Frances Harrison

In the second of our Board Spotlight Series, we caught up with Frances Harrison from Citizens Advice, who Chairs the Code’s Disciplinary and Sanctions Panel and provides the Code with consumer insight and expertise.

What led to you working in consumer protection?

Originally, I trained as a home economist and quickly saw consumer advice as an interesting opportunity. I became very interested in consumer law, initially studying trading standards and then completing a masters in commercial law.

I spent time working in local authority trading standards and environmental health departments before moving to Citizens Advice. I subsequently spent 10 years with the National Consumer Council.

I am particularly interested in policy development and how you implement policy in practice so that it is worthwhile and beneficial for consumers.

What are you most proud of in your career?

While working at the National Consumer Council, I worked in major sectors such as banking, insurance, and local authority services. There are no quick fixes when it comes to changing legislation or policy, particularly in these sectors, which is partly why I’m so proud of how we campaigned in the UK and Europe to create a law on unfair trading. It took a long time and involved a lot of people, but we got there, and consumers were immediately better off as a result.

How important do you believe codes of practice are in protecting consumers?

Changing the law takes a long time, and by the time you’ve achieved it, things may have changed. By contrast, codes are much less onerous to establish and enable a faster response for consumers.

Codes are almost unique to the UK. They are co-produced with the relevant industry which brings a sense of ownership and greater likelihood of compliance. It’s generally a good sign if traders want to sign up to a code of practice – it’s a signal that they want to do the right thing. In most cases, not everyone signs-up, although that issue is avoided with the Consumer Code for Home Builders as adhering to a code of practice is a mandatory requirement set by the home warranty providers.

However, codes are only as good as the way they are implemented. Codes of practice should not be just a nice piece of paper on a shelf. They need to be seen to work in practice, which is why compliance monitoring and sanctions are important to drive better customer service.

What prompted you to join the Code’s Management Board?

I already had an interest in the building sector from previous work, and I was impressed by the way the warranty bodies had responded to criticism of the home building industry from the Office of Fair Trading. There was a real desire to make things work better for consumers and I felt privileged to be invited to be part of that.  

You also chair the Disciplinary and Sanctions Panel (DSP). In your view, how important is it to have an independent chair? And what impact do you feel the DSP has?

Because codes of practice have got industry buy in, when it comes to accountability consumers can be understandably sceptical if complaints aren’t upheld. It’s important to have robust scrutiny by people who are willing to put their reputation on the line.

I’m comfortable with the challenge that I need to bring to the role to make sure that the discipline and accountability is there. It’s also why the monitoring of sites and all the requirements the Chartered Trading Standards Institute apply as part of the Approved Codes scheme is so important. That independence helps give consumers faith in the system.

What do you feel are the biggest challenges for home buyers – and how does the Code help?

Buying a home is a dream purchase and naturally we all have high expectations. Home buyers need to know that risks associated with their purchase are controlled and the promises made by home builders are enforceable. Warranties are crucial in giving consumers confidence in the quality of their home. And the Code is there to provide protection so that claims made in brochures or on websites are fulfilled and that there are robust processes in place should problems arise.

A lot of work has been done on British and international standards regarding consumer vulnerability. The circumstances in which people buy property may mean they are inexperienced and can feel pressured by the complexity of the purchase and the money involved. It’s important we reference international standards in the Code so builders can understand how to do the best for vulnerable consumers and make purchasing a new home a positive experience.

Do you feel there is enough support available for consumers wanting to buy a home?

There is always more support that can be given, more we can do. However, I do feel we have got to a good place with the Code, particularly with the latest revisions which put more focus on getting things right at the point of handover to buyer.

When it comes to buying new or second hand homes, we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of legal advisors. Solicitors and licensed conveyancers know where the pitfalls are and play a vital role in spotting whether information and processes are correct. Communicating with these professions is really important which is why we’re so pleased to have the Law Societies for England & Wales and Scotland represented on our Advisory Forum.

And finally, what does a perfect start and end to the day look like for you?

A perfect start would have to be the sun coming out and seeing a glimpse of the sea in Brighton. When it comes to switching off at the end of the day, I love heading out into the garden with some scissors to ‘groom’ my plants!

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