WEDNESDAY 30 OCTOBER 2002
Mrs Irene Adams, in the Chair
Memorandum submitted by Scottish Consumer Council
Examination of Witnesses
MR GRAEME MILLAR, Chairman, MR MARTYN EVANS, Director, and MS TRISHA MCAULEY, Head of Corporate Resources, Scottish Consumer Council, examined.
(Mr Millar) Thank you very much, Chairman. I am Graeme Millar and I am the Chairman of the Scottish Consumer Council. On my left, Trisha McAuley is our Head of Corporate Affairs, and Martyn Evans is the Executive Director. Clearly, we sent you a relatively comprehensive document, and on the basis that you would be able to ask questions on the back of that, but that does not restrict you in any way, of course. What we will try to do is, with the three of us, bring together enough knowledge to answer your questions as well as we possibly can; but it is a nice opportunity for us to come down here and discuss things with you.
(Mr Millar) The nature and range of work; the nature of work, I think, is based on the premise that as an organisation with an emphasis on people who you might regard, however you define it, as disadvantaged, or maybe have difficulties in getting access to many goods and services; that would be our main thrust. Which takes us across lots of areas from the public sector, the areas that you would recognise, within health, etc., and that comes out in the document, but there is no real limit to the environment that we get involved in, our ability to express a view, our ability to respond to requests for information and/or advice. So it is a very interesting portfolio, because, in a sense, it is limitless, because there is no agency that we do not take the opportunity to interact with, whether it is the CBI, the Institute of Directors, whether it is local government, whether it is the Scottish Parliament, whether it is other agencies, other consumer agencies that relate to specific areas, like energy, etc. So a very interesting area, I have found, certainly, in two and a half years as Chairman, because albeit it is our own, in terms of being asked to express a view, we like to concentrate on areas that we manage to research, so we can support our view with well-documented research, and we articulate that proactively when we have done some work. But there are other basic principles that we relate to in the consumer environment, which is on the front page, which we then often give a view, when asked to do so by the press, politicians and/or others.
(Mr Evans) I think our work, as the Chairman says, can be divided into three broad categories. One is the original research, where we are looking at the consumer interest, using social science, in terms of trying to find what that is and where the consumer issues may lie. The second is policy development, often on the back of the research but working with others to find practical and relevant solutions within the Scottish and UK policy context, for issues which might improve the consumer's position. And the third and quite important part of our work is practical work, where we have suggested a course of action, maybe to Government, and we have also offered to then help with developing that course of action; for example, our community food work, where we have said, "That's a way to actually try to increase the take-up of a healthier diet in Scotland." And I think those three things combine rather well together; so, research, policy development and practical engagement, with the issues which we say are important to Scotland.
(Mr Millar) I would say, any organisation that purports to represent consumers is bound, at one stage or another, to get some criticism, especially maybe from interested parties, who may not necessarily agree with some of the views that we are expressing. And it not unusual for, when it is the private sector, certain companies not to like our view; at the moment it is quite topical, we might have taken a view on energy, electricity and blackouts, and we would express a view that they should be doing something about that, they should communicate better, and they will come back with an excuse and criticise us, occasionally, and quite rightly so. I think it is partly dynamic. But we tend, as a matter of principle, to move towards, or off the soap-box type of debate, much more towards working with people, that is why we are involved in so many committees, within Parliament and with agencies; we would rather work and contribute whatever we can to help get a better product, or Bill, or legislation, whatever, towards the end of it. But, criticism, yes, undoubtedly comes; that probably means that we are doing our work quite well.
(Mr Evans) We have had a long-standing interest in consumer debt, and, in fact, we set up Money Advice Scotland, which is now a very thriving independent organisation in Scotland. I think there are a number of issues with the Consumer Credit Act, and it is due for review, it is under review, as you well know, at the moment. I do not think there are any easy answers as to where this comes, because partly this is a matter of consumer confidence and consumer information, so the glib answer would be to make consumers better informed about what their rights are, in order that they can resist poor aspects of the credit, or to make the enforcement regime better. We are working with our colleagues in the NCC on this matter and have not finally formulated a view on the Consumer Credit Act, but there are many aspects of it that we do support, and some aspects we would like to see improved. I think a lot of the evidence that would be put to the Department of Trade and Industry about consumer detriment, broadly, under our push to actually have a duty to trade fairly, has been in the consumer credit field, so there is a disproportionate amount of issues in that field which the DTI have taken up with us and we are working with them on that. In terms of loan-sharking, that is, if it is the illegal lending of money, we have been in discussions in part with one of your colleagues, George Foulkes, about these issues, and we have on our Council, our previous Vice-Chair was the Director of Trading Standards in Strathclyde and did a lot of work on this issue and has been advising us. Again, we find, if that is a criminal activity, it very difficult to suggest, from the consumer perspective, changes which would actually alleviate that position; it is not to say it is not absolutely dreadful, but it is finding that. Probably, we will find that difficult, to make an answer on that, on that issue of loan-sharking, from our perspective, if it is not just aimed at the criminal offence; the intermediary, which is extortionate credit, issues, I think we do have some technical discussions to have with the Department of Trade and Industry about how best to make that regulatory regime work.
(Mr Evans) I would be delighted to write and say what those are, but I think that is quite a highly technical area that you are asking me for, and our legal officer is working on this; we are very aware of that point, that you raise. What we are keen to do is have a reply to the issue from the NCC, taking full account of the Scottish legal system, and those points that have been made. So I would be delighted to reply, but I do not think I could give you an accurate answer now.
(Mr Evans) What we have done here is enter into discussions with the Law Society of Scotland, and specifically their Conveyancing Committee, we have met them on a number of occasions to try to define where the problem lies, and if it lies in terms of standards, the standard kind, and this is in exchange documents, and whether we can improve that through the solicitor side, or whether we need actually greater regulation in this matter. So what we have done is built up some evidence about what we think are unreasonable terms, talked informally to the Office of Fair Trading about unfair contract terms, talked with and had formal meetings with the Conveyancing Committee of the Law Society of Scotland, to see whether or not, without formal regulation but the self-regulation that they could impose, we could improve the situation. And we have yet to reach a policy conclusion on that, because that work probably will not be finished until next year, in which case many options will be available to us, after better regulation or improved self-regulation, or a mixture of the two. But it is certainly a significant issue, and all the parties we have spoken to recognise the very weak position buyers of new houses are in when they are asked to sign contracts, and those contracts may contain conditions which, if they are not legally unfair, certainly seem, to us, to be biased in favour of the seller rather than a more balanced contract.
(Mr Evans) We certainly will, and we are meeting the Consumer Affairs Director of the Office of Fair Trading this Friday, and we will intend to write to them, if there are issues, and we will certainly write to this Committee, we will be delighted to do so.
Chairman: John Robertson. We are now looking at resources.
(Mr Millar) First of all, It would be trite of me not to suggest I can always usefully use more resources, especially if they came through the DTI route. There has never been a suggestion that DTI would reduce their resources on the back of our ability to do work for other agencies. Fundamentally, the income generation for the Scottish Consumer Council has come from working with many other Government agencies within the Scottish Executive and beyond that, so it relates purely to items of work and project work. We suggested that target of £400,000 was one that we could attain; in fact, we have attained it by more than £240,000. Within that, there is really no built surplus, it really is to cover the overheads of the organisation; we do not, in a sense, try to produce excesses in a profitability sense, which could be therefore then looked at by the DTI as an appropriate way of reducing their grant to us.
(Mr Millar) I come from a commercial background myself, but there is a philosophy that states, unless you are guaranteed the money, do not declare you have got it. So, basically, we have pieces of paper that say we expect to have £400,000 in that current year; the reality was there was work ongoing, negotiations taking place, departments within the Scottish Executive talking to us about what work we could usefully do for them to give that degree of independence, but no money had been attached to it. Subsequently, we are finding that we are working much more with the Scottish Executive than maybe we had anticipated; and maybe, in a sense, it is because they respect some of the work that we are coming out with and then using that money to get us to work for them rather than going to another agency.
(Mr Millar) No, we can tell you how the money is spent, that is not difficult; but what I am saying is, it is not worked on the basis of us developing a kind of surplus that goes forward that is not aligned to activities of work, that is the main point.
(Ms McAuley) The money is attached to contracts for projects that we do, mainly, as Graeme said, for the Scottish Executive, and each of these projects, they are long-term projects, for example, the Scottish Community Diet Project, which has just entered a three-year funding phase, those projects have got business plans, which we then have to make sure that they complete. So the money is actually committed to the work of the projects. When we take the contracts on, we make it very clear, or we are very clear in our own mind, that the work that we do is within the objectives that we are seeking on behalf of consumers; so we are very strict about the nature of the work we undertake. But the money is committed to make sure that these projects fulfil their business plans.
(Mr Evans) I think it is a misunderstanding, or we have misled you, in terms of it is a surplus. What it is, we budgeted to actually receive an amount, and then after we had budgeted for that, in negotiations with mainly the Scottish Executive, they asked us to do more work and paid us to do that work, and, for example, they asked us to do work on patient surveys, public involvement in the NHS, and that work would entail us doing focus group work, or research work, for the most part having a process, a research process, which has an outcome, and we would employ external contractors, who are our partners, to do some of that work for us. So it is not money that is cash sitting there, it is a contract where they ask us to do something, and we have a commitment; the process involves money often to outside agencies, research organisations, and so forth, but we manage it. If there is a surplus, we do always charge them, basically, what Trisha is saying is that we cover our costs and we charge a management fee, so I would manage those projects, as the Director in charge, the organisation, a management fee. For us, that is the key surplus that we create, the management charge, because my salary is paid for by the Department of Trade and Industry, and that goes to the Finance Committee for distribution as a workplan item, so they can choose, with those surpluses, it depends on the size of the contract, how they then allocate that money. And at the moment we are putting about £30,000 to £40,000 a year, I think the figures are, which is essentially management fees we generate from this externally-funded work, into our workplan, which means that we can do extra research or extra publications. So I wish it was £240,000; it is more like £40,000.
(Mr Millar) One thing, in a sense, to say that, in the context of the overall organisation, the National Consumer Council, the targets were set by the DTI, subsequent to a quinquennial review, for income generation for the National Consumer Council, round about £1 million, £1.1 million, for the last year. You will see, from this, that, in Scotland, with 10 per cent of the population, we have been far more successful than our colleagues, and, in a sense, it may look like we have achieved close to that target, but Scotland itself, and maybe because of the new environment, the devolved environment, look upon us as a group of colleagues that they can work with, and therefore contract with us. But we retain the independence, and often, the work that is done, although paid for by the Department, or some of the departments, it is ourselves that come forward with the results, it informs the debate, but we do not compromise on our strategic policy view that it is in line with the objectives and directed at delivering better services for consumers.
(Mr Millar) It may look like that; in reality, I suppose the devolved environment has changed maybe some of the thought processes around how the whole organisation should be funded. And there is no doubt an issue, then they have had discussions, at times of a lighthearted nature, with individuals in the Scottish Executive about whether the Scottish Consumer Council should be funded within Scotland separately by the Scottish Executive, and not through the DTI. We are absolutely clear that the benefit, as far as consumers, and working with the Scottish Parliament, in the Scottish context, is enhanced greatly by not being that close, in terms of funding directly by the Scottish Executive, and that we are on a GB and a European platform on behalf of Scottish consumers by being funded through the DTI. There has never been a suggestion, or any comment, made by any senior officials or ministers in the DTI to ourselves, or my colleagues, that would suggest that they are using the Scottish Executive to supplement the grant that they give us. There is still a huge amount of work that we have to do within the DTI grant; it is additional work that maybe we would not be able to carry out on behalf of others who need the results out of that work to be done; and I think you have got to think about this extra money, purely allocated to projects that we may not have taken on board ourselves, at that stage. That would be growth.
(Mr Millar) Yes. The difficulty, through the Chair, is that, in itself, because they are projects, it does not contribute to sustained growth. The DTI support the base staffing of the organisation, which is relatively small, we have only three and a half quality officers. I would like to think that if more resources came from the DTI we could do more, because we could sustain growth in terms of our resource by way of staff. What we have to do here is employ staff or use other agencies, often on temporary contracts, to the end of that project, when the money will not be guaranteed either to be added to, replaced, it may actually be a project which finishes and £150,000 comes right out of the balance sheet. So it relates purely to the projects that we staff up. But what we are not doing is we are not building on the back of the Scottish Executive money, because that would be very naïve of us, because we would end up with a lot of staff and no money, if, at some stage, we fell out with all and sundry; and in the consumer world, a consumer body can easily fall out with anyone, and everybody, at the one time.
(Mr Millar) I will make some initial comment and maybe ask Martyn to come in on that, because he has been around longer that I have, in that environment. I was very conscious, when I was appointed as Chairman of the SCC, that it was, to me, a wholly dominated public sector organisation, it seemed to do all its work in that environment. I come from a different world, I am a pharmacist by profession, and ran pharmacies, so I brought far more of a group of contacts within the commercial and private sector, because they interact clearly with the public sector players as well. What we have not been able to do is necessarily be involved in a lot of project work that we would do on behalf of people in the private sector, but we do spend a fair bit of time talking with, discussing with, the Scottish Enterprises, the CBI Scotland, the Chambers of Commerce and with others, who, more and more within Scotland, are coming much closer to the parliamentary process, just because it is there and it is very much in their face. So the emphasis is, what I am trying to do is spread more and more towards the private sector, because I believe we are a resource which is funded through the taxpayer anyway, and we should be able to help some of the people in the private sector understand their responsibilities. And, in a sense, in a previous life, as Chairman of the South of Scotland Electricity Consumers Committee, I was able to do that working with the Scottish Powers, the Southern Electrics, and the British Energies, about addressing the needs of consumers; that was done through persuasion rather than what I would call a soap-box mentality. And we are working, I think, maybe in the report it gives the impression we are very public sector dominated; we do spend a lot of time with people in the private sector, who want to understand the philosophy about delivering services to consumers, and those people only ever take the credit themselves in front of their shareholders.
(Mr Evans) I think it is also a matter of trying to decide, we are part of the National Consumer Council, albeit our own Council is independently appointed, we are all, the management is, a unitary one. It is rather a hybrid organisation. And we have chosen to focus on that which we can have an influence on, which is that which is controlled within Scotland; so the regulation of the private markets is controlled, they are not clearly controlled, in Scotland, so we have to work with, quite rightly, our NCC colleagues on these matters, and they tend to take the lead on matters in the private markets, and the regulation of those. So I think our workplan does reflect that which we can have an influence upon in Scotland, the political processes and the policy processes in Scotland. But our workplan does not always reflect, and it cannot reflect, the kind of work that we do in co-operation with the lead agency on these matters which you are talking about, the private markets, which are the NCC. That is also to say, I think, we are aware, from our stakeholder view, that we should have a greater engagement, as our Chairman was saying, with the private sector institutions in Scotland, the CBI, the Chambers of Commerce and others, and we have made some significant efforts to try to be closer to them. They suffer from the same issues that we do, we can debate these things quite extensively in Scotland, but the levers of power and influence actually, on these matters, are not there. But I would like to think, if there was a private sector matter which could be resolved, or there was an issue in Scotland, we would be more than happy to deal with it. The area that comes to mind is our work on broadcasting, a private sector matter, where we have done some extensive work on the representation of the Scottish consumer interest within the Broadcasting Bill.
(Mr Millar) We have had major meetings with the SMG, British Telecom and/or others, who want to understand where we believe their services should be addressed. And so, probably, what you have in front of you does not in any way fully articulate the activities we are involved in.
(Mr Millar) There are two aspects to that, and I will ask Martyn maybe to make comment on the resources that we put towards it. There is nothing that would stop us from making a comment, and myself making a comment, whether we think that that is in the interests of the Scottish consumers or the Scottish public, that, certainly, major publications which influence consumers should either fall into the hands of a single monopoly supplier and of whatever. And we do express that view, we do it through, when I bring players in that sector, we have got lots of players in that sector, together, under the communications environment, over lunch we debate and discuss things, some parties have never been in the same room together. And what we try to do is facilitate people from the private sector to come and discuss those issues with some of the people in the public sector who they will impact upon, the decision. So, in a way, the resources that are linked to that are minimal, i.e. the cost of bringing them together, and that is all that is really required.
(Mr Evans) I think there is a very interesting point that you are hitting on here, it is whether or not Scotland, in the way the competition policy works, is thought of as a separate market or not, and that is an interest that we have, and we have discussed that and written to the competition people and to the Office of Fair Trading. And, of course, broadly, it is not thought of as a separate market, and I think that is a matter for debate in a much wider context than us; and I do not think at the moment we have the capacity to engage, except in a theoretical way, with that debate, we do not have the empirical evidence to work that through the economists, because actually that is quite a high investment in that area. What we do seek to do is make sure that those who do have those resources, which we think is the Office of Fair Trading and others, address that very important question, because, as you rightly say, you could actually look at this as a UK issue, and two regional papers merging, or from Scotland's position, two national papers, potentially, merging, and you have a very different view, depending on what you see the market is. The other point to make, I think, is that we are very aware of that issue in terms of the new regime of super complaints, where the Office of Fair Trading has a system whereby you can make a super complaint to the Office of Fair Trading, who would then investigate it, if there is a large amount of detriment in the market, or that detriment is very severe. And our point is, well what happens in Scotland, is that counted, if a large number of people in Scotland, but nowhere else in the UK, suffer detriment, would that be the subject of a super complaint. To their credit, the Office of Fair Trading is saying, "Well, don't debate this on a theoretical basis, come up with the evidence there's a problem, and we'll tell you what the answer is." But I think your question is a key one, economic question within the context of our national institutions for competition, and our local or regional or national views about what is important. And, the Broadcasting Bill, our work on there I think was quite critical in making those distinctions.
(Mr Millar) Just a supplementary, to give you a couple of examples where, although we do not have the resources to get involved in the economic sense that we would want to, to have what I call a level debate, that does not stop us being asked by lots of different agencies to contribute. Very recently, in the last two or three weeks, I was asked to contribute on Newsnight Scotland with regard to this year and milk and supplies and the domination of one of the supermarkets vis-à-vis the monopoly situation, to the consumer detriment. We were discussing last night the likely impact if there was a full 100 per cent ban on fishing, and cod and haddock. And the reality of life is that we are going to have to articulate something that relates to what the consumer need is. We have not analysed yet, we have not researched, but we have enough information to say our commonsense tells us the consumer there is going to be pretty hacked off if there is no haddock and no cod on the shelves somewhere; or, if you lose the industry altogether, because small communities will be detrimentally affected, we are talking about sustainable development, or the lack of it, the environmental impact, all those things, so, as an organisation, we are asked to make comment on those issues. And we have to form a view sometimes when we have not researched that policy.
(Ms McAuley) Just to get back to communications and the Communications Bill, and to give some examples of the work that we are doing, and it is really on the basis of what Martyn said, to get the key players to take action. We did produce a report last year, and at the start of this year, I think, on the communications market, which is precisely all of these issues, and should then be used to launch dialogue with people like SMG, we are still speaking to them, I have been in constant dialogue recently with Scottish Television about regional programming and the effect that might have under the forthcoming Bill. Another example of what we are doing is we manage the Cross-Party Group in the Scottish Parliament on Consumer Issues. There is an interest, obviously, there in Scotland, even though it is a reserved matter, so we have brought together some key players and there is going to be a seminar on that in a couple of weeks, and it is just to raise precisely these issues; so we will be speaking, SMG will be there, various academics. We will certainly be lobbying on the Communications Bill when it comes out as well.
(Mr Evans) Could I write to you with the specific figures. The view we have, or we know, is that we have had a significant increase in funding since 1999, which has resulted in round about £150,000 more DTI income to us. Before 1999, we did have an increase, but I only joined in 1998; before that, the NCC, which is the organisation that has funded, had been going through a rather difficult time with funding and had had real reductions of 15 per cent per year in their funding. So ever since I have been there we have had real increases year on year, over and above inflation, and we have had, since 1999, significant increases, which have resulted in us being able to employ three full-time equivalent staff, an extra three full-time equivalent staff.
(Ms McAuley) I have been at SCC slightly longer than Martyn and Graeme and the increases started in 1997. I was with SCC from 1995 and there were quite significant cuts, of in the region of 33 per cent. But after 1997 then it started to rise.
(Mr Millar) If there is a producer interest, there is a consumer interest, because, at the end of the day, the world depends on the ability of the consumer to actually take a view and express their right to have a choice about whether they buy a product or not, or whether the product is available to them. As an organisation, we are asked to go well beyond the issues that just relate to products and whether they are available, and services whether they are available, we are involved in debates; and a part of our organisation, such as agenda, which look at sustainable development, social responsibility and corporate social responsibility, the impact of major changes in industry, as to how that impacts upon communities. Because we support, because of our emphasis on the disadvantaged, where communities are impacted quite drastically, let us say, as a reduction of employment, for whatever reason, and if you take fisheries as an example, it has a knock-on effect on the ability of certain people in the community to purchase goods, to retain the standard and quality of living that they have, it impacts on education and everything else. And that is where our emphasis is on the disadvantaged, trying to make sure that the impact at one end, a decision here, has been thought through to the impact on the community. And we are constantly asked to express a view; we hold seminars and we articulate views around the responsibility of decision-making and taking, in the way that we work with the Scottish Executive, and our colleagues down here as well, for them to understand the impact of decisions made, or of legislation that will come through in the parliamentary process. So it is back to my initial comments to the Chairman, there are no areas of activity that are off limits; as an organisation, I think and I hope we are respected as one which will express a view and analyse these issues that go well beyond what seemed to be the single one, which is fishing, we are losing an industry and a product, it expands well into society.
(Mr Millar) It does not dilute our effectiveness. The consumer interest is not purely on price, it is not a world nowadays which, the world has moved on a lot, the consumers are a lot more sophisticated, we are not now looking at 'pile things high and sell them cheap', that is still one aspect, it is about choice, it is about redress, it is about seven or eight different things that you can look upon, the consumer nowadays expects an organisation like ourselves to have a view on all the different aspects that impact upon their lives. So a consumer organisation would be extremely boring if it was purely producer versus consumer interest, in the representative sense. That, however, is a fair bit of our work.
(Mr Evans) I think you are right to say there is a very clear consumer interest in this area we are discussing, as there is in many other areas, and it is my job to try to articulate the consumer theory and put the evidence forward in the debate. Now I think what Graeme was talking about was communicating the consumer interest. I find that much more difficult, in this context, when we have just been discussing the fishing industry, because the hard consumer interest says, "Well, actually, we have had to devastate socially, and we have to talk about really retrenching in terms of the fleet to fish, and it has an impact, a severe impact, on social." So we have to be very careful how we communicate that. But the reason I raised it with Graeme last night is, what I really see is the regulator debating with the producer, in this area of production, fishing, and that very little of the consumer interest comes through. We wrote a very brief reply to the Reform of the Common Fisheries Policy, where we said that voice is not clearly articulated, it is not clearly articulated for the Fisheries Council, and the consumer interest is about, broadly, the sustainable development of fish stocks, sustainable development at the level at which they can remain to be fished for consumption, but are not fished so they will not exist in the future. And that is the nub of the Common Fisheries Policy dilemma, and, to be frank with you, I think we find the fisheries issue one of the most difficult to address, because, as soon as we step into it, it is a clear political minefield, where the producer interest, as we say, is extraordinarily powerful. And, as we try to meet some of our obligations, as we see them, to the social side of Scotland, the communities of Scotland, we can quickly retrench and become an apologist for the rather dominant view that the producer interest must hold out always, because otherwise people will not have a living. So I think you have hit on an interesting and very difficult one for us, where the consumer theory is quite straightforward; communicating that and remaining somebody who has any credibility in the Scottish public is actually difficult for both ourselves, I am sure, for those who are trying to reform the Common Fisheries Policy too.
(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 the 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 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 an industry. The building industry has been following an idea of Charter 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, and, 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, 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.
(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, actually. But when it comes to, one thing that we made big progress with in Quality Meat Scotland, is 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 now maybe than had been perceived. We are all consumers in this room. When we walk out of here, we consume, 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.
(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 for also 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, 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, and out of the blue 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-à-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) It was really just to, in line with the OCP, or Code of Practice; recently, we have, as Graeme said, some Council members' 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.
(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 who are interested in consumer affairs, who incidentally, are down here next week, next Tuesday, at a meeting at five o'clock in the evening, discussing 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 Office 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; so most of the emphasis 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 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 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, that is 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. And 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, and 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 then, 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, it is 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 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, we were working on the same issue but from a completely Scottish perspective, was the Communications Bill, where 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.
(Mr Evans) We do not give any direct evidence.
(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; and 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. And 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.
(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.
(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 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.
(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.
(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.
(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 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. Mark 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, and 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, 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.
(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, at the moment. 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.
(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.
(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, 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 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 talking and telling 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, and 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 livers 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.
Chairman: Thank you very much. We move on to our last block of questions, and we are now going to look at current work.
(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 authorities 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.
(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 work very closely with Ian Smith, who is the Local Government Ombudsman, who is now the Convenor 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, ten, 20 complaints about the same subject; we would like to see what proposals you're making to redesign your service so these complaints don't have..." 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 virtuous 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.
(Mr Evans) The fieldwork has been completed; the first report is actually going to our Council a week on Friday, which does not actually have any policy conclusions in it at the moment, it is setting out what consumers' knowledge of their rights is. And what we have reported to Council I can report to you is, we are very pleased with the level of consumers' knowledge of their rights in Scotland; it is high. We were worried, there was some evidence that it might have been lower in Scotland than it might have been elsewhere in the United Kingdom, that is from our evidence and it is quite robust; that is not the case. In fact, there is some evidence that your better-off consumers actually have expectations about their rights which are in excess of the legal rights, which I think is healthy, that is a demanding, confident consumer. What we have also found though, of course, is, those who have the least knowledge of their rights are those who are most disadvantaged in society, so if you have a low educational qualification, or you have none, or you are over a certain age, over about 70, or so, there is a whole range of reasons which are consistent with issues of deprivation, you have the least knowledge of your rights there. Now that is a very important finding for us. You also have, from the evidence, the least access to redress organisations, you have least knowledge about them and access. So we have got to be very careful, when we use our findings in policy, to make sure that we do not just jump on a consumer education bandwagon, because I think that was a simple answer, but a lot of those people will not be those who you could simply ask to read material, or absorb their knowledge. And so I think the policy conclusions, which we will work up after our research is approved by our Council, and we will deliver some time in February, will be very important for us on that area. But I am pleased to say, we were worried that there was some indication that consumers in Scotland had less knowledge. The one thing that we do find is that they think they have fewer problems; if they have a problem, they are equally as likely to complain about it, but in terms of the UK averages, they think they have fewer consumer problems now. This is a struggle for us, because do we say we have better goods and services in Scotland, on that evidence, or do we say, for some reason, consumers are less likely to think they have got a problem; so we are struggling with that analysis and working with System Three, who did the work with us, to say, what can we legitimately conclude, and I think we will probably have to leave that rather mute until some further research is done. But, I think, a very important conclusion aspect, but the only really significant UK differential.
(Mr Millar) I think, Chairman, it gives us an opportunity, as we analyse it and think it through next week, it will come out in February, to say, well, rather than trying to address the consumer education up front, because everyone says, "Just educate the consumer," that is much more easily said and not easily done. But there are other areas we work on, in terms of influencing the curriculum in education, certainly at late primary school and secondary education, where if our children start to understand their rights and how they can articulate them then the children in deprived communities, where their parents have low incomes and maybe, educationally, have not been able to get to the standards that others have been able to get to, often the children are a wonderful vehicle, to draw to their attention the rights that they do have, because children catch on very quickly. And we found that in food safety aspects, etc., where you educate parents through children. So some of the conclusions that we come to might, in the ways forward, roll that in. But, obviously, these documents will be available to you, as soon as it comes out we will make sure that the database is comprehensive so you get them; you will have to read them, but you will get them.
Chairman: Thank you, Mr Millar.
(Mr Evans) We have not, because what we have done in the past is, about four years ago, we looked at direct payments and found a huge variety in what direct payments were asked and what we thought were value for money. And there has been a process by which the Executive have gone through, which they have asked COSLA, the association of local authorities in Scotland, to give advice to local authorities; we were not included in that process of giving advice to local authorities. So what we are now going to go back and say is, how effective has that advice been, how clear are the users of services about what the costs are and what they are for, and are they related clearly to what is being provided. Now I was actually having a discussion on Monday about how far we are down that line. Our workplan is for the year, and we are just in the beginning of starting that, so when we have completed it I will be delighted and I will ensure that you get a copy.
(Mr Millar) Chairman, if I can just say, on behalf of the Scottish Consumer Council, it is a wonderful opportunity and it is one which we should maybe try to take up more often; but certainly we will keep up, in terms of the membership of this Committee, on an individual basis, contacts as we go forward, because the point was well made and we recognise that there are still some issues about being able to try to find the resources to connect with Members in Westminster, never mind us maybe connecting also with our MEPs within the European Parliament environment. But thank you very much for the opportunity, it has been very interesting for us, and we will go away and group ourselves somewhere else and say we should have been saying something different, but never mind. Thank you.
Chairman: Thank you very much, Mr Millar.