Ed Miliband is not having the best of times in one of Britain's worst jobs. He's been ridiculed by his critics for small errors – his tweet about “Blackbusters”, and saying he took poll results “with a pinch of sugar” – and he's been rounded on by his core supporters with his attempt to take on the unions over public-sector pay restraint. Nevertheless, his speech yesterday about “Rip-off Britain” – not to be confused with “Alarm Clock Britain” and “John Lewis Britain” – will have struck a chord with people of every political, social and demographic persuasion.
He was particularly critical of "surcharge culture", the practice by which companies levy extra charges on customers for services they might reasonably expect to be included in the price. We can all recognise this phenomenon. Budget airlines are well-known offenders in this area, charging for luggage, check-in, payment by credit card etc, even though Ryanair stopped short of asking passengers to pay a quid to spend a penny. The government has asked for airlines to be more transparent about their charging structure, and Miliband said yesterday that fees should be declared upfront.
Not surprisingly, sceptical consumers have assumed this will mean the same price but presented in a different way. This practice is known in some quarters (i.e. people who are familiar with my anecdotes) as "hiding the umbrella". This derives from one of my favourite newspaper stories about expenses. A senior reporter on a major newspaper filed an expense claim which included the cost of an umbrella. Quite properly, the accounts department returned the claim, saying it was the reporter's responsibility to be properly attired and they couldn't possibly pay for his umbrella. Miffed, the reporter re-submitted his expenses sheet, without the cost of the umbrella. Yet the total amount of his claim was exactly the same. At the foot of the sheet, he put a little note: "ps Find the umbrella!"
Airlines, of course, are not the only offenders in this area, and at least a plane ticket is a discretionary purchase: you have chosen to go to Riga for the weekend, so you can hardly complain when you have to pay for a bread roll.
However, we all need banking services, and, as you might expect, banks are in the front row of the grid when it comes to the rip-off stakes. All manner of complex fees if you have an overdraft (plus the inevitable "administration charge"), up to £5 for a duplicate statement, more than double that if they write you a letter, and so on. Almost everyone you could meet will have some story of a bank charging them to write them a letter to tell them they are charging them for something else.
Mr Miliband is definitely on the right track by shining a light on what he calls "predatory capitalism". In the current economic climate, this is bound to get traction. In better times, we'd make a mobile phone call and not know, or even care, how much it cost. Today, we keep a very close check on what our service provider is charging. The same is true of our banking arrangements. But this is not what really irritates us about banks and mobile phone companies. I'm sure I'm not alone in thinking I'd pay whatever it takes to phone them up and get a simple answer to a simple question!