Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1080
WEDNESDAY 12 NOVEMBER 2003
1080. Your status is that of a non-departmental,
(Ms Hutton) We are an executive NDPB.
1081. That does not inhibit you in terms of
making representations and lobbying government when you believe
it is necessary and in the interests of the consumer?
(Ms Hutton) Absolutely not. Somebody did once describe
the National Consumer Council as the most extraordinary creation
of a highly sophisticated democracythat the government
funded a body which was essentially there to criticise its actions
albeit in a positive way, but that is fundamentally what the NCC
does. In general terms, governments of all colours have appreciated
that the value of the National Consumer Council to them lies in
its independence and its robustness of thought.
1082. Is that robustness and independence protected?
Is there anything the government could do in relation to the national
constitutional court if it felt it did not like what it was doing?
(Ms Hutton) Yes. It could abolish us.
1083. Apart from getting rid of you completely,
which would be rather high profile?
(Ms Hutton) There is either total death or death by
a thousand cuts. Your budget can be cut or you can be abolished
as a body. Sometimes our budget is cut in periods where government
is cutting expenditure generally. That has happened to us a number
of times in the past. It is not necessarily a personal attack
on the Council. Although I say very strongly that I think there
is merit in not being enshrined in statute because it requires
you to prove yourself and prove your value in public expenditure
terms all the time, if you were to offer me a foundation in statute
I would not refuse it.
1084. Given the point about resources being
cut generally, how much of a problem does that create for you
in as much as there has been a growth in regulation and therefore
do you find that what you have to do is expand while resources
are not expanding to keep pace with what you have to do?
(Ms Hutton) We find it tremendously difficult. Our
remit is to articulate the interests of consumers of goods and
services, whether publicly or privately supplied, which is the
entire economy. We find the demands that are made on us are increasing
exponentially. The main role of my board is to give the staff
strength in focusing and giving them the right to say no to government
departments. We achieve more by consistently devoting at least
two-thirds of our work to what we said we were going to do and
sticking to our onions or our knitting, whatever the phrase is,
but keeping a small amount of flexibility which allows us to respond
to significant issues that emerge. It is a constant tension. James
probably sits on more working parties of more government departments
than any person has a right to have expected of them.
(Mr King) The issues I have worked on this week include
the child trust fund, equity release, occupational pensions and
the taxi market along with this inquiry. We do have to spread
ourselves thinly. One of the things that has helped us a great
deal in recent years is the emergence of reasonably resourced
and effective sectoral consumer bodies. Their focus will be on
the consultations and the issues faced by the regulator. We do
continue to have a relationship with each of the relevant sectoral
regulators. However, our particular locus is often on government
and public policy frameworks and the interaction between the market
and the state in an area like financial services. I think it leads
to a fairly compatible relationship.
(Ms Hutton) As the sectoral consumer bodies have emerged,
we have withdrawn from the detail, but the gap that we find is
left from the consumer perspective is often some of the high level,
connecting issues that run right across all the regulators which,
on the whole, the sectoral bodies do not pick up. We have tended
to put ourselves into that hole.
1085. Is there any internal problem or tension
between the fact that you have an emphasis on looking at the disadvantaged
consumer against the consumer interest? Presumably at times those
are not going to be one and the same.
(Ms Hutton) No, they are not but then nor often are
the interests of urban or rural consumers. There are conflicts
in this field wherever you look. Quite bluntly, there are sometimes
conflicts between those two constituencies. In some areas of our
work particularly, we would very strongly take the view that if
you start by ensuring that something is right for disadvantaged
consumers, on the whole, it would be right for the whole economy.
Certainly, in financial services, if you made sure the language
was right for disadvantaged consumers, it would be okay for everybody.
It is not always a conflict.
(Mr King) I agree there is a conflict sometimes and
I think we have a specific role there to talk up the needs of
some people who might not have their needs met by the market.
Does it require some kind of cross-subsidy from consumers or from
the taxpayer? Somebody has to pay one way or another, if it is
ensuring access to water or banking or whatever. We would look
for more of a transparent, open debate about that. There are a
lot of cross-subsidies within the system anyway. It is not like
we have a purist cost-pricing arrangement across all the utility
sectors. Sometimes, these cross-subsidies arguably work against
low income consumers. Arguably sometimes the poor pay more in
some circumstances such as the utilities, because the poor have
to use prepayment meters quite often. They are less likely to
benefit from switching, as the NAO have flagged up quite recently.
I think it is right and appropriate for us to flag up these particular
Chairman: Thank you very much. That has covered
an awful lot of ground. Thank you very much for your time. It
has been extremely helpful and we are very grateful to you for
being with us this afternoon.