Select Committee on Scottish Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses(Questions 20-39)



  20. Just to paraphrase a reference in the 1999 review of the SCC, it said that there were sometimes significant differences in the policy environment in Scotland and the Scottish Council, compared with the UK, and the Scottish Council could consider and adopt relevant policies for Scotland. Could you give us a few examples of where the different policy contexts have led to different solutions?
  (Mr Evans) The one that springs to mind, because it has been a matter of some debate, is the idea of selling housing, private sales of houses; and our research was showing that actually consumers in Scotland really quite like the system, the selling of private houses, on the basis it was quicker and more certain, they liked those aspects of it. But aspects they did not like are the multiple surveys and the uncertainty in terms of bidding. And so, within that context, there was a debate north and south of the border on how to improve the sale of houses, how to make the exchange. Professionals probably take out less money from that process, and make it more efficient for the consumer, where the individual consumer finds it very difficult to influence the market. As always, I am not as clear on what is happening in England, how that has diverged in England, but I am quite clear what is happening in Scotland is that there we have a quite different policy solution to a quite different situation, in terms of how we buy and sell a house in Scotland. But the consumer interest is the same, that is, we want the efficient use of our money given to exchange professionals. And I think there are quite a number of arguments and issues like that, where there is a different policy context because of a different legal situation in Scotland and if you look at the history of how things have developed. Education being another one. So it has not been resolved yet, the House Improvement Task Force in Scotland is still looking at this issue and there has been a debate and there has been some apparent resistance from the surveying profession about this change. And I think off the table are some of the things which seem to have been suggested six months ago in England, and the experiments in Bristol, with the single surveys, and stuff like that. So I am quite confident "what matters is what works" applies to Scotland and England, and they are quite different policy contexts, in certain circumstances, and that is recognised, and I do not think it is controversial, actually.
  (Mr Millar) Another example of that is where we take the subject of agriculture, where there are four agricultural strategies throughout Great Britain, but there is a GB-wide negotiation within Europe under the CAP, and suchlike. And what we do is, we try to bring together, under one thought process, agriculture from the standpoint of the consumer for the whole of Great Britain, by recognising, however, that there is a completely separate agricultural strategy document that came out, which I was part of, in Ross Finnie's group within Scotland, and, if you like, the route map to get to some of the points that the European Community would like us to get to. It will be different within Scotland, because of the nature and the profile of not just the farming aspects but the rural nature of Scotland, and the distinct differences and distinctly different views. And we find ourselves arguing, on the one hand, around the GB debate, when I am down here in London. But, on the other hand, I am sitting with ministers on this group, and, if not, I am also on the board of Quality Meat Scotland, which is actually trying to put into place some of those aspects. So at times we are having to work with, and it is not uncomfortable, the differences in Scotland. Rather than just because we want to paint it tartan and say it is different, it is actually identifying where we have true differences and how they impact upon consumers, and, for that matter, where there are opportunities in Scotland for things that can be done. Maybe because of the nature of the culture, or the size of the country, you might make advances which are to the benefit of consumers far faster than that of England and other parts of Great Britain. So that is enjoying the dynamic of being an organisation which is funded through the DTI. And we are involved in the national GB-wide debate, as well as the Scottish debate, and we also share commonality with our Celtic colleagues in Northern Ireland and Wales, where we can bring together the different views on some of those areas and then see how it applies within Scotland.
  (Mr Evans) Can I just add something very quickly to that. It is an example of how we are doing something different in Scotland with our partners in industry. The building industry has been following the idea of Quality Mark, pioneered by the Department of Trade and Industry in England, to try to deal with the issues of consumer confidence in the building trade, and it is quite topical nowadays. The trade associations in Scotland came to see us and said that, "We prefer to go down a different route to this, and find a different way of trying to reassure the consumer interest;" and we agreed to work with them. In fact, Ms McAuley is working with that group to find a different way, because that was what had industry support in Scotland. And we proofed it against the consumer interest, and thought, "Yes, this is different and equally effective," particularly if they were resisting the idea of the quality mark in England. So horses for courses, and I would not like to say which is going to be the better, but I do think that we have to work with partners to find if they are willing to go in this direction. And the Scottish building industry was willing and enthusiastic about this, and it is different from how our sponsoring department, Trade and Industry, wished to go. We are very happy to support them, after having looked at the figures. We are now trying to see whether or not we can get some funding. DTI is actually giving some form of subsidy into the early years of the quality mark system in England, but they are not willing to give that to what is happening in Scotland, and we think a reasonable level playing-field there should be pursued. We make no complaint about what they are doing, but, as I say, we are pursuing that with them in a reasonably straightforward way.

  21. That is very interesting, I must say. It often seems, from a legislative point of view at the moment, maybe it is just in these early years, that there are too few channels for the sharing of best practice (between the UK and Scottish legislatures and administrations). There is a tendency for people to want to do things differently, for its own sake, sometimes. But can I just press you slightly on that agricultural point which I thought that was an interesting point to make. The primary effect of devolution and its separate agricultural policies across the UK is upon the producer, and how CAP and others affect local producers in Scotland. It is not obvious to me, given the scope for import into and movement of food around the UK, why your organisation which represents consumer interest are so particularly interested in agricultural produce.
  (Mr Millar) As part of drawing together the agricultural strategy document in Scotland, I think, one of the roles that we play, or rather I play, by sitting on that group, I am now on the board of Quality Meat Scotland, which is funded through the industry, is really forcing people within these organisations to address where the true differences are, rather than, it be Scottish then it must be different, we want to do something in a different way. And once we have teased out and are satisfied that there are sufficient reasons for being different within Scotland, then I think we found it, as an organisation, very easy then to support those differences. But often I find myself as the only independent individual in a producer environment who says, "We're Scottish and therefore our industry must be different." What has come out, as an example, some of the things that are coming out within the situation within Scotland are that, for instance, the articulation that Scotch beef is something that could be brought into Scotland and grazed for up to 90 days and be called Scotch. Now the movement that is being made at the moment is that within, now that is confusing to the consumer. I suppose, in a sense, in a different way, it is bit like saying you get an Australian full-back for the Scotland rugby side, he happens to have a Scottish grandmother, or something like that; we do accept that, if he is a good player, we do not accept it, if he is not. But when it comes to, one thing that we made big progress with in Quality Meat Scotland, addressing something they have moved from quality assurance to consumer assurance, i.e. they have taken a view in the organisations within Scotland, it has not happened in England, like the National Farmers' Union and others, it is all part of what I am saying, it will be the consumer that will be the saviour of the agricultural producer industry within Scotland. And, on the back of that, they are going to align themselves with our views, that the confusion around expressions such as Scotch and Scottish, especially selected Scotch, is sufficient that we want to tidy that up. And we have made application to the European Community to get to the point where, within Scotland, if it is labelled, from about July of next year, beef, if it is Scotch it will have been born, bred and slaughtered. There will be no exception to that, there is a passport for every beast as well. Now that is different within Scotland compared with England and Wales. And, in a sense, it is not just driven by the possibility that they might get a premium for their product, but, in fact, that industry is saying to itself, "We are misrepresenting our products, as they are at the moment, and we also have to recognise that we've got to move, under the reform of the CAP, from being purely product and produce orientated to addressing the environmental aspects of the countryside in Scotland." Because the public, the consumer, associates that warm, lovely feeling with a farm, but, in fact, some intensive farming is very devastating to the countryside. So, in Scotland, elements that are different are starting to come out there that they feel they want to progress, and it is not just challenging, it is actually very interesting, quite exciting, to be involved in that, because now organisations that would never have bothered at all about addressing the needs of consumers and potential customers are now, we are alongside each other, kind of partnering, as I say, working together to try to get a better result.
  (Mr Evans) I think there is a very clear consumer interest where subsidies for production are involved, because it depends on how their subsidies feed through in terms of price, in terms of choice and quality of the material. And the evidence that we have, and that has been very well researched by the National Consumer Council and others, is that the CAP costs consumers considerably, in terms of the quality of the product and the price of the product; so we have an interest in working on the reform. And we were grateful to the Scottish Executive when they did invite us onto the Industry Group mid-term review of the CAP, because we had written to them saying that "We saw that you had the producer interest there, you had the environmental interest, but you did not have the consumer interest represented." And they did then ask us to attend. We have a clear interest in this area. We have done the report, which we would be delighted to send you, about amalgamating the four countries' views on reform of the CAP. I think our frustration is a frustration held by all the players around that table I met, that the Scottish voice is actually quite weak. We are not talking about the consumer voice being quite weak, the voice of Scotland is quite weak. I know events have rather overtaken us in this area. But what interestingly we are then working on, with both the producers and the environmentalists, is finding those products which are beneficial and we want to maintain in Scotland, for example, grass-fed beef was a clear one that we were talking about, and how the reform could protect that industry, and those industries similarly in other parts of Europe, without actually creating any quality assurance issue or issue about price and subsidy. And that is a very fruitful discussion, which I am very glad to be engaged in with the farming community and with the environmentalists, because the megaphone diplomacy that sometimes can go on, particularly in environmental farming, is one that is very unhelpful for developing sensible, pragmatic and relevant policies. So we do not wish to win, we would like to win more, on occasion, just for the consumer, but we like to be part of the debate, because we are often the one that is not as able to meet at the table for the producer and the regulator interest. But we do not say we should always have just the consumer interest predominate. We are part of that discussion and have a very valid role, I think, to play in the reform of the CAP, and, from the Scottish perspective, try to give support to valid things that producers in Scotland are trying to do, and environmentalists. I think we are a good coalition when we work well together.
  (Mr Millar) Chairman, one thing I found, coming to the organisation, to our views, there were certain areas that, and your first briefing in any environment, you are told, "We can't deal with farmers, the mutual antagonism historically has been too difficult, we can't do anything there; dealing with the Law Society is incredibly difficult, we can't do that there." Two and a half years along the line, with a different view and a different attitude, to me that is a challenge. The organisation has to take that challenge on. We are now working alongside those organisations, we have not sold our souls to them, we are working to get alongside the Law Society, to tell them, "You know that what you're doing, in terms of complaints against lawyers, cannot stand up, because it's lawyers adjudicating other lawyers." And now we have moved in that relationship to where we are basically saying, "Recognise the writing on the wall; the world is changing." And now they want to change with us and say, "How can we shape legislation to make it work far better on behalf of people who complain against solicitors?" And actually many solicitors do not like the way the Law Society do that as well. So these are examples of where I think the attitude towards the consumer environment is changing. The consumer is much better off now maybe than had been perceived. We are all consumers in this room. When we walk out of here, we are consumers, we make choices, and I think it is applying those basic principles in some arenas which maybe have been taboo; but that is just a challenge to some of those.


  22. Can we just look at the review of governance, and has the 2002 DTI/Chairman of SCC assessment of the performance of the SCC Council members yet taken place? If it has, what was the outcome?
  (Mr Millar) The performance of the SCC members, it is a convenient time for us to. What we do is, what I do with the members is sit down with them, and I believe in ongoing assessment, discussions with members, about how well they are contributing, how well we feel they are contributing, with discussion and debate. On an annual basis, we sit down and put pen to paper, so that we can feed that information back to the Chairman of the National Consumer Council, and it is fed back to the DTI. We have just gone through a process of, we are about to change six members of the SCC. It is just the nature of the public appointments process, they have come to the end of their terms of office. I have to say to you, we are having difficulties with that recruitment process, and that is about getting bogged down with the DTI and resources, and suchlike, and we are trying to find an alternative through the Scotland Office, and I think there is a certain amount of goodwill, but we will get through that. It is an opportunity also for my colleagues, and we do take time out to express a view on how well, if you like, the officer arm and how well I perform as an organisation in here. I think it is fair to say that at a recent meeting with Melanie Johnson, the Minister for Consumer Affairs, that Martyn and I attended, it was a very good meeting. Subsequent to it, I think that was me on trial and the organisation. I received, just over a week ago I came back from holiday, a letter asking me if I would continue on as Chairman from next April, for the second term of three years, as an endorsement of how well she thinks the Scottish Consumer Council has been addressing the needs of consumers in Scotland. But not only that, contributing to the debate of the NCC in London, which I think is critical, because my job as a board director of the NCC is to make sure that the national, high level, strategic objectives are, in fact, carried out. So I think it was, I always say, quite good and always can do better, in terms of the governance aspects, and we have addressed governance within Scotland to see how this organisation fits vis-a"-vis the National Consumer Council. But the Scottish Council is much closer to the delivery element of things within the consumer environment. The National Consumer Council is still going through its transition of trying to work out whether it sees itself as a think tank, or whether it sees itself as, which we are not, well we do think, in the Scottish Consumer Council. We tend to move towards the doing bit, working with people to get results, and the NCC is still going through this, it is still in the early stages of trying to work this out in terms of their governance. So it is very important for me, and, let us say, the Welsh and the Northern Ireland Chairmen, to be there as part of that debate. So I think governance overall has been a good exercise for the National Consumer Council, because when I joined it there were 25 members, and after four meetings I was not sure why it was there or what it was supposed to do; so they needed their governance to be addressed. And I think now we have a big, broad advisory committee of, I will not call them the great and the good but diverse people from all over Great Britain, about 45 advising the NCC, I think we are getting some commonsense into the debate and discussion. And I would like to think, in a year's time, I would give you an even crisper answer to the role of the NCC. But the SCC itself, I think, has addressed the governance issues, and we know where we stand, and there are no real tensions between ourselves and the rest of the organisation.
  (Ms McAuley) Our appointments process is in line with the OCP Code of Practice. Recently, we have, as Graeme said, some Council members' whose terms of office have expired, but also, before any member is reappointed, a report on performance is submitted to the DTI, and that was done recently, before reappointments were made, individually for each member, so that process is adhered to, and that has just been done.

  23. Could we take a look then at the SCC and the political process, and you have already touched on this quite widely, but given the broad nature of its remit and the connections with Europe, what relationship do you cultivate with Members of the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Members of Parliament at Westminster?
  (Mr Millar) Martyn may supplement my comments but basically we have a strategy which is around making sure that all of the Members of the Scottish Parliament are communicated with, with any comments that we make, any documents we produce, any research that has been developed. We will send copies of that to each individual MSP, hand off and signed by myself, to make sure we maintain some form of personal link. In a more formal sense, the Cross-Party Group of MSPs, members of which incidentally, are down here next week, next Tuesday, at a meeting at five o'clock in the evening to discuss with some other colleagues on debt, which was what Mark was referring to earlier on, and other issues, in a formal sense, that is where we address that. But we are constantly available to, and we meet with, on an informal basis, Members of all political parties. Martyn's emphasis is on the officers that support the Scottish Executive, but I think it is fair to say, as we move through the corridors of Victoria Quay, the Scottish Executive and the Scottish Parliament building, we do not move far without stopping to talk to MSPs, not in a lobbying sense, they know who we are. Fortunately for them, my face appears occasionally on the television, or they hear me at 6.15 in the morning, on Good Morning Scotland, and they will have issues they want to debate and discuss with me. So most of the emphasis is clearly within the Scottish Parliament. Even before we came in here, I was talking with one of the MPs down here, Michael Moore, of the Liberal Democrats, whom I have known for a long period of time, and a few of the MPs down here we have kept contact with. It is an area that I think I want to build on even more, because I am conscious that it is all too easy to be absorbed by the Scottish environment fully, but I have recognised in previous lives, the advantage and the benefits of being able to brief MPs at Westminster. I have to say, any document we send to MSPs we send to Scottish MPs and to Scottish Members of the House of Lords, and each of the members of the Cabinet. In a sense, I know the difficulty of getting so much information sent through to you. What we try to do is keep it very brief and we do not now produce documents which keep your table off the margin. They tend to be very small but to the point, and if you want to find out more our website has everything on it.

Mr John Robertson

  24. I was interested to hear about you sending things to MPs. I have got to say, I do not remember getting anything from you, and I do not remember you ever talking to me, and I just wonder how many more of my colleagues you do not send things to and you do not talk to. It would appear you talk to MSPs, but the Scottish MPs do not seem to get the same kind of coverage?
  (Mr Evans) I do think that is a fair criticism. I will look to see whether or not we have sent to you. The intention has always been to send all MPs the output of our work, or Scottish MPs the output of our work, as well as sending it to MSPs. So I will look at that. Our intention has been, as Graeme has said, to send it to you. I do think we struggle now, with the Scottish Parliament, in terms of the resource that we have to give in this area, and I do think your reminder to us, we should do better with MPs, is timely; because, even with you not in the equation, we struggle with this issue of pursuing the consumer interest with the Scottish Executive, which has a very wide remit and a large work agenda, and the Scottish Parliament itself, which has its own quite separate work agenda and has had time commitments for us to give evidence to their groups and to discuss with them. So to put as well the issues to MPs is a further issue for us, and I apologise if we have not sent them to you, we certainly do always intend to send them to you, and I will look into that. But the policy dilemma for us is this. When the Scottish Parliament was getting into its stride after a year or so, we found its demands on us really quite beyond our capabilities of delivering to it. We have to prioritise how we will engage with them, because, as you will know, as Members of Parliament, a significant amount of the kind of policy work that you do would be with the Executive, we would deal with the Executive, and the wider range of work that the Scottish Parliament might do does not quite have the same immediacy. So that is a strategic issue for us, as well as a tactical one. With a small organisation, which has got three and a half policy managers, we are spread quite thin. But I do really sincerely apologise, if we have not sent you the material.

Mr Eric Joyce

  25. That response rather took us back to the question I asked earlier about funding. After devolution, a whole host of UK-wide organisations with Scottish branches have changed shape somewhat, depending on the demands placed upon them by the devolved administration. It may be that you may have comment on this, since the funding that you get, on a temporary basis, or an annual basis, from the Scottish Executive, is not guaranteed, let us say, two or three years down the line. Do you think there is any scope there for that funding mechanism to be revised at some stage?
  (Mr Evans) We have done a lot of work, particularly on health, with the Scottish Executive, and a lot of that has been project-by-project work, which is difficult for us to plan for. It is actually quite a challenge for an organisation like ours to find the appropriate resources at the right time. We have to be very flexible in what we do. So we have put a proposal to them, and which they have approved us putting to them, whereby we get an amount of money over two or three years to do a range of unspecified work. So we get a certainty in terms of our income, so we can plan that resource and the workforce. I can plan the workforce issues, and also probably get a better deal from our external contractors, because if you ask people at the last minute to do something they do tend to charge you for that privilege. So one aspect of this is to go into this regime with the Scottish Executive, they give us an amount of money over a period of time, where we can plan these matters, rather than have case-by-case. I would just be myself as Director, very wary of criticising what the Department of Trade and Industry have done, in terms of our core funding. We would always like more, we do bid annually for the money, and we have had, as I was saying to your colleague, real increases in our income from the Department of Trade and Industry, and they are genuinely supportive. The great advantage we have to my mind as a Director, is being core funded. I have worked for many organisations where you raise your money as you go along, and that is a nightmare, because it is everything I find difficult about our contract work, plus it is related to your own salary and your core costs. So having core costs makes us a very stable organisation, which can build and choose what work to do or not, without that core cost. If your question is, would we like more money from the Department of Trade and Industry, we do tend to ask for slightly more money on occasions, and they do have of course lots of other commitments, and we appreciate the money they have given us, genuinely. We appreciate the increases they have given us and like many organisations, particularly small organisations, we find even a little bit more of that we are after really is a challenge to deliver in a quality assured way, and not just to put the work out. So there is our challenge. It is my challenge as a Director to manage that process; the Chairman of the Council, the management, their challenge is to make sure that there is some sort of strategic coherence to what we are doing. We are not just taking the money because it is money, we are not. We are taking the money because it is consistent with our policy objectives which we set each year.
  (Mr Millar) But Chairman it is undoubtedly the case that I would not miss the opportunity to say that any more funding from the DTI environment would help us to do more on behalf of consumers in Scotland. There is just no doubt about that, because this organisation is regarded as one, I think, by many people who come across it, as a very large organisation. It is not, it is very small. It is not a large budget, we punch well above our weight and occasionally get caught out. When you know you are having to take decisions to pull things off a workplan, that you know will have an impact, and you know somebody is coming over the horizon, such as we have not planned for any work to do with the water industry. The decision to bring the three water companies together and then set up advisory panels, and suchlike, has involved a huge amount of work for us; we have no resources, we somehow had to move other things off the list, and that cannot be satisfactory. But, in a sense, it goes back to the question you had, Chairman, around governance. I think, once the National Consumer Council itself, I mean it would be easy to think of ourselves functioning independently completely from the National Consumer Council and in many ways we probably do, but the reality of that is until the NCC has satisfied the DTI ministers that in fact it has got through the governance transition and its role is clearer and crisper and its objectives set, and its contribution it makes to the process of helping consumers, then I do not think it is going to be easy to get any more money out of the DTI. And we probably suffer a bit because we have more tangible deliverables that you can list, as you see in the document. NCC has more of what I call a think tank. We hate the expression in Scotland, it implies that only some people think about it and others do not; so it would be difficult for us at the moment. I think the DTI do respect the fact that we feel they are getting very good value for money from the work that we do in Scotland. They have articulated that, albeit informally, and through the Minister.

Mr John Robertson

  26. I noticed, in Appendix II of your memorandum you have listed all your evidence to the Scottish Parliament, and earlier on you said how much you were coming down and contributing to the NCC itself, but I cannot, for the life of me, find anywhere where it mentions any evidence that has been taken by any bodies down here. Do you not come down here and do any evidence-giving, or anything like that; and, if you do, could you maybe tell us what you do?
  (Mr Evans) In terms of the evidence that the NCC gives, I would not be part of the evidence-giving. What I would make sure is that the evidence that we were putting on a UK issue was relevant and had any relevant Scottish issues in it, so consumer credit, or the CAP, or those other issues which were there before. I do not have a list myself of what evidence they gave. But what I do remember, because we were working on a different issue, or we were working on the same issue but from a completely Scottish perspective, was the draft Communications Bill. We had an issue about the representation of the Scottish consumer interest, which our colleagues in the NCC, in the Board of the NCC, did not think was consistent with their own view, and therefore we pursued it separately ourselves. So, for the most part, we try to say the same things with one voice through the NCC.

  27. It strikes me, if the DTI are paying the bulk of the money, that they might want to ask the NCC how they are doing, and at some stage, somebody from the SCC would give the evidence to a DTI committee, or a minister, or whatever; but according to this, you do nothing down here?
  (Mr Evans) We do not give any direct evidence.

  28. Is this the first time you have ever been asked to give evidence at all?
  (Mr Evans) In my experience, yes.
  (Mr Millar) In a sense, that is why we welcome the opportunity to do that. There is no reason why we should not be. It may be that historically, because I have not been around that long, maybe the National Consumer Council has considered it as their baby, with their hierarchy. Our input is making sure that we now, as a member of the Board of the NCC, that if they are expressing their view that relates in any way to Scotland, and they were going in front of any of the parliamentary committees, I would be there. In a sense, however, Mr Robertson, the other thing is that we do sit down with the DTI and we have separate discussions with the DTI, and we want that, separate from the National Consumer Council. And we have had that, with Jonathan Rees, the senior officer in the DTI there, in consumer affairs, and we have had separate meetings, without any recourse whatsoever to the National Consumer Council, with the Minister. And, in a sense, there is still some way to go, I think, in people understanding the impact of the devolutionary environment and some of our activities. We as an organisation try to encourage some of our members from London because we regard it as NCC London, to come to Scotland and sit in with us and understand how we debate and discuss and take views within Scotland. But believe me, I would never miss an opportunity. I come from a world of negotiating for pharmacy for six years. I used to crawl along those corridors here, taking every opportunity to give evidence and discuss more down south.

  29. If we had had that information, that would have been quite useful, because maybe we could have asked some questions around it. Finding out well into the evidence-taking that you have been down talking to people in the NCC makes it difficult for us to ask questions around those discussions.
  (Mr Millar) I think one of the difficulties is that the amount of information we can give you can be immense, and it is in the nature of the beast, I suppose, that that elicits the question.

  30. Somebody once told me, you cannot get too much information, but what you can get is too little.
  (Mr Millar) It was not intentionally withheld because it is not something it would be in our interest to do so, put it that way.

Mr Eric Joyce

  31. The Scottish Human Rights Forum, you are represented on it; what is that all about?
  (Mr Millar) Human Rights, is that Sarah?
  (Mr Evans) It is Sarah O'Neill. We have been there because we have an interest in how this would impact upon the consumer perspective. I have not actually seen any outputs from it. I will be delighted, again, to write to you. I would not like to mislead you about anything, so if I can write and say what it is and what we are doing there. I am struggling to think. I am much more familiar with the other forums that Sarah O'Neill, our legal officer, is part of, but that one I am not, I am afraid.<fu5>

<fo5>  See Ev 30.

  32. Let me ask you something else, it may seem tangential but it is not, and I would be interested in your view. The European law is going to lead to change in UK law, as far as religious discrimination is concerned, very soon. One of my colleagues might tell me when it comes into effect, but essentially, you will not be able to discriminate in religious terms, but only on the side of employment and training. There will still be discrimination if people choose to discriminate, in terms of service delivery. So would you have a view on that?
  (Mr Evans) We certainly would, because one of the tests of the consumer interest is that fairness is applied and that consumers are not unreasonably or unfairly discriminated against on a matter which is not a matter about their consumption of the goods. So, of course, you can charge people differently or charge a higher price for something. But we would have a view about fairness in those circumstances. Yes, we certainly would. Just as we would have a view, and we have done work before I joined in the past about discrimination by estate agents in selling properties to black and ethnic minority groups, so we certainly would have an interest. I think the challenge will be to find the evidence base for that discrimination, but that is a quite separate issue about what the evidence is, from the principle. We have a clear view that fairness is a reasonable consumer test, and discrimination, in those circumstances, purely on the basis of a person's religion, if that is the example you are giving, would be unreasonable.

  33. The state discriminates in terms of its services, through its public policy?
  (Mr Evans) I think discrimination is quite right, we are saying one has to be discriminatory unless you have a universal service. You discriminate whether it is going to be for children, it is going to be for older people, or whatever, but the unfair discrimination in the delivery of service on a matter which is not about their characteristics as a consumer, about something else, would be something that we would object to. If they are discriminating on the basis that we are only going to allow women to go to buy certain products, or whatever, we would say, "No, we can't see the point of that," we would say that was unreasonable to do that. There is an issue of citizenship here, which we steer very clear of, and then an area of consumption, which we are right into. We are on the cusp of this one, but indeed, we would be robust in our defence of our right to say, "That is discriminating against that person, that service delivery, on the basis not of their characteristics as a consumer but about something else." That is not in the consumer interest to do that.

  34. I will just take you straight to the nub; that was a nice distinction, actually, discrimination. The issue of religious discrimination across the UK is interpreted in a different way in Scotland. In Scotland it is seen in terms of Catholic and Protestant, frankly; across the UK it is seen much more as a precursor to forms of racial discrimination. And the difficulty in Scotland at the moment, and you may not have a view on this but it does seem to me it is a service and so you may have a view as a consumer interest body, but the difficulty with religious discrimination, or as it applies to Scotland, is that essentially Catholic schools are a trickiness. It may be possible to apply it to service and have exemptions for schools, but clearly, that is an institutionalist form of distinction according to what religion it was. Now that is a service that is provided but that is a sticking-point when it comes to extending laws on religious discrimination across the spectrum, as you can with racial discrimination, for example?
  (Mr Evans) I think I would have to think about that. My view would be in terms of discrimination, as is the debate in England, that if you have denominational schools you cannot restrict those to certain denominations without being discriminatory. So it is not their existence, it is who is allowed in and who is allowed out which may be the matter of discrimination. But as you well know, the issue of denominational schools in Scotland is a fraught enough area anyway. So before we said very much about that we would have to think very deeply about what the issues were, where the consumer interests lie, and would probably say this is a matter for our political representatives to debate it, as a citizenship issue, but I would not guarantee that. But I would not take the ball you passed me very happily.
  (Mr Millar) The other thing to take note of is we are spending more and more time now working with equal opportunities organisations and racial discrimination organisations now in Scotland, and taking up the mantle there, because it is something that we recognise that we had not been able to do much with. Martyn has taken a very close interest in that because there are major differences all over Scotland, and it is not racial, it is just within communities, not purely on religion but also in language, the Gaelic versus Scots, and all of those things.
  (Mr Evans) Can I just make one further point because it is related to something Mr Robertson was saying earlier. That many of our laws are emanating, as that one is, from Europe, and the question again in terms of our focus and our ability to deliver is that, being a lobbying organisation, or looking for policy change in Europe, is actually very difficult for a Scottish organisation, as it is for our Welsh colleagues and our Irish colleagues. The structure of Europe is actually quite a, not complicated but it is actually changing in terms of who holds the power, and so we meet once a year with all the consumer associations in Europe and try to discuss these and find ways forward. And each of us who are from the nations within unitary states, or who are from small countries, share the same kind of problem of access and our interests being properly represented. And understanding how to influence change before it goes too far down a line, because as you will know, your greatest influences on change are before policies have been clearly articulated by Government. It is before that stage you have the greatest influence. And so our challenge I think is to recognise the amount of law coming from Europe, and the duty to trade fairly is something we were down yesterday to speak to the Consumer Affairs Minister with and her Department and the Office of Fair Trading. And there is a big debate, which is very difficult again for a small organisation. We are not just special pleading here for our Welsh colleagues, our Irish colleagues, our colleagues in Ireland, to actually engage in, because of the nature of institutions and our limited resources. We try to find a mechanism through that, through our European association of consumer organisations, called BEUC<fu6>, but again it is very difficult to work up a consumer consensus in Europe as it is difficult to work up any consensus, and it is another area which is taking time and energy from our small number of staff.

<fo6>  Bureau European des Unions de Consommateurs.

Ann McKechin

  35. Can I just follow on from that. The DTI currently have a consultation out about the general remit on trade and services, at the World Trade Organisation, which also includes, for example, higher education. Now clearly, the policy and administration of higher education is distinct in Scotland than it is from the rest of the United Kingdom. Following on from what you said, is it the intention of the Consumer Council to take part in that consultation and give it their views, and is there any other aspect of your current programme which you think may be usefully brought to the attention of this Committee?
  (Mr Evans) We would only take part in that through our specialist within the National Consumer Council. Jill Johnstone is our world trade specialist, who is one person, and you can imagine again the issues and complexities that she has to deal with. She is also part of the transatlantic consumer dialogue, which is a dialogue between consumer associations, organisations, here and in America, which is important to that debate to try to find common ground of the consumer interest in the World Trade Organisation talks. I cannot say I am at all familiar with the details of that, although I know that it was being related to us in the mid-term review of the Common Agriculture Policy as an important lever for change in European Union subsidies in agriculture. The issue you raise about services and competition within services is a very critical one, both in terms of the consumer interest and, much more broadly, in terms of our social interest, our citizenship issue, and we will have to try to find a way through that, and I have absolutely no idea at the moment what that will be. But I do not have staff who are competent in that area. They are all within London, of the National Consumer Council; and they would send us their drafts and see if there are particular issues. But the principles will not make any difference, in my view, between the regimes north and south of the border, for example, in education, because the principles are competitive tendering, as I understand it, issues like opening up markets in these services, and I would have thought our interests are the same north and south of the border about protecting children's interest and parental interest in education.

  36. Would you not consider the different needs also about higher education in Scotland, as there is in England and Wales, and that people may wish to keep a certain unique quality within Scotland? You have been talking about the consumers, and the fisheries industry, but it strikes me there is a very similar argument about the preservation of higher education within Scotland, rather than it going out to a situation where it could be taken over by outside interests?
  (Mr Evans) I think that is part of what I have heard too, just because I have a kind of an interest in those consumer issues, I picked that up. I am in no way an expert. But, as I understand how it has been told to me, through just informal chats with my colleagues, it is that some of these concerns about taking over and the competitive aspects of this, we had to have a very hard view from the consumer interest, because, of course, competition is in the consumer's interest. And that is not to say we would like our education system at all taken over, but we have to know what we are defending in terms of the willingness of our politicians to set the agenda, on the basis of who elects them are citizens, and what kind of competitive environment we want for services. And I think that is probably what the debate is going to be, from the consumer interest, in the World Trade Organisation discussion. But I am reluctant to go very much further because it is a hugely complex and technical area, and I have read some third- and fourth-hand accounts, and I have not been party to any of the debate. And I always worry that it is misrepresented as it comes through at that kind of third and fourth hand, and the truth may be something completely different from how I understand the situation of competition in public and private services, which was what, I think, was behind your question.


  37. The SCC aims to influence policy and decision-making and to inform and raise awareness among consumers. What are the principal means by which these objectives are accomplished?
  (Mr Millar) Various. I suppose we access any possible form of communication that we can, in terms of wanting to give messages. So we work closely with, I have good working relationships with the written press, the radio and/or others. We talk on a one-to-one basis with individuals about communicating our messages. We work through other consumer organisations that we communicate with, and we have groups such as Energy Watch and/or others. And, in fact, I chair a group of the chairmen and chief officers of all these organisations, so we have a kind of umbrella organisation and some form of good practice sharing around things like complaint handling, etc., but also we have a united front on some of those aspects that we feel are affecting all consumers in Scotland. We constantly send, although I am disappointed to hear that our database does not seem to be as comprehensive as I thought it was, we send out information on an ongoing basis to many different people who we consider to be decision-makers and takers, whether in local authorities, parliamentary, north and south of the border. And I am just annoyed and frustrated you have not seen anything, if it is not there, our database has got a problem, because I spend my life topping and tailing on these letters, I believe you deserve that courtesy. So, in a sense, we will send out hundreds, if not thousands, of pieces of information to many different people who we feel need to know, and backed up by, usually, a more public platform, using a press officer that works on a nominal time basis for us to make sure we get access both to all the main newspapers and radio and television stations. And I suppose you get to a stage now, they know who you are when you walk through the door, you can go through a process of telling you what to do, "There's your blank booth, get on with it, Mr Millar; what's the message for today?" And the other mechanism, all my colleagues constantly, including the Board of the SCC, they act as advocates for the work that we are doing, or have been doing, and will be doing; and we encourage many different people to work with us well beyond the Board of the Scottish Consumer Council and the officers. We involve people from many different sectors, on our working groups and/or others, so that our net is much broader and bigger, so it is just a network of information and traditional ways of communicating them. One of the difficulties is, as an organisation, we will always have a consumer-based organisation, and it is something I address and I remind my Council and I remind my officers, as well, that often we put forward submissions by way of consultation, we do research, trying to facilitate change. Very rarely will the consumer organisation and the work that is done ever be given credit for that change. More often than not, it will be taken by the chief executive of a large company, or of an energy company, it might be the ministers involved and Civil Service and otherwise. Basically, our responsibility is to be in on the debate, on the route map for the change that we are trying to get to; as I say to my people, "Be satisfied we've got to our end point." At the end of the day, no-one is necessary when you come down and say, "If it hadn't been for the input by the Scottish Consumer Council . . ." So, in a motivating sense, you have got to constantly remind people that what we do is valued but they may never get a direct credit, because others, quite rightly, are in a different position to take it and give it.
  (Mr Evans) I think the core of our influence is the evidence base, and so, if we undertake the research for what the consumer interest is, and identify that in all its complexity, and then move to the position of trying to suggest policy solutions and debate those, that is where our strength lies. The weakness in the consumer movement is, often, it is based on anecdotes and personal experience, which is put forward as though that is the reality. That can often be very detrimental, particularly to low-income consumers, who are not having their experience put forward, or in other ways who are disadvantaged. And in our own country, of course, many rural and remote residents have that problem, that their interests are not those which are anecdotally convenient to put forward. So I think it is our evidence and our research, the quality of that, which is the key driver for change. We identify what that is, and we are very willing to say no change is required, if the evidence does not have that. And we are also, I think, very willing to say the answer is not clear, there is a consensus in policy terms that needs to be built, and willing to build a policy consensus rather than banging a rather distant drum about what the perfect world, for the perfect consumption, might be. So I think that evidence base, willing to negotiate, seek a policy consensus, is very important for us.

Mr John Robertson

  38. The SCC has carried out a wide range of work in public services. In terms of the SCC's work on complaints handling, could you expand on the point in your memorandum that said, "Translating policy into practice at service delivery level is problematic and providing training for frontline staff in this area is a particular issue"?<fu7>

<fo7>  See Ev 4.

  (Mr Evans) This comes from our conversations within health, mainly, whereby the managers within the health departments say, we have absorbed this management question, that we must be a responsive organisation that can react to individual patients' complaints, and we have put in place procedures for this, but what they have found very difficult is actually to get the quality of training from external or internal training providers to actually make that culture change within their own organisations. And so what we then took from that, when we heard these conversations, from a variety of sources, was, who is providing this training to front-line staff? It is no longer a question of persuading the management in public services that complaint handling is important. This is about delivering good quality complaint handling by front-line staff; who is delivering that, how well is it being delivered, what is it costing? So this is a process which we are saying, there are may be market failure here, the market failure may be there are not the people available, with the skills available, to do this, or maybe it is done in-house, with the same, we can call it, market failure there. So that is what we are interested in. Whether that is the case or not we have still to find, but that is what we are pursuing at the moment. And it is important for us, because that comes back again to the service managers, who have said, we wish the culture change to take place. This is the impediment to it and we can help, possibly contribute to finding that out.

  (Mr Millar) I think that is actually being able to identify the tools that they need to allow them to discharge that responsibility. They know that they have to do it, and I think they are looking for us to do an awful lot, of course. It may be in different sectors, and health was only one example, but it is a very acute example. Local government is another one, about where people do not have an awful lot of choice in the services they have. How can they come away with that kind of acknowledged satisfaction that their complaint is being handled well enough? Otherwise all that happens, in my experience in the electricity industry, is you forget the reason you complained, you then complain about the process.

  39. Is this part of the work then you have been doing with the Public Services Ombudsman, have you had the connection with him, have you related the problems that you have got, particularly with health, which is very important obviously? And also, because I know it is the people that are missing from your evidence, is actually the Health Minister and his Department, you have not given any evidence to them, and yet you are telling me that health is the one thing that you see as being a big problem?
  (Mr Evans) We do, and I think we work particularly closely with the Executive on that matter, and what the Health Committee of the Scottish Parliament is looking at is not always the same as the work that we are working on, so I think there is a clear reason for that, why we are not doing that. In terms of the Public Services Ombudsman, we are due to meet with the Ombudsman, Alice Brown, shortly. We worked very closely with Ian Smith, who was the Local Government Ombudsman, and who is now the Convener of the Water Customer Panels, to look at these issues. As you know, the Public Services Ombudsman is a recent appointment, and has not worked out all the processes which they are going to undertake. But one of the criticisms we have made about public authorities, in the past, is, whilst they have received complaints, they have not always redesigned their services to take account of the regular complaint; so they deal with complaints on an individual level, but managerially have not reorganised. And we have said that to the Ombudsman, and we said that when we gave evidence about the Public Services Ombudsman, they should have an independent role, not just in trying to resolve complaints for an individual customer but also say to that service provider, "You appear to have had five, 10, 20 complaints about the same subject; we would like to see what proposals you're making to redesign your service so these complaints are not repeated." I do not think it is rocket science, but I do think complaint handling can just be parked as one part of an organisation, which has nothing to do with service development, and we think it is a virtual circle. You complain, you improve, you get to the service feedback through complaints. The thing, as you will well know, in public service is, people cannot exit, so you do not have the same clear signals that your market has been reduced, you have to have much more subtle signals and change on those signals too.
  (Mr Millar) With regard to the aspect around health, Mr Robertson, in a different life, in another part of my life, I am the Chairman of the Common Services Agency of the National Health Service in Scotland, so I work and meet with all three Ministers, usually on a monthly basis, with other chairmen, and we discuss informally lots of issues in relation both to health and also to consumer affairs. So I think that relationship, at my level, is extremely informal, but we are, basically, at the end of a telephone in that relationship, because I am fully accountable to the Minister, in terms of health. But we do so much work within health anyway that the work of the SCC is often commented on, the documents we have come out with in health. So I think we have been able to work that fortuitously, just because of the circumstances, me, as an individual, having been a non-executive director in the Health Service and a health professional myself, being able to work with ministers, previous ministers, and with Malcolm Chisholm and others. And I think that relationship has worked quite well overall, and will continue to, because we have a lot of work committed for the way forward in the interests of consumers, the role of Health Councils, and things like that. There is quite a demanding agenda for the next year or two in the Scottish Parliament around health on these things.

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