Consumer White Paper: Ministers to target `rip-off Britain'

White Paper: Dodgy contractors, short drinks and sharp practices in motor trade are focus of consumer crackdown
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THE GOVERNMENT declared war on "rip-off Britain" yesterday in a White Paper promising 70 measures to tackle consumer fiddles, from cowboy builders to dodgy second-hand car dealers.

Consumer standards officers in towns across Britain will be given new powers to take action against rogue traders, such as builders responsible for persistently shoddy work.

A national approved list of builders is to be piloted, with quality marks for good workmanship and an insurance-backed warranty against faults.

More protection is promised for homebuyers against lenders with hidden costs in their mortgages. As reported earlier in The Independent, mortgage lenders, including banks and building societies, will be forced, under changes to the law, to tell homebuyers the true level of interest they are paying on their mortgages.

The Chancellor announced this week a review of the mortgage industry, including a threat to give statutory backing to the lenders' voluntary code. The White Paper would require more explicit warnings on written mortgage offers from February next year.

Beer drinkers will be assured of a full pint, under plans to implement a private member's Bill to protect consumers from short measures. And a new E-hallmark is to be introduced to give Internet shoppers rights in British law.

The White Paper on consumer affairs had been heavily trailed by the Government, determined to brand itself as the consumer's friend, but, behind the soundbites, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Stephen Byers, threatened real teeth to combat rogue traders, including making unfair trading practices a criminal offence.

He told MPs: "We don't want to create an army of Victor Meldrews but we do need confident and informed consumers."

Promising a realistic price check of 100 products in the UK, the US, Germany and France, Mr Byers said: "Why do trainers cost less in New York than in Newcastle or a CD less in Washington than in Winsford?"

He told sceptics that he is backing up the White Paper Modern Markets: Confident Consumers with pounds 30 million from his budget to deliver his promises to improve consumer protection in the high street.

Most of the money will be earmarked for trading standards units in local authorities, which have complained that they are inadequately resourced to cope with their growing workload, including restaurant checks on the GM content of foods.

They are to get new powers to close down rogue dealers, including traders who fiddle the cost of airline tickets and car repairers who fail to carry out repairs for which they charge. The new measures will dramatically reduce the time it takes to get action from the Office of Fair Trading.

The Fair Trading Act will be amended to provide a power for the courts to grant injunctions against specific practices carried out by specified traders; a power for the courts to ban from trading for a period traders with a history of disregarding their legal obligations; and a power for the secretary of state to make orders to specify that certain unfair practices - such as fake "one-day sales" - should become criminal offences.

Home-working scams are to be outlawed, too. One option is to stop operators preying on the vulnerable by demanding advance payments for them to join schemes to work from home.