By Rory Mair CBE, Chair of Citizens Advice Scotland
This column first appeared in the Herald on 21 February 2020.
Yesterday’s Annual General Meeting of the Scottish Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux marked the end of our 80th anniversary year.
It was in the shadow of the Second World War that the first bureaux in Scotland were established, first in Glasgow and then on to Aberdeen, Stirling and Dundee.
Today there are 59 bureaux in the Scottish Citizens Advice network, giving advice across more than 270 locations. In addition to that is our Extra Help Unit, a specialist team of caseworkers based in Glasgow investigating energy and post complaints on behalf of vulnerable consumers.
The history of our work reveals how the challenges facing communities across the country have changed in the past 80 years. The first bureau inquires related to ration books and evacuations, while the 80s and 90s saw a growth in debt related case work as consumer credit became a larger part of our economy. Then welfare reform in the 2010s saw an increase in people seeking help on social security issues.
The general public will be familiar with the first of our aims; the provision of free, confidential and impartial advice, but just as important is our second aim, which is to improve the policies and principles that affect people's lives.
During the formative years of the network in the 1940s that advocacy took the form of persuading the government to grant extra clothes coupons to pregnant women. As the welfare state grew and our economy changed, so too did the aims of our advocacy.
This is because the policy recommendations we make to government are driven by the real experiences of people in communities across Scotland. We speak out based on the issues that come through the doors of our network and what is having the biggest detriment on the people who are turning to us for help.
This advocacy is not restricted to matters of social justice. Our voice has been heard by industry for years, particularly in post, energy and water when it come to standing up for vulnerable consumers.
We have a vital role to pay in the big debates that will shape our economy over the next ten years. Take, for example, the cause of net zero and the urgent need to decarbonise our economy. Citizens Advice Scotland supports this goal completely. Further, we bring a unique perspective to the debate through our experience of standing up for vulnerable consumers, particularly those in fuel poverty and poor housing conditions, or unable to access the best deals online.
That’s why the devolution of powers around consumer protection to the Scottish Parliament represents an opportunity to build a world class system for consumers.
The Consumer Scotland Bill is currently making its way through the Scottish Parliament.
This Bill will establish a new body, Consumer Scotland, to work with existing consumer organisations, conducting investigations into the most serious issues of consumer harm in Scotland and providing leadership across the landscape.
Through analysis and coordination of data, it will provide an intelligence-led approach to addressing consumer detriment, which will improve how consumer harm is both detected and prevented.
Citizens Advice Scotland has been broadly supportive of this Bill and the proposed body as we believe it has the potential to add value to the consumer protection landscape, which may face challenges following the UK leaving the EU and the subsequent trade deal.
Consumers are vital for a strong, sustainable and inclusive economy. Through their choices, they can encourage businesses to be ethical, efficient and innovative. To realise this potential, consumers must understand their rights; be capable of exercising them; and have a strong voice to champion them when they are not being treated fairly.
The Citizens Advice network has played a vital role in achieving this for decades and with the support of the government we hope to continue to do so in the years ahead.
The support offered by the Citizens Advice network to people across Scotland gives them an unparalleled insight into the lived experiences of those who are often most vulnerable, to that end we are in an unequalled position to continue to identify and highlight harm to consumers in Scotland.
Our advocacy is driven by people. We can keep policy makers in government and industry rooted in the lives of people because we have a footprint in communities across the country. That means on issues of consumer policy we understand the real impact of policies and decisions that may be overlooked by a solely market-based approach. Scotland can have the best of both worlds on consumer policy – data-driven intelligence and understanding based on the lived experiences of people.
If we have the resources to ensure we can maintain this role, marrying it up with the more strategic approach of Consumer Scotland, I believe Scotland can have a world class system of consumer protection.