Yvonne Fovargue began her career as a Housing Officer in the Moss Side area of Manchester in the early 1980s and went on to work at the then-Citizens Advice Bureau in St Helens before entering Parliament as the Labour MP for the Makerfield constituency in 2010. Now, in her capacity as Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Consumer Protection – of which CTSI serves as secretariat – Fovargue works ‘to provide a voice for consumers and to raise awareness of issues, rights and obligations in the field of consumer protection’.
“I was manager of the Citizens Advice Bureau in St Helens for 23 years,” she says. “We had a lot of clients coming in with consumer issues and I always felt I’d like to do something about it. We had a lot of people who were defrauded and who had problems with faulty goods. A
lot of people simply didn’t understand their rights and what the responsibilities of the traders were.”
It has been a busy – and difficult – period for consumer protection, first with austerity impacting the resources available for enforcement, then the COVID pandemic causing mass upheaval to buying habits and business practices, and now the cost-of-living crisis bringing fresh problems. What has the APPG been focused on since Fovargue became Chair? “We held an inquiry into the ombudsman system and whether it was too confusing for people who wanted to take a complaint further on a number of issues,” she says. “Our recommendations were that there needs to be a simplified portal for ombudsman services, so that people know where to go if they have any problems.
“We also recommended that there needs to be an ombudsman for travel, which was brought into sharper focus through the pandemic, when people were having issues reclaiming costs for holidays that were cancelled through no fault of their own. People were being given offers of different holidays when in fact, some of them needed the refunds because they didn’t have the money during the pandemic.
“We’re also looking at the issue of frauds and scams; we work very closely with the APPG on Debt and Personal Finance, which I also chair. Some of the scammers are extremely sophisticated. In fact, I recently spoke to some people from the Association of British Insurers who said that they wouldn’t have spotted a couple of the scams that came through.
“One of the big issues at the moment is that people want to save money and they’re not always buying safe, or even legal goods. We’ve looked quite a lot at the work of Trading Standards, how it’s almost diluted now, and how difficult it is for local Trading Standards Officers to actually fulfil a whole range of the duties that people expect them to fulfil.”
In addition to becoming more diluted, the consumer protection landscape has become increasingly fragmented in recent years, I suggest – does that create confusion for ordinary members of the public? “I think it does, and I think there’s often a misunderstanding of the difference between things like a trade body and an ombudsman,” Fovargue says. “One of the issues we found was that someone was calling themselves an ombudsman, but they weren’t actually. There’s a problem with the statutory underpinning of some of the services
as well. People are often horrified that they might win their case, but they don’t get anything back.
“It is very confusing for people as to where they go if there’s a problem. The fact that the Trading Standards department where a business is based has to deal with a problem can cause confusion as well. As a constituency MP, I had an issue with a kitchen firm, but it wasn’t based in Wigan. People came to us and said they wanted to take it to Wigan Trading Standards, and we had to say well, no, actually, you can’t do that.
“Recall of faulty goods has also been a big issue for a long time, and there’s a lot more that needs to be done. One of the things I’ve been pushing for is registration at the point of sale of the address that goods are delivered to.
If they were registered on a central database that could only be accessed in the event of a recall, it would be an easy win for the retailer or manufacturer, which could then concentrate on the harder-to-reach ones. The whole system of having to register your own goods is absolutely ludicrous.
“Another problem is trying to get goods that have been recalled taken down off the online platforms quickly enough – they tend to be quite slow to do that.”
Regional restrictions on enforcement are exacerbated when, as is often the case, an online business is based overseas, Fovargue says. “There’s a particular issue with electrical safety and safety of toys; we’ve been dealing with Wish.com [based in the USA] and Alibaba, which is based in China. The other problem we’ve found is with Amazon Marketplace, in that consumers believe they’re buying from Amazon when they’re actually buying from a third-party seller.”
People are particularly vulnerable to all kinds of consumer harm at the moment as they deal with the cost-of-living crisis, whether that’s because they are trying to save money on certain products, or being targeted by scammers. I ask Fovargue whether she’s seen any consumer protection problems in her constituency that are becoming more common. “Online scams have been a big problem,” she says. “Romance fraud has been a particular one; during the pandemic and after, people who are feeling lonely have been scammed out of thousands of pounds – in one case, £20,000.
“Other scams are the ones that guarantee people that they can save money, like circuit regulators or voltage optimisers that claim they will save on your energy bill, whereas what they will actually do is absolutely nothing. I’m particularly worried about people selling unsafe goods – the cheap alcohol that doesn’t do anyone any good to drink, the cheap electrical goods, the hair dryers that set your hair on fire.
“We’re also concerned at the moment with ‘buy now, pay later’ schemes. Many of them are not actually advertised as borrowing; the product is front-and-centre. It may have a high rate of interest, but that isn’t what’s advertised – the credit is very much secondary and the fact you’re borrowing is not emphasised.
“We’re looking at misleading adverts and things like fake five-star reviews as well. We do quite a lot of work with Money Saving Expert; they sponsored the APPG report on the ombudsman service.
We look at problems that people are coming to them with, as well as what’s coming to other MPs through their constituency casework.”
The backdrop to the cost-of-living crisis is the UK’s difficult economic situation, with the constant prospect of further cuts to public services. That raises particular concerns about potential cuts to local authority Trading Standards.
“I think local authorities are going to be very hard-hit,” Fovargue says. “You can see it now; the amount that local authorities have got in real terms has dropped 80% since 2010. It’s unsustainable, and it’s unsustainable for Trading Standards, who do a lot of the unseen work to keep people safe.”
When it comes to that unseen work, Trading Standards deals with substantial threats to the UK and the wellbeing of its people; for example, things like animal disease outbreaks which can cost the economy billions, or tragedies like the Grenfell Tower fire, which was caused by a faulty electrical appliance and unsafe building materials. Does Fovargue think the role of Trading Standards in regularly preventing those kinds of crises is appreciated within Government?
“I don’t think it is,” she says. “The whole range of Trading Standards work is so wide that people only see one particular part of it and don’t see the rest. I’ve worked with our local Trading Standards departments in St Helens and Wigan for over 30 years. I’ve seen how they’re struggling to cope now with all the demands that are placed on them. But I don’t think many MPs come from the same background where they’ve had long contact with them.
“I’ve seen what they do and I think it’s important that awareness of Trading Standards is raised in Parliament; it’s always a good idea to send MPs information about dangers to their constituents. It’s also a good idea to hold events that have a really good photo opportunity for MPs. You know the old saying that they’d turn up to the opening of a fridge – get a good photo that you can put in the local paper and issue a press release with it.”
There’s an ideological viewpoint among many on the right that regulation and compliance are a burden on business; I suggest that compliance helps legitimate businesses by creating a level playing field and minimising the risks they are exposed to. “Absolutely. I think it is more important now, following Brexit, that people realise that unsafe goods are coming onto our shores, people are being scammed, people are losing money, and that money could be spent with reputable traders. I think the good traders realise that regulation is to their advantage. It’s the ones who want to get round it who are complaining about the burden of regulation. Most of the time the ‘burden’ is there to protect people.”
Much of the work with which Trading Standards is involved – for example, combatting false environmental claims, or promoting social justice by encouraging fair play and protecting the most vulnerable, aligns with progressive political ideals. Clearly there’s an opportunity to work more closely with like-minded groups and individuals. “Consumer protection needs to feed into policy for the future,” says Fovargue.
“With personal finance for example, we need to look at how we can create credit that is accessible to those who don’t have a great credit history so they don’t have to go to illegal moneylenders.
“The Illegal Money Lending Team do a great job, they really do, and I’m glad that they have had their funding restored. But more and more people are going to illegal money lenders because they can’t see any other way out. People need access to affordable credit but unfortunately, those who can afford it the least have always paid the most. Taking away the common bond and some of the restrictions on credit union lending would help those people. And that’s something we’re going to be looking at in the future.”
As this issue of the Journal was going to press, it was announced that the sunset clause of the the Retained EU Law Bill had been scrapped, preventing – for the time being at least – the potential loss of swathes of vital consumer protection legislation. Like many, Fovargue has significant concerns about the Bill. “You can’t just get rid of things wholesale without examining the consequences, intended or otherwise,” she says. “The reason I went into politics is because I saw the unintended consequences of legislation. Well, there are many unintended consequences to removing legislation as well. It needs to be put to Parliament how important retained laws are to people’s safety and wellbeing.
“We have to make people aware that actually, there is a reason for regulations, and let’s not throw the baby out with bathwater. I’m in favour of statutory regulation for quite a number of things, because I don’t think self-regulation in many places has worked – particularly for those least able to afford to complain.”
Finally, I put it to Fovargue that many of the issues Trading Standards deals with stem from misinformation, whether that’s misleading claims, or out-and-out scams – and there are many aspects of our social and political discourse that are affected by the same problems. “There’s a problem in politics and in general, where we’re almost following the American line where things become overblown and if you don’t like something, it’s automatically wrong, or if you lose something, it’s been stolen from you,” says Fovargue. “People are very worried about who to trust and Trading Standards have got a really important role in that, because they are trusted.
“Trading Standards has an important role to play in the safety, security and labelling of the food we eat, the things we buy; it’s really important to keep those standards that we’ve gotten used to, and as with many things, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”