we have established for the body in legislation. I note that there is already precedent for that: paragraph 14 of schedule 1 of the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018, for example, sets out criteria that ministers must have regard to when making appointments to the Scottish Commission on Social Security.

If Ms Baillie does not move her amendment 40 today, I will work with her before stage 3 to ensure that we find wording on the board’s membership that will ensure the outcome that she seeks. As I said, I will also support her if she lodges another amendment to section 16 that ensures that the consumer welfare report will set out how consumer Scotland has had regard to the views of consumers with vulnerabilities.

I apologise for taking some time there; however, the convener will appreciate that the matters are fairly detailed and complex.

Jackie Baillie

I am pleased to speak to amendments 2 and 40, which are in my name.

As we have recognised, the window of vulnerability can be open at various points in a person’s life. Many factors can affect a person’s ability to be treated fairly as a consumer in the marketplace. Those might include characteristics such as one’s having a recognised disability, or circumstances such as the death of a loved one meaning that the person must deal with the funeral market. I believe that for consumer Scotland to be able to deliver results under its remit—which we want it to do—such variable and shifting definitions of vulnerability should be captured in its advocacy work.

The minister will be surprised to hear that I actually prefer his amendment to mine. I never thought that I would say that—and I might never say it again—but on this occasion I will be happy not to move amendment 2, in favour of supporting the minister’s amendment 10.

Amendment 40 is about ensuring that the views of vulnerable customers are heard at all levels of governance in consumer Scotland, whether that involves the board membership or how the body exercises its functions. I should say that the Scottish Co-operative Party strongly supports that move. I am aware that my amendment would make consumer Scotland responsible for something for which I should have made the minister responsible, so on the basis of the minister’s very positive comments, I will not move amendment 40. I will resubmit my proposals as two separate amendments, prior to stage 3.

Jamie Halcro Johnston

I am grateful to Jackie Baillie for not moving amendments 2 and 40.

Scottish Conservatives believe that amendment 10, in the name of the minister, contains the most suitable definition to enable the inclusion of small businesses, so we will support that.

The Convener

Andy Wightman will wind up and press or seek to withdraw amendment 25.

Andy Wightman

I am glad that Jackie Baillie, the minister and I agree on key points. The committee also seems to agree on matters that I raised at stage 1, which are that we all experience vulnerability at some stage, and that the exclusive list that is set out in the bill is therefore not appropriate.

I commend the minister for the elegant way in which he has presented amendment 10. I have a few questions, but I will be happy to pick them up in discussions with him prior to stage 3. I am grateful to him for commending my list in amendment 26, which might make its way into the explanatory notes—so there might yet be a legacy of mine in the bill. [Laughter.]

Agreement to amendment 26 would pre-empt amendments 10 and 2. I seek to withdraw amendment 25 and will not move amendment 26.

Amendment 25, by agreement, withdrawn.

Amendment 26 not moved.

Amendment 10 moved—[Jamie Hepburn]—and agreed to.

Amendment 27 moved—[Andy Wightman]—and agreed to.

Amendment 11 moved—[Jamie Hepburn]—and agreed to.

Section 6, as amended, agreed to.

Sections 7 to 12 agreed to.

Section 13—Forward work programmes

11:00  



The Convener

Amendment 12, in the name of the minister, is grouped with amendment 13.

Jamie Hepburn

Members will be relieved to hear that I will not take as long with my remarks on this group.

Consumers are vital to the Scottish economy and play an important part in building a more inclusive, sustainable economy, which is a key priority of this Government. However, consumers in Scotland do not currently have a dedicated voice to champion them and focus solely on their interests. It is our intent that consumer Scotland will be that dedicated champion, but it will be only as good as the people it serves. If consumers are not aware of the organisation, the Government and the Parliament, in taking forward the legislation, will have failed in our collective task. That is why the Consumer Scotland Bill needs to make it clear, with no room for doubt, that consumers will be listened to and that there will be proper engagement with them in setting priorities.

I consider that the original drafting of section 13, on forward work programmes, made it clear that consumers were included in the consultation requirement, as they have the most direct interest in consumer matters. However, having listened to committee members, I am happy to make that much more explicit on the face of the bill.

For completeness, I also propose an amendment to section 16, on the consumer welfare report, to ensure that it remains in line with section 13. Any difference between the two sections might have led to an inference that consumers are somehow not meant to be captured by the broad language in section 16.

I move amendment 12.

The Convener

If no other member wishes to speak on the amendments, I invite the minister to wind up.

Jamie Hepburn

As above.

The Convener

As above. [Laughter.]

Jamie Hepburn

As will appear in the Official Report.

Amendment 12 agreed to.

Section 13, as amended, agreed to.

Section 14—Reports on investigations

The Convener

I call amendment 38, in the name of Jackie Baillie, which has already been debated with amendment 8.

Jackie Baillie

Which one is amendment 38?

The Convener

It is an amendment to section 14.

Jackie Baillie

That is the one that the minister supports. I will move that one. This is an exciting, red-letter day.

The Convener

We are all very excited about it.

Amendment 38 moved—[Jackie Baillie]—and agreed to.

Section 14, as amended, agreed to.

Section 15—Annual report

Amendment 39 moved—[Jackie Baillie]—and agreed to.

Section 15, as amended, agreed to.

Section 16—Consumer welfare report

Amendment 13 moved—[Jamie Hepburn]—and agreed to.

Amendment 40 not moved.

Section 16, as amended, agreed to.

After section 16

Amendment 28 not moved.

Sections 17 to 19 agreed to.

Section 20—Duty to have regard to consumer interests

The Convener

Amendment 29, in the name of Andy Wightman, is in a group on its own.

Andy Wightman

Amendment 29 replaces the “have regard to” provisions that are imposed on relevant public authorities in section 20, which are currently focused on the impact of decisions on consumers and the desirability of reducing harm. It replaces them with provisions that say that public authorities should have regard to the impact on consumer interests, which mirrors my earlier amendment 20, and on the desirability of promoting and advancing wellbeing. Again, that mirrors my proposed amendments to section 2, which were debated earlier. I have lodged amendment 29 so that we can debate the issue of wellbeing. I look forward to comments from the minister, and from other members of the committee, if they wish to make any.

I move amendment 29.

Jamie Hepburn

I recognise the concerns that have been expressed to the committee about the consumer duty. However, I am committed to a consumer duty that does not impose market solutions on complicated policy issues or turn valuable public services into purely transactional arrangements. Our intent has always been to ensure that consumers are considered in the policy-making process and, perhaps more importantly, are encouraged to shape those policy decisions. Tackling issues such as the global climate emergency will require engaged consumers who are willing to accept and drive change. I want the consumer duty to play a part in making that happen.

I am concerned that Mr Wightman’s amendment 29 may have exactly the unintended consequence that he wants to guard against. The concept of consumer wellbeing is not at present defined, and to some it will inevitably suggest only the traditional consumer lens of price and convenience. If that is the case, changing the emphasis from considering impact and reducing harm to increasing wellbeing could make public authorities more concerned with market solutions than they may otherwise be.

As far as I know, the proposed change of emphasis in the duty is relatively untested. Public authorities that might expect to be responsible for the consumer duty—of course, we have still to consult on that matter—will not be expecting such a change of emphasis. They have not been consulted on it and they would rightly be concerned that they had not been given time to consider the impact on them of the change of emphasis.

However, as I set out during the debate on the first group of amendments, I remain convinced that wellbeing must be one of the foundations on which consumer Scotland is built. In an earlier debate, I committed to working with Mr Wightman to amend the bill at stage 3 to include wellbeing as one of consumer Scotland’s core functions, as I think it should be. I therefore urge Mr Wightman not to press amendment 29 at this stage.

Andy Wightman

I welcome the minister’s comments. As he said, our discussion on the first group related to wellbeing and the language in section 2, on which he committed to have discussions, so I am happy to wrap up those discussions with the questions that I have raised about section 20. In that light, I seek to withdraw amendment 29.

Amendment 29, by agreement, withdrawn.

Section 20 agreed to.

Sections 21 and 22 agreed to.

Before section 23

The Convener

Amendment 14, in the name of the minister, is grouped with amendments 15, 3, 30 to 35 and 16. I draw members’ attention to the pre-emptions in the group, which are shown in the groupings document.

I call the minister to move amendment 14 and to speak to all the amendments in the group. No doubt, he will speak for the length of time and in the detail that is appropriate, which is a judgment call for him—within reason. Over to you, minister.

Jamie Hepburn

You talked about pre-emption, convener, and you have pre-empted my apology for taking some time with this group.

The Convener

There is no need to apologise.

Jamie Hepburn

It is a detailed series of amendments that will take some time to go through.

I will first address the expansion of the definition of “consumer” to cover small businesses. I thank Jackie Baillie for her amendment 3. I recognise that we have both responded to the concerns that were raised with the committee in evidence that small businesses often face similar issues to those that individual consumers face. However, I respectfully suggest that Ms Baillie’s amendment presents a number of challenges. Most notably, it would add small businesses to the definition of “consumer” but would not address the original stipulation that the term “means an individual”, which is an issue that my amendment 14 seeks to address.

I am also concerned that amendment 3 could cause confusion. In particular, I foresee two unintended consequences. First, sole traders, who are likely to be some of the small businesses that most often experience the same issues as individual consumers, would be excluded from consumer Scotland’s consideration. That is because they fall equally into the existing category of an individual, and the bill as drafted excludes individuals if they are dealing in the course of a business.

Secondly, to be considered as a consumer, an individual must be buying from a seller who is carrying on a business. However, as I have noted, Ms Baillie’s amendment 3 does not address the fact that small businesses are not individuals, and therefore no similar condition would be attached to small businesses. The same disparity is also true with regard to the location of consumers. An individual would have to be in Scotland, whereas a small business could be located anywhere.

In contrast, my amendment 14 provides that the consumer can be either an individual acting outwith business purposes or a small business, including one that is run by an individual. I believe that that represents a more comprehensive solution to the issue that the committee highlighted at stage 1.

Amendments 3 and 14 also differ on the definition of small businesses. The Government amendment does not provide a strict definition. In our discussions with the Federation of Small Businesses, it has recognised the value of proposed new subsection 1(b) in amendment 14. If the bill was legislating for consumer Scotland to provide individual dispute resolution services, a definition of small businesses according to staff headcount may have been necessary. However, given that the body will investigate issues of general concern and will be an advice and advocacy body, I am keen to avoid what could be arbitrary cut-off points on staff numbers or perhaps on annual turnover, as has been discussed.

As the body will be focused on general concerns, it seems unlikely that such a solution would have any practical meaning at all. That is illustrated by Ms Baillie’s amendment. Headcount can be a useful metric in many cases, but it neither reflects that some businesses rely more heavily on staff than others nor takes into account the proportion of part-time as opposed to full-time workers in an individual workplace. For that reason, I believe that the Government amendment represents a more comprehensive and flexible solution.

However, I recognise that the issue is complex and that a number of elements must be considered. For example, I accept that some stakeholders are concerned that the expansion will shift the balance so that consumer Scotland no longer primarily focuses on individual consumers and that finite resources may be diverted to consider issues that affect only small businesses. I am confident that that will not be the case. Of course, it will be for the body to identify its work priorities. As I have noted in my response to the committee, the bill includes a number of safeguards to ensure that that is done in collaboration with consumers and other organisations. As respondents noted in the committee’s evidence sessions, consumer Scotland will be required to develop criteria to ensure that its work priorities are chosen transparently and consistently. Those, too, will be developed collaboratively.

The Government has been consistent from the outset that the body will act only when there is compelling evidence of consumer harm, and it is unlikely that a purely business issue would meet that test. I recognise the arguments that have been made that, although there is significant crossover between the issues that small businesses and individual consumers face, there can sometimes be tension between the two. I believe that that tension is mitigated by the wording in amendment 14. Small businesses will be included only when they are in essence the purchaser in a relationship and not when they are the seller or provider of goods, services or products.

Under both amendments, the definition would be extended to cover the whole bill and so it would also impact on the consumer duty. Consumer Scotland will develop guidance in consultation with those to whom the duty applies, which will be used to provide clarity on how the inclusion of small businesses should operate in relation to that duty.

I am open to finessing at stage 3 the provisions that amendment 14 will insert, if there is strong consensus on that today or if we agree that it is necessary following further representations from stakeholders. My aim is to avoid unintended consequences and to ensure that the bill gives the body and the duty that it seeks to create the greatest possible chance to succeed.

Mr Wightman’s amendments 30, 31, 33 and 35 would ensure that the definition of “consumer” also covers “a group”. The consequences of doing so are unclear, so I urge Mr Wightman not to move the amendments. I am aware of the representations that were made by some MSPs, including Mr Wightman, during the stage 1 debate that the definition should be widened further, perhaps to consider families or communities of interest. I have great sympathy with that view, but it is my understanding that a group—and certainly a family—would normally not have legal personality, so the consumer would still be an individual who purchased goods or services on the group’s behalf. In essence, groups of consumers are already encapsulated in the definition of “consumer” in the bill, so I am unsure about what the practical impact of the amendments would be.

11:15  



In amendment 36, Mr Wightman has sought more explicitly to include not-for-profit organisations, and amendments 30, 31, 33 and 35 might also be intended to do that. If that is the case, amendment 36, which has already been debated in the group 2 debate and which I have urged the committee to support, will already achieve that. If Mr Wightman still believes that something else needs to be done, I urge that that be more fully explored in advance of stage 3 so that we can find wording that would make that clearer. Accordingly, I urge Mr Wightman not to move amendments 30, 31, 33 and 35. Further, the expanded definition would impact on the definition of “consumer” that is used for the consumer duty, and I believe that the consequences of that are not understood.

I recognise that amendments 32 and 34, which would expand the list of activities of consumption to include recycling, sharing and disposal, are again designed to send a clear message that consumer Scotland will not be limited by a traditional and conventional view of consumption, but will instead take a whole-life approach to the issue. Again, I am in full agreement with that position, but I have technical concerns about the amendments. In particular, I am not sure that sharing could be covered by the bill, given that the definition of “consumer” rightly requires that the person on the other side of the transaction is acting for business purposes. That means that peer-to-peer sharing would not be caught.

Sharing by a business is already covered by the person who receives the shared goods. Reuse, which one of Mr Wightman’s amendments seeks to establish, is just a type of use, so it is already covered by our provisions. I am also not sure what including recycling or disposing would add in practice. Under consumer Scotland’s investigatory powers, it would already be able to investigate those services. If someone purchased a recycling or disposal service to get rid of an old appliance, for example, that would already be covered, as it involves the purchase of a service. If the aim is something more specific—for example, to encourage consumer Scotland to champion ideas such as the circular economy—that might be better achieved in another way, such as through the body’s environmental duties.

I am open to exploring all those options at stage 3.

Andy Wightman

Will the minister take an intervention?

Jamie Hepburn

Yes, of course—although I am just about to conclude.

Andy Wightman

That is why I seek to make an intervention.

The minister mentioned recycling and disposal. The bill requires a service to be procured. Is it the minister’s understanding that, when one recycles materials in a local authority recycling facility, for example, that is covered by the definition of a consumer in the bill?

Jamie Hepburn

Yes. Is that clear enough?

Andy Wightman

Indeed it is.

Jamie Hepburn

As I was saying, I am open to exploring all the options that are available to us at stage 3, and I would like to do so in conjunction with Mr Wightman, who has set out a number of constructive suggestions. On the basis that I would like to explore the options further, I request that he does not move his amendments so that we can undertake that discussion.

I move amendment 14.

Jackie Baillie

We have all acknowledged that small businesses and microbusinesses often face the same disadvantages that individual consumers face in their knowledge of the markets, their bargaining power and, indeed, their ability to enforce their rights when things go wrong. There is an overlap between the interests of consumers and the interests of small businesses and microbusinesses, and I am pleased that the minister has recognised that.

With regard to the minister’s amendment 14 and my amendment 3, the issue that is before us is whether we apply the approach to small businesses, which are obviously a much larger grouping, or just to microbusinesses, which have fewer than 10 staff. I have gone for microbusinesses in order not to skew consumer Scotland’s focus away from individual consumers by too great a degree, because the new body will have only finite resources. Which? indicated that it foresaw difficulty with potential conflicts between small businesses and their customers.

The minister’s amendment 14 is wider than my amendment 3. I ask him to give a reassurance that he will work with interested organisations prior to stage 3 to ensure that the primary duty to consumers is safeguarded. If he can do so, I would be happy to not move amendment 3.

Jamie Hepburn

Will the member take an intervention?

Jackie Baillie

I had just finished, but I will carry on speaking in order to give way.

The Convener

I will allow that.

Jamie Hepburn

I think that that is the only way that I can speak at this stage.

Jackie Baillie

Ah!

Jamie Hepburn

Actually, do I not get to conclude this debate, convener?

Jackie Baillie

You do.

The Convener

We will see about that.

Jamie Hepburn

In that case, I do not need to intervene at this juncture. Forgive me, Ms Baillie.

Jackie Baillie

Excellent. Thank you.

Jamie Hepburn

I will come back to the issue in my conclusion.

Jackie Baillie

I have finished, convener.

Andy Wightman

As the minister has noted, amendments 30 to 35 fall into two distinct groups. Amendments 30, 31, 33 and 35 are concerned with expanding the definition of “consumer” beyond an individual to include a group of any sort. I heard what the minister had to say about the potential difficulties with that, and I am content not to move those amendments.

On amendment 14, I again note the comments of the Competition and Markets Authority. Paragraph 8 of its evidence to the committee for stage 2 says:

“the definition of consumer, as set out in the Consumer Rights Act 2015, and relied on for the purposes of consumer law enforcement, does not cover small businesses. While this limitation on the definition of consumer does not apply universally across the regulatory sphere, it is important to note the restriction for many of the circumstances where, as a consequence of its work, Consumer Scotland looks to the CMA or another consumer protection enforcer to take action to address problems encountered by small businesses. We note that other routes to addressing business disputes exist for small business”.

I am sure that the minister has taken careful note of that.

We have to decide whether we should include small businesses as consumers, given that some of the consequential complaints may not be able to be progressed by other bodies because they exclude small businesses. On balance, it is probably appropriate to go with the minister’s amendment 14. Those concerns have an impact on my amendments 30, 31, 33 and 35.

Amendments 32 and 34 are substantive policy amendments that seek to expand the definitions of “consumer” and “consumer matters” so that they go beyond merely purchasing and receiving as set out in the bill and incorporate the reusing, sharing, recycling or disposal of goods and services. I have listened to the minister’s comments about how some of those processes are captured and how sharing could not be captured, due to the language elsewhere in the bill.

Amendments 32 and 34 will probably not be moved, because they are likely to be pre-empted by amendment 15, which will probably be supported. However, I welcome the minister’s commitment to explore how we can ensure that the important focus on recycling, disposal and so on can be made more prominent.

Dean Lockhart (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

In relation to amendments 14 and 3, which would expand the definition of “consumer” to include small businesses, I thank the minister and his team for working with me and agreeing the change ahead of stage 2. We have consulted with stakeholders on how best to achieve that. In short, we believe that the more flexible definition of small businesses that is set out in amendment 14 is preferable. We will support it for that reason.

The Convener

I call the minister to wind up.

Jamie Hepburn

Thank you for reminding me earlier that I had the opportunity to do so, convener—it has not happened often today, which is why I forgot.

I thank Mr Lockhart for his support for my amendment 14. Turning to Ms Baillie’s point, I recognise the concern that she raises. I think that it is misplaced, but I understand it. In a sense, it is because there is still an underlying idea—this gets to the heart of what the Competition and Markets Authority has said—that consumer Scotland will act as an adjudicator or will resolve individual disputes. It will not, as that is not its function. It would be complicated to have an investigatory body grapple with a specific definition, based on size, of what a small business is. I am willing to discuss the issue further, but my sense is that consumer Scotland will be capable of managing the issue as a priority.

In my opening remarks, I tried to make the point that, although some of the concerns that have been raised suggest that the interests of businesses are in contrast or opposition to those of consumers, it is important to remind ourselves that the provisions that we seek to add to the bill define small businesses as consumers and not as providers of services.

I am happy to pick up Andy Wightman’s points with him. What he is seeking to achieve is already in the bill but, if we can do something to make that clearer, either in the bill or in explanatory notes or guidance, I am happy to discuss that with him.

Amendment 14 agreed to.

Section 23—Interpretation

The Convener

We come to amendment 15. I remind members that, if it is agreed to, amendments 3 and 30 to 35 will be pre-empted and will not be called.

Amendment 15 moved—[Jamie Hepburn]—and agreed to.

Amendment 36 moved—[Andy Wightman]—and agreed to.

Amendment 16 moved—[Jamie Hepburn]—and agreed to.

Section 23, as amended, agreed to.

Section 24—Regulations

Amendment 17 moved—[Jamie Hepburn]—and agreed to.

Section 24, as amended, agreed to.

Sections 25 and 26 agreed to.

Schedule 2—Application of Public Bodies Legislation

The Convener

Amendment 18, in the name of Jamie Hepburn, is grouped with amendment 19.

Jamie Hepburn

I hope that the debate on this last group will be uncontentious, so my remarks will be short. Amendments 18 and 19 are minor and technical.

Amendment 18 will ensure that consumer Scotland must have regard to island communities when discharging its functions. The amendment is technical in nature, as it would be possible to use existing powers under the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018 to provide for this. However, I am keen to include it in the bill, as it is a particularly relevant duty. We are all aware of the added difficulties that consumers in island communities face, which we have debated previously in Parliament. The issues range from parcel delivery charges to the generally higher cost of goods and services. It is particularly appropriate that we amend the bill to ensure that island communities are considered ahead of the duty in the 2018 act formally coming into effect.

Amendment 19 will bring the bill in line with standard practice for the majority of bills and gives flexibility to allow certain parts of the bill to be brought into force on different days if that is necessary.

I move amendment 18.

The Convener

One never knows what may be controversial. However, as I see that no member wishes to raise any matter regarding the amendments, apparently, this is not controversial.

Amendment 18 agreed to.

Schedule 2, as amended, agreed to.

Section 27—Commencement

Amendment 19 moved—[Jamie Hepburn]—and agreed to.

Section 27, as amended, agreed to.

Section 28 agreed to.

Long title agreed to.

The Convener

That ends stage 2 consideration of the bill. We will now move into private session.

11:30 Meeting continued in private until 12:10.  



Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee's Stage 2 report 

Consumer Scotland Bill with Stage 2 amendments

Additional related information from the Scottish Government on the Bill

More information on the powers the Scottish Parliament is giving Scottish Ministers to make secondary legislation related to this Bill (Supplementary Delegated Powers Memorandum)

Stage 3 - Final amendments and vote

MSPs can propose further amendments to the Bill and then vote on each of these. Finally, they vote on whether the Bill should become law

Scottish Parliament research on the discussion of the Bill

Debate on the proposed amendments

MSPs get the chance to present their proposed amendments to the Chamber. They vote on whether each amendment should be added to the Bill.

Documents with the amendments that will be considered at the meeting on 6 May 2020:

Video Thumbnail Preview PNG

Debate on proposed amendments transcript

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

The next item of business is stage 3 proceedings on the Consumer Scotland Bill. Members should have with them the bill as amended at stage 2, the marshalled list and the groupings of amendments.

As is usual practice, the division bell will sound and proceedings will be suspended for five minutes for the first division of the afternoon. The period of voting for the first division will be 30 seconds. Thereafter, one minute will be allowed for the first division following any grouping.

Any member who wishes to speak in the debate on a grouping should press their request-to-speak button as soon as I call the first amendment in that grouping.

Members should now turn to the marshalled list.

Section 2—The general function of providing consumer advocacy and advice

The Presiding Officer

Group 1 is on consumer Scotland general function. Amendment 1, in the name of Andy Wightman, is grouped with amendments 2 and 19.

Andy Wightman (Lothian) (Green)

Amendments 1 and 2 arise from the productive discussions that took place with the Minister for Business, Fair Work and Skills and his officials during and in the aftermath of stage 2 of the bill.

Amendment 1 is concerned with the general functions of consumer Scotland. I was concerned in general terms that the bill was focused narrowly on a very traditional view of consumerism—one that is linear, transactional and typically about trading standards, consumer rights and so on. As we now know, consumerism and consumption are very big global problems. If society were to consume what we consume here in the United Kingdom, we would need almost three planets’ worth of natural resources.

I was therefore keen to explore whether consumer Scotland could have a general function of

“promoting a reduction in the consumption of natural resources.”

That was my starting point at stage 2, which led to an interesting discussion around the definition of “natural resources”. Happily, the minister was keen to have a conversation about the matter, as well as the view that consumer Scotland should also have as part of its general functions a broader purpose of promoting “environmentally sustainable practices” in any event.

I was very pleased to meet the minister and I think that the Government is still in agreement with my amendment 1, which means that consumer Scotland will have an additional general function of promoting the

“sustainable consumption of natural resources”,

which is a fairly well-understood term in international law.

Amendment 2 is designed to incorporate into the bill references to “wellbeing”, which is coming to the fore as a concept in economic thinking. Indeed, the Scottish Government has made several references to and is doing quite a bit of work around wellbeing. In conversation with the minister, we have agreed—at least, I think that he is still in agreement—an amendment to the bill that will provide for consumer Scotland promoting what is now referred to as

“prosperity and other aspects of wellbeing”.

I commend amendments 1 and 2 to members, and I move amendment 1.

The Minister for Business, Fair Work and Skills (Jamie Hepburn)

I am pleased to support amendments 1 and 2, in the name of Andy Wightman. As I noted at stage 1 and again at stage 2, the Government has always been of the view that consumer Scotland should take a wider view of consumption than traditional ideas of buying goods on the high street.

We have always intended that consumer Scotland should have a role in considering environmental issues, and we have noted from the start that consumers will play a significant role in tacking the global climate emergency. That is one reason that the body is so important.

I thank Mr Wightman for the time that he took to speak to me about these matters. I believe that his amendments further the goals that I have laid out.

I hope that amendment 19, which is a Government amendment, is uncontroversial. It clarifies that, as was made clear in the policy memorandum, the specific functions that are set out from section 3 up to the proposed recall of goods function, are not independent of the general function of consumer Scotland, as set out in section 2. The amendment will have little impact on consumer Scotland’s day-to-day operation, but it offers useful clarity, particularly in the light of the focus that section 2 has received during the bill’s passage, and the significant revisions that it will undergo if Mr Wightman’s amendments are agreed to today, as I hope that they will be. Amendment 19 will also clarify that the product recall function forms part of the general functions of consumer Scotland.

If Jackie Baillie’s amendment, which we will turn to in a moment, is agreed to—as I hope that it will be—that clarification might be useful because, unlike the functions that are set out in sections 3 to 5, the establishment and operation of a product recall database is something that consumer Scotland must do rather than something that it may do to advance its general function. Therefore, I hope that members will join me in supporting all the amendments in group 1.

The Presiding Officer

I have no indication that any other member wishes to contribute. Does Andy Wightman wish to make any remarks in summing up?

Andy Wightman

No.

Amendment 1 agreed to.

Amendment 2 moved—[Andy Wightman]—and agreed to.

Amendment 19 moved—[Jamie Hepburn]—and agreed to.

After section 5

The Presiding Officer

Group 2 is on product recall. Amendment 3, in the name of Jackie Baillie, is the only amendment in the group.

Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab)

As members know from the stage 1 debate, I call amendment 3 the Whirlpool amendment; I will explain why in a minute.

Amendment 3 will require consumer Scotland to establish and operate a central database of major recalled goods to help inform consumers who have been adversely affected. It will be a single, co-ordinated and trusted point of information about all the major product recalls across the country that affect consumers in Scotland.

Let me illustrate why I believe that that is an important measure for us to take by talking about Whirlpool. Almost 18 months ago, Whirlpool embarked on the recall of 1 million washing machines and tumble driers across the UK. The recall affects Hotpoint and Indesit machines. The recall was not due only to a minor technical fault—in some instances, house fires were caused and significant damage resulted. However, the pace of the recall has been far too slow. Some people have not registered their machine, but there is also a lack of easily understood information. Many more people still have the machines in their homes. Just last week, Whirlpool announced that another 21 different models also need to be recalled. The problem continues, and it is clear that not everyone is aware of it.

Four out of every five house fires in Scotland are caused by faulty white goods. That is dangerous, and it means that we should act. Creating one trusted point of comprehensive information on product recalls that will help support and protect consumers in Scotland is the right thing to do.

I am pleased that the Scottish Government has sought to work with me in developing my amendment, and the collaborative approach that the minister has taken is appreciated. I record my thanks to Electrical Safety First for its work in strengthening our legislation and reducing the number of fires, accidents and deaths that are caused by electricity.

I move amendment 3.

Jamie Hepburn

As I indicated a few moments ago, I am very pleased to support amendment 3. I am very grateful for Ms Baillie’s work in lodging what will always be known as the Whirlpool amendment.

I indicated at stage 1 that I was open to the idea of consumer Scotland having such a function. As I said at stage 2, the Government recognises the significant danger that is posed by the failings of the current recall system. Ms Baillie has identified the challenge of the small proportion of consumers who respond to recall notices. There are other areas of concern. It is important to remind ourselves that this is not just an issue of products being faulty and not working, and the attendant problems that that can cause. That is bad enough, but the matter can also be very dangerous. Like Jackie Baillie, I want to record my thanks for the work that is done by Electrical Safety First.

I am grateful to Ms Baillie for discussing the issue with me in advance of both stage 2 and this final stage of the bill. I hope that amendment 3 will help to address some areas of concern and serve to demonstrate the positive value that consumer Scotland can bring.

The amendment requires consumer Scotland to make publicly available a database of recalled goods, either by developing that database or by contracting some other body to develop it. I make that point because I have always said that consumer Scotland will be an independent body and must be allowed to make its own decisions on how it carries out its work and its functions.

I welcome amendment 3 and hope that it will be agreed to by Parliament.

The Presiding Officer

No other members wish to make a contribution. Does Jackie Baillie wish to add any comments?

Jackie Baillie

Brevity is a fine art in politics. I will not add any other comments.

The Presiding Officer

Thank you Ms Baillie; that is hugely appreciated.

Amendment 3 agreed to.

Section 6—General provision about functions of Consumer Scotland

The Presiding Officer

Group 3 is on vulnerable consumers. Amendment 8, in the name of the minister, is grouped with amendments 10, 4, 17 and 5 to 7.

Jamie Hepburn

I will try to keep my remarks short. The definition in the bill of the word “vulnerability” has been the subject of much discussion, both here in the chamber at stage 1 and in the committee at stage 2. There were also deliberations before stage 1. I am delighted that significant co-operation across the Parliament has led to a consensus that the definition that we now have is the right one.

Amendments 8, 10 and 17 do not alter the definition of vulnerability that was agreed at stage 2. Instead, they move the agreed definition from section 6(6) to section 23, which deals with general interpretation. That move is necessary because the definition of a vulnerable consumer currently applies only for the purposes of sections 6 and 13. The Government amendments in this group will ensure that the definition will apply to all references in the bill to vulnerable consumers.

We have taken that step in the light of Ms Baillie’s amendments. If those amendments are agreed to—as I hope that they will be—references to vulnerable consumers will also be introduced to section 16 and schedule 1, which will make a bill-wide definition desirable. The Government supports Ms Baillie’s amendments, which I believe are a useful additional means of allowing consumer Scotland to demonstrate that the interests of vulnerable consumers are central to its work. I am, again, grateful to Ms Baillie for taking the time to discuss those matters with me.

The Scottish ministers will play their part in that as a result of amendment 6. It is right that the board should include representation from those who know what it is to be a vulnerable consumer. I am pleased that Ms Baillie lodged the amendment, having refined her stage 2 amendment on the topic. I make a commitment that when the bill is passed this evening—as I hope that it will be—the Scottish ministers will take that duty and responsibility very seriously.

I move amendment 8.

Jackie Baillie

I am pleased to speak to amendments 4 to 7 in my name, and to support the minister’s amendments. This area was subject to discussion with the minister and his officials following stage 2, and I am grateful to him for that.

The set of amendments seeks to ensure that consumer Scotland includes somebody who has had experience of being a vulnerable consumer, so that we benefit from their lived experience and so that their considerations are at the heart of the new organisation. We know that organisations are more likely to get things right from an early stage in their operation if they listen to and involve people who have lived experience.

As we have heard, amendment 4 will require ministers to produce a report to set out how the interests of vulnerable consumers have been considered.

I thank the Scottish Co-operative Party for its advocacy in this area, and I thank the minister for his support. I hope that members throughout the chamber will support all the amendments in group 3.

Amendment 8 agreed to.

15:15  



The Presiding Officer

Group 4 is on inclusive communication. Amendment 20, in the name of Ruth Maguire, is grouped with amendment 21.

Ruth Maguire (Cunninghame South) (SNP)

I thank Inclusion Scotland, Camphill Scotland and the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists Scotland—in particular Kim Hartley Kean—for their support in campaigning for inclusive communication.

One of the bill’s aims is to safeguard consumer interests and ensure that consumers can play a part in building a more inclusive and sustainable economy, and amendment 20 is about including people. Inclusive communication is communication that enables the largest number of people in the population to be included. For an organisation, that is about encouraging, supporting and enabling people to use whichever ways of expressing themselves they find easiest.

Who is inclusive communication good for? It is good for everybody. Communication disadvantage is strongly associated with socioeconomic disadvantage, and many people who are living with disabilities and long-term conditions will also experience communication disadvantage. That includes 100 per cent of people who have autistic spectrum disorder; 100 per cent of people who have dementia; around 80 per cent of people who have a learning difficulty; and around 30 per cent of people who have had a stroke. However, as I said, inclusive communication benefits everybody, because no one has ever complained that a public service was too easy to understand or made it too easy for them to get their point across.

The main question might be why we should put inclusive communication in the bill rather than leaving it for guidance. There has been Scottish Government guidance on inclusive communication for 10 years, but it is not broadly applied across the board. I lodged a similar amendment to the bill that became the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018, which set out in law a requirement for Social Security Scotland to implement inclusive communication approaches. That has worked really well, because it was in legislation from the beginning and it is not open to interpretation or duplication as it would be if it had been left to guidance.

I move amendment 20.

Jamie Hepburn

I am very supportive of amendment 20. As Ruth Maguire observes—and as has been my own experience—no one complains when a public body communicates very clearly. Of course, the converse is also true, and members will all have received complaints and concerns where that has not been the case. On that basis, it is vital that consumer Scotland reaches as many consumers as possible, and amendment 20 will help to achieve that.

I thank Ruth Maguire for meeting me to discuss the objectives that her two amendments seek to achieve. Amendment 20 would mean that

“Consumer Scotland must have regard to the importance of communicating in an inclusive way”

when it publishes its annual reports and its consumer welfare reports. Indeed, the emphasis on the necessity of communicating in an inclusive way is laid out using a similar approach in the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018, which I believe Ms Maguire was instrumental in developing.

I hope that by agreeing to amendment 20 we will send a clear message that the Government, and indeed the Parliament, values inclusive communication and that we are committed to encouraging it wherever and whenever possible. I am grateful to Ruth Maguire for lodging these important amendments, and I urge Parliament to support them.

Amendment 20 agreed to.

Amendment 21 moved—[Ruth Maguire]—and agreed to.

Section 8—Requirement to provide information to Consumer Scotland

The Presiding Officer

Group 5 is on consultation with designated regulators. Amendment 22, in the name of the minister, is grouped with amendment 18.

Jamie Hepburn

The amendments in group 5 relate to consumer Scotland’s information-gathering powers. Designated regulators are given a role in helping to ensure compliance with those powers. Jackie Baillie’s amendment 18 and my amendment 22 are both about ensuring consultation when regulators, or those whom they regulate, are specified in regulations made under section 8.

I am grateful to the Law Society of Scotland for raising the issue of consultation, and I am also grateful that Ms Baillie intervened to ensure that it could be considered in the debate. I am fully supportive of the intent behind Ms Baillie’s amendment 18. As a matter of course, we will always consult those who would be named in regulations. Nonetheless, I can see the value in putting such a requirement in the bill. However, as it is drafted, Ms Baillie’s amendment imposes a requirement for ministers to consult designated regulators whenever there is a proposal to designate a new regulator. When regulations are made for the first time, there will, of course, be no existing designated regulators. Amendment 18 therefore does not guarantee proper consultation with those who are about to be designated.

I believe that amendment 18 presents another challenge, in that it requires consultation with all designated regulators every time. That means that if there are already a number of designated regulators, each and every one of them must be consulted on the proposal to designate someone new, even if that new regulator operates in an entirely different field. I am, of course, open to the possibility, and am cognisant that there might be—indeed, it is likely that there will be—cases in which designating a new regulator could impact on a regulator that has already been designated under section 8. However, I believe that such a situation is also likely to be rare. In my view, it would therefore be unnecessary to require, as standard, consultation with all designated regulators.

The Government’s amendment 22 maintains the consultation requirement that Ms Baillie’s amendment 18 seeks to establish. It also notes that those whom it is proposed to designate must be consulted, but it removes the additional blanket requirement to consult all existing designated regulators.

I hope that I have reassured Ms Baillie that her intent in lodging amendment 18 is encompassed in my amendment 22. I therefore urge her not to move amendment 18.

I move amendment 22.

Jackie Baillie

I rise to speak in favour of the minister’s amendment 22 and to explain why I intend not to move amendment 18.

Amendment 18 arose from an approach from the Law Society of Scotland, which I shared with the minister because time was extremely tight—we were up against the deadline. I am delighted that the Scottish Government has agreed that there is a gap in the legislation and has lodged its own amendment, which has the same intention as my amendment 18. As the minister has confirmed, the Scottish Government’s view is that amendment 18 would have the unintended consequence of imposing an obligation to consult all designated regulators whenever a new single regulator was to be designated.

I accept that the Scottish Government’s amendment 22 makes the position clearer. On this occasion, and for that reason, I am therefore content not to move my amendment 18 in favour of amendment 22 in the name of Jamie Hepburn.

Amendment 22 agreed to.

Section 12—Exemptions from requirement to provide information

The Presiding Officer

Group 6 is on information gathering and exemptions. Amendment 9, in the name of Jackie Baillie, is the only amendment in the group.

Jackie Baillie

Amendment 9 arises from a further discussion with Electrical Safety First. From my early days of seeking to understand it, I recall that “may” and “must” have the same effect in legislation. However, I note that the minister has previously said that he was allowing for consumer Scotland to outsource the creation of the database if it wished to do so, although that would be a matter for it to consider.

Amendment 9 therefore seeks reassurance on that point. Although I hope that consumer Scotland would not outsource the creation of the database, the amendment would make it clear that it would have a duty to publicise and disseminate information about major product recalls. That is, of course, consistent with the committee’s recommendation in its stage 1 report. Even if consumer Scotland were to decide to do the database itself, we could still find ourselves in a situation in which it published the details of major recalls on its database but then was not required to publicise them any more widely—hence the replacement of “may” with “must” to put that beyond all doubt.

I will, however, as I always do, listen carefully to what the minister says and I hope that he can either provide me with some reassurance that consumer Scotland will publicise the details of major recalls irrespective of whether we use “may” or “must”, or just support my amendment.

I move amendment 9.

Jamie Hepburn

I respect the fact that Ms Baillie is advocating for clarity and certainty. However, if amendment 9 was agreed to, it would have wider applicability than what she is seeking to add. On that basis, I am somewhat concerned by what is laid out in the amendment. In my view, the bill already provides the clarity and certainty that is required.

The requirement could stray into areas related to information that could be withheld in court. Section 12(1) of the bill clearly states that notices requiring information cannot cover anything that could be withheld in court. I know that the Law Society of Scotland raised that issue, which is a matter that it should be familiar with. Framing the exemption in terms of information that could be withheld in court has precedent in other legislation as well.

On the points that Ms Baillie has raised, I feel that it is still important that we provide the organisation that we seek to establish with the scope and the ability to determine its work. Of course it is important that the organisation considers that in the context that Ms Baillie laid out but, across the board, I am concerned about the applicability of this amendment in relation to information that can be withheld in court. There are precedents for that in a raft of other legislation. On that basis, I urge Ms Baillie not to press her amendment 9, with the assurance that I think that the bill already achieves what she is seeking.

Jackie Baillie

I understand what the minister is asking. I am not altogether clear that he gave me the assurance that I am looking for so I will try again, because I want to be helpful. In order for me not to press the amendment, I need the minister to agree—and I am happy for him to intervene to clarify this—that he expects consumer Scotland to publicise the details of major recalls that it publishes on its database. Before I sit down, if the minister would like to intervene and say yes—

Jamie Hepburn

Within the parameters whereby consumer Scotland is an independent body, yes, that would be the expectation.

Jackie Baillie

I have heard very clearly from the minister what his intentions are, which was much more helpful than the note provided to him by the civil service. On that basis, I will not press amendment 9.

Amendment 9, by agreement, withdrawn.

Section 13—Forward work programmes

The Presiding Officer

Amendment 10, in the name of the minister, was debated in group 3. I ask the minister to move amendment 10.

Jamie Hepburn

Thank you, Presiding Officer—

The Presiding Officer

You just need to formally move it. It was debated earlier.

Jamie Hepburn

I beg your pardon.

Amendment 10 moved—[Jamie Hepburn]—and agreed to.

Section 14—Reports on investigations

The Presiding Officer

Group 7 is on minor and technical amendments. Amendment 11, in the name of the minister, is grouped with amendments 12 to 16.

Jamie Hepburn

Thank you—I was getting somewhat ahead of myself when I rose to my feet just then. Let me find the right speaking note. These amendments are very much minor and technical in nature, so I will seek to keep my remarks short.

At stage 2, amendments from Jackie Baillie were accepted that require consumer Scotland to set out in its investigation reports and in its annual reports how it has had regard to the activities carried out by other bodies with similar functions.

At the same time, Government amendments were accepted to broaden the principal duty on consumer Scotland under section 6(3). Consumer Scotland will now be required, when carrying out its functions, to have regard to activities carried out by

“specified persons and any other persons”

with similar functions, which could be a body or an office-holder. I noted at the time that, if both sets of amendments were accepted, the bill would need to be tidied up at stage 3 so that it referred throughout to

“specified persons and any other persons”.

That is what amendments 11 to 14 now do.

15:30  



Amendments 15 and 16 alter section 23 to ensure that the list of definitions in that section is in alphabetical order, which is in line with best practice for the layout of legislation and allows for more straightforward reading of an act of Parliament, which I hope the bill will become. However, the amendments do not make any changes to the definitions. The key definition of “consumer” was previously at the top, in order to give it prominence, but that is no longer necessary now that it is in a section on its own.

I move amendment 11.

Amendment 11 agreed to.

Amendment 12 moved—[Jamie Hepburn]—and agreed to.

Section 15—Annual report

Amendments 13 and 14 moved—[Jamie Hepburn]—and agreed to.

Section 16—Consumer welfare report

Amendment 4 moved—[Jackie Baillie]—and agreed to.

Section 22A—Meaning of “consumer”

The Presiding Officer

Group 8 is on the meaning of “consumer”. Amendment 23, in the name of Richard Leonard, is the only amendment in the group.

Richard Leonard (Central Scotland) (Lab)

The purpose of amendment 23 is straightforward. The bill contains a number of references to “consumers”, in the plural, but in section 22A, which is on the meaning of “consumer”, the term is defined as either

“an individual … who purchases, uses or receives, in Scotland, goods or services”,

or

“a business … no larger than a small business”.

It is fundamentally important that the new body, consumer Scotland, should not be able to represent only individuals and small businesses; it should be able to take a class action or collective action and represent a community perspective. After all, there is obviously a community dimension to the consumption of services such as broadband or public transport or to the surcharging of parcel deliveries, and to the quality, price and frequency of services that communities receive. It would be frustrating if local collective community interests sought guidance and intervention from consumer Scotland only to be told that the body was not empowered to assist in that dimension of real consumer interest because the Scottish Government or the Parliament had blocked amendment 23.

The Parliament has a proud track record of backing a community perspective, whether that is through the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 and community ownership or community rights under the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015. Communities are affected by markets operating well or failing badly, and the bill should expressly recognise that. I am bound to say that, if we can define businesses as consumers, surely we can define communities of people as consumers. The consumer is more than the individual and should not materialise in the legislation only as an individual figure. Let us therefore amend the bill with amendment 23 to reflect that.

I move amendment 23.

Gordon Lindhurst (Lothian) (Con)

Although we have much sympathy with Richard Leonard’s position on amendment 23, which certainly has merit, I think that the minister will set out reasons why he will not support it. Part of the difficulty with it is that it would extend the scope of the bill too much. We need to see the bill in operation and see whether it is working well. The bill has already been expanded to apply to organisations such as small businesses and certain social enterprises, which is welcome, but the extension that Mr Leonard is looking for might be a step too far at this stage. I will wait to see what the minister has to say about the amendment, but there is a lot of sympathy for it among Conservative members.

Jamie Hepburn

I apologise that, despite this amendment being in the last group of amendments, albeit that it is in a group on its own, it is likely to be the one that I have to speak to the longest.

I agree with Gordon Lindhurst’s sentiments and do not demur from the points and principles that Mr Leonard has laid out with regard to the necessity of considering communities of consumers. I would have been very happy to have discussed this matter in more detail with Mr Leonard to ensure that his concerns were addressed. I think that I made that offer but, unfortunately, we did not have that opportunity. I would have been happy to speak to Mr Leonard.

The bill identifies the consumer as an individual and the small business as an individual small business. Inevitably, when consumer Scotland takes forward its work, it will look at it on the basis of how it impacts individuals and small businesses plural. The concerns that Mr Leonard has laid out are already encompassed in the definitions that are set out in the bill.

In the amendment’s literal interpretation, I believe that there are significant challenges. In brief, they are as follows. First, the bill has already been significantly amended to widen the definitions of “consumer” and “business”. As I have said, in doing so, that will already capture many of the community bodies that are included in the amendment. Secondly, almost as a direct consequence of the first point, there is a risk that we will send a confusing message that other small organisations are not captured, precisely because we have carved out a particular reference to community bodies, when small community bodies are already caught by the existing provisions. Thirdly, by including community bodies regardless of their size, it potentially privileges medium-sized community bodies over other comparable organisations, such as medium-sized charities, without a clear rationale for doing so. Finally, and linked to my first point, the definition of “consumer” has already been significantly altered and we run the risk of overcomplicating and diluting it to the point of being difficult to exercise meaningfully.

I will say a little about each of those points in turn, and I will be as brief as I can. I will set out broadly what the term “community body” means under the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003. Section 34 of the act defines it as a body whose main purpose is consistent with furthering sustainable development and is a limited company; a Scottish charitable incorporated organisation; a community benefit society; or a body of such other description as may be prescribed.

At stage 2, the Consumer Scotland Bill was amended to widen the definition of “consumer” to include a business that is no larger than a small business. The definition of “business” in section 23 of the bill was also amended to include “a not for profit enterprise”. For the purposes of the bill, that means an organisation that a person might reasonably consider to exist wholly or mainly to provide benefits for society. A Scottish charitable incorporated organisation and a community benefit society therefore ought to already fall within the definition of a “not for profit enterprise”, and a limited company would ordinarily fall within the broader definition of a “business” anyway.

Therefore, provided they are small, all those bodies are already covered. If small community bodies are already captured, there is no value in an amendment to clarify that they are captured. Indeed, doing so with a definition that limits community bodies to those with purposes that are consistent with sustainable development has the potential to have the opposite effect. It could suggest that charities and other small community bodies with a different purpose will not be caught by the existing definition of them as businesses by virtue of being “not for profit enterprises”.

It is important to remind ourselves that we are making law here. It is always subject to legal interpretation, and that could be an unintended consequence were this amendment to be passed.

I turn now to the next difficulty that I have with the amendment. It does not limit the definition to small organisations, in contrast to existing provisions around small businesses. The definition of community bodies that the amendment uses requires that the bodies must have a minimum of 10 members, but it sets no upper limit.

The fact that membership has to be confined predominantly to a community does not guarantee that the organisation will be small. As an example, under the Community Right to Buy (Scotland) Regulations 2015, a community defined by a postcode could include everyone who is entitled to vote in Edinburgh with a postcode beginning “EH”. I am not picking on Edinburgh particularly; that would also stand for other postcode areas.

I of course understand the point—and I reemphasise it—that consumers within a geographical area could have a common interest, and they are already encompassed within the definition in the bill, as amended at stage 2. However, it is important to note that, when we apply what is laid out in Mr Leonard’s amendment, we are talking about organisations rather than communities per se. Whether or not it is intended to, the amendment therefore allows for the inclusion of bodies that are not small, which is also problematic. It would mean that medium-sized organisations would be considered consumers, but only if their purposes are consistent with sustainable development. That would privilege medium-sized bodies with that goal over many medium-sized businesses and charities with other equally laudable objectives. There is, I believe, no clear rationale for doing that.

Finally, as I have noted, amendments at stage 2 already significantly expanded the definition of consumers. Amendment 23 would be a further expansion, which could give weight to the argument that we have moved away from the idea that was originally consulted on prior to the introduction of the bill.

It is important to remind ourselves that the amendment, if agreed to, would also apply to the consumer duty. Public authorities, including local authorities, would have to consider community bodies—regardless of size—as part of discharging the duty. That has not been consulted on, and its timing now means that there has been very little opportunity to understand the practical impact of adding that to the definition. For all those reasons, despite recognising the good intent behind it, I urge Mr Leonard to withdraw his amendment at this stage.

As I have laid out, I believe that many of the organisations that Mr Leonard seeks to protect would already be covered by the bill and that the idea of community interest, which I agree with, is already encapsulated within the applicability of the individual consumer being multiplied to consumers, plural, as it will be in consumer Scotland’s interpretation of its work. I hope that that provides Richard Leonard with some reassurance, and that he withdraws his amendment. However, if he presses it, I urge members to vote against it.

The Presiding Officer

I call Richard Leonard to conclude in this group, and to press or withdraw amendment 23.

Richard Leonard

I have to say that I find the argument that the fact that the bill has already been amended means that we cannot lodge another amendment about the weakest argument that I have heard in this Parliament in four years. Of course we have scope as a Parliament to make amendments to the bill if we think that its definitions and scope do not sufficiently recognise the challenges that this new body, which is being created for the first time, will face.

Jamie Hepburn

I would have hoped that Richard Leonard heard that I spoke extensively, and that that was not the core part of my argument. Nonetheless, I hope that he will reflect on the fact that both Ms Baillie and Mr Wightman were able to say that we worked together very closely to draft amendments that were consistent with the purpose of the bill and which enhanced it. That opportunity was available to Mr Leonard, which I made very clear, and I would have been very glad had he taken it; sadly, he did not.

Richard Leonard

For the record, Mr Hepburn and I met in his office after the stage 1 debate in this Parliament and we spoke explicitly about the need—[Interruption.] We spoke explicitly about the need to alter the bill to reflect—[Interruption.] If Mr Hepburn wants to intervene, I will take his intervention.

Jamie Hepburn

I am happy to intervene, because it is important that we are accurate on these matters. It is correct that Mr Leonard and I met in advance of stage 2, and that he had the opportunity to lodge an amendment at stage 2, when we could have tested these ideas and then—perhaps—finessed them. It is important to note for the public record that Mr Leonard failed to lodge an amendment at stage 2.

15:45  



Richard Leonard

Let me move on to the other arguments—[Interruption.] I want to make it absolutely clear for the record that Mr Hepburn and I have met to discuss this amendment. In the interest of consensus, he could have offered to meet to discuss it in more recent days, not least because the stage 3 proceedings were postponed a few weeks ago.

The other point that I want to make is this. As I said, if we as a Parliament are in favour of extending the definition of “consumer” to include small businesses, it seems rather odd that we cannot extend it to include communities. I listed some examples of legislation that this Parliament has passed where the entity of a community is seen as an important part of the fabric of our society.

Jamie Hepburn

I totally agree with the notion that a community of consumers must be considered, and the definition that we have, as laid out in the bill, already encapsulates that perfectly. It refers to an individual consumer, but consumer Scotland, in taking forward its work, is clearly going to consider those consumers on a collective basis, ergo as a community of consumers.

It is important to reflect that Mr Leonard’s amendment talks not about communities but about “a community body“. That has perfect application in many pieces of legislation, but it would have inherent problems within the confines of the bill. As I have laid out, there is a danger that it would cause confusion and perhaps pervert some of the very interests that Mr Leonard seeks to advance, with small charities being interpreted as not being encompassed. That could cause real problems. On that basis, I urge him to withdraw his amendment.

Richard Leonard

I will finish on this point. I think that, if we do not agree to amendment 23, there will come a point in the not-too-distant future when a community seeks to prosecute its interests through consumer Scotland and, by dint of our not agreeing to the amendment today, if that is the way that Parliament votes, that community will ask why on earth it is that a small business has access to advocacy from consumer Scotland but a community interest does not.

The Presiding Officer

I assume that Mr Leonard is pressing his amendment. The question is, that amendment 23 be agreed to. Are we agreed?

Members: No.

The Presiding Officer

As this is the first division of the afternoon, I will suspend the meeting for five minutes while I call members to the chamber.

15:47 Meeting suspended.  



15:52 On resuming—  



The Presiding Officer

We move straight to the division on amendment 23.

For

Stewart, David (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)
Smyth, Colin (South Scotland) (Lab)
Sarwar, Anas (Glasgow) (Lab)
Rumbles, Mike (North East Scotland) (LD)
Rennie, Willie (North East Fife) (LD)
Macdonald, Lewis (North East Scotland) (Lab)
Leonard, Richard (Central Scotland) (Lab)
Lennon, Monica (Central Scotland) (Lab)
Kelly, James (Glasgow) (Lab)
Johnson, Daniel (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)
Gray, Iain (East Lothian) (Lab)
Findlay, Neil (Lothian) (Lab)
Cole-Hamilton, Alex (Edinburgh Western) (LD)
Baker, Claire (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

Against

Yousaf, Humza (Glasgow Pollok) (SNP)
Wightman, Andy (Lothian) (Green)
Wheelhouse, Paul (South Scotland) (SNP)
Watt, Maureen (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)
Torrance, David (Kirkcaldy) (SNP)
Todd, Maree (Highlands and Islands) (SNP)
Robison, Shona (Dundee City East) (SNP)
McMillan, Stuart (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)
McKelvie, Christina (Hamilton, Larkhall and Stonehouse) (SNP)
McAlpine, Joan (South Scotland) (SNP)
Mason, John (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)
Martin, Gillian (Aberdeenshire East) (SNP)
Maguire, Ruth (Cunninghame South) (SNP)
Macpherson, Ben (Edinburgh Northern and Leith) (SNP)
Mackay, Rona (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)
MacGregor, Fulton (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)
MacDonald, Angus (Falkirk East) (SNP)
Kidd, Bill (Glasgow Anniesland) (SNP)
Johnstone, Alison (Lothian) (Green)
Hepburn, Jamie (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth) (SNP)
Haughey, Clare (Rutherglen) (SNP)
Harvie, Patrick (Glasgow) (Green)
Gilruth, Jenny (Mid Fife and Glenrothes) (SNP)
Gibson, Kenneth (Cunninghame North) (SNP)
Forbes, Kate (Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch) (SNP)
Fabiani, Linda (East Kilbride) (SNP)
Ewing, Fergus (Inverness and Nairn) (SNP)
Ewing, Annabelle (Cowdenbeath) (SNP)
Doris, Bob (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)
Dey, Graeme (Angus South) (SNP)
Cunningham, Roseanna (Perthshire South and Kinross-shire) (SNP)
Crawford, Bruce (Stirling) (SNP)
Constance, Angela (Almond Valley) (SNP)
Coffey, Willie (Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley) (SNP)
Campbell, Aileen (Clydesdale) (SNP)
Brown, Keith (Clackmannanshire and Dunblane) (SNP)
Arthur, Tom (Renfrewshire South) (SNP)
Adam, George (Paisley) (SNP)

Abstentions

Whittle, Brian (South Scotland) (Con)
Wells, Annie (Glasgow) (Con)
Stewart, Alexander (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)
Smith, Liz (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)
Simpson, Graham (Central Scotland) (Con)
Lindhurst, Gordon (Lothian) (Con)
Kerr, Liam (North East Scotland) (Con)
Halcro Johnston, Jamie (Highlands and Islands) (Con)
Greene, Jamie (West Scotland) (Con)
Golden, Maurice (West Scotland) (Con)
Davidson, Ruth (Edinburgh Central) (Con)
Corry, Maurice (West Scotland) (Con)
Briggs, Miles (Lothian) (Con)
Bowman, Bill (North East Scotland) (Con)
Ballantyne, Michelle (South Scotland) (Con)
Balfour, Jeremy (Lothian) (Con)

The Presiding Officer

The result of the division is: For 14, Against 38, Abstentions 16.

Amendment 23 disagreed to.

Section 23—Interpretation

Amendments 15 to 17 moved—[Jamie Hepburn]—and agreed to.

Section 24—Regulations

Amendment 18 not moved.

Schedule 1—Consumer Scotland

Amendments 5 to 7 moved—[Jackie Baillie]—and agreed to.

The Presiding Officer

That ends our consideration of amendments.

At this stage in the proceedings, members will be aware that I am required, under the standing orders, to decide whether any provision of the bill relates to a protected subject matter—that is, whether it will modify the electoral system and franchise for Scottish parliamentary elections. The bill will do no such thing, therefore it does not require a supermajority to be passed at stage 3.

Final debate on the Bill

Once they've debated the amendments, the MSPs discuss the final version of the Bill.

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Final debate transcript

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani)

The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-21657, in the name of Jamie Hepburn, on the Consumer Scotland Bill at stage 3.

15:57  



The Minister for Business, Fair Work and Skills (Jamie Hepburn)

I am opening the stage 3 debate on the Consumer Scotland Bill in unprecedented times. The debate had been scheduled to take place a number of weeks ago but it was delayed, which was, of course, proper in the context of the challenges that we face.

In the circumstances of our responding to Covid-19 and dealing with matters of life and death, the bill and its aims might be felt to be somewhat trivial. In that context, it is hard to see what might not be viewed as such.

During this period, the importance of protecting our citizens—specifically by ensuring that the most vulnerable are well protected and looked after—has been highlighted in a way that we have never had to grapple with previously. We will come through these difficult times, and, on that basis, we must plan for the future. Today, we have the opportunity to ensure that all consumers in Scotland—in particular, vulnerable ones—have a recognised voice. In that sense, the bill remains important.

I thank everyone who has contributed to the scrutiny of the bill so far. Since its introduction, in June, members and stakeholders have worked together to ensure that the bill creates the framework that consumer Scotland needs.

The positive stage 1 debate confirmed Parliament’s support in principle, and I took any challenge that was offered in the spirit of seeking to ensure the success of consumer Scotland. I am grateful for the work of the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee and its extensive scrutiny of the bill, as well as that of the Finance and Constitution Committee and the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee.

I will take a few moments to talk about the important areas that are set out in the bill: collaboration, vulnerability and consumer Scotland’s role.

At stage 1, we heard clear concerns about how the body would interact with an existing complex landscape. My intention has always been that the body will collaborate and build relationships, and we have taken steps to make that explicit in the bill. As the committee recommended, we have expanded the organisations that consumer Scotland is required to take account of. Those are no longer only public bodies, but any body or office holder who carries out the same or similar activities.

We have also gone further. Ministers can name, in secondary legislation, specific bodies or office-holders whose activities must be considered by consumer Scotland when it is exercising its functions. I particularly thank Jackie Baillie for her helpful interventions in that area. She has helped to ensure that consumer Scotland must not only take account of organisations and office-holders but demonstrate how it has done so in its annual report and in any report that follows on from an investigation by consumer Scotland.

At stage 1, we heard that the definition of “vulnerable consumer” did not reflect current understandings of the term, nor how consumers experience vulnerability. Jackie Baillie pointed us to the definition that is used by the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission, and I believe that we now have a definition that truly reflects the range of circumstances and characteristics that give rise to vulnerability. As a result of amendments that we agreed to a few moments ago, vulnerable consumers will be better represented in the body. As a result of Ruth Maguire’s amendments, we have laid out very clearly that consumer Scotland must communicate inclusively to reach out to all consumers, and I am very grateful to her for having taken that matter forward.

Consumer Scotland’s role has been clarified in useful ways. The definition of “consumer” has been widened to include small businesses, in response to the clear message that small businesses often face similar issues to those faced by individual consumers—which might be true now more than ever. That does not mean that individuals are no longer the primary focus. Consumer Scotland will set its own work priorities on the basis of the evidence of where there is most harm and in collaboration with other consumer organisations, where desirable. However, it does mean that consumer Scotland has scope to consider a greater range of harms and to ensure that its investigations are comprehensive.

The bill reflects the reality that consumer Scotland is being established precisely because we understand that consumption is not limited to a traditional idea of high street purchasing. Consumers are both agents and targets of change, and that is clearest in the realm of environmental issues. Andy Wightman often made such points over the course of the bill’s consideration, and the bill now takes account of the impact that consumers can have on the environment and the interest that consumers have in helping to preserve it. That work has helped us to create a more forward-looking body that reflects the challenges that we face now and in the future.

There remains significant work to ensure that consumer Scotland delivers its potential, and I remain committed to taking forward that work in partnership with those who know the system best. Presuming that Parliament agrees to pass the bill today, as I hope we will, our next step is to appoint the chair and members, who will be regulated by the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland. Recent events mean that that process will not be under way as quickly as we had hoped, but, no matter when it is completed, we will work to ensure that the body has a diverse membership with the full range of skills and experience that is required.

The bill is an opportunity for us to ensure that consumers have a voice, that their interests are represented and that their own capacity to drive change is properly harnessed. The situation in which we presently find ourselves has revealed how important it is that consumers have the information that they need and are mindful of the impacts of their own behaviour. We began this process because we recognise that consumers are the lifeblood of our economy. In the months ahead, they will be vital in rebuilding our economy and supporting our local businesses. Consumer Scotland and the consumer duty are key steps to realising that potential, and we can move towards that if Parliament agrees that the Consumer Scotland Bill be passed.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees that the Consumer Scotland Bill be passed.

16:04  



Maurice Golden (West Scotland) (Con)

The aim of the bill, which is to strengthen the protection, trusted advice and support offered to consumers, is very much welcome. However, a central concern, which has been raised repeatedly at all stages, is that the bill seeks to introduce a new consumer body—consumer Scotland—to an already crowded landscape of consumer support.

We already have Citizens Advice Scotland, Advice Direct Scotland, Which? and the Competition and Markets Authority, not to mention Trading Standards Scotland. Despite that concern having been raised in the stage 1 report, there is still no clearly defined relationship between consumer Scotland and those organisations. I believe that that is both potentially problematic and a missed opportunity. For example, the Competition and Markets Authority has an expanding presence in Scotland. It strikes me, as it did the British Retail Consortium, that during the bill’s consideration would have been a good time to establish a firm working relationship between those two bodies.

There is still no detail on how data sharing will work between organisations. Exploratory talks with the United Kingdom Government on using frameworks that are in the Enterprise Act 2002 are welcome, but that issue should have been properly fleshed out at the bill’s inception.

We must also be mindful that coronavirus will have an impact on the consumer landscape that is as yet unknown. That underscores the need to properly define consumer Scotland’s role, otherwise we risk unnecessary duplication of work at increased cost. Energy Action Scotland raised that concern before the outbreak, and it is all the more relevant now.

The risk of duplication has led many to question the need for a new body, when a properly resourced Citizens Advice Scotland arguably could fill the role. It has a presence in just about every community in Scotland and dispensed more than 220,000 pieces of consumer advice last year alone, yet it will lose £300,000 in funding following the introduction of consumer Scotland .

Therefore, although I understand the minister’s intent in setting things out in the bill at a high level, I believe that there is a need to properly focus consumer Scotland on areas where it can do most good. Product recall is a good example of an area where it can make a big impact. The Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee has heard about the inadequacies of the product recall system in Scotland, and a recommendation was made that consumer Scotland should co-ordinate and disseminate recall information.

As things stood, no such provision was in the bill, although attempts were made to add it at stage 2. Therefore, I am delighted that the so-called Whirlpool amendment, which was lodged by Jackie Baillie and which ensures that product recall falls within consumer Scotland’s remit, has been agreed to at stage 3. That change will allow for the publication of regular recall updates, as well the creation of a publicly accessible database of recall information. That will strengthen the bill.

In a similar way, the Scottish Conservatives have already strengthened the bill by ensuring protection for small businesses. Small businesses—especially small rural businesses—are often affected by the same issues that face individuals. We worked with the Scottish Government to ensure that the definition of “consumer” would include small businesses. That means that the new duty in relation to consumer interests will apply to them too, which will ensure that public bodies have to take account of the impact of their actions on small businesses.

That definition of “consumer”, together with the bill’s potential to strengthen the consumer safety net, mean that the Scottish Conservatives will support the bill today. The task will then be to ensure that consumer Scotland delivers a clearer consumer advice service in Scotland.

16:09  



Richard Leonard (Central Scotland) (Lab)

The Scottish Labour Party is in favour of the creation of consumer Scotland, on the understanding that it will deliver added value, strengthen consumer advocacy and work collaboratively with existing organisations in the field, including user groups, customer forums and, of course, the excellent, community-based citizens advice bureaux. At decision time, we will vote for the bill, and that will go on the record.

However, also on the record must be our belief that our limited parliamentary time today should not have been devoted to the bill, when there are other, more urgent issues to address. Those issues arise from the Covid-19 pandemic, which has seen more than 2,000 deaths in Scotland—too many deaths in residential care homes, and too many front-line staff losing their lives in trying to keep the rest of us from losing ours. That is what the Parliament should be debating; we should be leading by example.

A few weeks ago, 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”.

It is right.

As Scottish Labour members have said all along, consumer Scotland’s objectives need to go well beyond just the elimination of harm. It should not just be defensive; it should be proactive. It should not be concerned simply with consumer protection; it should be concerned with consumer benefit. That is why, for example, it should have an important strategic role in consumer education.

As we all know, it is one thing to have rights. It is another for people to know their rights, and it is yet another to access the enforcement of those rights. That is why Jackie Baillie’s amendments to the bill are so important. It is also why we must understand that, in the end, it is the poorest in our society who are, as consumers, cheated the most. It is worse than that, however: they are also the least likely to be able to access those powers of enforcement, and so the least likely to get justice. If it does nothing else, therefore, I hope that the new consumer body will understand that and will stand up for them, and that it will make that its first priority.

Another fundamental point to consider is that, 50 years ago, J K Galbraith wrote:

“In virtually all economic analysis and instruction, the initiative is assumed to lie with the consumer ... This is called consumer sovereignty.”

However, he also said that that was no longer true. In the new industrial state, there is at work what he described as “the revised sequence”, in which markets are controlled not by consumers but by producers and their interests.

Today, the idea that the consumer is king is even more of a myth than it was back in the 1960s. We know that power over markets rests with an ever-narrowing elite of owners of production with huge corporate power. Consumers need, now more than ever, a guardian—and an active one, not a passive one, at that.

For example, tackling the social injustice of the parcel surcharging of residents in remoter parts of Scotland must be an early priority for the new body. Moreover, while consumer Scotland might be able to deal with some of the symptoms, it should also be able to influence the root causes, such as the abandonment of average pricing and the emergence of marginal pricing; attempts by the management of Royal Mail to slide away from the universal service obligation during the Covid-19 pandemic; the growth of the gig economy; and the rolling back of the state.

Labour members believe that it is important for the bill to treat consumers not just as their manifestation as individuals, but as a community interest, too—as my amendment sought to bring about.

At stage 1, the minister made play of consumer Scotland’s independence from Government, saying in his closing speech in the debate that it

“will be wholly independent of Government and of political direction.”—[Official Report, 23 January 2020; c 108.]

He said that again today—yet, under schedule 1 to the bill, the minister will appoint consumer Scotland’s chair and all its board members.

I will end on this point: that is why we are keen for the new body to be not just answerable to Government, but directly accountable to the Parliament. That would be a better framework for the body to work in, and that is what we want to see when it is brought into being in the weeks and months ahead.

16:14  



Andy Wightman (Lothian) (Green)

I have to confess that I began my contemplation of the bill with no great enthusiasm. However, I am happy to report that, as the debate has proceeded, I have seen some merit in it. Some aspects being reserved, however, has been a cause of frustration for some of us, throughout the process.

I thank the minister for the constructive manner in which he has engaged with members. That has been a great joy to me. There are many examples in which his and his colleagues’ good intentions in other respects appear to exist only briefly then to vanish into thin air.

I also thank colleagues on the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee—in particular, my good friend Jackie Baillie, whose wise counsel we now greatly miss on the committee—and all those who gave evidence. It is a reflection of the consensus on the bill and of good working relationships that, for the first time as an MSP, I did not press any of my stage 2 amendments.

I thought that I would have six minutes for this speech, but I have only four. I will use that time to say a little bit more about the two amendments that I moved and secured earlier this afternoon, which sought to empower consumer Scotland to promote environmentally sustainable consumption, and to foster wellbeing.

I think that it was agreed that the bill was too narrowly focused on what I would describe as a traditional view of consumerism: a linear and transactional view. It is now widely accepted that globally, as a society, we consume as if we had three planets’ worth of natural resources, and as if we had the capacity to absorb the waste that we create. Friends of the Earth Scotland has done some analysis of the matter, and recently concluded that Scotland’s material consumption across all sectors accounts for 68 per cent to 74 per cent of our entire carbon footprint.

We need to move towards a circular economy; I hope that there will be legislation in that regard quite soon. That would mean having an economy that cuts carbon emissions and reduces the amount of waste that we generate, thereby providing employment opportunities, lowering the cost of goods and so on.

I did some investigations on the subject. It was interesting to note that, internationally, the United Nations has adopted guidelines for sustainable consumption. In its most recent conference on trade and development, it highlighted the importance of consumer protection laws and their being based on promotion of sustainable consumption.

We need to reduce our consumption of natural resources, because they are finite and because consumption of them drives climate change. We need to do that because rates of consumption in the rich world impose a disproportionate debt on poor countries, and because consumer choice can too often drive the process of damage to the natural world. Not only that, but we have international legal obligations under the UN sustainable development goals—in particular, goal 12, which is to

“Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.”

To date, worldwide material consumption has topped 92 billion tonnes. It is projected that without urgent and concerted political action, global resource extraction could grow to 190 billion tonnes by 2060. That growth is not sustainable. Consumers, and how they acquire, use and dispose of goods, are key to correcting that trajectory. I am delighted that consumer Scotland will now have an important, albeit modest, role in securing that goal.

Another matter that was widely discussed at stage 2 was wellbeing, which is now an important policy goal of the Scottish Government and, indeed, of a number of Governments globally. We believe that wellbeing can be advanced by high standards of consumer advice. UN sustainable development goal 3 places a duty on us to promote wellbeing, and wellbeing also sits at the heart of our national performance framework.

Over the past few weeks, people’s lives have changed dramatically. We are flying less, driving less, producing less and consuming less. That reduction in consumption will have an immediate effect on the natural environment. As, in time, the crisis recedes and we move into the recovery phase, we might expect that there will be longer-term consequences for our patterns of consumption. Some of those will be very necessary changes, so I am pleased that the Scottish Greens will support the bill at decision time.

16:18  



Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

The global outbreak of coronavirus overshadows the debate, and has permanently changed the already complex landscape of consumer protection and advice. The nature of the emergency and its impact on the wider world—not least on the economy and consumerism—is the subject of intense scrutiny, and will be for many years to come.

We welcome the creation of consumer Scotland, but it needs to add value to what already exists, rather than displacing or duplicating it.

Consumer advice remains patchy and can be confusing for vulnerable and older people, as was highlighted by Age Scotland at stage 2. The creation, through the bill, of a new body, with its duty to consider the interests of vulnerable consumers—in particular, disabled, older, low-income and rural consumers—is of paramount importance, yet it remains unclear in the bill how consumer Scotland will interact with existing bodies. I look forward to clarification of that in the minister’s closing speech.

Citizens Advice Scotland does valuable work on everything from social security and housing, to employment, to relationships and so much more. Its importance to society has been highlighted throughout the current emergency. A recent survey for Citizens Advice Scotland found that the financial impact of the coronavirus is such that more than 40 per cent of Scots are concerned about their income, with a third of respondents expressing concern about their ability to pay rent or utility bills. In that light, Citizens Advice Scotland has, like many other organisations, launched a new helpline. The helpline will supplement the service in its 59 local offices, and will offer guidance and support for people in need.

Covid-19 has created an array of new challenges when it comes to protecting the most vulnerable people in our society. Protecting vulnerable people from fraudulent activity, including scams, has become so much more important, as is outlined in the Competition and Markets Authority’s report, “Protecting consumers during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic: update on the work of the CMA’s Taskforce”, which was published on 24 April. Although the majority of businesses continue to behave responsibly during these unprecedented circumstances, a very small minority are exploiting the situation by making misleading claims about goods and services, or by ignoring customers’ attempts to cancel bookings or exercise other rights.

As it stands, the whole new system that the bill will create does not take proper account of other organisations in Scotland that play an important part in the consumer landscape. As we plan for the future, it will be imperative that Scotland takes a more nuanced and collective approach to consumer protection. That is another reason why we need assurances that consumer Scotland will add something new.

The current pandemic is not the only challenge ahead: what will happen with Brexit is also central to consumer safety. Currently, about 90 directives and regulations make up the body of European Union consumer protection law. Car hire, holidays, restaurants, product quality and advertising are all legislated for by Europe. Outside the single market, protections could easily be diluted and trade agreements could expose our markets to forces that work against the interests of British and Scottish consumers.

What will happen to the weekly alerts about dangerous products? Electrical Safety First says that, last year alone, white goods caused a house fire almost every day in Scotland. Jackie Baillie mentioned that in her remarks on her amendment 3, which requires consumer Scotland to establish a central database of major recalled goods and inform consumers who are adversely affected in that regard. Jackie Baillie’s approach is significant, and will reduce the harm that is caused by defective and faulty goods. We need strong advocates to protect consumers.

I have raised concerns about protecting consumers’ rights online. The CMA notes that, since the beginning of April, the proportion of complaints that relate to online goods and services has risen: some 74 per cent of complaints about cancellations have related to goods and services that were bought online. Those are just some of the challenges that the new body will face.

I am running out of time, Presiding Officer. The combination of the people-focused approach that is provided by a wide realm of organisations and a holistic higher-level approach has the potential to deliver concrete and sustainable improvements for the people who most need them. The Liberal Democrats will therefore be happy to support the bill at decision time.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

We move to the open debate.

16:23  



Keith Brown (Clackmannanshire and Dunblane) (SNP)

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in support of the bill, which seeks to safeguard consumers’ interests and welfare, and to ensure that they can play a part in building the inclusive and sustainable economy that Scotland requires in the 21st century.

As Richard Leonard said, classic liberal market ideology suggests that the consumer is king or queen, but very often what we see, especially from free marketeers, is the championing of vested interests, corporations and large organisations at the expense of consumers. I have never understood why people who believe in free markets do not do more to champion the interests of consumers.

I have always believed that markets are important and can be productive, but they should be subject to society’s control rather than society being controlled by markets. We can see examples of the egregious misuse of power when we look at what has happened to people’s travel plans and consider the unwillingness of companies to return money that was paid to them in good faith even though they did not provide the services that were paid for.

At a time of such uncertainty about our exit from the EU, the climate emergency and the coronavirus pandemic, it is more important than ever that people who live in Scotland have a strong and independent voice to champion their interests as consumers and ensure that they are not left behind by forces outside their control.

Members mentioned the huge and understandable drop-off in consumption. When we have the recovery, I hope that companies small and large will appreciate that consumers should never be taken for granted and should be given the rights that they are due. Consumer Scotland can be the champion for ensuring that that happens. It should make sure that there is an understanding that it will operate in a complex consumer landscape, and that it will complement and work with bodies that already provide excellent advice and advocacy services. It is good to see support for those principles and the bill across the chamber and from bodies such as the Law Society for Scotland and Which?. Members of the Scottish Parliament have to strive to improve the lot of our constituents, and that means empowering them to take decisions over their own lives and ridding our communities of want and poverty.

The bill represents an important tool for the Government in its efforts to address the power imbalances that our constituents continue to experience. Every day, our constituents experience harm as consumers—some examples have been given already—that are enabled through the distinct imbalances of power that allow those with particular vulnerabilities to be exploited. Members have rightly raised the injustices of exorbitant delivery charges for their rural constituents, and my constituents face difficulties with energy and utility providers. Today, we have the opportunity to support a bill that will protect constituents from those harms and empower them to participate as well-informed and active members of inclusive and fair markets in Scotland.

However, as always, the debates over how we may best improve our society and the lives of our constituents are constrained by the Scottish Parliament’s lack of powers. To me, it is absurd that the UK Parliament retains any powers over consumer protection and competition—full powers that were sought by the Scottish Government. I know that I speak for many colleagues when I talk of feeling a deep frustration that, when Scotland seeks to lead within the UK, we are often constrained by a UK Government that holds important reserved powers but lacks the ambition or vision to use them. What possible opposition could there be to devolving further powers to the Scottish Parliament? The division of these particularly powers between the Scottish and UK Parliaments does not make any sense. If people were to look at the situation objectively, they would not be able to see why the division of powers in this area has been decided in the way that it has. It is to the credit of the Scottish Government that it has managed to put together a rational bill that will help to address those issues, but we cannot pretend that this is the best way to conduct our affairs.

The empowerment of the powerless and the vulnerable, and in this case of the individual against the faceless corporations, is best served by handing the Scottish Parliament further powers. Let us face it: a Tory-led, post-Brexit Britain could provide no stronger argument for increased powers for Scotland and it also raises, as Alex Cole-Hamilton said, real concerns for consumer rights and protections. Tory MPs have promised a bonfire of EU regulations, which could have significant repercussions for consumers in Scotland. There is a real risk that standards and rights will be slashed in a race to the bottom. It is not right or just that attempts by Parliament to advance the rights of consumers in Scotland could be undone by a rampant right-wing Tory Government in hock to its big business donors. Until the Scottish Parliament has full powers over our affairs, we will continue to work with one hand tied behind our back, and the bill could be much improved—[Interruption.]

The Deputy Presiding Officer

The member is just closing.

Keith Brown

The bill could be much improved with full powers for the Parliament over matters of competition and consumer enforcement.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Please close, Mr Brown.

Keith Brown

However, I am pleased to speak in favour of the bill, which will safeguard the consumer interests of my constituents and others across Scotland.

16:28  



Michelle Ballantyne (South Scotland) (Con)

Ironically, the first line of my speech was going to be, “The Consumer Scotland bill is by and large an uncontentious bill”. Having listened to Keith Brown, I might have to take that back.

The protection offered to small businesses after the stage 2 amendments is extremely welcome. Particularly in the present climate, no member would think that it was not a good decision to agree such a measure at stage 3. The other bit I really liked was the duty to consider vulnerable consumers, although the Law Society indicated in its briefing that

“the definition of ‘vulnerable consumers’ could be improved”.

We need to consider that as the bill progresses.

Because I have only four minutes, and I will try to stick to my four minutes, I just want to touch on the things in the bill that I have concerns about. My first concern is about not only how the agency will operate once it is established but the consequences of the functions that come to it.

That was probably highlighted best in the evidence that was received from Energy Action Scotland, which said that the proposal for 20 staff at a budget of £2.5 million would not be sufficient for the new agency to effectively carry out all the functions for which it will be responsible.

We must ensure that the agency does not grow arms and legs but, when the bill came before the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee, many witnesses seemed to be unclear about what consumer Scotland’s role would be. There seemed to be a feeling that the Scottish Government should have decided what the body would do before taking decisions on its framework and creating financial estimates which, of course, might well now be out of date.

Consumer Scotland’s relationship with existing organisations will probably be the real test of how effective the organisation will be. Colleagues have already said that we must be careful that the agency does not clutter the consumer rights landscape or cause any confusion to consumers, but it is easy to see how that could occur. I have written a small list of bodies that consumers can already turn to. It includes Which?, the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets, Ofcom, the Competition and Markets Authority, Advice Direct Scotland, Energy Action Scotland, Shelter Scotland and, of course, Citizens Advice Scotland, which Alex Cole-Hamilton talked about at length. We have to remember that Citizens Advice Scotland formerly did a lot of the work that the new agency is going to do and will lose funding and, potentially, staff to the new agency. That might have implications for the other work that CAS does. We will have to watch that situation carefully.

It is also important to note that the various organisations are specialists in their own fields. Therefore, consumer Scotland must put an emphasis on co-ordinating those organisations and on using rather than superseding the talent and knowledge that is already in place.

I will conclude in a moment, because a lot of what I was going to say has already been said, and not everything merits being repeated. Jackie Baillie’s amendment on data was important. Some of the work that I am now doing with the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee is about calling for better data and ensuring that we have accessibility to data on all the things that come before us, because it is with good data that we can check what is going on and revisit things in a way that ensures that we can make good decisions for the future.

We have indicated that we will support the bill. However, despite Keith Brown’s commentary, there is a risk of powers being used for their own sake, and that of creating a whole agency to use those powers simply because we have them. Although I recognise that Scotland has some of its own consumer rights issues that could be better dealt with by a Scotland-specific organisation, I ask that the Scottish Government does not rush into the implementation of this new body and, instead, provides further clarity on its finances and functions to ensure that Scottish taxpayers are getting value for money and that we do not just create a mess about who is responsible for what, leaving consumers less than clear about where they can get much-needed support when they need it.

16:32  



Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab)

I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in the debate, although I am sorry to say that I do not really think that we should be having it just now. I say that very much as a convert to the new consumer Scotland body. Equally, I must say that I am astonished—but not surprised—that Keith Brown had to raise constitutional issues in his speech. I expect that in normal circumstances but, frankly, I do not expect that now—the challenge that is before the country deserves a far better response than that.

I have been clear that, while people are dying of Covid-19 in our hostels, care homes and communities and the country is in lockdown, we should not be debating something that has little direct impact on the crisis. Frankly, I do not believe that we should be using time in this chamber to debate anything other than how we protect our people and our businesses during these exceptional times.

There are other reasons for my view. First, consumer Scotland will not be operational for many months. Like any body, it will take time to recruit staff and establish itself. There is, therefore, no immediate rush.

Secondly, as members across the chamber have said, we already have an effective network of citizens advice bureaux, and that, coupled with the expertise that rests in Citizens Advice Scotland, will continue to provide vital consumer services. In addition, we have the Scottish Government-commissioned Advice Direct Scotland, which is new on the consumer landscape.

Finally, I am aware, as are we all, of the significant scale of the financial intervention to tackle Covid-19. Although it is true that the bulk of the money has come from the UK Government, there is, nevertheless, a problem for the Scottish budget. Our revenue-raising streams have reduced, but we have not assessed the impact on income tax, land and buildings transaction tax or business rates. We also know that there will be additional costs in our social security system—council tax benefit and the Scottish welfare fund are just two areas where demand is likely to increase. Although the cost of consumer Scotland might be only £5 million over the next two years—a small amount in the context of the Scottish budget—I am concerned that we should not commit to new spending without first carrying out a robust financial review across all Government.

All that said, I pay tribute to the minister for his approach. He has worked collaboratively with the Economy, Energy and Fair Work Committee and me. I am grateful to him for doing that—in particular, for supporting my Whirlpool amendment; he tried to nick it at stage 2, but we got it back.

Members of the Labour group and Co-operative parties have long championed the rights of consumers. We believe that a well-functioning economy and well-informed and empowered consumers drive up standards, innovation and value for money. Of course, the current economy is different from the economy in the 1960s and 1970s, when Labour and Co-operative MPs developed the raft of measures that underpins much of today’s legislation.

Technology has moved on apace; a few months ago, who would have thought that I would now know about Zoom, Microsoft Teams or BlueJeans? There are different ways of doing business, and consumer markets do not always function well, so there is a need to update legislation in the UK Parliament as well as the Scottish Parliament.

Any legislation that we pass here must seek to protect consumers. We already have a cluttered and confusing landscape. If the new body serves to clear it up a bit, that will be helpful. However, some fear that it is just a piece of nation building and that the services it will provide already exist. I am sure that the minister will tell me otherwise.

How the body acts and whether it has the interests of consumers at its heart will be determining factors in judging consumer Scotland’s success. It cannot be just another Scottish Government quango; it needs to deliver for consumers across Scotland. I will be happy to support the bill at decision time.

16:37  



Stuart McMillan (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)

I will not touch on the politics side of things, because we have to move on from that. Apart from perhaps one or two points, which I will come on to in a moment, I will attempt to unite the chamber with my comments.

I welcome the bill and I thank the minister for bringing it before Parliament. Many aspects of public policy have no party politics and are a wonderful opportunity to help every person that we serve. This bill is an example of that.

I move to an issue on which I hope that the chamber can unite—the siting of consumer Scotland. I make a bid for my area, Greenock and Inverclyde. The minister was part of the Texas Instruments task force, so he is aware of the employment challenges and opportunities in the Inverclyde area. He attended a number of the task force meetings and was instrumental in getting the joint funding package from the Scottish Government and Inverclyde Council, which secured Diodes inc as the buyer for the Texas Instruments plant in Greenock, which it took over.

The siting of consumer Scotland in my constituency would be useful, because it would create employment and help with the local economic situation. As colleagues across the chamber know, over the past couple of weeks, my area has been in the media because of Covid-19. Because of the age demographic, we need more younger people and people who are working to come and live there; the siting of a new agency would help with that.

Schedule 1 of the bill refers to the location of the offices. I will formally write to the minister on the issue, and he can be sure that I will encourage people in my constituency to write to the Government as well.

I genuinely commend two of today’s amendments—Jackie Baillie’s Whirlpool amendment and Ruth Maguire’s amendment 20. Those amendments strengthen the legislation, and more people will have a better outcome as a consequence. I therefore pay tribute to both members. I am sure that Jackie Baillie will agree that my paying tribute to her, or to other Labour Party members, is not something that I often do, but credit should be given where it is due. Well done.

I whole-heartedly welcome the power that will be available to consumer Scotland to make grants and loans. I also welcome the various reporting mechanisms that will be in place, such as the reports on investigations and the consumer welfare reports.

I consider it important that, as a public body, consumer Scotland should operate according to certain sets of criteria. The first set relates to value for money, which was touched on earlier, and the second relates to working with stakeholders to ensure that consumer Scotland does not duplicate the existing outstanding work of the organisations that work in the consumer protection landscape. I am pleased that both sets of criteria will, in my opinion, be met.

I also consider that the legislation will be a valuable addition to that landscape. Furthermore, the fact that consumer Scotland has the support of Which? and the Scottish Retail Consortium indicates to me that Parliament will enhance consumer fairness tonight. I will be genuinely pleased to support the bill tonight.

16:42  



Claire Baker (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

Consumer trust is a serious matter. It is important that consumer Scotland forms part of a coherent and robust system of advice and redress for consumers, and MSPs’ amendments have strengthened the bill.

In the stage 1 debate, I and other members spoke of the need to define the objectives of the body more clearly to ensure that external organisations and consumers are clear on what it is, its purpose and how it will operate. In its briefing for the debate, the Law Society of Scotland has repeated its concerns regarding any duplication of functions and efforts, and I support the suggestion that consumer Scotland be invited to join the consumer protection partnership.

Having a network in which the responsibilities and abilities of each part are clear to consumers is also a key consideration. Consumers need to be able to trust in the system and its ability to provide protection. As other members have highlighted, a range of stakeholders are already involved in consumer issues. To avoid confusion, the role of consumer Scotland must be clear, and it must work collaboratively with other bodies, including those in the third sector, to ensure that we have a coherent system that is easy for consumers to understand.

I have a particular interest in action to address ticket touting and stop the exploitation of music and sport fans through the resale of tickets at inflated prices. Ticket touts are creating profits for themselves, but they are not supporting artists, promoters or venues in any way. Although most consumer powers remain reserved to Westminster, I welcome the more recent action from the Competition and Markets Authority and others in taking a more aggressive approach to touting and improving transparency for consumers. However, more still needs to be done to close the gaps in legislation that allow such unscrupulous practices to take place. That is an area that I would like to see consumer Scotland look into by providing research and additional advocacy for change. I also hope that consumer Scotland is able to act to influence and persuade the relevant bodies in cases for which consumer powers remain reserved.

The position of Scottish Labour on the timing of the debate has been made clear this afternoon. We are in an unprecedented situation and should focus our limited parliamentary time carefully. However, it is worth considering how the coronavirus pandemic is influencing and will influence the consumer landscape. I have spoken about ticket touting but, at the moment, the issue is more about how we get refunds for tickets, rather than the sale of tickets.

We are already seeing some welcome steps for consumers through extended return periods for purchases, part refunds for car insurance in the light of reduced use and a pausing of TV subscriptions for sports services. However, those are all the decisions of businesses, not requirements. There are also on-going problems with holiday and flight refunds.

In the events sector, many venues have organised a choice of refunds or credit vouchers for cancelled events in the short term, but there are also examples of those who are reorganising events being unable or unwilling to provide refunds if the new dates are unsuitable for the ticket holder, and of venues struggling to offer refunds for performances that will no longer take place. Although I am sympathetic to venues and promoters that are looking to minimise their financial losses, and in some instances survive, consumers must be protected from having those losses passed on to them. As we move out of the current situation, we need to consider what that will mean for consumers who are looking for event tickets—the extra protections that they will have and whether that will all inevitably come at a higher price.

We should also be aware of the likelihood that many more companies will focus their operations online, and of the new and different responsibilities that they will need to fulfil for consumers as a result. We need to ensure that they are fully aware of the rights that are extended to consumers.

If Parliament passes the bill today, it will be important to consider the job that consumer Scotland will have in a post-coronavirus landscape. The operating environment will unquestionably have changed, as will the wants and needs of consumers. We must ensure that the new body is able to respond effectively to those challenges.

16:46  



Gordon Lindhurst (Lothian) (Con)

I have looked at the bill again this afternoon, having done so both when I was convener of the Economy, Energy and Fair Work committee, and also in this chamber when the bill was at stage 1.

Most of the bill is not controversial, although one or two of this afternoon’s exchanges did turn out to be slightly that: Keith Brown’s speech, for example.

The discussion that was had between Richard Leonard and the minister means that I should, perhaps, put on record that I do not think that Richard Leonard approached me to discuss his laudable amendment prior to today. However, both he and the minister detailed in extenso their discussions on the matter.

It is important for consumers to be protected and the measures set out in the bill are welcome—provided that the new body fulfils its role in an efficient and effective manner. That is the main point that I would like to emphasise. I do not propose to repeat what others have said, as that would serve no further purpose. Repeated assurances alone of goodwill from the Parliament, on a variety of subjects and measures, do nothing to help anyone, which is why I make that main point.

A few areas of concern remain about some parts of the bill, its stated aims and whether those aims can be achieved. There is a possible continued risk of duplication. As the committee heard in evidence from several bodies, including Citizens Advice Scotland, they already provide consumer advice, their funding might be affected by the bill, or their role might be perceived to be diminished, unless there is a clear set of lines. There is a bit of work to be done on that as the new body is brought into operation.

There is also a need to ensure that confusion does not arise between intra-UK bodies and their various roles. In his response to the committee, the minister gave a commitment in principle on the possibility of a Scottish consumer protection partnership. That was welcome, because such a partnership could help to co-ordinate matters in the way that the similarly-named body does in England.

There are areas that probably need a bit of work, and I am sure that the minister will work on those to ensure that consumer Scotland will be able to realise its purpose and work effectively and properly across the consumer landscape. One of those areas is its ability to help tackle consumer harm online. There is a major issue with that, not only in Scotland but in the UK generally. Consumer Scotland could help with that, and therefore I welcome the provisions in part 1 of the bill, which sees the functions of the body widen to include that area.

The body that will be set up by the bill will be effective if it works in co-operation not only with the bodies that are present in Scotland already, but with others in the UK. To repeat my main point, the new body, and the provisions of the bill, must be deployed effectively and efficiently. On that basis, we support the bill.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I call Jamie Hepburn to wind up the debate. If you could take us to just before 5 o’clock, that would be useful—six or seven minutes please, minister.

16:50  



Jamie Hepburn

Thank you, Presiding Officer. I am sure that I can rely on you to keep me right about how close to 5 o’clock I should run.

I am grateful to the colleagues who have taken time to contribute to today’s debate on what I hope is still viewed, as Michelle Ballantyne said, as a relatively uncontentious bill. From the stage 1 debate onwards, we have come together to support the principles of the bill. We have collectively recognised the value of giving consumers a stronger voice and we have all recognised in the current context the particular need to do so in the light of what markets might look like in the future. We have also recognised that it is critical to ensure that the consumer voice is a central part of policy and of decision making.

The collective approach that we have taken and the support that I have mentioned are signs of the importance that we all place on achieving fairness for consumers. That approach supports businesses that do the right thing, strengthens trust among our citizens and helps us to build a more inclusive and fairer Scotland.

That is why, when the powers were devolved to this Parliament in 2016, the Government recognised the need to use those powers to seek better outcomes for consumers. I thank the members of the 2015 working group on consumer and competition policy, which considered what could be achieved. That was a group of independent participants from outwith the Government, who came together and recommended the creation of consumer Scotland. It has been a long process to reach the point that we are at today, but we have taken time to get it right.

A number of members—Maurice Golden, Alex Cole-Hamilton, Michelle Ballantyne and Gordon Lindhurst in particular—have remarked that the consumer system across the UK, and in Scotland, is a crowded one. That is a fair concern to raise. We have ensured that that is accounted for in the establishment of consumer Scotland. We have made it explicit in the bill that there are other bodies whose work and roles must be recognised by consumer Scotland. We will define in regulations those bodies that consumer Scotland must—although not exclusively—take account of. That is laid out in the legislation.

We have also made a clear commitment to establish a Scottish consumer protection partnership, which will involve all the organisations that have that role. Claire Baker was right to point out that the Law Society of Scotland has recommended that consumer Scotland should be a member of the existing UK consumer protection partnership. That is not in my gift, but I agree that it would be a sensible step and I see no impediment or barrier to that happening.

Concerns have been expressed about the cluttered landscape. It is worth reminding ourselves that those other bodies that we have referred to support the creation of consumer Scotland. The very bodies that people think might regard consumer Scotland as an addition to the clutter are themselves supporting its creation. Citizens Advice Scotland and Advice Direct Scotland, both of which have been mentioned, support the establishment of consumer Scotland.

That takes me on to a point that Gordon Lindhurst raised. He said that concerns had been expressed that, in future, citizens advice bureaux and Citizens Advice Scotland might have a diminished role in consumer advocacy. That is not my intent—I have been clear that Citizens Advice Scotland has a very clear on-going role to play in that regard. Not only is the notion that we have committed less funding to Citizens Advice Scotland incorrect, but we have committed more funding to CAS in the area of consumer advocacy for the coming year.

Richard Leonard and Keith Brown rightly spoke about their concerns for the most vulnerable consumers in our society. It was always our intent—as we have, I hope, laid out clearly—that consumer Scotland must consider vulnerable consumers in particular in its area of activity. We have finessed our approach and reached a very good position in laying out who should be considered as a vulnerable consumer.

I want to pick up on an issue that Richard Leonard raised in speaking to his amendment and again in the debate. I agree with him entirely that communities, whether they are geographical communities or communities of interest, should be considered as consumers by consumer Scotland. I give him an assurance that the bill allows for that in the context of how it defines a consumer.

Richard Leonard expressed concern that consumer Scotland should be accountable to Parliament rather than to Government, and I agree with him on that. I refer him to the fact that, under section 13 of the bill, ministers will have no direct role in the forward work programme for consumer Scotland, which must be laid before Parliament. In addition, the annual report, as set out in section 15; the consumer welfare report, as set out in section 16; and the review of consumer Scotland’s performance—which will be undertaken by an external agency and not by the Government—must all be laid before the Parliament. Consumer Scotland as a body will be directly accountable to this democratically elected Parliament, as is right and proper.

Lastly, I must respond to Stuart McMillan, who is quite correct in lobbying early in respect of where the new body should be located. I would be happy to have any correspondence from him in that regard—we are not yet at the stage of determining where consumer Scotland will be located, but we will consider the matter closely.

We have before us the opportunity to pass legislation that—I believe—recognises that issues around consumers and consumption cover far more than simply buying goods from shops or retail outlets, and that, looking beyond the traditional view, a body can be set up to protect consumers. It should recognise the challenges that we currently face, which—while they may not be those that we will face in years to come—have underlined the importance of protecting and considering the interests of consumers, especially the most vulnerable. I look forward to our passing the bill to ensure that consumer Scotland can get on with that work in the years ahead.

Final vote on the Bill

After the final discussion of the Bill, MSPs vote on whether they think it should become law.

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Final vote transcript

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

There are two questions to be put as a result of today’s business.

The first question is, that motion S5M-21657, in the name of Jamie Hepburn, on the Consumer Scotland Bill at stage 3, be agreed to. Because the motion concerns the passing of a bill, we will move to a division. Members should cast their votes now.

For

Wightman, Andy (Lothian) (Green)
Whittle, Brian (South Scotland) (Con)
Wheelhouse, Paul (South Scotland) (SNP)
Wells, Annie (Glasgow) (Con)
Watt, Maureen (Aberdeen South and North Kincardine) (SNP)
Torrance, David (Kirkcaldy) (SNP)
Todd, Maree (Highlands and Islands) (SNP)
Stewart, David (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)
Stewart, Alexander (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)
Smyth, Colin (South Scotland) (Lab)
Smith, Liz (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)
Simpson, Graham (Central Scotland) (Con)
Sarwar, Anas (Glasgow) (Lab)
Rumbles, Mike (North East Scotland) (LD)
Robison, Shona (Dundee City East) (SNP)
Rennie, Willie (North East Fife) (LD)
McMillan, Stuart (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)
McKelvie, Christina (Hamilton, Larkhall and Stonehouse) (SNP)
McAlpine, Joan (South Scotland) (SNP)
Mason, John (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)
Martin, Gillian (Aberdeenshire East) (SNP)
Maguire, Ruth (Cunninghame South) (SNP)
Macpherson, Ben (Edinburgh Northern and Leith) (SNP)
Mackay, Rona (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)
MacGregor, Fulton (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)
Macdonald, Lewis (North East Scotland) (Lab)
MacDonald, Angus (Falkirk East) (SNP)
Lindhurst, Gordon (Lothian) (Con)
Leonard, Richard (Central Scotland) (Lab)
Lennon, Monica (Central Scotland) (Lab)
Kidd, Bill (Glasgow Anniesland) (SNP)
Kerr, Liam (North East Scotland) (Con)
Kelly, James (Glasgow) (Lab)
Johnstone, Alison (Lothian) (Green)
Johnson, Daniel (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)
Hepburn, Jamie (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth) (SNP)
Haughey, Clare (Rutherglen) (SNP)
Harvie, Patrick (Glasgow) (Green)
Halcro Johnston, Jamie (Highlands and Islands) (Con)
Greene, Jamie (West Scotland) (Con)
Gray, Iain (East Lothian) (Lab)
Golden, Maurice (West Scotland) (Con)
Gibson, Kenneth (Cunninghame North) (SNP)
Findlay, Neil (Lothian) (Lab)
Fabiani, Linda (East Kilbride) (SNP)
Ewing, Fergus (Inverness and Nairn) (SNP)
Ewing, Annabelle (Cowdenbeath) (SNP)
Doris, Bob (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)
Dey, Graeme (Angus South) (SNP)
Davidson, Ruth (Edinburgh Central) (Con)
Cunningham, Roseanna (Perthshire South and Kinross-shire) (SNP)
Corry, Maurice (West Scotland) (Con)
Constance, Angela (Almond Valley) (SNP)
Cole-Hamilton, Alex (Edinburgh Western) (LD)
Coffey, Willie (Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley) (SNP)
Carlaw, Jackson (Eastwood) (Con)
Campbell, Aileen (Clydesdale) (SNP)
Brown, Keith (Clackmannanshire and Dunblane) (SNP)
Briggs, Miles (Lothian) (Con)
Boyack, Sarah (Lothian) (Lab)
Bowman, Bill (North East Scotland) (Con)
Ballantyne, Michelle (South Scotland) (Con)
Balfour, Jeremy (Lothian) (Con)
Baker, Claire (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)
Baillie, Jackie (Dumbarton) (Lab)
Arthur, Tom (Renfrewshire South) (SNP)
Adam, George (Paisley) (SNP)

The Presiding Officer

The result of the division is: For 67, Against 0, Abstentions 0.

Motion agreed to,

That the Parliament agrees that the Consumer Scotland Bill be passed.

The Presiding Officer

The motion has been agreed to and therefore the Consumer Scotland Bill is passed. [Applause.]

As no member objects, I propose to ask a single question on the two Parliamentary Bureau motions.

Motions agreed to,

That the Parliament agrees that the Justice Committee be designated as the lead committee in consideration of the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill.

That the Parliament agrees that the Health Protection (Coronavirus) (Restrictions) (Scotland) Amendment (No. 2) Regulations 2020 (SSI 2020/126) be approved.

Meeting closed at 17:01.  



Consumer Scotland Bill as passed

This Bill was passed on 6 May 2020 and became an Act on 9 June 2020 
Find the Consumer Scotland Act 2020 on legislation.gov.uk

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