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A Queen's Speech for Consumers?

Posted: 07/05/2013 00:00

Could Wednesday's Queen's Speech set out the most consumer-friendly parliamentary agenda in years?

If it is, it won't be a moment too soon.

Our research paints a pessimistic picture of consumer sentiment, with the majority expecting the cost of living and their household budget to get even tighter than last year, squeezed by spiralling utility and food costs.

Six in 10 people say they're worried about the value of their pension and a majority don't feel they'll be able to live comfortably in their retirement.

Many others are struggling with the complicated social care system which sees many using up a large proportion of their assets on care costs.

Meanwhile trust in energy suppliers and banks has hit rock bottom; unacceptable practices and poor standards persist in these and other essential services; and at worst, rogue traders ruin the lives of vulnerable consumers.

If done right, there are five bills that could put consumers at the heart of the new Parliamentary agenda and give people hope.

A Consumer Bill of Rights - the first major upgrade to consumer law since 1977 - should make it easier for people to know their rights when things go wrong and for regulators to crackdown on those who breach the law.

The more consumers feel able to challenge bad practice and shoddy service, whether on the high street or online, the harder it will be for bad businesses to rip off their customers.

And that's good for good businesses too.

In financial services, the carried over Banking Reform Bill will determine the future of this industry.

With Libor rate-rigging, the exposure of the true extent of the PPI mis-selling scandal and catastrophic IT failures over the past year, the reputation of this vital part of our economy is in tatters.

An overwhelming majority of people support our call for the Bill to include a fully independent code of conduct for bankers, backed by statute, with tough sanctions for bad practice.

In December we reported how, in another one of our essential markets, trust in energy companies had fallen to an all-time low. Rising energy prices are a top financial worry for UK consumers and are likely to remain so as bills are predicted to rise for years to come.

But people can't find the best deals because of the sheer number and complicated pricing of energy tariffs.

The government must not only deliver on the prime minister's promise to ensure everyone gets put on the best tariff for them, but also use the Energy Bill to start fixing our broken energy market by introducing a single unit price and making it easier for people to switch supplier.

For people needing care, the current system is complex, daunting and difficult to navigate. We welcomed the move by government to provide greater certainty about what people will have to pay towards their care by putting a cap on total costs.

People are crying out for help that delivers greater long-term financial security. That is why it's essential that everyone understands how the new system will operate in practice, and the costs they will still have to pay.

So the Care and Support Bill must also ensure improvements in the quality of information and advice available to people planning care.

Finally, the expected reform of the state pension in a Pensions Bill is important, but also needs to address the bigger challenge facing the millions of people preparing for retirement.

The state of the economy is eroding any hope many people may have of long-term financial security.

It's vital that people get the most out of every penny they save for retirement, so Which? is disappointed that the government has decided to press ahead with the 'pot follows member' approach that could mean small pension pots end up in poor value schemes.

The government must also use the Pensions Bill to set clear quality standards for all workplace pension schemes and protect savers from excessive fees.

With the cost of living now firmly top of the political agenda, there is much to do for a government keen to show it's on the side of hard pressed consumers.

The coming year will not only be crucial for the government but also for consumers struggling with rising prices, uncompetitive markets and a bleak economic outlook.

The strength of this legislation in Wednesday's Queen's Speech will show just how much the government is prepared to give consumers a helping hand.

 

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