Crackdown on conmen

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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 to beat traders who swindle consumers.

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

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

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

Like the MMC, it will have the power to carry out its own enquiries after being given the go-ahead by government. It is likely to be administered by the Office of Fair Trading but will be accountable to ministers.

The first issue the new Consumer Protection Advisory Committee will tackle is mock auctions. The "one day sales" set up by travelling salesmen in empty shops and town halls, promise brand-name goods at low prices, but 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.

The Government will not need to introduce a new law to set up the 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".

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

"We need people who are consumer representatives rather than consumer advocates sitting on bodies like this," said Sheila McKechnie, Director of the Consumers' Association.