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BIGGER WATCHDOG ROLE URGED FOR TRADING STANDARDS

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Trading standards officers should be given the role of regional 'eyes and ears' of the bodies regulating the utilit...
Trading standards officers should be given the role of regional 'eyes and ears' of the bodies regulating the utility industries, Lord Borrie, former director-general of Fair Trading, told the Lords last night.

The Labour peer initiated a debate on modernising regulation of the utilities so as to provide a fair deal for consumers in general and vulnerable consumers in particular. He said the white paper on utility regulation, published in July, took as a starting point the competition that has been developing in the gas and electricity industries in particular.

'To a large extent customers of both industries will in future be protected by competition from any exploitation rather than by regulation, although trading standards officers and others will need to be vigilant in various parts of our country to ensure that firms compete fairly and do not engage in misleading or confusing consumers. There have been some examples of that', he said.

Referring to the reorganisation and merging of some regulatory bodies, Lord Borrie, a vice president of the Institute of Trading Standards Administration, suggested: 'I feel that there ought to be a positive role in the rugulatory process for local authority trading standards officers.

'They are professionals in detecting trading malpractice and market failures, and could be very useful as the eyes and ears of the national regulatory bodies which only have centralised offices. They also have the advantage of democratic legitimacy, being responsible and accountable to local councils'.

He also suggested the setting up of an ombudsman system, independent of both suppliers and consumers to handle the more intractable complaints. Such schemes in the private sector had been successful in providing low-cost and trusted dispute settlement machinery.

Competition minister Lord Sainsbury promised to look at the suggestion seriously.

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