Consumers across the UK have been affected by significant upheaval in recent years, with the lingering effects of the pandemic, the push towards Net Zero and the ongoing turmoil of the cost-of-living crisis each causing shifts in how and where people spend their money. Consumers in Scotland are no different.
Consumer Scotland was established in April 2022 by the Scottish Parliament with the remit of advocating on consumers’ behalf. As part of its current work programme it is particularly focused on the cost of living, supporting consumers in vulnerable circumstances and issues relating to climate change.
It fulfils its brief in part through the analysis of data taken from a range of sources — and it has its sights set not just on the challenges facing consumers today, but tomorrow as well. As Eleanor Mullan, Head of Analysis at Consumer Scotland explains, “Within the Consumer Scotland Act 2020, we have to consider future consumers, which can create tensions; what’s good for consumers now might not necessarily be what’s good for consumers in the future.”
One of those tensions occurs in relation to utility bills; part of what consumers pay today (shareholder dividends notwithstanding) is re-invested in infrastructure, theoretically meaning that future consumers can benefit from efficient, well-maintained services. “We have a specific interest in the gas, electricity, water and postal markets,” says Mullan. “We would definitely advocate for bills in these areas to be affordable, and we have concerns about how they’re not. But if bills are low, that can potentially impact how much money is available for investment in these services, which might mean bills in the future might have to rise by even more.”
Weighing up the evidence
Consumer Scotland gathers its data from sources including regulators and enforcers (including Trading Standards), as well as conducting original research. It can also make information requests to relevant organisations, including in the private sector. “We’re very much an evidence-led organisation, and we need to be able to point to the evidence that underpins the policy positions we advocate on,” says Mullan.
Within Consumer Scotland’s research and analysis division, Mullan says, “We’ve done quite a bit of quantitative polling work, and we’ve got some qualitative work ongoing at the moment.” That includes deliberative research relating to Net Zero and people’s attitudes towards it. “We are researching what consumers need to know to change their behavior around things like solar PV and heat pumps, and looking at individual consumers’ experiences.
“We’ve got people who’ve worked in areas like energy and water for a long time and have built up a good network of contacts and expertise we can draw on. We are also working with other consumer organisations in the advice landscape to get an idea of what they’re seeing, and where we can directly access their data.”
Among those organisations is Trading Standards Scotland (TSS), which provides tactical assessments of current consumer threats and gives an overview of the issues occurring on the ground. Consumer Scotland also has access to the Advice Direct Scotland and Citizens Advice Scotland datasets, which provide insights into common complaint categories and apparently problematic sectors. There are also regular meetings with the Society of Chief Officers of Trading Standards in Scotland (SCOTSS).
“If we think there might be a Trading Standards interest in one of our projects, we go to them on an ad hoc basis and seek their opinion,” says Mullan. “We’re conscious that we’re not a frontline organisation — consumers don’t come directly to us, so we really need the support of the people who are out there on the ground like Trading Standards Officers. This helps us understand what problems they are dealing with on a day-to-day basis, what’s causing those problems, and how we can then feed that into our advocacy work.”
That advocacy work includes consultation responses which often take the views of Trading Standards into account; for the Skidmore Review into Net Zero for example, Consumer Scotland drew on TSS’s Project Maxwell, an initiative to tackle the misleading marketing of energy-efficiency products. Consumer Scotland also used Trading Standards evidence to inform its response to the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill.
Mullan, who worked as an intelligence analyst for TSS prior to joining Consumer Scotland, is aware of the benefits that collaborative working can bring. “Trading Standards go out and catch the bad guys; Consumer Scotland is trying to change the framework so that those bad things can’t happen in the first place,” she says. “We aren’t the mouthpiece of Trading Standards, but we use their positions to inform our work. For example, we were very worried about the implications of the REUL Bill and we engaged with Trading Standards on that because we had similar concerns. We also engaged with SCOTSS on our response to the Product Safety Review.
“We’ve also recognised the value of Trading Standards in raising awareness and in the last financial year we funded TSS’s Shut Out Scammers campaign, which enabled them to do some polling research, and there was also funding to do a TV advert to supplement the social media campaign.”
There isn’t always a clear consensus on consumer protection issues — let alone the best way of solving them. Within its 2023-24 work programme, Consumer Scotland has several individual streams, including a focus on poor quality goods and services. And because the data available is drawn from different sources, it can be difficult to identify a single narrative thread. “It’s huge, as you can imagine; how do you make poor quality goods and services workable from a policy perspective?” Mullan says. “Interestingly, each of the available datasets suggested the problem was in a completely different area. I was quite struck by that because I was expecting them all to have a much more similar picture than what I found.
“This is going to sound a bit odd coming from a data person, but I would caution against relying on data in a blanket sense; data out is only as good as the data that comes in. So when you’re talking about partial datasets in the first place, from consumer advice agencies for example, it only relates to the things that people are phoning up about. For instance, people are probably more likely to seek advice about problems with a large purchase, which might be why complaints about used cars are always so high. Whereas in the grand scheme of things across the whole country, maybe not that many people experience issues with used cars.
“Also, data is not very good at giving you the human impact of something; it’s really good at telling you the scale of a problem in numerical terms but it’s not very good at telling you how it affects individuals’ lives. It’s something we’re conscious of, particularly with our responsibility for consumers in vulnerable circumstances.”
Insights drawn from social media and online reviews might help to bolster the existing datasets with something that speaks to people’s experiences; but that brings its own challenges. “I would love to use that sort of data,” says Mullan. “I’ve put that forward as a potential project — we are conscious that it’s a very valuable data source.” There are, however, ethical issues surrounding the use of such data for research purposes, as well as practical challenges. If these can be overcome though, there are many invaluable insights to be gained — and there is a clear opportunity to embrace innovation, Mullan concludes: “AI might give us opportunities to do it in a manageable way — it’s something I’d like to explore.”