As a member of the House of Lords with a background in business, Government and consumer protection, Lord Jamie Lindsay knows better than most the role that consumer confidence has to play in bolstering a precarious economy. He also knows that consumer confidence is a fragile and hard-won thing, and requires constant vigilance to maintain.
Lord Lindsay starts by explaining what initially sparked his interest in consumer protection. “I was a Minister in the John Major era with responsibility for, amongst other things, agriculture, food and food safety,” he says. “In 1996 BSE became a major issue. It led to a consumer confidence crisis in British beef, which spread to a confidence crisis in the red meat industry as a whole.
“I learned that consumer confidence is a critical ingredient of any sector and any business, and that just having a Government Minister saying, ‘trust me, this product is safe,’ is not good enough if consumers have lost confidence in that product. Indeed, even if, as a Government Minister, you stood side-by-side with a Government-appointed scientist who also said, ‘trust me, this product is safe’, that actually didn’t have a huge impact.
“The level of assurance and reassurance that consumers need goes beyond legislation and the black-and-white print of regulations, and goes beyond Ministers saying ‘trust me’.”
The realisation that trust has to be earned, rather than decreed, was accompanied by a recognition that by itself, the law often falls short when it comes to promoting awareness and critical thinking among consumers. Something was needed to fill that gap and engage them on a more emotional level.
“We began to understand that consumers wanted to be confident that standards were in place which captured good practice,” says Lord Lindsay. “It wasn’t just about the fact that the product was not dangerous – they wanted to know that that product actually met good standards throughout its production and throughout its lifecycle.
“Legislation and regulations are quite good at defining whether a product is either safe or dangerous. But they are not so good at capturing good practices so a business is able to demonstrate that it has a good story to tell. And that led me to understanding how standards can be applied to the production of other products, beyond food.
“I began to understand about accreditation – third-party verification that a supply chain was meeting standards at every step, and businesses weren’t marking their own homework. There was a need for proper third-party oversight. That became the key to rebuilding consumer confidence in British beef and red meat. The Meat and Livestock Commission [which was superseded in 2008 by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board] set up an initiative, which I chaired, to roll out standards underpinned by accreditation and consumer education throughout the entire red meat industry. It was aimed at boosting consumer confidence and safety, and it was a major undertaking. Indeed, some of these supply chains are extremely long. It may start with the livestock feed sector; then there is the farm itself; then there is animal transport; then the market and then the abattoir; then processing; then distribution; then the food service sector, butchers and others in the retail sector.
“That project morphed into the Red Tractor scheme, which to this day remains a consumer-facing reassurance that good standards are being met through accredited conformity assessment.
“So that was the journey that made me understand the importance of consumer standards and consumer confidence. Today, I’m very still very involved in accreditation; I chair the national accreditation body UKAS, of which CTSI is a very important member, and hence my involvement with CTSI and with the Consumer Codes Approval Scheme (CCAS).”
In the course of his involvement in the development of standards and accreditation, what reactions has Lord Lindsay observed from businesses themselves? Were there any objections?
“The food industry was quick to see the value of standards and accredited certification but there were sectors which were much slower to understand the benefits,” he says. “And then within certain sectors there were the early adopters who really saw the benefits to their business ahead of others.
“This is a generalisation, but on the whole regulation tends to come with a level of bureaucracy and intervention that is not naturally welcomed by businesses and industry. However, most would accept that – especially when you’re talking about risk and safety – there is a useful role for regulation as an absolute safeguard and to create a level playing field.
“But in this day and age consumers expect good practice and a commitment to quality as a sort of minimum licence to be in business. There are areas, such as animal welfare perhaps, where legislation doesn’t go far enough for the modern consumer.
“That’s where standards come in. Businesses recognise that they can put a product on the market that says to the consumer, ‘this is not only safe, but has been produced using best practice and meets all the expectations that a consumer might have.’”
Lord Lindsay believes that for certain industries, the adoption of standards and the possibility to have conformity to those standards assessed is a vital component of a resilient business model. “Toys and electrical goods spring to mind as areas where consumer confidence could be fragile, particularly when lapses can lead to injury or fatalities. In very recent times, since the Grenfell tragedy, when it comes to new construction products and cladding, standards have had a very important role to play in making people confident that the buildings in which they live are secure and safe, and not a threat to themselves and their families.
“The average consumer doesn’t realise the extent to which accreditation and standards underpin and render safe and efficient almost everything that they engage with in a normal day. From the safety of their food when they eat breakfast; to the safety of the car in which they go to school or to work; to the accuracy of the petrol pump that puts fuel into that car; to the safety of the lift that takes them up to an upper floor when they arrive. The accredited conformity assessment that ensures these standards are being met brings us into their lives much more than I think they realise.”
Against the turbulent backdrop with which enforcers, businesses and consumers have been forced to contend over the past few years, from the chaos of COVID to the confusion of Brexit and the emergence of new ways of buying and selling goods, what role does Lord Lindsay think standards and accreditation have to play in the modern age?
“Living in a developed society with a very strong media presence, there is an expectation of high standards in almost anything the average consumer uses or purchases,” he says. “Anything less than a good standard is not tolerated. With COVID, for instance, the testing regime required some sort of underpinning so that people using test kits could feel confident that they actually worked. The Government asked UKAS to accredit the private testing companies in order to ensure that they were competent. In the wake of Brexit, rewriting some of the regulations will perhaps require a new role for accreditation to be rolled out into new areas.
“With the online dimension that has invaded all our lives, the ‘fourth industrial revolution’, the wave of AI that is coming into the marketplace, there is a very strong case for a more robust consumer protection infrastructure that is properly funded by the Government and properly conducted in terms of well-trained, well-resourced Trading Standards Officers on the ground. That also needs to be complemented with things like Consumer Codes, standards and accreditation. There’s a range of ingredients that we need to get put in place to protect the modern consumer.”
When we arrive at the subject of funding – as every conversation about consumer protection seems to, sooner or later – I ask whether the importance of consumer protection is fully appreciated in the corridors of Whitehall and within the ‘upper echelons’ of Parliament.
“It could be better,” Lord Lindsay believes. “There is a basic understanding of the importance of consumer protection, consumer information and consumer education. But, you know, it needs to be further enhanced. I’ve got some very good colleagues, especially those I’ve worked with in the House of Lords – there are former CTSI Presidents, like Baroness Crawley, for instance. So there’s a sort of clique of people who really have quite an advanced understanding of the role of consumer protection. I’m certainly not alone in seeking to disseminate that understanding even more widely.”
And is the voice of Trading Standards – and specifically CTSI – heard loudly enough? “I’ve never felt that CTSI has been backwards in coming forwards,” says Lord Lindsay. “I’ve always been very conscious of the advocacy, lobbying and engagement that CTSI has pursued. Its engagement with central Government, with departments, with Ministers and officials, I think is excellent. And I hope that I’m a useful part of that team.
“However, Government itself is allowing the Trading Standards infrastructure across the United Kingdom to become ever-more underfunded, given the duties it has to discharge. In all the visits I’ve made to meet Trading Standards Officers on the ground, I’ve looked at what they do and the extent of their responsibilities with very finite, limited resources, and it does worry me. There is a very strong case for making sure that the funding and resources that they have access to is more appropriate.”
When it comes to the role that industry itself has to play in preventing consumer harm before Trading Standards steps in, “more businesses could do more than they’re currently doing,” Lord Lindsay says. “Consumer Codes are one obvious route that more businesses should adopt to provide greater confidence and reassurance to their customers, and to take the pressure off the more statutory backdrop.
“More businesses could adopt standards and accredited certification to ensure that consumers are getting the goods or services they think they’re getting, and that there isn’t some detriment down the line after the purchase of a product or use of a service. I think the business community, many of whom are on the right track, could make sure there’s a much greater adoption of Consumer Codes, voluntary standards and conformity assessment.
“Everyone could do more. Central Government could do more and people like myself need to be more effective. And businesses could do more in order to give consumers the deal that they deserve.”