*before starting, can I make a declaration of interest. My Beloved is a board member for Consumer Focus Scotland….
One of the casualties of the so called “Bonfire of the Quango’s” is the consumer organisation “Consumer Focus”, which was the offspring of the merger between Postwatch & Energywatch (the Scottish organisation also incorporated the old Scottish Consumer Council). It costs the tax-payer £5.2 million a year, it produces policy initiatives, It has the right to demand commercially sensitive information from the companies they are investigating (thanks to an Act of Parliament) and has secured high profile victories against Npower (securing a refund of £70 million) and on ISA’s (securing a refund of £15 million). It’s communications have been clear & concise (TCF anyone?), and generally Consumer Focus looks like a success story in protecting consumers from bad business practice, having been set up 2 years ago, but with a long, credible, evidence based history of looking after the interests of consumers.
So why has the Tax-Payers Alliance mounted an ultimately successful attempt to have this organisation scrapped?
The TPA believes that “it duplicates the work of many companies, charities and campaigns who advise and represent consumers.” Which companies exactly does it duplicate? The TPA is also guilty of not doing it’s research. Consumer Focus encompasses the sterling work of the watchdogs Postwatch & Energywatch, and the wide spectrum of work carried out by the Scottish Consumer Council. The new organisation was given statutory powers to be effective in their new position as a ‘consumer champion’ Where exactly are these powers to go? They cannot be given to a charity. How can you get an advice charity to do the work of a quango? And no offence to Citizens Advice, but they are seriously stretched as it is. How will they be able to take on the sheer magnitude of work currently carried out by Consumer Focus? I have no experience of using Citizens Advice, mostly because it was impossible to actually contact the Paisley office (there was a voicemail message to contact them in office hours – not the best message to leave in todays timeshift society). CAB must be having the same doubts, there are rumours that they were reluctant to take on their new role before being “persuaded” to by the government.
This is not the first campaign built on poor research, as Subrosa mentions here with TPA’s ignorance of Devolution and the concept of Holyrood running the NHS independently of Wesminster – while complaining about free prescriptions. Then of course, there was this campaign where TPA couldn’t wait on the facts before getting the boot into lobbying.
The ‘modus operandi’ of the TPA though is “Together we can save taxpayers across the country millions of pounds.” – they are essentially a body standing up for tax-payers. So how can they effectively torpedo an organisation which has saved consumers (tax-payers) millions of pounds, and has an extensive evidence base of the many ways in which they have made things better for consumers! Of course the question which should occur to everyone is who asked them to stand up for me or you? I am glad that someone is standing up for us poor repressed tax-payers, but have serious concerns about this less than transparent organisation. The TPA somehow doesn’t quite go after the targets that it should.
While targeting an organisation which only costs overall between £5-12 million to run, where is the TPA campaign against the Commonwealth Development Corporation, which has been revealed by Private Eye to be a deeply corrupt organisation, more concerned by the enrichment of it’s own backers. Oh and where are the howls of protest over the inept HMRC, who failed to protect people’s personal data, who’s computer systems were giving people inaccurate tax-code’s and who recently dropped their court case against Vodaphone over the takeover of Mannesmann (which people were protesting against this weekend), and have not to date, started any litigation against Tesco. As well as depriving the country of the use of £6 billion, the dropping of the Vodaphone case gives the red light to tax avoidance from big business, squeezing even more the hard working honest tax payer. So much for standing up for the ordinary tax payer.
The jibe about the TPA is that it has always been a front organisation for the Tory party. It is notoriously reticent about publishing where they get their money from, publishing abbreviated accounts since 2006. Yet this is an organisation which has gained a reputation for being fair and standing up for ordinary tax payers, even though one of it’s directors refuses to pay tax to HMRC, preferring to live in the Loire instead.
I may be wrong but i remember during the 2004 US Presidential elections that organisations that kept their political allegiances quiet while taking part in the hustings began to gain traction in the media across in America. The success of the Tax-payers Alliance has shown that this is one trend which has made it’s way across the water. The challenge for the general public/the blogosphere/whoever is to challenge the voracity of these organisations, and to uncover their motives as quickly as possible. Perhaps it is time to seriously scrutinise this organisation, and see what skeletons they are hiding, and at the very least advise them to do proper research before they shoot their mouths off about things they are ill-informed about? The fact that the Tax Payers Alliance has gathered credibility among the UK media so quickly with so little scrutiny of their arguments should really be a lesson for us all.