Julian Knight: Consumers burned in bonfire of the quangos

It cost just £5m a year to run Consumer Focus and the public will enjoy less protection now its work is going to Citizens Advice
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The Independent Online

Farewell Consumer Focus, as Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude kills off this quango. Its work of taking companies to task is to be hived off to Citizens Advice, as public sector work and jobs are taken off balance sheet to the private or charitable sector.

It's a great shame Consumer Focus is going: for its annual cost of £5m it was money very well spent. It had just secured massive compensation from nPower over energy mis-billing after industry regulator Ofgem had done only half a job. Its pronouncements were clear-headed, fair and free of gobbledegook. It also avoided the Consumers' Association habit of jumping on any passing bandwagon.

After the uselessness of the first decade of the Financial Services Authority, it was heartening to see a body actually hit the ground running. Under its energetic chief Mike O'Conner, Consumer Focus was doing a good job.

Porting its work on to Citizens Advice is a monumental cop-out. That charitable body is two very different organisations. One is a massively stretched but endlessly dedicated local bureau, staffed by those with tremendous experience, knowledge and skill. Many are volunteers.

The other is a bloated, bureaucratic centre, politically correct and notoriously sluggish at responding to what is actually going on in the world of consumer protection.

The latter's only saving grace is its research, which relies on those devoted bureau staff. To think that Citizens Advice, in its current guise, can be anywhere near as nimble as Consumer Focus is a fantasy. There may be some transfer of knowledge and staff from Consumer Focus to Citizens Advice, but generally in mergers the culture of the larger organisation subsumes that of the smaller one. The demise of Consumer Focus leaves a major gap in consumer protection.

Delays at the Clotsdale

Judging by the noise emanating from chat rooms and Twitter it seems the Clydesdale – or Clotsdale as it's been christened here – is throwing everything it can in the way of customers looking to fight the bank's attempt to reclaim interest on incorrectly calculated mortgages.

Cast your mind back to July and you will remember that the Clotsdale revealed it had made miscalculated interest payments of thousands of its customers' mortgages. At the time I and many others urged the bank to write off this cash rather than chasing hard-pressed homeowners for money they could have had no idea they owed. The bank refused, pointing to its terms and conditions.

Consumers are rightly taking the bank to task, with cases now being referred to the Ombudsman.

Derisory offers are being made to customers. For example, one blogger fighting a Clotsdale demand for £7,800 is being offered a ludicrous £500 off the bill as a goodwill gesture.

The Ombudsman will be busy for months unless it decides – and some suggest it might – to formulate and universally apply a standard decision rather than allowing the bank to delay.

Clotsdale may claw back a few million, but the consequential reputational damage is immeasurable.

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