Citizens Advice is taking a greater role in consumer protection, but does it have enough resources to step into the advice gap?
Consumers will increasingly have to turn to Citizens Advice as it takes on a growing role in consumer protection – but concerns remain over whether the charity has sufficient resources to cope.
Last April the organisation, which is best known for its advice bureaux staffed by volunteers, took over the Consumer Direct helpline.
It has since taken on extra roles previously operated by other organisations such as the Office of Fair Trading, and is now the lead body for “consumer advocacy”. From 2014, it also takes on energy and postal services, albeit through a separate body that will be called Consumer Futures.
The highly-regarded charity, which used to receive £20m a year from the taxpayer, is getting an additional £10m a year to fund the new work, but will it be able to respond to the extra workload? Citizens Advice offices have, in many areas, struggled to cope with demand from people seeking help with significant problems including debt, housing and benefits changes – a demand that has only increased during the economic downturn.
They have also seen their own funding cut by local authorities struggling to budget their own books.
Consumer minister Jo Swinson said she is determined to make sure consumers get access to the right information and the best deal possible. “Publication of a consumer map and the availability of consumer information through the Citizens Advice service, will be a real boost to supporting the rights of consumers,” she added.
Citizens Advice chief executive Gillian Guy says: “We help with over a million consumer issues a year and use our evidence to voice the problems faced by consumers – from PPI cold-calling to problems with energy bills. We look forward to furthering this work by bringing together the expertise and insight of Citizens Advice and Consumer Futures.”
But Richard Lloyd, executive director at the consumer group Which?, has expressed concern over Citizens Advice funding. He said: “It is crucial that consumer protection does not suffer as publicly-funded consumer organisations, like Citizens Advice, are required to do more. We hope they will be able to take on this additional responsibility whilst also maintaining local advice services which are currently more in demand than ever.”
When Money this week tested the Citizens Advice consumer hotline (08454 04 05 06, Mon-Fri 9-5pm) seeking help on common problems readers have with firms, we were generally impressed with the quality of the answers – and calls were picked up fairly quickly. But it was a different picture at local bureaux, where calls were left unanswered.