The Government has decided an advocate to promote consumer rights is needed. So what will the role entail and will it have teeth or is it just a token gesture?

What is the consumer advocate and how will it work?

A consumer advocate will be appointed early next year by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills and is expected to play a high-profile role as part of consumer watchdog Consumer Focus.

The advocate will engage with the media and educate consumers about their rights as well as having legal powers to take on rogue retailers on behalf of consumers.

The advocate will act independently of government and will be responsible for co-ordinating work between various watchdogs – such as Consumer Focus, the Office of Fair Trading, Trading Standards and the Financial Services Authority.

What powers will the advocate have?

The Government is still consulting on exact responsibilities, but aims to give the advocate powers to take legal action on behalf of groups of consumers following breaches of consumer protection law.

Where does the advocate fit in with wider consumer policy?

The creation of the advocate is part of a wider shake-up of consumer laws published in a White Paper – A Better Deal for Consumers.

The paper sets out a “framework to enhance and enforce consumer rights in the wider economy and a changing world”, and includes measures to crack down on “persistent rogue traders”.
The measures aim to protect consumers from bad practices by retailers, banks, utility companies and even the Government.

What effect will the advocate have on retailers?

It depends on the powers the advocate ends up having. There will be limited resources, which will mean only the most clear-cut cases will be taken on. Reputable retailers should not be affected because they will already have procedures in place to deal with consumer satisfaction – most consumer problems are in fact resolved face-to-face and in stores. As long as the powers are not used disproportionately, there should be little effect on retailers.

What do retailers think?

The British Retail Consortium director for consumer and regulatory affairs Graham Wynn says it helps retailers if consumers know their rights as any disputes can be more easily settled on the shopfloor.

However, there are worries the new role might just be a “gesture” and lack teeth. Wynn believes the advocate should remain independent of Consumer Focus and that a further rationalisation of the “confusing” range of watchdogs is needed.