Friday, 10 May 2013

Sharp practice has got out of hand The Tories must give a voice to the embattled consumer Laura Sandys MP Opinion Piece in The Times

Horsemeat in burgers, dodgy supermarket promotions, Equitable Life, product shrinkage, doorstep mis-selling, PPI. . . the list of consumer scandals seems to grow and grow. Big business has some way to fall before it earns the reputation that politicians or bankers enjoy but that is no excuse for letting them take consumers for a ride.
While most large companies offer an honest service or decent products at reasonable prices, there are some unacceptable practices being perpetrated against consumers every day. One particular favourite of some retailers or food manufacturers is the incredible shrinking portion. The packaging misleadingly stays the same shape and size but the contents are dramatically reduced. That explains how that £1 cottage pie can stay the same price despite commodity prices rocketing. According to an investigation last month by The Grocer one chain of bakers had shrunk its bacon rolls by 18 per cent and its pasties by 5 per cent. One retail analyst has explained that shrinkage has become a “common tool”.
Another customer-unfriendly trick is “yo-yo pricing”. A product is sold in a few supermarket branches for a limited period at a deliberately inflated price, then as part of a “promotion” it is sold at a “discount” across all of its stores. This is the normal selling price yet the customer is manipulated into thinking they have a bargain. One chain has been accused of raising and lowering prices so much that it was impossible to even establish what its baseline prices were. Others have had their “value” promises investigated by the Advertising Standards Authority.
Cheap products are sometimes the most expensive in the long term. For instance, a lot of my constituents have been complaining about “giveaway” TVs, half the price of the others. The catch? They are invisible energy guzzlers yet there is no “health warning” to ensure that the consumer knows that the resulting energy bills will quickly eat away any saving.
As well as cheap tricks, there are also more structural problems — in some markets, such as electricity and gas, consumers do not have enough accurate and useful information about the products they are buying. In other markets, such as financial services, it’s simply too difficult or complicated for consumers to get redress when something goes wrong.
Coalition ministers have introduced greater transparency, competition and accountability into the public services; now they must do the same in the private sector. The aim must be to ensure we are as much the champion of the consumer in the high street as of the patient in the NHS or the parent choosing a school.
Too much of current consumer law is “last resort” — helping customers when markets fail. We need to turn the consumer from victim to active participant, making, shaping and even breaking markets and preventing consumer rip-offs.
The current “marketplace” is certainly not of the kind that Adam Smith would approve of. Over the past 15 years, large companies have become mega companies and consumer choice has suffered. Too big to fail does not only refer to the banking sector. In 1997 there were 16 energy companies; by 2010 there were six. There were over a dozen large supermarket chains in 1997 but now the market is dominated by the big four of Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Morrison’s. That shows we need a much more robust competition policy.
Whitehall needs a consumer make-over with a minister responsible for consumers working across all departments, which tend to be too close to vested interests. The consumer voice isn’t heard often enough when policy is formulated. Similarly, the regulators are too often staffed by industry insiders who don’t naturally see things from the consumer’s perspective.
At a more basic level, we need retailers and utility companies to be better at giving information, free from deceit, distortions and obscurity, that customers can readily understand and use to compare rival products. Do you know what a KWh is? If you don’t you will struggle to make any sense of your electricity bill, yet most utility companies don’t try to make it easy for their customers. And the way food retailers label the contents of their products is sometimes only understandable with a food can require a food science degree.
While it is not the Government’s job to decide what people should and shouldn’t want it is a central responsibility of lawmakers to ensure that the markets are truthful and protect consumers. That’s why much larger public fines should be issued when companies have failed to be straight with their customers.
If the consumer isn't championed by Conservatives then Labour will fill the gap and they will introduce a system of protections that is too bureaucratic and burdensome. As Conservatives are friends of the true market economy it is now the party’s role to ensure that the consumer, rather than the producer, is king.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. I sympathise with Laura Sandys. I understand that there is blind panic in her camp over the success of UKIP in Thanet and she now has to come up with a way of getting re-elected without criticising her leader. However, this kind of thing won't do it. Esssentially Ms. Sandys is throwing mud at the food industry in an effort to deflect blame for the poverty many people are feeling from the government run by her party. It won't wash because the escalating prices are called inflation and this inflation is occuring on the Conservative party's watch.

    Many Tories worshipped Thatcher and one of the good things that Thatcher did was to ensure that her government took responsibility for reducing inflation and keeping it under control. She understood that inflation is the enemy of hard-working people who are trying to save money for their children's education or for their old age. Unfortunately, successive subsequent governments have distanced themselves from this responsibility and Laura's government is now pursuing a policy of letting inflation to rip as a way of reducing the deficit. In essence, people who have worked hard to save money are being forced to pay for the recession, rather than the profligate spenders and borrowers who created the problem in the first place. This isn't fair, and the people on the receiving end have had enough.

    Contrary to the simplistic analyses being presented by the press, UKIP's success at the polls is driven by disaffection amongst people who are working hard but going backwards. We hear so much about people who aren't working and how the system has to be changed to make it worth their while to work. Well, we need to same level of attention to people who are already working and saving. These people are trying to do the right thing and they are being betrayed by Laura's government. If Laura wants to save her seat she needs to front up to Dave and tell him that policy is wrong. Interest rates need to rise and property prices need to fall to allow a real recovery to begin.

    1. Many of the locals could do with smaller portions, particularly some of the cllrs!

    2. If Laura wants to keep her seat she needs to speak up on the corruption within TDC. After 3 years she's an irrelevance. And this food article simply requests further bureaucrats to police the failures of the existing bureaucrats. Thin gruel.

    3. Anon, if Laura Sandys were to speak out against TDC she would immediately stand charged of interfering in local government affairs. It is not within her remit as a constituency MP and all she can try to do is influence those she knows within the council. To actually speak up on corruption, which you can do anonymously on a blog, she would need rock solid evidence and, even then, that would be best passed to the appropriate authorities rather than by the MP direct. It is not some chain of command and at different levels of governance they have different responsibilities.

    4. I've never heard anything so ridiculous Allan: an MP scrutinises all public services. Laura could call for a Police investigation, call in the Chief Exec etc etc. The 0% salaries or missing Manston monitors couldn't be more rocksolid - the former were increases and the latter were removed.

      What cobblers your comments are. If you slavishly support the Tory view that's one thing, but the MP's role applies regardless of Party. Utter, utter cobblers presumably to excuse a pointless MP or prove yourself a fool.

    5. All with your usual charm and debating skills, Anon 17:00, simply insult anyone who dares to question your inadequate knowledge. Just read the Localism Act to discover the roles and powers of local authorities.

      Furthermore, as I have pointed out many times, I have little faith in any political party and I find the quality of leadership of them quite appalling. There are better leaders amongst Lance Corporals in our armed services. I do, nonetheless, give credit where due and Laura Sandys has been a far better constituency MP than her predecessor. I am sure she must at times despair as much as we public do with TDC, but her scope to interfere is severely limited. With a Labour administration in charge in Thanet she is hardly shielding her own side.

    6. Allan there is nothing much you can say to 0%, my guess is that 0% wouldn’t actually like to live in a police state where the police interfered in the workings of government, nor, I think would 0% like to live in an autocracy where national government interfered with the day to workings of local government.

      I would guess the flawed system we call democracy is about the best we are going to get and in terms of environmental control the EA, while by no means perfect, are trying to get the airport to become environmentally compliant to the extent they can obtain an environmental permit.

      That said I would strongly advise against calling the police and asking them to arrest senior local government officers as I guess you would probably face charges for wasting police time.

    7. Agreed, Michael, and I guess you are right about wasting one's time with 0%. One of those that wants everybody else's collar felt, but would scream facism if it were his.

      I suppose we soldier on trying to work the system we have to best advantage and, hopefully, electing at least some of the right and capable people to office. The politics show this Sunday promises a bit of local flavour with Simon Moores, Roger Latchford and Will Scobie all being interviewed. Let's hope it comes over a bit more positive about Thanet rather than just national politics soundbites or, worse, a confirmation of the Mary Portas show.

    8. Strange viewpoints from Allan and Michael as we've had the Council Leader arrested in Thanet - not for the first time - and an ongoing Police investigation underway. Of course an MP has scrutiny of local government and holds them to account along with other public sector organisations-rather Laura has proven to be inadequate and remain silent as has Gale. Or are you suggesting an MP would be aware of corruption or other wrongdoing and be expected to remain silent?

      Michael now seems to be backtracking on the aquifer along with his obsession with 0% or Aquifer Man or being closed down or whoever and a rather naïve faith in the public sector acting for the public rather than themselves. The EA are doing nothing in terms of ensuring cleanup at Manston - and have done nothing for years except issue warning notices to Infratil which are ignored.

      The head under the blankets approach is best exemplified by his being too fearful to speak out himself - clearly as mentioned above the Police are taking a serious interest in TDC. MP's duty bound not to speak out? What utter, utter tosh. And, rather, questions would be asked in parliament as to why the silence.

    9. 0%, since Michael and I are now such persona non grata, why don't you take your ill informed comments elsewhere or, better still, start your own blog where those that share them can join you.

    10. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    11. Explain the we, 12:18, for apart from yourself, who do you actually speak for whereas there seems to be quite a few, most of whom you have named yourself, lined up against. But, on the other hand, perhaps you can explain why two Conservative MPs would wish to cover up the corrupt activities of a Labour led council if such existed and were proveable.

    12. 0% much as it may amuse you, making the libellous allegation that both our MPs have aided and abetted criminal activity is something I have to assume can only be aimed as closing this blog and preventing free and open comment here, I have therefore deleted your comment.

      I have also restricted comment on this post which I assume it what you wish to achieve.


Please note comments that may be libellous, comments that may be construed as offensive and anonymous derogatory comments about real people will be deleted. Also note the facility to leave anonymous comment will be turned of during periods when I am unable to monitor comment, this will not affect people commenting who are signed on to their blogger accounts.

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.