Select Committee on Scottish Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses(Questions 1-19)




  1. Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Can I thank you very much indeed for agreeing to come before us this morning to answer some of our questions on your organisation. Just so that you are aware of that this evidence will go on the Internet uncorrected. You will have an opportunity to look over it later and correct anything you are not happy with, but it will be going on the Internet, uncorrected, probably around Friday. May I also add that we have this morning agreed to do a session with CAS on 2 December. We will now proceed with our questions. If at any time you wish to expand your answer, or if you think there is something we have not covered, please let us know. If you would now introduce yourselves, for the sake of the record, that would be most helpful?

  (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 Resources, and Martyn Evans is the 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.

  2. Thank you very much. Could I start by asking you if you would state briefly the nature and range of work undertaken by the SCC?
  (Mr Millar) 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. 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 are 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.

  3. Has the SCC received any criticism about its work on behalf of Scottish consumers, that you are aware of?
  (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 away from 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 Lazarowicz

  4. First of all, can I apologise for the fact that I will not be able to stay until the end of this hearing. As it happens, I have secured an Adjournment Debate later on this morning and it is on the subject of consumer debt, which is, of course, in itself, a subject of interest to yourselves. So my apologies, first of all, for leaving early. And, having made that apology and explanation, can I ask you something about the issue of consumer credit. What is your view of the working of the Consumer Credit Act 1974, and what suggestions might you make concerning how the consumer credit scheme provisions can be modernised so as to protect the consumer and to deal with the problem of loan sharks?
  (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. 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 National Consumer Council 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 are 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. Our previous Vice-Chair was the Director of Trading Standards in Strathclyde Region and did a lot of work on this issue and has been advising us. Again, we find, if that is a criminal activity, it is 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.

  5. I wonder if I could perhaps pursue you on that particular point, because it was the extortionate interest that I was concerned about rather than the issue of illegal money-lending. By way of introduction, there is a slightly unusual situation here, in that, of course, consumer credit is reserved to this Parliament but there are certain areas where Scots law, and certainly Scots practice, is distinct from the position in England, so you have a situation where this Parliament can legislate on specifically Scottish matters, in a way that is now quite unusual. Are there any particular areas where you think there should be changes in not UK-wide legislation perhaps but any Scottish legislation where that legislation is still the responsibility of this Parliament?
  (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. Our legal officer is working on this and 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.<fu1>

<fo1>  See Ev 29.

  6. Can I comment, I think it would be very helpful to do that, for me and obviously, for the entire Committee, and particularly because of the stage which the revision of the consumer credit legislation has now reached. It would be helpful to have your input into some of these issues. Can I ask you, if I may, one other question, before I go, which is on a different area of your work but it does relate to some of these wider issues about the interface between Scottish legislation and UK legislation. And that is where, in your report, you refer to the work that you have been doing on new house building, and this is an issue with which I have had problems in my constituency. Indeed, I think I got some assistance from your Council on the issues that concerned me. This is mentioned on page nine of your report, or your workplan.<fu2> I wonder if you can give us some kind of update on how far you have got with your work on tackling the difficulties that purchasers of property from new house developers have, in many cases?

<fo2>  Not published.

  (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 build 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 with 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. 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.

  7. If I can make a final comment then. Again, I also appreciate that property law is a devolved matter, but if there are, in this area of work, any issues which relate to responsibilities that fall within the Office of Fair Trading then I think it would be certainly extremely helpful for this Committee to get a note from you, in due course, when you are able to do so, on what changes you think would be beneficial at UK level?
  (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.<fu3>

<fo3>  See Ev 29-30.

Mr John Robertson

  8. Mr Millar, looking at the report, I see that your generated costs were in excess of your target by some £200,000. So could I ask you, are the current levels of funding sufficient? And this extra £240,000, is the bonus kept, or does it result in the DTI reducing its grant to you; and, if it is retained, how is the extra capital utilised?
  (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.

  9. Can I just interrupt you there. Does that mean that what you are saying is that you underestimated the £400,000, and it should have been £640,000?
  (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.

  10. So can I gather then, from what you are saying, you cannot tell me then how that extra money was spent, other than it was due to negotiations or discussions with the Scottish Executive?
  (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.

  11. Can I just ask then, what would happen if you had not got a £240,000 surplus?
  (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. 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 of the organisation. 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. That goes to the SCC 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 Scottish Executive 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 Eric Joyce

  12. I am going to ask a question or two about policy later, on how the policy context may be different in Scotland, to across the UK. But, from what you have just described, it sounds like the DTI is requiring the Scottish Executive to fund your growth?
  (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.

  13. Projects that otherwise would not be able to be done?
  (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 supports the base staffing of the organisation, which is relatively small, we have only three and a half policy 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, or 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 naive 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.

Ann McKechin

  14. You have mentioned about the Scottish Executive giving you project funding only, and the problems that result because it is not core funding. I wonder perhaps if you could just enlarge on that, on whether or not the focus of your work is becoming more dominated by looking at the public sector rather than the private sector; because I note, having looked at your reports, the very heavy emphasis on public services, but comparatively little on the private sector, and I wonder whether, since devolution, that has been a continuing trend?
  (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. 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 at UK level and 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 is 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 draft Communications Bill.
  (Mr Millar) We have had meetings with the Scottish Media Group, British Telecom and 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.

  15. If I can just follow on from that. You have talked about looking at the private sector, you have talked about broadcasting, but to give a recent example, the sale of The Herald and the effect that that would have on the broadsheet press, are you able to respond, in terms of your own resources financially, to investigate the interests of the Scottish consumer, in terms of the quality and selection of choice that are available?
  (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 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 are 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 it. The Office of Fair Trading 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, an 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 draft Communications Bill, our work on there I think is 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 milk and supplies and the domination of one of the supermarkets vis-a"-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 cod and haddock. And the reality of life is that we are going to have to articulate something that relates to what the consumer needs. 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 draft 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 at the start of this year, on the communications market,<fu4> which addressed precisely all of these issues, and was then used to launch dialogue with people like SMG. We are still speaking to them. I have been in 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.

<fo4>  Reaching Out: The Consumer Perspective on Communications in Scotland, January 2002.

  16. Just finally, since devolution, what has been the annual percentage increase in DTI funding, compared with that in the period before 1999, has it increased, decreased, or stayed the same?
  (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 annual 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 is 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 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 Eric Joyce

  17. I just want to come back on something, Mr Millar, you said regarding fish and communities. You appeared to suggest that communities were something that you would have an interest in, the sustainability of fishing communities, but surely that is a producer interest, not a consumer interest?
  (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 we are a part of organisations such as Agenda which look at sustainable development, social responsibility and corporate social responsibility, the impact of major changes in industry, and to how that impacts upon communities. 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.

  18. That may seem to make sense, but it means you are effectively sitting on both sides of the fence. The producers represent their interest, they spend a great deal of money doing that. If I were thinking about the consumer interest when it comes to fish, I would be thinking about price and choice, let us say. But what you have just suggested is you consider this whole gamut of issues does that not dilute your effectiveness?
  (Mr Millar) It does not dilute our effectiveness. The consumer interest is not purely on price. The world has moved on a lot. 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.

  19. With respect, I am looking down the list of factors on the sheet you've provided, and it does not say anything about producer interest: it refers to redress, information, choice, access, safety, fairness, representation; none of that reflects the producer side. So where would community sustainability fit in?
  (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 social impact." So we have to be very careful how we communicate that. 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, and for those who are trying to reform the Common Fisheries Policy too.

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