Britain, the Cheater's Champion

Article excerpt

For the sake of business, as much as for consumers, we need a Ralph Nader.

First he went for the car industry, then the baby-food manufacturers, the chemical companies, the banks and insurers. Now he's going for the presidency.

Ralph Nader, the inspiration behind the US consumer advocacy movement, is both popular and controversial. His nurturing of the "consumer economy" has put an end to countless consumer abuses and corporate gravy trains. When, many years ago, I spent a summer canvassing door to door for one of the many consumer groups set up by Nader, I was never confronted by indifference.

Not even Nader thinks he is going to win. The best -- and the worst -- the Green Party's candidate could do is take votes from Al Gore, handing the world's most powerful job to a scion of the oil industry. But Nader's transformation from consumer champion to presidential candidate highlights the importance attached to consumer advocacy in the world's most successful economy.

In Rip-off Britain, we have no Nader and a runt of a consumer advocacy sector. Compared to industry, British consumers are powerless, their voices and frustrations rarely heard. They have little input into policy-making, and virtually no one to champion their cause effectively.

The consumer policies of successive governments have been little more than reactions to media outrages -- such as forcing the the car companies to offer private customers the same prices they offer their fleet buyers.

This helps, but nothing will fundamentally change for consumers while there is such a substantial imbalance of power between them and producers. Business has thousands of well-funded and well-lawyered lobby groups, trade and professional associations, all persuasively pushing its cause. Business people spend tens of millions of their profits on lobbying, not Out of charity to lobbyists, but because they know it is a good investment: effective lobbying boosts profits in the short run.

Get work done on the house, and your builders will have the Federation of Master Builders, the Construction Confederation, the House Builders Federation, the League of Professional Craftsmen, the Guild of Master Craftsmen, and soon, on their side. But there is no Homeowners' Association.

Consumers do have some champions but, with one or two exceptions, they are remarkably ineffective. The sloping playing field between consumers and producer starts at the top. There is no consumer affairs ministry -- only a Department of Trade and Industry, whose priorities are stated in its title. The consumer affairs minister is a junior minister nowhere near the Cabinet.

Politicians and civil servants may insist that they can take tough decisions but, ultimately, they prefer the line of least resistance. If they propose a consumer-friendly measure that meets a storm of opposition from business, it is easier to drop it: the cries from consumers will be too quiet to hear. The Utilities and Financial Services bills are two recent examples of consumer-friendly legislation that was watered down after lobbying.

Then there are the statutory watchdogs, for water, gas, electricity, telecoms, air and rail. Funded and appointed by industry and government, they are far too frightened of rocking the boat to have much effect.

The media are natural consumer champions, and have been largely driving the whole "rip-off Britain" campaign. Newspapers, radio and television programmes have won many minor victories in specific cases, the most spectacular being the BBC's Panorama, which forced the complacent Office of Fair Trading to find Volvo guilty of price fixing.

The media have their limitations, however. Journalists don't have the time and resources to develop the specialist knowledge on the more arcane aspects of consumer issues. …