Pushing politicians to act on the cost of living

Written by David Singleton on 1 November 2013 in Features

Politicians of all parties are eager to be seen as taking action to reduce living costs. Richard Lloyd of Which? is lobbying them all the way. He speaks to David Singleton

Anyone keeping half an eye on British politics in recent weeks cannot have failed to hear Ed Miliband denouncing the “cost of living crisis” engulfing the UK. They will also have clocked the Labour leader plugging his pledge to freeze energy bills, which David Cameron has furiously denounced as a “con”.

Richard Lloyd may not be using such emotive language as the political classes, but this is familiar lobbying territory for the Which? boss – and he is pleased to see politicians of all parties getting involved. Chatting to PAN at the consumer body’s Marylebone Road HQ, Lloyd says the aim of making markets work better for consumers has always underpinned campaign efforts at Which?. But he admits that "we probably haven’t been as effective in the past at getting that across to decision makers".

Now times are a-changing. "More and more politicians of all parties are saying that the cost of living really matters right now," he asserts. "We’re engaging with politicians and business leaders. And where there’s market failure, we’re advocating for change."

It is a far cry from 56 years ago when Which? started life as a magazine produced in a garage in Bethnal Green. The organisation now provides free advice on consumer rights, alongside extensive campaigning and lobbying to get the consumer put at the heart of government decision making.

Currently underway are campaigns for fairer energy prices, simpler supermarket prices, better customer service from banks and action on mobile phone price rises, to name just a few. And such lobbying is a burgeoning area of business. "Is our campaigning, our advocacy work growing? Absolutely. We’ve doubled the resource going into that area since four years ago," says Lloyd.

 

Taking Shelter from No 10

He took up the role of executive director in 2011 having been director of campaigns at the Australian equivalent of Which?. But Lloyd started his career in housing – working at housing associations, before moving to homelessness charity Shelter, where he spent five years, ending up as head of policy.
 
He says this post required him to consider the role of the market as well as the role of Government in tackling the housing crisis. "I was really concentrating on not just the bread and butter work of Shelter, which was homelessness and housing need, but also how you make the mortgage market work better, how you make the private rented sector work better. And, as an organisation like Shelter, that has lots and lots of data from the real world, how you then translate that into policy – which is exactly what we do here."

Perhaps the stand-out job on Lloyd’s CV is his post as a special adviser at Number 10, when Gordon Brown was in the hotseat and Damian McBride was the prime minister’s right-hand man. In this role, Lloyd was part of Brown’s senior team, advising the famously bad-tempered PM on strategic planning, communications and policy development. Lloyd’s  focus in particular was on economic issues including consumer finance, employment and housing.
 
However, Lloyd insists his stint in Team Brown is less relevant to his current role at Which? than all of his other posts."Number 10 was an anomaly in a career that’s been all about getting change to happen, campaigning and communications and policy in areas of market failure or need."

He adds: "I’ve always been pretty consistently in consumer facing organisations, with an appetite for tapping into that consumer insight and helping get that in front of decision makers and the media so there’s a bit of understanding of those sectors."

 

Understanding the bankers

When choosing what to campaign on, Lloyd says his organisation surveys the public to establish what people consider to be the major problems with cost of living. Which? also asks its regular supporters in detail which issues they would like the organisation to focus on.

That provides "a very clear guide as to what we should be doing," says Lloyd. "The other thing we do is look at where there is no voice speaking up for the consumer… Everyday annoyances no-one else would pick up and run with as a campaign."

Asked which of the organisation’s recent lobbying efforts stands out above the rest, Lloyd plumps for the campaign to get a pro-consumer agenda running through the Government’s banking reforms. He says: "There’s been a lot of work done here about how you get competition and genuine choice into banking, how you stop the kind of incentives to bad behaviour that ended up with things like mis-selling in PPI. It’s a really good example of where Which? has used its understanding of financial services, engaging with the banking industry and with politicians and parliamentarians to get that consumer and competition dimension into their reform agenda."

Lloyd cites the example of Which? taking piles of evidence to the parliamentary commission on banking standards. "That’s classic Which? territory where we’re using what we know about a market and the products and services that it provides, where it’s gone wrong, and then taking policy solutions to people like Andrew Tyrie’s commission, like the Treasury, like the new regulators – and ensuring that they’re paying attention to what consumers need out of markets, not bankers."

 

Need to know basis

As a man with a few campaigns under his belt, Lloyd has a good idea of what makes a successful lobbying offensive. The first key ingredient, he says, is a solid grasp of the details. "It’s knowing your stuff, first and foremost, so this is a building full of experts and expertise."

Then you need clear ideas for action. "It’s boiling that down into credible, actionable, policy ideas. That’s what we haven’t quite got right here in the past, and are getting better at." The final part of the mix, says Lloyd, is being able to demonstrate support among the public for what you’re advocating.

He wraps up: "When you strike the right chord with the public and you have solutions that are credible and actionable, based on evidence, then people listen. And doing that in a non-party political way, using language that politicians and civil servants understand and can engage with. And recognising how short of resource central government is these days."

It is an approach that Lloyd has also sought to make use of in his organisation’s lobbying around the especially thorny issue of energy prices. Asked if Which? has fed into Labour’s controversial energy freeze policy, he says that it focused on trying to get all of the main political parties to do two things. "One is to simplify the market so it works better for consumers who say they are completely bewildered by the number of tariffs and the complexity of the market… and secondly to get more competition into the market by splitting up wholesale and supply businesses."

Lloyd adds that both of those proposals have been “pretty well received” by all parties, but they still need to go further. "We don’t think anyone of any party has gone far enough in saying what they would do to make the retail end of the market work better for consumers so we’re going to keep pushing for further reform."


To freeze or not to freeze

Pushed on the Labour policy, Lloyd maintains a cautious line. He says: “Whether or not the price freeze is the right thing to do, we’ll see what the detail of that is going to be… But what’s been good is that behind all of the noise around that every party has accepted the principle that this is a market that’s failing consumers, and needs to be made more competitive.

“Where different parties diverge is on the question of how you bring that about and what you do to protect consumers in the meantime. So everyone agrees you need faster easier switching, fewer tariffs, more competition between suppliers. We’re advocating very specific measures to bring that about and politicians of every stripe are listening very carefully.”

Sticking to his non-political mantra, Lloyd refuses to pick out one party as closest to Which?’s position on energy, suggesting that Labour is not too far away from the Tories or the Lib Dems – despite the heat generated by the energy freeze policy. “They are all pretty close,” he says.

The Which? boss is also confident that his lobbying will pay off and that there will soon be serious action to reform the energy market. “It’s a matter of what reforms and when rather than if.”

Energy industry lobbyists may yet have other ideas, but consumers will surely hope that his predictions are right.

 

 

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