Do you know who to turn to when something goes wrong?
This question may sound straightforward but actually sits at the very heart of the constant battle of how best to protect consumers in the 21st century.
Whether you’ve hit a roadblock requesting a refund on faulty goods, been ripped off by a fraudulent company or have unwittingly purchased counterfeit products, do not fret, trading standards has your back. But at a time where people increasingly shop online and find themselves struggling to deal with businesses overseas, in comes the UK ECC and saves your day.
The UK European Consumer Centre (UK ECC) is the UK-based specialist advice service for consumer disputes within Europe and has been hosted by the Chartered Trading Standards Institute (CTSI) since 2008. A vital member of the European Consumer Centres Network, or ECC-Net, and co-funded by the European Commission and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), it plays a pivotal role in empowering consumers to confidently conduct business with European markets. Thanks to its diligent team, which handles an impressive 4,000 hours of calls yearly from concerned consumers, it is now recognised as one of the most prolific centres on the Network.
It takes on approximately 16,000 cases per-year, of which 6,000 result in further action such as document assistance, direct retailer communication and constant interaction with the other 29 consumer centres on the Network.
Leading the team is CTSI’s Director of Operations, Andy Allen, who has seen the Centre’s capacity expand exponentially through the years, as more consumers sought its advice. He notes: “The Centre has grown year-on-year and we are now in a position to help thousands of people who may not have known who to turn to otherwise. On a daily basis we do our best to ensure that nobody is left in the lurch.”
Called upon once consumers have exhausted their own dispute-resolution options with traders, the Centre handles a plethora of cases, often involving niche and at times tricky issues. “We’ve had cases involving anything from fingers in dog food to under-performing sex toys” Allen muses. “I think it’s a testament to the team at hand, that it could deal with anything thrown at it and still provide professional advice to consumers on even the most specific of issues.”
Indeed, a quarter of all UK ECC cases are referrals from the Citizen’s Advice Consumer Helpline, which ordinarily raises consumer complaints with the relevant trading standards authority. Elaborating further, Allen notes: “The UK ECC has access to specialised expertise that deals with cross-border consumer advice in situations beyond the remit of local authority trading standards services.”
A recent customer satisfaction survey revealed an 84% satisfaction rate amongst those who received assistance. Not surprising given that of the 6,000 escalated cases the centre helped save an average of £590 per-person.
Its resource, expertise and direct interaction with consumers makes the Centre invaluable. So much so in fact, that it is regularly asked to provide data and assistance to consumer protection organisations such as the Consumer Protection Partnership (CPP), the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), and local authority trading standards services.
But this is not where it stops. The UK ECC, and the ECC-Net, has played a significant role in altering legislation relating to cross-border disputes; consulting on timeshare loopholes, digital contracts laws, distance-selling regulations, and most recently, the new package travel legislation.
With Brexit knocking on the door, questions around sustaining consumer protection post-withdrawal become more urgent. Considering its potential effects on trading standards and the Centre, Allan says: “Numerous CTSI members have questioned what happens to the UK ECC after we leave the EU. I wish there was an easy answer, but it’s about as complex as everything else Brexit-related. There’s certainly a desire from the European Commission to continue working with the team in some capacity.”
And in practice, how could the Centres’ membership be retained within the network?
Well, it wouldn’t be without precedent; Norway and Iceland are both members of the ECC-Net, despite neither being members of the EU. Similarly, experts at CTSI Brexit Think Tank questioned whether the UK will retain access to product safety and recall alert systems, such as RAPEX.
Doubts remain also over whether UK consumers will still be entitled to claim through the European Small Claims Procedure. Without this redress, consumers wishing to claim against a European company would need to retain a lawyer to pursue the court case in the trader’s home country, which would prove a costly and difficult endeavour.
The future of consumer protection and safety rests with reciprocal relationships, and there really is only one answer, Allen says: “It’s in everyone’s best interest to maintain and strengthen these vital relationships.”
With the future uncertain, a UK exit doesn’t necessarily spell the end for the Centre, which has transformed so many lives. The road ahead may be uncertain, but the one inevitability is that in a post-Brexit world, without the UK ECC, over 16,000 consumers yearly could be left with no one to turn to.