Idly browsing various social media news pages, I came across an opinion piece by Baron Blunkett, the former Labour MP and cabinet minister in Tony Blair’s government.
He is one of the few politicians I admire, mainly because there was no veneer on him; what you saw was what you got.
The gist of his piece was expressing the hope that whoever forms the next government re-introduces the role of Minister for Consumer Affairs, remarking something along the lines of the larger the business, the more difficult it is for customers to speak to someone in authority. How right he is, as my personal experience in the last couple of weeks will attest.
Just over a week ago, the north-east of Scotland was bearing the brunt of Storm Babet, which dumped biblical quantities of rain on the region.
This led to severe flooding, the cancellation of trains between the north and the central belt, the closure of the main Aberdeen to Dundee dual carriageway and disruption to virtually all aspects of daily life.
At one stage, we had to leave the house and I decided to take my wife’s 4×4, believing its off-road capability and claimed ability to tackle water up to 20″ deep would lead to a trouble-free journey – particularly as we were only travelling some six miles.
Less than two miles into the journey we encountered a puddle completely covering the road and watched as the car in front of us negotiated the lying water with ease. It appeared to be no more than four to six inches deep, well within the “wading depth” of our car.
Almost immediately after we emerged, apparently safely, from the flooding, the onboard display flashed up a warning that the power steering assistance had been reduced, but that it was OK to drive with caution.
This master of understatement was accompanied by the complete failure of the power steering, and it became almost impossible to turn the steering wheel at low speeds.
Repairs for an issue which appears to be a manufacturing fault are costly
If the failure had occurred part-way through a tight manoeuvre it would almost certainly have resulted in an accident.
Once back home, I searched online for any information on the problem and instantly came across a forum in which other owners of the same make and model spoke of encountering the exact same problem, with accompanying criticism of the manufacturer’s refusal to issue a recall to address what is clearly a design fault.
Worse still, it was apparent that the only remedy was the replacement of the entire steering rack at a cost of almost £5,000.
I should mention at this stage that I am not identifying the manufacturer or the local dealership as I believe to do so would be an abuse of the power this newspaper yields.
My first port of call was the manufacturer’s own website, which listed the various means of making contact, including via its own social media pages.
I duly sent a message asking for advice and querying why there had not been a recall.
I received a reply within 48 hours telling me to take the car to its local dealership for a full diagnosis and, if that showed a design or manufacturing fault, the dealership could “raise an issue” – whatever that meant.
Encouraged by this initial response, I contacted the dealership and was told a diagnostic check would be £198 – an hour’s work – but that the earliest available date that could be carried out was the middle of December, some seven weeks away.
Consumers have very little power
Back to the manufacturer to ask if I could have the diagnosis carried out by an independent garage, only to be told that the work must be done by a dealership, suggesting I try other dealers in the area to see if they could carry out the work earlier.
As the next nearest was in Dundee, a 140-mile round trip in a virtually undrivable car, we have been left with no alternative but to bear the initial cost of repair and then try for redress through legal channels.
The car in question is the tenth my wife and I have owned of this particular make, and I can confidently say it will be the last.
But it did bring home to me how powerless consumers are in this era of call centres, unaccountable manufacturers and retailers, and the general contempt with which customers are treated once they have parted with their money.
It also took my mind instantly back to the words of David Blunkett. The public does deserve far more protection from unscrupulous businesses than is currently provided, and any party which commits to a Minister for Consumer Affairs, with the powers to make the post meaningful, will get my vote at the next election.
Derek Tucker is a former editor of The Press and Journal