Consumers' friend gets new powers

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The Independent Online

The Buyer's champion for nearly 50 years, Which?, formerly known as the Consumers' Association, is now able to go a step further in its fight for shoppers' rights.

The Buyer's champion for nearly 50 years, Which?, formerly known as the Consumers' Association, is now able to go a step further in its fight for shoppers' rights.

A ruling by Gerry Sutcliffe, the Consumer minister, means that Which? now joins the ranks of specialist "enforcers" such as Ofcom and the Civil Aviation Authority and will be able to apply for injunctions against businesses that breach consumer laws. If the injunction is ignored, Which? can push the courts to impose fines and even jail sentences against individuals.

It the first time the Government has granted such powers to a charity. Those already appointed as special enforcers are government quangos, such as Ofcom, the Information Commissioner, the Gas and Electricity Markets Authority and the Office of Rail Regulation.

Which? applied to the Government to receive the powers and has been awarded "Designated Enforcer" status after a three-month consultation.

Mr Sutcliffe said yesterday: "I am delighted to have been able to make the Consumers' Association a designated enforcer as it strengthens the voice of the consumer. It has been a leading advocate of consumer interests over many years and these new powers will allow them to continue their excellent work."

A spokeswoman for Which? said its new powers would not influence its independent or charitable status. "This is really about strengthening our arsenal in defence of the consumer," she said. "We already have a number of special powers, such as demanding negotiations on unfair contract terms, which we did successfully on early redemption penalties on mortgages.

The spokeswoman added: "We are also able to submit 'super complaints' to the Office of Fair Trading, where it has to respond within 90 days to tell us whether or not it is going to investigate. These further powers are available to public and private bodies under the Government's Enterprise Act and we thought it would be helpful to have them."

The new powers mean that Which? could act against businesses, such as estate agents, which have been known to breach laws by not passing on to a vendor all offers made on a property. But Which? said it would use its new powers only as a last resort.

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