A better deal in consumer protection and procurement law?

HM Treasury and the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills jointly launched their 'better deal' paper on 30 November 2015.

The purpose of this policy paper is to try to boost competition in the economy and to lower bills for consumers and businesses.

So what proposed new policies should lawyers be keeping an eye out for?

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Consumer protection

After the coming into force of the Consumer Rights Act 2015 in October 2015, many lawyers were hoping to enjoy a relatively fallow period in consumer law. Fortunately, this is still likely to be the case--however, they should be alive to the developments below.

Of particular interest is the work which the government has given to Which? to investigate the fairness of consumer terms and conditions and the consultation on the possible introduction of civil fines.

The key consumer protection announcements in the policy paper relate to:

  • terms and conditions--the government has asked Which? to work with 'leading, consumer-facing businesses' to review the way terms and conditions are presented, in particular online. When the review has reported, the government will then consult on the introduction of civil fining powers for breaches of consumer protection laws, as part of a wider call for evidence on how to 'improve engagement with terms and conditions and ensure the terms that bind consumers are fair in practice'
  • price comparison websites--the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is planning to analyse price comparison websites (PCWs) during 2016. It is likely to consider whether:
    • lack of access to free, readily-available tariff data is 'a barrier for innovative and new [Public Contracts Regulations (PCRs)]'
    • PCRs in certain sectors should be subject to more rigorous standards, and
    • there ought to be a common accreditation framework
  • more reporting--the government is to investigate whether regulators and ombudsmen should publish more data on complaints and customer satisfaction
  • switching--the government is pushing to make switching service providers easier. It is looking to create a switching action plan by spring 2016

https://twitter.com/WhichNews/status/671230687018532865

It remains to be seen how much 'push back' the above proposals will have from businesses.

In the meantime, it is certainly a good idea for businesses to check that their business-to-consumer terms and conditions comply with all new consumer legislation. Do they, for example, comply with the information provision requirements under the Consumer Contracts (Information, Cancellation and Additional Charges) Regulations 2013?

For further information on drafting 'smarter' terms and conditions and the latest thinking on how to make them work for a business (eg from the European Consumer Organisation, BEUC, and the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA)), subscribers to Lexis®PSL Commercial can refer to Practice Note: Consumer standard terms and conditions--the business context.

Public procurement

The government remains committed to its procurement agenda, seeking to widen the procurement marketplace so that more businesses bid for public sector work.

To this end, it wants to follow the approach that it has taken in its Digital Marketplace--where authorities can find technology or people for digital projects in the public sector--to create a Crown Marketplace. The Crown Marketplace will follow the approach of the Digital Marketplace to the purchase of other common goods and services in government.

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Small and medium size businesses (SMEs) have amounted to 50% by value and 60% by volume of the Digital Marketplace and the government is keen to extend this success for SMEs to its new venture.

The government is also keen to:

  • extend the Contracts Finder service to the sub-contracting market in 2016
  • improve the advice available to businesses via GREATbusiness.gov.uk, 'so that businesses are better equipped to win more contracts down the supply chain, and can build their capability to win work in export markets'
  • launch a pilot scheme to explore how local authorities can make it easier and cheaper for small businesses to supply to them, and
  • work with the CMA to see whether there are steps that can be taken to support local authorities in promoting competitive local markets (with the CMA reporting back in 2017)

So what do you think? Some useful initiatives? Or should the government be concentrating on other areas of concern? Do let us have your thoughts below.

This article first appeared in Lexis®PSL Commercial.

Area of Interest