The UK Government is consulting on plans to reform consumer law, including giving regulators powers to impose fines of up to 10% of global turnover for breach of consumer legislation. If implemented, these changes are likely to result in a significantly tougher regulatory environment for consumer-facing businesses. But as we explain below, we have been here before – and the real tests will be whether the tough talk is translated into action and if so, how quickly.
What's the problem?
Currently, consumer regulators such as the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) and sectoral regulators (such as the Financial Conduct Authority, Ofcom and Ofgem) have relatively weak enforcement powers. If they believe that a business is infringing consumer law, but the business refuses to change its behaviour, they have no powers to compel it to do so. Only a court can make such an order. Regulators can and do take businesses to court (see textbox below) but as the Government admits, this process is "lengthy, complex, and costly and even if they [i.e. regulators] are successful there are no financial sanctions for civil breaches of consumer protection law and few civil sanctions for frustrating the enforcement process."