LEADING ARTICLE: Can an old watchdog learn new tricks?

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The Independent Online
The path of a pioneer is stony. Where do you go when you have won the battle you set out to fight? This is the dilemma for the Consumers' Association, which today welcomes its new director, Sheila McKechnie.

The heart of its activities has been product testing: can we help you to find a better mousetrap, toaster, dishwasher? Forty years of this pressure - especially in the association's magazine, Which? - have paid off, though Japanese manufacturers, of course, also played their part by perceiving that buyers wanted machines that didn't keep breaking down. All products are far better made than they were.

So, exit the Consumers' Association, after its moment in history? This fate had begun to seem possible: it was in the doldrums. But the consumer revolution is only half completed. Ms McKechnie, for 10 years the director of the housing pressure group Shelter and a stalwart of Radio 4's Any Questions? and BBC TV's Question Time, was appointed in the hope of sharpening up the association's attack. There is no shortage of targets.

The Government has pushed public utilities out into something called "the market". But a state-appointed regulator is no substitute for a real market. If you are angry about your ever-rising water rates, or about British Gas deciding to cut down on safety checks, you as an individual consumer can do little about it. The Consumers' Association can. Financial services can be just as unresponsive. The association hasn't had the credit it deserved for the helping to bring about the requirement, which took effect this month, for life assurance companies to disclose their hidden charges. Bank charges are almost as scandalous.

All political parties now claim to be consumer-minded. John Major has his citizens' charters and his schools and hospitals check-lists. The Liberal Democrats have long claimed to speak for those oppressed by autocratic local authorities. Labour is tryingto escape from its tradition of representing those who make things, or deliver services, rather than those who buy them or receive them.

But someone must monitor how the new initiatives work, without the political and trade union log-rolling that marks most such criticism now. This is where the Consumers' Association's reputation for impartial investigation can again be invaluable. Its agenda isn't finished. It simply needs to move on to new territory.