Citizens Advice consumer work plan 2017/18
When consumer markets work well, this spending is an incredibly powerful force for good. Not only does it deliver a wealth of products and services that improve people’s lives, it also fuels economic progress and growth, as competition for customers drives down prices, improves customer service, and prompts technological breakthroughs.
But the role consumer markets play in our lives also means that, when they fail, that failure carries a heavy price.
When markets misfire, consumers pay not once but twice. They pay directly, in the rip-off deals, shoddy services, and scams that waste people’s time and money, and that hit the vulnerable hardest of all. But they also pay indirectly, in the harm caused to our economy when a big incumbent muscles out a promising new product, or when a sector gets locked into misleading prices or inflexible contracts.
Consumer advocacy is part of the answer to this problem. It sits alongside other policy levers - an effective competition regime, clear consumer rights, simple routes to redress and dispute resolution - as one of the ways an active government can make markets work better. The advocate fights the consumer’s corner: shining a light on regulatory price settlements to call out excessive returns; sharing lessons between markets when one regulator could learn from another; or simply balancing out the pressure that inevitably gets exerted on regulators and government from powerful incumbents.
This work plan explains how Citizens Advice will contribute to these tasks next year, outlining the work we will do in 2017/18 as the consumer advocate in energy and postal markets. The plan describes the specific steps we will take to stand up for consumers in these sectors. And - because consumer problems increasingly cut across different markets - it describes our valuable cross-sector work too.
We are grateful for the high number of responses we received to our draft work plan. This feedback was overwhelmingly positive, highlighting the value of our research and insights on consumer experience, detailed consideration of vulnerable consumers, independence and ongoing collaboration. Responses also highlighted the need for proportionality and the avoidance of duplication.
The work in this revised plan is hugely varied, from our star rating of energy companies that makes customer service performance more transparent, to our work fighting postal scams on behalf of vulnerable people. It includes work to meet new risks from technology, such as the way some companies are now using data to price discriminate in unfair ways, hiking prices for their most loyal customers. And it applies new insights from behavioural economics, for example to combat the complicated pricing structures in post that are leading consumers to spend more than they need to.
Of course, any consumer advocate should hold a mirror up to its own costs too. So this plan pushes, as we do every year, to make our work even more cost-effective. Already, thanks to deep savings in back office functions, our work costs 49% less in real terms than when it was delivered by a standalone quango. This plan proposes a further year on year real term cut of 6%. In our work on post in particular, we have cut back. Consumer issues are shifting to other areas of telecoms (a market that does not yet have a statutory consumer advocate) so we propose significant year-on-year reduction. Meanwhile, in energy, there is the opposite pressure; if anything, a stronger consumer voice is needed. With intense demand for better outcomes and concrete new roles for us - including the request that we run a whole-of-market Price Comparison Website - we’ve upped our ambition, while working closely with the regulator to reduce overall costs.
This is a year of real opportunity for consumers. We see huge potential for this work, and huge need for it too, and we can already identify a number of major opportunities to build on the kind of work set out in this plan. We look forward to working with our stakeholders in the weeks and months to come.
Thank you again to those who responded to our consultation. We take the views of stakeholders seriously and considered carefully the feedback we received. We have made revisions to reflect this and look forward to working with you in the coming year.
Director of Policy & Advocacy
 ONS consumer trends data Sum of past four quarters of Quarterly household final consumer expenditure total (£ billion), seasonally adjusted.