New consumer advocate … sounds like all puff, no pastry to me

After opening my in-box to a number of e-mails about it, I’ve just read an article in the Guardian about the proposed new consumer advocate the government wants to appoint.

Most were people asking “is it you?”, “are you going to do it?” Well no. It’s the first I’ve heard of it. If there was a consultation, it didn’t come to MSE Towers.

Having read the piece though I understand the questions… here’s few of the Guardian’s salient points:

  • A high-profile national “consumer champion” is to be appointed by the government to help people get their money back when things go wrong and fight for redress over personal finance problems such as unauthorised overdraft charges.
  • Asked whether the advocate would have a high media profile, sitting regularly on the GMTV sofa, for example, consumer affairs minister Kevin Brennan said: “Clearly it should be someone who should have a public face, although I don’t think we want to pre-judge an individual and what kind of skills we would want them to have.” A “competitive” salary is being offered, and the successful applicant is expected to be in the job early next year.
  • Brennan said the appointment would represent a significant step forward for consumer rights: “This is all about helping people to get their money back.

Now, while there are some differences, it pretty much describes the work that the MSE team, our forum, users and I do everyday and have done for many years.

With over 6m bank charges reclaiming letters downloaded, and millions more letters and reclaims on council tax, PPI, mortgage reclaiming, setting off help, this is what MSE is all about.

Does the government think it can appoint an advocate and BINGO, there you go, it’s all done. Or actually is it more likely that, as another branch of officialdom, the aim will simply be to look as if something’s being done.

In the three years of the bank charges campaign NOT ONCE has Gordon Brown or the government made a statement on it. Recently, in my News of the World column, I asked the Prime Minister to look at setting off, and the nightmare it causes – no response.

In the past, the PM has publically told everyone to pay energy by direct debit, yet failed to respond to the bigger issue of massive over billing, which kills the concept for many, and the lack of rights we have (see fight energy direct debits). And I could go on and on about lack of response.

Will a government appointed consumer advocate solve this? Organisations like MSE, Consumer Action Group, Consumer Focus, programmes like Money Box and others have been collectively doing it, both in high profile media and in public policy.

Even Which? has said: ““The jury is out on the creation of the role of consumer advocate, for the devil is in the detail. It will be interesting to see how the role will fit in with the organisations and roles that already exist.”

Frankly, what we really need is some bloody government response on the issues. As you can probably tell, I read this announcement with a huge level of frustration that instead of solving the problems head on, this seems to be a policy focused on looking like something’s being done, rather than actually doing it.

Comment and Discuss.