Meeting date: Wednesday, May 6, 2020
Meeting of the Parliament 06 May 2020
Agenda: One Minute’s Silence, First Minister’s Question Time, Business Motion, Consumer Scotland Bill: Stage 3, Consumer Scotland Bill, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time
- One Minute’s Silence
- First Minister’s Question Time
- Business Motion
- Consumer Scotland Bill: Stage 3
- Consumer Scotland Bill
- Business Motion
- Parliamentary Bureau Motions
- Decision Time
Consumer Scotland Bill
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
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.
That the Parliament agrees that the Consumer Scotland Bill be passed.16:04
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
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
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
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.
We move to the open debate.16:23
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 member is just closing.
The bill could be much improved with full powers for the Parliament over matters of competition and consumer enforcement.
Please close, Mr 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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.