The Great British Rip-off: the fightback starts here

As the Government pledges its support to our campaign, Simon O'Hagan looks at what needs to be done
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Indy Politics

The Government's consumer affairs minister has pledged to crack down on hidden charges after The Independent on Sunday's campaign showed how consumers are tricked into paying prices higher than those advertised for a range of goods and services.

Hidden charges are a growing menace, said Gerry Sutcliffe, who last week said he would act on issues raised by our campaign.

Hailing it as an "excellent campaign that has helped make people aware of some of the bad practice that goes on", Mr Sutcliffe said that the Government was determined to send out the message to retailers that it was taking steps to help consumers fight back. "It's a massive issue," he said.

The IoS Hidden Charges campaign has highlighted six areas of increasing concern, prompting a flood of responses from readers who feel they have been deceived.

Restaurant service charges, theatre booking fees, bank charges, mobile phone tariffs, car rental prices and holidays all came under scrutiny, with huge hikes on advertised prices leaving consumers feeling they had been well and truly ripped off.

Mr Sutcliffe blamed the trend on the intensity of the competition for consumers' cash. "People are being offered all sorts of deals that look very alluring but which are actually too good to be true. We're all for healthy competition, but now we have it not only through traditional outlets but through the internet, text messaging and so on. The range is immense and consumers are feeling threatened," he said.

Sheila McKechnie, director of the Consumers' Association, believes that an additional cause of hidden charges are attitudes within the British service industries. "In Britain, shops and service providers think they are doing you a favour by taking your money," she said. "When you have the attitude that customers owe you a living, then slapping needless charges on them is fair game."

With that in mind the Government is launching a range of measures designed to empower the consumer and spell out to businesses that hidden charges will not be tolerated.

Next year the Government introduces its Consumer Direct initiative, a national telephone service that will allow consumers to ring for government advice on how they can challenge shops and businesses they think have imposed an unfair or hidden charge on them.

The Government also wants to encourage higher standards among consumer support groups, which means a better service for consumers who turn to them. The Consumer Support Network will link consumer groups that have reached a given standard of advice and operation.

"We want confident consumers who know their rights are protected. We want retail to be transparent," said Mr Sutcliffe.

Only last week, Mr Sutcliffe said, a Treasury select committee was inquiring into credit card terms and the way charges for late payments accumulate. The problem, he said, was with accountability and ensuring that "fair and not unfair charges" were imposed.

An area Mr Sutcliffe said the Government had already addressed was the often unspecified price of soft drinks in restaurants. "The law was always that you only had to put prices against wine, beers and spirits. So restaurateurs were charging astronomical amounts for soft drinks. There was a drink-driving issue here as well, but now we have cracked down on that," Mr Sutcliffe said.

As our campaign has shown, however, there are plenty more battles to be won. Ms McKechnie believes that the implementation of a duty to trade fairly in the UK would address many of the ways that hidden charges can currently be imposed. In the meantime, there is much that consumer groups and individuals can do to protect themselves. "Do we really have to wait for regulation? Surely firms could stop treating their customers with contempt, watchdogs could start barking - and biting - and you and I could cause more fuss when we get this sort of nonsense perpetrated on us."

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