New rules to protect consumers against firms

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The Independent Online

New rules to protect consumers against unfair business practices will come into force today, opening the door for companies to be prosecuted if they treat their customers unfairly.

The so-called Consumer Protection Regulations will make it illegal to omit important information from their trading documents, and to make misleading statements. Furthermore, it will ban 31 specific practices, such as falsely claiming to be a signatory on a code of conduct, or advertising a special offer but claiming it is not in stock.

Other things covered by the rules include a crackdown on scare tactics, "closing down" sales when stores are not actually closing, and pyramid schemes.

Businesses that fall outside the new laws can be prosecuted by both the Trading Standards Authority and the Office of Fair Trading.

Commenting on the introduction of the regulations, Carl Belgrove, a senior policy advocate at the National Consumer Council, which has spent 20 years campaigning for the legislation, said: "These new laws represent a big boost to consumer protection, particularly for vulnerable people who are targeted by rogue traders.

"The one thing missing is a way for consumers to claim compensation when businesses act unfairly and we hope that will be remedied soon."

Similar regulations in Ireland allow consumers to also pursue civil redress against businesses which treat them unfairly. However, the UK laws have no such provision. The Dep-artment of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform has asked the Law Commission to look into the possibility of introducing a civil redress mechanism, but it is not expected to even start work on the project until 2010 at the earliest.

Chris Warner, an in-house lawyer at Which?, the consumers' association, also welcomed the new regulations, but warned that it was crucial that the new landscape was properly policed. "Rogue traders are a nuisance for the most part, but in the worst cases they've ruined people's lives," he said.

"Doorstepping and aggressive selling are unacceptable and we are delighted that many of these practices are now rightly considered to be criminal offences. However, the devil is in the detail and this will only work if the OFT and Trading Standards enforce it firmly."