Consumers get powerful protector

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The Independent Online
A POWERFUL new consumer panel - with advisory powers comparable to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission - is being planned by the Government to beat rogue traders who set out to swindle consumers.

Ministers are considering setting up an influential advisory body of independent experts to recommend tough legal action against unscrupulous businesses.

The new Consumer Protection Advisory Committee could also propose action on counterfeit goods and unqualified tradespeople.

It will be composed of consumer groups' leaders, senior trading standards officers, advisers from the Office of Fair Trading, and businesspeople.

Like the MMC, it will have the power to carry out its own enquiries after being given the go-ahead by government.

The Committee will be able to take witness statements and use evidence gathered by the police and trading standards officers.

The influential body will devise plans to stop shops from overcharging for imported goods and from selling shoddy products which are unreliable. It is likely to be administered by the Office of Fair Trading, but will be accountable to ministers.

"The OFT are starting the process. There is a parallel with the MMC but it will be a different body," said a source from the Office of Fair Trading. "It could advise on whether to outlaw practices or make orders."

The first issue the new Consumer Protection Advisory Committee - to be piloted next year - will tackle is mock auctions.

These "one-day sales", set up by travelling salespeople in empty shops and town halls, promise brand-name goods at low prices. But they pass off cheap fakes which often fall apart within days.

MPs have been lobbying for action against the swindlers - who tend to target poor people in vulnerable areas - since last year. The auctions are particularly prevalent in the run-up to Christmas.

"People are being conned out of their hard-earned cash by slick cowboys who are offering people something that is never delivered," said Adrian Sanders, MP for Torbay.

"The people who run mock auctions have been getting away with this for too long. They are preying on some of the most vulnerable people who cannot afford to lose their Christmas savings because of these crooks."

The Government will not need to introduce a new law to set up the Consumer Protection Advisory Committee. Civil servants are working on reviving a sleeping clause in the 1973 Fair Trading Act, which is designed to protect consumers from "unfair trade practices". The section has not been activated before now because of complications with it.

Consumer groups said that any new body should contain a balanced membership with representatives of the public having a fair say.

"I am always slightly concerned about what these things are about, but there seems to be a genuine commitment to be more consultative," said Sheila McKechnie, Director of the Consumers' Association.

"We have been down the route where everyone sits as an individual. We need people who are consumer representatives rather than consumer advocates sitting on bodies like this."