Liberal Hero of the Week #36: Jo Swinson MP

by Stephen Tall on May 10, 2013

Liberal Hero of the Week is chosen by Stephen Tall, Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and Research Associate at CentreForum. The series showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention.

cf hero jo swinson

Jo Swinson MP

Lib Dem business minister
Reason: for championing the rights of the consumer

HM The Queen read out a list of bills the Coalition Government intends to bring forward this week. It was the usual mix of the good, the bad and the indifferent.

The Conservative end of the Coalition promenaded their anti-immigration pose-striking measures. For a party that is supposed to believe in a small-state, regulation-light liberal market economy, I never cease to be amazed by their desire to impose new laws on private businesses in their desire to restrict the free movement of labour.

Meanwhile the Lib Dem end of the Coalition breathed a sigh of relief at the absence of the intrusive Communications Data Bill (aka ‘snoopers charter’) and trumpeted the diligent work of Steve Webb and Norman Lamb in proposing major reforms to simplify the pensions and social care systems. These subjects are considered by the news media to be boring (unlike the endless procrastinations of the Tory party’s inevitable march towards an EU exit) so their achievement has gained less coverage than they deserved.

But it’s a smaller bill, also largely ignored by Farage-fetishising journalists, that I want to celebrate: the Consumer Rights Bill to be introduced by Jo Swinson. Its aim is straightforward: to simplify, update and strengthen the laws intended to advise and protect consumers buying goods or services from businesses.

There are four key elements, as set out in the Bill:

  1. Giving consumers greater confidence in knowing their rights when they purchase new products, switch suppliers or make purchases via the internet or phone.
  2. Updating the law to take account of the modern marketplace and consumer rights with digital content like music and film downloads, online games or software. In the UK, more than £1bn was spent on downloaded films, music and games in 2012. In 2011, over 16 million people experience at least one problem with digital content
  3. Introducing new protections for consumers and businesses making it easier access to compensation where there have been breaches of consumer or competition law. For example, new powers for enforcers, such as Trading Standards, to seek a court to require compensation to be paid to consumers where consumer law is breached.
  4. Reducing burdens for businesses through consolidation of legislation. 60 pieces of enforcement legislation will be merged making it simpler for businesses to understand. This would allow for faster resolution of complaints as they would spend less time and money dealing with consumer complaints if the consumer knew where to turn to first.

What does this mean in reality? Jo Swinson’s department has come up with some specific examples. Here’ a couple:

Case Study 1: faulty laptop or microwave

  • Your laptop has a series of minor faults and you keep sending it back for multiple repairs but the retailer won’t give you your money back. Currently the law is unclear how many repairs you have to accept. The measures would say you can insist on a refund after one failed repair or replacement.
  • You buy a microwave and it stops working after three weeks. The changes would make it clearer that within a stated time limit you will have a clear right to a refund.

Case Study 2: inadequate service quality

  • You get a decorator to paint a room in a specific brand of high quality paint and then find that the decorator has done the job in a cheaper paint. Under the new proposals you would be entitled to the job being re-done in the agreed brand of paint or, if that was impossible or could not be done for an unreasonably long time, you would be entitled to money off.
  • You pay to stream a film over the internet but it keeps stopping in the same place and is unwatchable and the broadband is working fine. Under the new proposals you would be entitled to a replacement of the film or, if this failed as well, get some money back.

You can find more examples in this briefing note from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills.

Will these new laws transform people’s lives? Not really. But do they help equalise the relationship between the consumer and business? Yes. As Jo Swinson, the minister who’ll pilot the legislation through parliament, put it:

“Stronger consumer protection and clearer consumer rights will help create a fairer and stronger marketplace. We are fully aware that this area of law over the years has become unnecessarily complicated and too confusing, with many people not sure where to turn if they have a problem. We are hoping to bring in a number of changes to improve consumer confidence and make sure the law is fit for the 21st century.”

The Government has this year, mostly wisely, fought shy of the hyper-kinetic legislative over-drive that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown specialised in. The Queen’s Speech was, as a result, a bit of a damp squib, which says much about the widening chasm between the two Coalition parties on many issues, including immigration, Europe and welfare reform.

But if the overall effect was underwhelming, that should not blind us to its modest but important successes. The Consumer Rights Bill is one such success and it deserves to be recognised.

* You can view our list of ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.