Families should record conversations with tradesmen on their mobile phones to ensure they stick to their word, a minister said yesterday.
Jo Swinson said new laws would allow customers to enforce verbal agreements struck with everyone from builders to hairdressers.
Unveiling a consumer bill of rights, she said openly recording a conversation would make it easier to resolve disagreements with rogue traders that can end with court deadlock.
‘Information from the person giving the service in advance of signing up to it, even if that information is verbal, will effectively be seen as part of the contract,’ she added.
‘It could be anyone providing a service, such as a photographer, hairdresser or a tradesman.
‘If they say they will do something within a particular period of time, or they will use a particular brand of paint, type of wallpaper or brand of tiles – if they say something about how it will be done – you will be able to hold them to that.’
Asked whether consumers should record conversations, the Lib Dem business minister said: ‘They certainly could. People will decide what the best way is for them.
‘It is significantly easier for consumers to do these days with the capability that people have on their phones. The legal force will be there, it doesn’t need to be in writing.
‘It will be the case that something that is verbal does have to be abided by.’
Miss Swinson also suggested customers might want to confirm quotes by email.
The new bill of rights brings together a raft of more than 30 pieces of legislation under a simplified regime that ministers claim will give better protection to the public and give respectable businesses an advantage over rogue traders.
Government claims law will give respectable businesses an advantage over rogue traders
Shoppers using the high street or online stores will have a ‘no quibble’ right to return a faulty item and get a refund within 30 days.
This is an added layer of help for consumers on top of the Sale of Goods Act which, in theory, gives some protection for up to six years after purchase.
Where a shopper accepts a repair or replacement and this then fails, they will be entitled to a full refund, rather than being fobbed off with repeated repairs.
There will also be new protection related to the purchase of digital downloads, such as films streamed over the web, games, apps and other software.
Where these downloads do not work for some reason, the consumer will be entitled to a replacement or refund under laws which are expected to come into force by the end of next year.
Miss Swinson claimed the changes would benefit the economy to the tune of £4billion over the next decade, in terms of securing refunds for consumers and supporting honest traders.
‘The whole point of the bill is to help the economy by creating confident consumers,’ she said.
‘Where you have people who are empowered and know their rights they are more confident about making purchases. Competition can flourish, new entrants can come into the market, and that is all good for the economy.’
Where traders, businesses, retailers and others fail to abide by the new laws, consumers will be able to seek help from Citizens Advice and trading standards units or take a legal case themselves to the county court.
Miss Swinson added: ‘For too long the rules that apply when buying goods and services have been murky for both consumers and businesses.
Miss Swinson (pictured) claimed the changes would benefit the economy by £4billion over the next decade
‘It is about time consumers knew what their rights are and businesses have clearer information on what is expected of them when problems inevitably do arise.’
Gillian Guy of Citizens Advice said: ‘Today’s proposals are a welcome development, but streamlining existing rules won’t be enough without urgent, strong, new tools for customers to get fair treatment. Regulators should name and shame businesses which refuse to put right bad practice so that customers know who they can trust to treat them fairly.’
However, business leaders said the idea of people following traders around and recording their conversations was a recipe for conflict.
‘This has problem stamped all over it,’ said Robert Downes, of the Forum of Private Business. ‘The idea that conversations would need to be recorded for a particular part of the consumer rights bill to work suggests it needs more thought, and no doubt most consumers and service providers alike would agree. It’s hardly practical or realistic for either party to accept.’
Brian Berry of the Federation of Master Builders said extra protection against rogue traders was a good idea, but added: ‘There is no substitute for a written agreement.’