People’s champion - Our consumer expert answers your questions

Government sells off HMS Ocean for £84m

Have your say

EACH week former trading standards officer Richard Thomson answers your questions.

Q I’ve read that a number of top furniture and carpet shops had been misleading customers with so called bargain offers which weren’t genuine. Can you explain why can’t they just be named and shamed if caught out ripping off the public?

WB (email)

A I agree with your sentiment but the real answer is more prosaic.

The pricing of goods is strictly controlled by law, or rather that’s what we’re led to believe. Enforcement action is therefore subject to the weight of the full legal process.

Even retailers are entitled to be presumed innocent until their guilt is established by a court of law.

But the real truth is that pricing law has always been shambolic, complicated, and impossible to effectively police.

Evidence gathering to satisfy a court is costly and time consuming. The number of prosecutions is abysmal, leaving enforcers relying on occasional high-profile cases as a deterrent.

Big business has access to consumer protection policymakers. They are the people who regularly demonstrate their woeful ignorance of serial consumer detriment by struggling to recall the price of a litre of milk.

Highly paid lobbyists make it clear that big business wants what has always been incompatible with protecting the public – minimal ‘light touch’ regulation, or preferably no regulation at all.

This has always made it easy for big national chains to unwittingly or knowingly drive a coach and horses through price control regulation.

Ministerial meddling has in many cases resulted in enforcement guidelines allowing top traders to hide behind a veil of anonymity and secrecy to protect their reputations.

And deep-pocketed companies are not slow in using our draconian libel laws as a sword instead of a shield to silence legitimate criticism.

Reputation means a lot to top traders and corporations. They spend millions trying to get us to buy their products and services.

As you imply, it follows the easiest way to warn the public about rip-off trading practices is to name and shame.

Trading Standards hide behind little-known legislation inaptly named the Enterprise Act ‘preventing’ them from disclosing how many complaints they receive from the public about errant local traders.

Around 15 years’ ago Surrey Trading Standards broke ranks and ‘outed’ notorious rogue traders on their patch by placing warnings in the local press.

Unfortunately this shining example of lateral thinking was never adopted by other trading standards departments.

But as the old saying goes, ‘money talks,’ and when it comes to protecting the public from sharp trading practice, the voice of powerful vested interests remains strident, loud, and clear.